Banana Republic

Doris & Frank, £8
Designed by Doris Matthaus
2-5 players, about 20 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

I find it impossible to think of this game without humming the Boomtown Rats track of the same name. Anyway, produced by the cottage industry that calls itself Doris & Frank, Banana Republic is a game in the Koalition mould, being a German card game that offers rather more depth than usual. The theme is a mix of Junta and Kremlin, centring on the political manoeuvring in a South American country with the aim of semi-secretly controlling the 'right' politicians at the end of the game.

Each player is dealt a hand of cards that contains a colour coded selection of dollars (in various denominations), local 'banana money', a hitman, a bodyguard and a journalist. These will be gradually laid beside the selection of voters arrayed on the table with the aim of securing their favour in the upcoming presidential election, in which you are a candidate. This is achieved in the time honoured fashion by slipping them the largest backhanders. On the reverse of each voter card is a points rating that indicates his worth to the controlling player at game end; if the voter is jointly controlled by a tie, the points are shared. Conversely, if he is shot in one of the many tragic accidents common to these countries, he is worth nothing.

All very straightforward then, except that from now on you are largely in the dark - the voters are face down, as are the cards laid beside them. The second hindrance is that you lose two of your initial cards at random, and they take no part in the game. This can be containable if it is cash, but if you lose either or both of your defensive cards (the journalist and the bodyguard), you are in potentially bad shape. Oddly, this is exactly what happened in my last game and I still won which shows my analytical skills are worth zip. Play then proceeds with each player taking a secret look at two voters to get an insight into their worth; this act is marked with a coloured block to remind you and other players which cards you have inspected, which holds true for the rest of the game as well.

At this point, everyone knows what cards they have to play (one of which will not be used) and two voters they will either be interested in controlling or wishing to improve upon. Play proper is in a series of rounds consisting of playing a card on any voter's associated face down card stack, and then looking at either a voter card or the stack. Gradually, the interest builds up as some voters gain a number of cards, prompting players to check them out in case they are missing out, while others sit there mysteriously, craving attention. It is these latter characters that have a lot of value late in the game as they represent easy pickings - the higher rated and cash attracting chaps will often be bumped off or be subjected to large cash deposits.

This is because when the rounds are finished and the laid cards and points are revealed, there is an element of 'Rock, Paper' Scissors' as each card in combination with another will give a different result. For instance, a bodyguard will cancel any one hitman, but not two. Two killers, unfettered by a bodyguard, will decide that they simply shoot each other and not the voter. A journalist will make all dollars played valueless (he has exposed bribes from abroad) so only the banana money scores and so on. At the final add-up, if the voter has not been shot, the player with the highest total of valid cash controls his card and gains the points. Highest points overall wins.

There are no real problems with the game, though we haven't yet worked out quite why each player is left with a wooden block at the end of the game, though my guess is it is either a spare or is needed for different player numbers. When my brain is cleared, I'm sure I'll work it out.

Play is pretty cagey early on, with no-one willing to commit their hitman, bodyguard or journalist (assuming that they have that luxury) until they have tried to see off rivals by purely cash means. Typically, the last three rounds see a flurry of assassinations, countering bodyguards and big money piling in to the high value voters. True to the subject matter, no-one really knows what has happened till the dust settles and the cards are flipped - it is impossible to monitor all the developments and choosing where to look becomes a real pain.

The game is nicely balanced in this respect. You have just enough 'looks' to establish a workable strategy but you can never check everywhere you need to, so the confusion is held at exactly the right level. I think this must have taken a fair bit of balancing to get the rounds, cards and number of voter cards right. Nevertheless, if you have lost your way mentally or failed to spot the big point voters, it is entirely possible (and very tempting) to play cards at random to try and throw a spanner in the works, but all this is likely to do is give you a poor position - winning requires both thought and timely play.

Those gamers who cannot abide memory games, to which club I belong, will be pleased to know Banana Republic is not too onerous in this respect. You can get by through remembering the seven voters and the important stacks which you are contesting. If that gets too much, and it can, try the variant of looking at a stack before you lay a card. This is a subtle change, but seems to pull it gently back from the memory game black hole.

Banana Republic is a very good little game. It takes only about twenty minutes to play, manages to be different each time with rewarding tactics and presents what could be a tricky memory system as one that even I can handle, on a good day. Given the slightly high price (due to a limited print run more than anything), the components are well done (by the talented Doris) but not spectacular. It seems to work well with any number of players from three to five, but the more the better. No-one could argue that it represents a great leap in design but what it offers is clever, engaging and thematically sound. I feel, like Koalition, it will get played a number of times and is certainly one of the better games to appear at Essen.

Mike Siggins

On to the review of Hacker or back to the review of Star Fleet Missions.

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