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Co-op Case Study: Saboteur

In October we discussed a few hidden-teams game. We’re back this month with two of the best known ones, starting with Saboteur, which followed in the footsteps of Bang! (2003) and is another of the foundational games of the hidden-teams genre.

Saboteur actually gets some attention in Meeples Together, where we talk about its relations to both partnership games and co-op traitor games, but here’s a full case study.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: AMIGO Games (2004)
Cooperative Style: Competitive, Hidden Teams
Play Style: Card Management, Pipe Laying

Overview

Miners play tunnel cards to advance the mine toward gold nuggets, but saboteurs are simultaneously trying to ensure that the gold is never found! And no one knows who’s who!

Cooperative System

Like most hidden teams game, Saboteur is about discovering who your teammates are and (secretly) working with them. Since some players are purposefully sabotaging the others, the play style is quite close to the traitorous co-op genre.

The problem with Saboteur’s traitorous play is that there’s almost no mechanical support for playing the role of the saboteur. You can do two bad things: break other miners’ tools and point tunnels in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, both actions are pretty obviously saboteur-ish. Unless you can convince the other players that an honest miner is really a saboteur, you don’t have a lot of options. This lack of support for mechanical treachery tended to be a downfall of a lot of the games in the first generation of traitor and hidden-team play — which certainly includes Saboteur, which was right at the forefront.

Saboteur is also an unbalanced teams game, where there are more honest miners than saboteurs. That means that it’s important to pretend that you’re not a saboteur, so that the more plentiful “honest” players don’t mob you. This makes the limitations on traitorous play even more notable.

Though there’s a lot of potential cooperation for the secret teams of Saboteur through collaborative card play, it’s not ultimately a cooperative game. That’s because its cooperation is entirely transient. Players are on the same team for a single round of play, and then they draw new teams for the next round. This creates a game that’s fully cooperative (within the teams, within a round of play), but also fully competitive (between players, outside of a round of play). In other words, it’s a dynamic partnership game. Unfortunately, Saboteur can fall prey to a typical problem of dynamic partnerships: if you end up teamed up with a strong competitor for the last round of play, you might not be able to win.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Expansions & Variants

The original Saboteur (2004) was expanded by Saboteur 2 (2011), which introduced new rules and also offered support for full team-based play. A few foreign-language editions combine the two sets, but more recently they’ve been re-released in the US in two different boxes by Mayfair Games (2015).

Moyersoen has also returned to the idea of digging for gold with Saboteur Duel (2014), but that’s for just 1-2 players, so obviously it does away with the hidden teams core of the game.

Final Thoughts

Saboteur is the classic-co-op game that’s not really a co-op game. Nonetheless, its hidden-team play offers interesting insights into traitorous co-ops, particularly the earliest traitor designs. However, the hidden players get so little mechanical support that you can’t really compare Saboteur’s mechanics to those of a more modern traitor games.

Though its mechanics are pretty simplistic, Saboteur still works and is fun.

Fréderic Moyersoen is a French game designer best-known for the classic hidden-teams game, Saboteur (2004). He’s published quite a few games that aren’t cooperative, but which nonetheless touch upon cooperative issues. Nuns on the Run (2010) and Bedpans and Broomsticks (2014) are both reverse-hunter games with a few hunters and many escapees. Whitewater (2012) is a game built on partial partnerships. Even Saboteur isn’t quite a cooperative game, since the dynamic partnerships result in a single winner.


We haven’t played this game in a decade, so we didn’t have a picture of it! Thanks to imake, who released their picture for use through BGG.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples