Bluff or Bribe Your Way Past the Sheriff of Nottingham

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Sheriff of Nottingham

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game. Making your purchases through our affiliate links helps support our writing. Thanks!

You’re just a hard-working merchant trying to get your goods to market, but first you’ve got to get past the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s confiscating all the “contraband” that Prince John wants for himself. Now, how did that crossbow wind up in my shipment of bread? Really, Sheriff, I had no idea…

At a glance: Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game, designed by Sergio Halaban and Andre Zatz, for 3 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, and takes about an hour or less to play (depending on whether you set time limits for the Sheriff’s inspection). It retails for $34.99. A note on the age recommendation: the rules aren’t too complex and I was able to teach my 11-year-old to play, but as the game does involve bluffing and bribery, you’ll have to make the call as a parent whether you want to train your child to fool you, since that could have some repercussions outside of the game.

Sheriff of Nottingham components
Legal goods are green, contraband is red. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Components

  • 216 Goods cards:
    • 144 Legal Goods (Apples, Cheese, Bread, Chickens)
    • 60 Contraband (Pepper, Mead, Silk, Crossbows)
    • 12 Royal Goods
  • 110 Coin tokens:
    • 39 1-gold coins
    • 42 5-gold coins
    • 17 20-gold coins
    • 12 50-gold coins
  • 1 Sheriff marker
  • 5 Merchant boards
  • 5 Merchant bags

The components are all pretty nice; the cards aren’t fantastic but they’re good, and all of the cardboard components are on a nice, thick cardboard. You’ll have to punch everything out, and I did have a few coins that didn’t punch out quite as cleanly but most of them were fine.

The Merchant bags are cloth with a plastic snap, in five different colors to match the player boards, and they’re sized to match the cards. I’m a little concerned that over time the cloth may stretch or tear, depending on how players pull open the snaps, but so far so good. The other concern is that if players aren’t careful snapping it shut, they could dent the cards inside because of where the plastic snap is positioned.

Sheriff of Nottingham legal goods
Legal goods: apples, cheese, bread, and chickens. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The artwork is all great, particularly the character art by David Sladek. Lorraine Schleter did the card and component artwork, which is also really good. The legal goods and contraband are easily distinguished by the green and red borders. The goods have different values, represented by the big gold coin in the top corner; all legal goods have a 2-gold fine, and contraband has a 4-gold fine. Royal Goods have varying fines. The Sheriff marker is a large cardboard stand-up, and the Sheriff is appropriately brawny and imposing.

Sheriff of Nottingham contraband
Contraband! Pepper, mead, silk, and crossbows. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The plastic insert actually comes in two parts, one serving as a card tray and the other as a bank. It was a nice attempt, but two things make it a little weird. The tray has identical wells for the four denominations of coins, but there are a lot more 1- and 5-gold coins, so those barely fit into the spaces. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of room in the 50-gold slot, and you barely ever use the 50-gold coins except at the end when adding up points. It may have been nice to have 10-gold coins instead.

Sheriff of Nottingham trays
I like that the trays are designed to be used for the game, but they don’t quite do it for me. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The card tray portion holds three stacks of cards, which corresponds to the draw pile and two discard piles of the game. However, it’s hard to pull the last few cards out of the tray without turning it upside down, and it’s also hard to see what’s in the discard piles at a glance. We usually ended up playing without the card tray, which let us fan out the discard piles a bit.

How to play

You can download a PDF of the rules here.

The goal of the game is to have the most money (in gold coins and goods) by the end of the game. You’ll play several rounds until each player has been Sheriff twice (or three times in a three-player game).

Each player gets a Merchant board, the matching Merchant bag, and 50 gold. If playing with three players, you’ll remove all the cards with the “4+” icon. For beginners, it’s also recommended to remove the Royal Goods. The rest of the Goods cards (legal and contraband) are shuffled into one deck. Each player is dealt six cards. Then you make two discard piles of five cards each, one on either side of the deck. Finally, choose a player to be the first Sheriff and give that player the Sheriff marker.

Each round has the following phases:

  1. Market
  2. Load Merchant Bag
  3. Declaration
  4. Inspection
  5. End of Round

Market: each player (in turn order, starting with the player to the left of the Sheriff) may set aside up to 5 cards from their hand, then draw to replace them from the discard piles or the draw pile. You may take from either discard pile, but must draw from the top of the pile. Also, you must take from the draw pile last—once you take from the draw pile, you may not take from discard piles. Finally, put all the set aside cards onto one of the discard piles.

Load Merchant Bag: Put 1 to 5 cards into your Merchant bag and snap it shut.

Declaration: Declare to the Sheriff what you’re carrying. You must be honest about the number of cards in the bag, but you may lie about what those cards are. You must declare a single type of good, and it must be a legal good. So if you’re carrying a mix of goods, even if they’re all legal, you must pretend they’re all the same thing.

Sheriff of Nottingham bag
“Are you carrying anything liquid, perishable, or hazardous? Did you pack your bag yourself, and has it been in your possession since you packed it?” Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Inspection: Here’s the meat of the game. The Sheriff takes all the bags, and decides which ones to inspect. As Sheriff, you may first threaten players with inspection, and players may offer you a bribe: gold, goods from their merchant boards, goods from their bags, and even future favors. However, they can promise you things that aren’t in the bag: a player could say “I’ll give you all the contraband in that bag” and if there is no contraband in the bag, then you get nothing. (Note: promises of future favors do not have to be kept! There’s no honor among thieves.) If you accept a bribe, then you return the bag to the player. Otherwise you open it and inspect it.

Any goods that were truthfully declared are returned to the player. Any other goods, legal or contraband, are confiscated, and the player must pay the fine amount (the red number) to the Sheriff. The Sheriff discards all confiscated goods. If the player was telling the truth and the bag contains exactly what was declared, the Sheriff must pay the player the fine value for all of the goods in the bag.

Goods that make it past the Sheriff are placed in the appropriate areas next to each player’s Merchant board. Contraband is not revealed and is placed face down at the top of the Merchant board.

End of Round: If each player has been Sheriff twice (or three times in a three-player game), the game ends immediately. Otherwise, pass the Sheriff to the left, and everyone draws back up to six cards in hand for the next round.

Sheriff of Nottingham
I am the Cheesemeister! And I’ve got a couple of chickens, too. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

At the end of the game, you get bonuses for being the King or Queen of each legal good: the King is the player who has the most of a good, and Queen has the second most. (Ties result in sharing the bonuses.) Then you add up the gold value of all of your goods (including contraband) and any gold coins you have. Highest score wins, with ties going to the player with most legal goods, then most contraband.

Sheriff of Nottingham Royal Goods
Royal Goods count extra toward the King and Queen bonuses. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The Royal Goods are a dozen unique items that can be mixed into the Goods deck—they have a red border, showing that they’re contraband, and a golden ribbon to indicate that they’re Royal Goods. The royal goods are not only worth more gold, but also count as multiple items when figuring the King and Queen bonuses. For instance, the Golden Apples are worth 6 gold (compared to the usual 2 gold for apples), and also count as 3 apples toward the bonus.

The Verdict

I heard a lot of buzz about Sheriff of Nottingham at Gen Con this year, but I didn’t get a chance to play it myself until more recently, and I’ve been enjoying it. The combination of bluffing and bribing is excellent; it’s a social game that’s easy to teach, doesn’t involve player elimination, and makes for some great moments.

The key to the game, of course, is the inspection, and I love the way that both the sheriff and merchant are engaged during that phase. How can you tell if somebody is trying to sneak something by—is the person with 5 chickens more suspicious, or the one with only 2 apples? If you’re telling the truth, do you bribe the sheriff so they think you’re lying? As sheriff, you can’t afford to be wrong too many times. What’s the best time to sneak contraband through? Who’s the most gullible sheriff?

There’s certainly a luck element to it: if you happen to draw a lot of the same legal good, you might get a big bonus for having the most, plus you might fool the sheriff into inspecting your bag and paying you fines. If you draw a lot of contraband, however, you either need to be a convincing liar or swap it out for legal goods—and chances are nobody is going to leave a pile of chickens at the top of the discard pile for you to take. Even so, Sheriff of Nottingham is very much a social game, and it’s about playing the other players as much as it is about the luck of the draw.

I like that there are various approaches you can take: sneak through a lot of contraband and offer hefty bribes, amass large collections of legal goods, or go for the King bonus in one or two types of goods. It’s also important to know when to take a bribe and when to inspect, but of course that’s a matter of being able to sniff out the lies. And, of course, when you’re the Sheriff, it’s important to watch what people are discarding and picking up.

At least some of the attention Sheriff of Nottingham has gotten is due in part to the fact that it’s the first title in the Dice Tower Essentials line—a branding partnership with Arcane Wonders and Tom Vasel. While I certainly agree that it’s a fine game, it seems a little odd to me to have all of your “essentials” be from one publisher—it feels a little limiting, and means that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see existing titles from other publishers earn the “Dice Tower Essentials” badge.

Overall, Sheriff of Nottingham is a really fun game for those who like bluffing games, and is definitely worth a try. As I mentioned already, you can play with your kids and if they’re good at keeping a straight face then they’ll enjoy it, but if you’re uncomfortable teaching your kids to lie (to you!) then you might want to save this for the grown-ups. If you do get Sheriff of Nottingham, be sure to pick up the free app (for iOS or Android) that includes a timer, scorekeeper, and fun marketplace chatter to help create the right atmosphere.

Purchase Sheriff of Nottingham at your local game store, directly from Arcane Wonders, or from Amazon.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.

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