The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Most Wanted
I’ve seen many games try to strip out the mechanisms of poker and create a fun game without the act of gambling anything tangible and meaningful. While I do understand the desire to transform such an institutional and historical pastime into a tabletop game, I rarely find them to be successful. Most become run-of-the-mill set collection games where the poker theme feels tacked on. Even ones I do enjoy, such as Dice Town, succeed without replicating that gambling feeling -- that game just happens to have a winning combination of push-your-luck and dice chucking. I’ve always wanted something that made me feel I was playing in the final scene of Maverick, but without my life savings on the line, and also without being held at gunpoint.
Along come designers Ken Gruhl and Quentin Weir, and, later in the process, Dominic Crapuchettes and North Star Games, with Most Wanted. In a blog post about the game’s development, North Star made an interesting comparison, saying “The core of King of Tokyo is the same as the core of that ancient stalwart, Yahtzee... Like King of Tokyo, Most Wanted showcases the core charm of a classic game -- Poker in this case -- by pairing it with a perfectly matched, classic theme: the Old West. And like King of Tokyo, it creates an experience both easy and fast… It was Poker-like, except instead of playing hands to win bets, you play (simplified) hands to rob trains, win showdowns, and swindle your way to infamy in an Old West border town. It was fast (very fast) and it made us feel like we were drunkenly slinging cards in a ruinous late-night saloon game 150 years ago.”
The way this works is every player picks a character, and the characters all start on the bottom of the Most Wanted scoreboard. Whoever gets their character to the top of the scoreboard first wins. Players move up the scoreboard by winning types of poker hands -- I’ll go into more detail on that in a bit -- but can also go back down if they lose hands and can’t afford to pay bail penalties.
Play goes around the table clockwise, with a player’s turn consisting of visiting one location. Some locations allow you to stock up for the future, such as the Church, which lets you draw an additional two cards, or Honest Labor, which gives you some money toward future bail payments. But most of the locations are about robberies, which means facing off against the other players in poker hand showdowns, with the winner advancing on the Most Wanted scoreboard.
A player can choose to rob the Pony Express, where the best two-card hand wins, the Stagecoach, where the best three-card hand wins, or the Train, where the best four-card hand wins. When a player declares a robbery, all the other players decide if they want to join in. Whoever wins the hand moves up the scoreboard -- more spaces for the more daring robberies -- while the losers move down or pay bail, and then all players get to draw back up to five cards. At the start of the game, players are not yet on the scoreboard, and therefore don’t have a bail to pay if they lose a hand, so expect a lot of competition in early robberies, as there is no downside risk to players losing hands at that point.
There is also a Duel location, which allows players to call out a specific player. Usually, whoever is winning is called out, although this does allow for all sorts of other interpersonal grudge matches which can create some playful banter around the table.
Sometimes it is worth losing a hand to get to draw new cards, and sometimes you may go in on a robbery thinking it will be worth it to lose just to refresh your hand of cards, and find the other player was bluffing, and you win after all.
There are also other locations that can be substituted in for those mentioned above, which helps keep the game feeling fresh after repeated plays. These include the Saloon, which allows you to draw eight cards by paying a bag of money, and Dishonest Labor, which allows you to earn a lot of money if you have cards of the same suit, but with a risk if you are bluffing.
The deck of cards in Most Wanted is simplified, only having cards that range from sixes up to aces, which makes pairing up cards easier. The rules of the game also simplify the winning poker hands, removing straights, flushes, and full houses as potential winners -- a change that makes the game easier to teach and play with those unfamiliar with poker. These changes, combined with the lack of actual gambling, the colorful and cartoonish artwork, and the fact it plays up to eight players, and Most Wanted surprisingly succeeds as a family game.
The rules also add a little twist called the “Double Crosser,” where a hand of sixes beats a hand of aces. So unlike in actual poker, where you can have an unbeatable hand, here you are never truly sure if you’ll win, as you can get ambushed by the otherwise lowly hand of sixes if you have a hand full of aces, which is otherwise the best hand in this game.
But, the real question is, does Most Wanted succeed in capturing the feel of poker? Thankfully, in most respects, it does. While there is no monetary gambling, there is the gamble of joining a robbery, knowing how winning and losing the hand will affect the scoreboard, and the ability for players to bluff on any robbery they undertake. While the modified poker deck and the winning hands are simplified, enough remains to maintain the essence of the thing without an entirely faithful simulation.
Pros: The game plays fast, even at higher player counts, which makes for a great game night opener/closer, especially with four or more players. There is variety with the extra locations, adding a good amount of replayability to the game. The artwork from artists Andy Barry, Ben Goldman, and Naomi Stanton-Gullak is lovely, and features a humorous and diverse cast of characters, which also have funny, punny, names like the TNT-toting Dyn O’Mike and nun with a bad habit Sister Chuck.
Cons: I don’t feel this scales well at either extreme. It’s not something I would play at two players -- and the game requires special rules for two -- and it is a bit too chaotic at the full eight players, as there are too many other player’s turns before you get the agency of your own turn. The player mats are also a bit unnecessary, as the players don’t have unique powers, but I suppose they serve to remind everyone who is who on the Most Wanted scoreboard.
While Most Wanted probably won’t win over those that really don’t like the Wild West poker theme, it will appeal to a wide variety of gamers looking for a lighter, fun game that can create laughs at the table, but still has enough tactical decision points to make it a gamer’s party game.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Most Wanted from the publisher.
Howdy partner, you’ve found my secret postscript! While you’re here, let me tell you a little secret -- you should be on the lookout for hidden content in the Most Wanted box. I won’t tell you where you’ll find it, but I’ll tell you it includes a Travel Guide and even more locations, including the Shanty Town, which challenges for the worst hand, the Bank, which rewards the best five card hand, and the Silver Mine, which gives you a different way to earn money at the risk of busting and getting nothing. Happy prospecting!