“When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back. And we don’t want to shoot each other in the back.”
- Colonel Mortimer, For a Few Dollars More
Bang! was one of my first board games, and continues to be one of the most-played games in my collection. When my board game group can’t agree on a game, Bang! is our default compromise. I’ve lost and subsequently replaced my copy twice - the cards in my current set are dirty from the grease of a thousand tacos.
Bang! is a WIld West themed party game from 2002 by Emiliano Sciarra, who is mainly famous for designing Bang!. The game has been pretty wildly successful; Bang!’s distributor daVinci reports that more than 500,000 copies have been sold in the last ten years.
Bang! is a werewolf-type game - each player is randomly assigned a secret role, they try to figure out who everyone else is, and then kill them. The Sherif is publicly identified to everyone. The other secret roles are the deputies, the outlaws, and the renegade: The Sherif’s deputies work to protect him, and the Sherif and the deputies win as a team when the kill the entire outlaw team and the renegade. The outlaws win as a team when they kill the Sherif, and the Renegade wins when he is the only surviving player.
Players can gain items (horses, guns, etc.) represented by cards that give them attack abilities and defenses, and the game always opens with a temporary draw while everyone tries to work out who everyone else is. To complicate things, each player starts with a pistol that is only capable of reaching the players directly to their left and right; to shoot further, they have to get bigger guns.
The player-distance mechanic and the item cards are used to great effect to create a Western theme with a lot of tension - it really matters what type gun you have. On top of that, each player gets assigned a character card that gives them a special ability. These characters are hilariously translated from their spaghetti western counterparts for what I can only imagine are complicated licensing reasons, so you might get to play as, “Bart Cassidy,” “Calamity Janet,” or “Willy the Kid.”
In honor of Bang!’s Spagetti Western heritage, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Bang! is a psychologically thrilling, if not deeply complicated game. In one of my favorite gaming moments of my life, I bluffed another player so well that I convinced him he was on another team.
What makes Bang! so compelling? First, there’s a couple of logistical considerations working in its favor:
Best of all, Bang! is a fresh perspective on Werewolf/Mafia, certainly one of the best games ever devised.
While Bang! solves many of the problems inherent to even the best game of Werewolf (nobody has to sit out and moderate and players usually aren’t killed on the first turn, though I have been once), it also carries some of Werewolf’s baggage, occasionally forcing players to make random moves when they don’t quite understand what they’re doing.
Bang! is at it’s most fun when it leans on Werewolf mechanics and secret identities, and gets decidedly less fun once you work out who everyone at the table is and just take turns attacking and counterattacking. Other games like The Resistance, Shadows Over Camelot, Betrayal at House on the Hill have complicated procedures to deal with the moments when the group guesses who is on what team - Bang! keeps plugging along.
Bang! also starts to hit some snags when it deviates too much from the simplicity of Werewolf. For example, the character powers are unbalanced, and a single character with a combat-related ability and some luck can lead their team to victory no matter how well the other teams play. Also unlike werewolf, the various attack, counterattack, and defense cards can cause the game time to vary wildly between plays, which can be agonizing if you’re killed off early.
This is made much worse by including any of Bang!’s expansions, which add various new defensive mechanisms that protect players as they shoot back and forth for upwards of an hour.
Finally, I’m going to knock Bang! for some bad graphic design including fake wood patterned playing cards and old-westy typefaces that are hard to read. I know this is a lame thing to complain about, but the design seems to be getting worse as the game is reprinted (which is why I won’t replace my decaying, taco-stained copy). For example, in my copy, there’s a very clever mechanism to track how many life you have, where you slide your character card across a perpendicular card that has life counters as you take damage. Newer editions come with thirty “bullet token” chits and then “player boards” to hold all your cards and tokens, which seems like an unnecessary bother. I liked the old format - it felt more Western, like a game of cards, and it also made it easy to play at a bar or wherever.
Get Bang! - it’s a classic for under $20, and a great gateway game. But maybe don’t play it as much as my gaming group. And especially not while you’re eating tacos.
(Image via Board Game Geek, “Shell casings make excellent life counters.”)