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Review: Stop Thief!

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In one of my favorite detective stories by G. K. Chesterton, the amateur sleuth Father Brown is able to deduce who the thief is by the sounds of his footsteps–at first slow, like a gentleman taking his ease at a party, and then quick, like he’s one of the servants. How is a thief able to slip in among respectable folk and make the heist? Because he’s wearing a tuxedo, the one outfit that will make him blend in with both the serving and the served.

In Stop Thief!, players are, like Father Brown, discerning the sounds of the thief’s movement to track him or her down among the throng of ordinary people in the city. The necessary app helps in this endeavor by supplying the sounds the player needs.

Can you catch the thief before it’s too late?

How It Works

Stop Thief! is an app-driven hand management deduction game for two to four players. Players are private investigators trying to catch crooks in order to make enough money to retire. The first player to reach the winning money threshold wins.

Stop Thief! set up for three players.

To begin, each player receives an investigator pawn and the unique movement cards for one investigator. Players shuffle the criminal cards and reveal the top one. Players boot up the Restoration Games app and start a new game of Stop Thief! The app will choose a starting player.

Each turn follows three steps: 1) get a clue, 2) move, and 3) make an arrest (optional).

To get a clue, the player presses the “get a clue” button on the app, which plays the noise the thief makes wherever he or she is currently. (The app also discloses the general location, e.g., Doyle’s Electronics or 5th Street). The thief always follows the footpaths on the board and always moves from one number to an adjacent number, skipping empty circles.

The player then chooses a movement card and moves up to that number of spaces. Some cards have special abilities like moving other players, increasing the player’s movement on certain spaces, or getting a private tip (which discloses the exact location of the thief but usually offers only slight movement). One card also allows the player to pick up all played movement cards.

Players start in the heart of the city, ready to fight crime and earn some sweet moolah.

Finally, a player may choose to make an arrest if the player thinks the thief is on or adjacent to the player’s space. The player enters the thief’s space into the app, which tells whether the player is right (and receives the thief’s reward) or wrong (owes $1,000 to the bank).

If the player has enough money to retire, that player wins! Otherwise the app starts a new burglary for the players to investigate.

To Catch a Thief

In some ways, Restoration Games is banking on nostalgia by bringing back beloved yet bygone games for a new generation of players. But thankfully, there’s nostalgia not just for those who have played the games when they were first released; there’s something akin to nostalgia for us newcomers too.

The goal: to be able to retire somewhere nice and warm. (The app plays mellow island music when you win, which is a wonderful touch.)

I’ve never played the original Stop Thief!, but playing the restored version felt almost like a return to the games of my youth. Maybe it’s the way board games were shamelessly trying to integrate electronic components or the novelty of deduction by hearing; regardless, there’s a special spark in Stop Thief! that made me almost giddy the first time I played it, so that’s where I want to begin. Because Stop Thief! may be mechanically simple, or even a little unfair, or even in its restored version dated in some ways. Yet it is more than the sum of its parts and somehow manages to catch the spark that reminds us why we play games in the first place.

Players have to manage when to use their private tip, which tells them exactly where the thief is, but at the cost of low movement.

The app integration here is well done. The app controls the sounds and the movement of the thief, and it is the central hub where players receive private tips and where they input their guesses for the thief’s location. The app allows for some customization, offering multiple difficulty settings and, in the future, different game modes (for example, co-op). I won’t say the app in this game isn’t gimmicky, because really, the whole game is a gimmick. But it’s a good gimmick, and the flawless operation of the app makes the gimmick work.

The back of the box sums up the game quite nicely.

One of the mechanical updates in the restoration of Stop Thief! involves using a hand of cards for movement instead of a die. I think this is great as it adds another layer to the game. Players can’t get a private tip each turn, and they can’t just play a few “pet” cards. In order to be efficient, players will need to balance playing the right cards at the right time with holding back cards for when they’re needed most. The card that allows players to return all cards to their hands is usually a low-movement card, meaning it’s best to wait to use it until you can punt on movement. Of course, the movement of the criminal dictates what good strategy is, and it’s sometimes hard to gauge whether you’ll be within striking distance in time.

It’s hard to tell in this picture, but there is spot gloss on the footpaths on the game board. This is a classy, classy feature.

The board is set up in a clever way, and it’s not often that there is only one path that the thief could have taken, at least at the start of a crime. Players have to listen carefully and remember well in order to catch the thief, and they will have to apply their theories to multiple paths on the board to see which one works. This isn’t Sherlock Holmes-level deduction, by any means, but it’s deduction nonetheless, and especially for younger players, this seems like a fun and useful way to teach basic logic. There are usually some surprises, too, as players rigidly view only one possible solution, only to realize another when the thief isn’t where they thought.

The current criminal at large. Go get ‘er!

The criminal cards allow for some randomization in the way the thief behaves and the incentive to catch him or her. While these cards are not usually game changers, they do add flavor to the game–something that is very important in Stop Thief!–and they help keep the game from becoming too repetitive. One thief, for example, might get extra rewards when breaking windows; another might cost you extra for a private tip or a wrong guess. There’s a good deal of trial-and-error in the game, and these criminal cards keep players from using a familiar formula with each crime.

Another nice detail: the investigator pawns are painted to look like the actual investigator.

I mentioned that each investigator has their own deck of movement cards, which is neat on paper, but a little more frustrating in actual gameplay. It’s neat that players have their own special powers; however, it’s frustrating when your power is specialized for a particular niche and another player’s niche seems a lot more useful in the moment. I recognize that these powers were probably balanced by playtesting, and there probably isn’t that much of a competitive edge for one character versus another, but the feeling of unfairness can persist when you’re sitting at the table and waiting for your power to become useful.

And unfairness–really, luck–is something you’ll have to get used to in Stop Thief! After a thief is caught, the next thief might spawn right next to your location, ready for you to catch them. (I once caught two thieves in two turns. I caught the criminal that gave me an immediate extra turn, and the new thief spawned right by where I had caught the last one.) There might be three paths where the thief could be, and you attempt an arrest at one and happen to be right (or wrong). Deduction is important in the game, and it’s fun deduction, but how okay you are with lucky outcomes will likely color your opinion of Stop Thief!

The back of the rulebook includes a history of the game. I love this.

But, truthfully, Stop Thief! is elevated over pure luck by its atmosphere, which is due in large part to its components. The app is excellent, playing appropriate and clear sounds for the thief’s movement, and the soundtrack at the start of the game (and when you win) is great. The board has clear paths from one space to the next, and paths have spot gloss, making them even easier to see. (This is a classy touch.) The player pawns have silk-screen printing on them so the pawns resemble the player cards, and the money in the game is cards rather than paper (for those who, for whatever reason, hate paper money). Again, all of the pieces of the game seem lovingly crafted, and they go a long way toward forgiving what could be frustrating.

To sum up, Stop Thief! is a very good casual/family game, but I would say it doesn’t have much utility outside that audience. I think it occupies a space somewhere between the mass market games you’d find in Walmart or Toys-R-Us and games you’d find in a hobby store. I brought Stop Thief! out with my game group, just to see what would happen, and the novelty of the app wore off for them fast. We’re a fairly competitive bunch, and we typically play low-luck Euro games, so they aren’t the target audience, to be sure. The app offers some ways to step up the difficulty of deduction, but even with these, Stop Thief! is the kind of game where opportunism reigns. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time; sometimes you’re not. Sometimes, even if you are better at deducing where the thief is, the other players get there first. All of this is fine within a casual-game framework; I expect there to be luck in casual family games, and I don’t mind missing out on catching the crook as long as everyone is having a good time. And the casual gamers I played Stop Thief! with really enjoyed it. What I’m getting at is that it’s best to go in with your eyes open: I wouldn’t put this on the docket for your strategy games night.

The Stop Thief! insert. No, the box isn’t very full…but the game isn’t lacking for that.

But that’s okay. Not every game will appeal to every player, and there’s certainly an audience for Stop Thief! I’m in that audience, too, at least when the crowd is right. This is a great game to play with older children–they’ll get a kick out of the app, and the game teaches them to evaluate their options and eliminate possibilities logically. The modern updates for the game are clever, and there are some decision points for players–namely the hand management of your movement cards and knowing when to take a private tip. All of this is wrapped in a package that is full of heart, charm, and nostalgia, elevating a decent game to a game that should appeal to the kid in most of us.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Restoration Games for providing us with a copy of Stop Thief! for review.

  • Rating: 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Full of charm and atmosphere
The app integration here is excellent
Several subtle component decisions enhance the game
Fun deduction

Cons:

Too simple (even on advanced settings) for gamers
Can go on a little too long
Novelty will likely wear off for hobbyists

7.0 Lend Me Your Ears

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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