Dwarves love gold. (Well, doesn’t everyone? But really, dwarves seem to have some special affinity for the stuff.) In Saboteur: The Duel, two dwarves face off, mano y mano, in a race to get the most gold. It’s not a friendly, day in the park race, though. This is a “No holds barred, I’m going to bump you and wreck you so I can win, last lap of a Nascar race” kind of game. You may look like you’re playing all nicey-nice and going along to get along, but in the end, you’ll do the right thing and torpedo your opponent’s plan, snatching victory for yourself.
How It Plays
Saboteur: The Duel is played over three rounds. The object of the game is to be the dwarf with the most gold at the end of the game. To find all this gold you must skillfully deploy your cards to build pathways through the maze, while also blocking your opponent’s movement through the maze.
At the beginning of the game, the playing area is seeded with each player’s start card and six goal cards. The goal cards contain (some of) the gold that you are seeking. However, the cards are placed facedown so you don’t know exactly how much each card is worth, or whether it is blocked by a door that you can only unlock with the proper key.
Players use the cards in their hands to build pathways connecting their start cards to the goal cards. Each player starts with a hand of six cards. On your turn, you can do one of four things: You can play a path card into the maze, play an action card, discard two cards from your hand to remove one action card that’s blocking your dwarf, or pass your turn to discard one or two cards.
Path cards must be placed vertically next to a path card that’s already on the table, and all paths on the card must attach to to the paths on adjacent cards. When you play a new path card, it must have an uninterrupted pathway back to your start card. Player’s paths may merge. When it happens, both players can use the merged path.
When you’ve created an uninterrupted connection from your start card to a goal card, turn the goal card over. If there is gold there and your path isn’t obstructed by a door of your opponent’s color, place one of your dwarf tokens on the card to indicate ownership. You’ll receive these points at the end of the game. Once gold is claimed, it cannot be claimed by another player, even if they pass through the same space. Some regular path cards also contain gold, which you can claim if you’re the first to pass through that space.
Of course, it’s not as simple as making a beeline for the gold and being first. There are plenty of things in the maze, mostly in the form of action cards, that will slow you down. Fortunately, there are also action cards that will get you out of these jams and get you on your way again.
The action cards include:
Sabotage and repair cards: When you play a sabotage action card in front of your opponent’s path, that player cannot play a path card into the maze until they remove the sabotage. They do this by discarding two cards or playing a matching repair card.
Keys: These let you open doors of your opponent’s color. If you open a door that leads to unclaimed gold, you get to claim that gold for yourself.
Rock slides: Remove one basic path card of your choice from the maze. (You can’t remove start cards, goal cards, path cards with gold, or trolls.)
Treasure maps: You can look at one face down goal card. After you peek, return it facedown without showing other players what’s on the card.
The last pesky thing in the maze is the troll. The troll blocks the path behind it and you must bribe him with one gold to get by. You do this by placing one of your markers on the troll and then deducting one gold from your total at the end of the round.
If you can’t or don’t want to play any cards, you can pass and discard one or two cards from your hand.
Once you’ve taken your action, draw the requisite number of cards back into your hand (the number of cards you draw depends on the action you took), and then the next player takes their turn.
Play continues until a round ends, either when all six goal cards have been turned over, all eight dwarf tokens have been placed, or the draw pile is exhausted and both player’s hands are empty. At this point, a new round is set up just like the first round. They player who has the least gold begins the next round.
Play continues through three rounds. The player with the most gold at the end of the third round is the winner.
Excuse me, but you have a pickaxe stuck in your back. Oh, that’s right. I put it there.
Full disclosure: I’ve never played regular Saboteur, so I can’t tell you if this is game is better or worse than that one, or whether it’s possible to integrate this game with its predecessor. I can only review Saboteur: The Duel on its own.
The second thing to note is that the game was originally published in Europe in 2014. The Mayfair version I’m reviewing is the first English version, so it’s not out of the question that some of you may already have the foreign version on your shelves. Check your stash accordingly before buying!
Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, what did I think of the game? I think it’s a good game for the right audience. Well, duh, you say. Every game has an audience, right? Sure, but this one is likely to be a bit more polarizing than some, so everyone needs to understand what they’re getting into.
First of all, it’s a two player game. (There’s a solo mode (Yay!) but for all intents and purposes, it’s a two player game.) If you have a big group, you’re going to need to look at the original Saboteur. More importantly, you have to know your opponent and whether or not they’ll be okay with the level of meanness in this game. If you’re looking for a couples’ night game where you play peacefully, this isn’t it.
I titled this review the way I did for a reason: You will be putting a pickaxe into your partner’s back. (Metaphorically, of course. Please no stabbing of your partners.) The game is “take that” play at its best and worst. If you want to play well, you will place obstacles in your opponent’s path and you will ruin their plans. And you may very well hate each other by the time it’s over.
There’s really no way to avoid this, either. You can choose to go your own way through the maze for a while, but eventually you’ll run into each other. Eventually, you’ll both close in on a goal card, or arrive at a door to which you have the key and your opponent does not. Eventually you’re going to realize that the only way you can win is to throw down a sabotage card, send the path in a new direction, or remove a path card that your opponent needs in order to reach their destination. That’s when things get ugly.
If both players are up for this, it can be a lot of fun. There can be some trash talking and good-natured threats thrown around. However, if one or both players are easily wounded, game night may end in disaster. Remember how I said in the description that this was a last lap of a Nascar race type of game? Well, prepare yourself that at the end of the game, there may be a fight in the pits and players may end up having to be dragged away from each other. Either that or there will be sullen silence for days.
Saboteur: The Duel has a lot of good points. The game is very easy to learn, fast to setup, quick playing, and makes for a good weeknight game. The dwarves and card art are cute in a cartoony way. The tiny box is easily carried to game night in a purse or pocket. (Don’t let the box size fool you, though. This isn’t a great travel or small space game. Laying out the maze requires quite a bit of table or floor space.)
It’s a light game, but it does offer some fun decisions to make. Laying out the maze and making the correct connections is fun and a bit of a puzzle. Since the paths on the card you play have to align with the paths on other adjacent cards, you have to do a bit of thinking. You also need to be thinking a couple of turns ahead so that you’re planning your routes to the goal cards. Your plan may not work out because your opponent may block or divert you, but it’s helpful to always be thinking, “What if?”
Since you only get one action per turn, you have to weigh decisions that help you against decisions that hinder your opponent. Do you slow her down with a sabotage card, or do you really need to repair sabotage done to you? Do you play a path card in the maze, even knowing that it’s helping both of you to do so? Which way do you go? Maybe bribing the troll is quickest, but it comes at a cost. How you manage your actions will have a big effect on your success or failure.
Of course, Lady Luck is going to have her say, as well. It’s a card game with random starting hands, random starting setup, and blind draws, so luck of the draw is always going to be a part of it. It’s possible that your opponent gets all the perfect path and sabotage cards to beat you to everything, while you get nothing and wander around lost. Most games average out, but there are some games that just never get going for one player or the other. The good news is that the game is short enough and sets up fast enough that you can quickly go again.
For a game of this type, length, and weight, the luck doesn’t bother me, but I know it will bother some. Between the ways your opponent can derail you and the ways luck can ruin your day, this game can go horribly awry for you and there won’t be much you can do about it. If you hate this type of game, stay away from Saboteur: The Duel.
However, if you’re looking for a light, quick card game that lets players really take it to each other, The Duel is pretty fun. Sure, it’s not groundbreaking or brain burning, and it’s not likely to hit any “Best Of” lists. But if you’e the right audience and you have opponents who can take the meanness and dish it back, then it can be a fun way to kill some time on a rainy day or while you wait for game night to get started.
iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Mayfair Games for giving us a copy of Saboteur: The Duel for review.