np A Mob Hit Gone Wrong   Review of Nothing Personal

“I need youse guyz to take a couple heaters, roust up Vinnie the Mole, and go make sure Arnie Leibowitz suffers a fatal case o’ lead poisoning. And I need it…”

Nah, I’m not going to stay in mafioso voice for this entire review. Sure, Nothing Personal grabs with enough gangster theme to keep dragging Sonny Corleone back in, but after playing the game—honestly, I’m done with wise guys for a while.

 

Nothing Personal

First Edition

Designers: Tom Vasel & Steve Avery

Publisher: Game Salute LLC, 2013

Players: 3-5

Ages: 13+

Play time: 120 minutes

Mechanic(s): Area Control, Dice-rolling, Hand Management, Negotiation

Weight: Medium-Heavy – “Difficult for casual gamers”

MSRP: $60.00 ***

Tom Vasel is to board games as the late Roger Ebert was to movies: a prominent and preeminent reviewer and critic. Though critics are themselves critiqued with the damning words those who can’t create, critique, Tom and fellow game designer Steve Avery hope to prove the pundits wrong with their creation, Nothing Personal.

The Gist

Nothing Personal turns players into organized crime families, each vying for control of the hierarchy of a syndicate. The hierarchy branches off like bowling pins four levels deep, starting with the kingpin, the Capo. Other roles include Underboss, Bean Counter, and Third Guy. Gangster cards fill those nine positions on the board, plus three not-yet-made-men Associate positions.

Gangster cards depict the various wise guys (and a gal or two), each with a Respect and Money value. On the game board, the position spaces of the hierarchy have Respect and Money values, too, which are added, subtracted, or multiplied by the matching values on the Gangster cards to calculate totals. In addition, each position on the board includes a unique Action available to the Gangster that occupies that position. Many of the Gangster cards include their own special Action also. A player who controls a Gangster can elect to take the Action listed on the game board for that Gangster’s position or choose to take the Action on the Gangster’s card, if one is listed.

By playing Influence cards, players assign Influence tokens from their family to control Gangsters, gathering Respect and Money. After five rounds of five different stages of game phases (The Commission, The Crew, The Fence, The Feds, and The Family), the player with the most Respect wins.

Ah, but there’s blackmail, prison, snitches, whackings, and all sorts of other  chaos to interfere with ascendancy to the top of that criminal empire. Can’t let players off too easily.

And lastly, there’s the little negotiations and deals any player can offer any other player at any time. Don’t like the card that player is playing? Offer him $10 not to. Prefer not to have your guy whacked? Offer to never whack that other player’s guys, ever.

The Goods

• 1 Rulebook
• 1 Game Board
• 5 Player Boards
• 80 Money Tokens — 50 @ $1, 20 @ $5, 10 @ $10
• 125 Player Influence Markers
• 25 Neutral Influence Markers
• 50 Gangster Cards
• 94 Influence Cards
• 5 Wood Scoring Meepsters
• 5 Checkmark Markers
• 8 Goldtone Blackmail Coins
• 2 Silvertone Omertá Coins
• 1 Goldtone Capo Ring
• 1 Black “Make a Move” Die
• 1 Red “Whack” Die
• 1 White “Number” Die
• 5 Tuck Boxes
• Resealable Plastic Bags (for component storage)

That list of game pieces above? Some of the best components you’ll find in a board game. Whimsical, thematic artwork. Tuckboxes for game items. Real metal coins. Cardboard chits so thick they’d put out an eye if the game devolved into a flip-the-table brawl and someone started throwing stuff. Even the box is as thick and solid as some Guido’s neck. This game reeks of overproduction. Considering Mr. Vasel’s pedigree as a reviewer of thousands of games, it’s obvious he paid attention to what constitutes great components.

Well, paid attention mostly.

Nothing Personal contains 144 cards, and the Influence cards get constant use. Which is why it’s incomprehensible that the card stock for this otherwise incredibly produced game is so sub-par. It’s not difficult to imagine the cards getting ratty fast.

I played Trains from AEG after playing Nothing Personal, and the exemplary card stock in that game contrasts starkly with the stock in Nothing Personal. If you’ve seen the lousy card stock in 7 Wonders, then you’ve seen it for Nothing Personal. A clue to game producers: NEVER scrimp on the card production in a card-driven game. I guess one can argue for sleeving the cards, but with 144 in Nothing Personal, premium sleeves might run an additional $15 or more.

Much of the overproduction went into the least-used pieces, those metal coins and the Capo ring. I’d rather have cheaper incarnations of those items if it guaranteed outstanding cards.

Other oddities exist in the components. The player boards are huge, but the rules on them for Whacking and for Making a Move on another Gangster are tiny in comparison and hard to read in less-than-perfect lighting.

The main board’s Respect scoring track is a problem too. The “meepsters” used in the game are large, and only one fits on a scoring space at a time. Imagine five players and everyone is tied or bunched up on the board; the actual score becomes impossible to determine. Another strange game design issue.

Some of the Action text on the positions, which isn’t huge, falls into the board’s folds. Why the pyramid that forms the role positions could not have been slid a half inch higher or lower is bad graphic design layout planning.

Further, two of the positions on the board need corrective stickers (not supplied, request from Game Salute) to correct errors in their Actions.  A few of the Gangster cards contain errors, too, but no fixes are offered. Disappointing.

Then there’s the issue that after all the cardboard chits are punched, fitting everything back in the box is a puzzle—unless the insert goes “sleepin’ with da fishes.”

Still, Nothing Personal raises the bar for quality components, even if some of those quality choices are headscratchers.

The Hit

Gameplay is where Nothing Personal got personal.

Picture the specifics:

Two halves of the same game group, mostly all highly knowledgeable board gamers with extensive collections and experience.

Two sessions played of Nothing Personal, each by a different half of the group…

Two weeks apart.

Two different teachers of the game.

Two identical outcomes: Each session resulting in the players abandoning the game mid-way through.

Why? Constant confusion over rules, unclear resolutions for in-game conditions, game-length running an hour per round, and more.

I was not in that first play of the game by the other half of the game group, but I got a full rundown of its discouraging outcome. So I prepped hard for my session. Downloaded updated rules. Downloaded a FAQ assembled by Tom Vasel. Read through original rules, updated rules, and the FAQ. Watched two Nothing Personal overview videos. In short, I spent at least five hours prepping for playing the game.

Made not one iota of difference for my group of four players. Two hours and just two of five rounds later into this session, we too elected to abandon the game and play something else.

The Insult

While my half of the game group was struggling to play Nothing Personal, the other half that had bailed on it two weeks earlier was playing—for the first time ever—Prêt-à-Porter.

Ha.

And for you board gamers in the know, no, that’s not intended as a joke.

For the less enlightened, that’s a humdinger because Prêt-à-Porter is a heavy, heavy game about the fashion industry (of all things) notorious for its incomprehensible English rulebook translated (badly) from Polish. Yet that half of the group, which had failed earlier to comprehend and play Nothing Personal, learned Prêt-à-Porter that evening, played it successfully, and had a good time.

Fashion designers, 1

Mobsters, 0

The Autopsy

Why did Nothing Personal fail with our group?

Most obviously, the rulebook was underwritten and lacked the kind of helpful sidebars often found in rulebooks by game publishers such as Queen and Alea, with which designer/reviewer Vasel is surely familiar. Rules were unclear, even important ones, such as whether a whacking could be administered by any gangster during the Crew phase. Or what the Omertá coins are supposed to do. Or how to deal with turn order issues when people wanted to negotiate deals.

Then there were disputes about game conditions that arose that weren’t accounted for in the rulebook. Like what to do when the Capo goes to jail and all the influence is tied on the next Gangster in line. Or how the ascension rules on the game board supersede the rulebook’s ascension rules. And while the rulebook showed a few examples, they occasionally lacked appropriate illustrations, were too wordy, and didn’t address enough in-game condition oddities.

In short, I challenge any gamer to follow the rulebook of Nothing Personal and successfully play the game.

No game produced today should make it to the market with deficient rules. If I were designing a game, I would select players unfamiliar with the game and perhaps not even familiar with hobbyist style board games and have them do one simple thing: read the rulebook and then play the game based on the rules. No outside advice. No help from someone who has played it before or was in the playtesting group for the game. Just a rule reader or two and the rules.

If those players can’t play the game based on the rulebook, then the rules must be rewritten or the gameplay must be streamlined.

This is especially needful in the case of a game like Nothing Personal that combines controlled chaos with negotiation. It needs clear, intuitive rules that flow from the gameplay and theme, and everyone must be able to quickly grasp, memorize, and synthesize those rules. Only then are players freed to play in a more free-form, chaotic way.

If players can’t successfully internalize the rules, then they will not feel comfortable with chaos or negotiation. Analysis paralysis becomes crippling because too many options for play exist and the rules leave too many holes. For Nothing Personal, that lack is like a double-tap to the back of the head. Goodnight, Irene.

(Note: A day after the second game session above, videos of Tom Vasel detailing the rules were posted on YouTube.)

So, Wadda We Got?

OK, for flavor, here’s dat wise guy talk again…

Components: Mostly, this is a high class joint dese guyz is runnin’.

Theme: Gangsters, doin’ what dey do best. ‘Nuf said.

Instructions: More holes dan dat traitor Johnny Scalini after we Tommy-gunned ‘im.

Gameplay: More confusing dan Frankie “Mushmouth” Rizzuto’s plan to steal all da gold stored under da skirt of da Statue of Liberty.

Value: If youse don’t do da job right da first time, youse may never gets another shot.

The End

Here’s what’s so darned frustrating about Nothing Personal: If experienced board gamers struggle this hard to grasp the game, and if it takes hours to play even a round or two, no one will want to play it again.

Tom Vasel lists his #1 game as Cosmic Encounter from Fantasy Flight Games. That game parallels many aspects of Nothing Personal with its own negotiations, player team-ups and betrayals, and rules that often come down to “do what’s true to the feel of the game.” First published in 1977 and with numerous edition updates, Cosmic Encounter is considered a classic. In addition, Nothing Personal is a reimagining of the 1986 game Kremlin (which is getting its own Kickstarter update), using gangsters in place of the original’s Soviet Politburo members. Some may argue for classic status for Kremlin too.

So Nothing Personal has good “genes.” Admittedly, our group has no raving fans of Cosmic Encounter, and we prefer our chaotic games to have clearer limits around the free-for-all. In contrast, perhaps your game group has been dying for a “whatever goes” game like Nothing Personal.

Still, Nothing Personal feels like it needed a tad more polishing before publishing.  It may become a wonderful game once a second edition ensures all the errata are collated,  the rules get a makeover, and regular players ultra-dedicated to its potential internalize all the details of the game and feel more comfortable with it.

BUT, if one can’t get it back to the table for another shot because players got burned by it the first time around, then one might as well toss it off a skyscraper into the Hudson.

Sorry, Tom and Steve. It’s nothing personal.