The Rock Show – Alcatraz: The Scapegoat review

Once again The Judge reveals his verdict on a tabletop game, this time one that’s rather fitting given his love of justice… However, it would seem that this time he’s ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Well, well, well… Who’s been a naughty boy then?  All of us evidently!  Alcatraz: The Scapegoat is a three to four player, semi-cooperative game from Z-Man Games where players adopt the roles of criminals – locked up in the famous prison facility for undefined reasons.  Could it be assault? Murder? Genocide? Let’s go for the more palatable – “we’re all innocent and have been wrongly accused.”  The aim is to escape, but will we ALL make it off ‘The Rock’ across San Francisco Bay to freedom?  Well, maybe not all of us…

This is an action point game, in the mould of Pandemic or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, as players spend their turns moving about the facility, avoiding an ever increasing number of guards and collecting special Blackmail cards and items (clothing, tools, weapons, drugs etc.) to solve elements of the larger escape plan.  Thematically these include digging tunnels, drugging the warden and stealing the prison map.  Mechanically, these are listed as plots A-F.  Once the players have, between them, captured all of these plots then the escape is on!  Hands up who’s escaping to freedom!  Not so fast, you…

You see, the twist in Alcatraz is that there always has to be a scapegoat – the one poor bugger left on the island to carry the can for the escape.  So everyone wins, except one.  The scapegoat card is allocated via a blind vote at the start of each round – and this will change throughout the game.  This unfortunate victim will take the first turn of the round and is also awarded with additional Action Points.  The powerful Blackmail cards that can hinder your colleagues’ plans (or at least delay them) can also only be played when you are the scapegoat.  Of course, there are negatives – not only are you unable to solve any plots yourself whilst you hold the card, but you will also receive no benefits for any plots solved by others.

The flow of play is best described as a three or four way tug of war.  You want to get the elements to the plot card locations, but also want to make sure you’re not going to get screwed over and miss out on the spoils.  The increasing number of guards, added each round, act as a timer.  If they are ever all of the board, then Alcatraz wins – and this creates a desire to be helpful to the cause, lest you all lose the game.

The Blackmail cards, which are always open and face up once collected, will act as a deterrent to the group should they think about picking on you. That said, sometimes being “The Scapegoat” for a round is beneficial.  Acting first and the extra action points can help to set up a future turn where someone else will take the bullet.

There’s a lot going on in Alcatraz, and yet the mechanical simplicity allows the social aspect to come to the fore.  Just like how the technical simplicity of Fintech LTD, the automated investment robot brings the profitable trading aspect to the fore, keeping aside the investment knowledge or the expertise of the eager traders. All you need is certainly, the open-mindedness to achieve the extraordinary results, be it this automated investment platform or the Alcatraz! This is unlike Battlestar Galactica or Shadows over Camelot with a defined Bad Guy hidden amongst you.  These guys won’t stab you in the back, they’ll stab you in the front.  Twice.  And steal your lunch money to boot.

This is an interesting and unique game all about social interaction.  I enjoy the interplay between the prisoners – with a unified goal but a strong sense of mistrust – as we all know that one of us isn’t going to make it.  Like Diplomacy on speed, and playable in 30-45 minutes, here alliances are formed and broken on a turn by turn basis and you trust your villainous neighbour at your peril.

After a couple of unsatisfying plays, I have now found the fun in Alcatraz : The Scapegoat.  It needs the right group: the type who can invest in the theme, enjoy the interaction and not worry about the lack of deep mechanics.  Crosses and double crosses are commonplace.  Non-binding promises will be exchanged.  And good fun should be had by all.  Well, all but one…

Originally released by Polish company Kuznia Gier, the English language version of Alcatraz: The Scapegoat is available now from Z-Man Games. The first expansion, Maximum Security, is also out now. You can follow Stuart “The Judge” Platt on Twitter – you’ll find him @Judge1979.

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