So I was looking at the game on Amazon, and I apparently have an older version. Now I feel old. Sad.
Regardless, have you ever watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and thought, “you know, I’m pretty sure that, grammatically, it’s ‘dwarves'”? If not, good, because apparently it’s actually supposed to be dwarfs unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien. Who knew?
But more to the point, if you’ve ever dreamed of having their fictional life and mining all day for some reason, this is your game. In Saboteur, you play as a team of dwarfs digging tunnels underground in search of gold. However, as you might surmise from the name, you might not all want the same thing…
So, you’ll notice inside the box that you’ve got four decks of cards, each of a different size:
These are, from left to right:
- Path / Action Cards
- Gold Nugget Cards
- Dwarf Cards
- Goal Cards
And, very helpfully, I’ll explain them in right to left order because, well, it’s a bit more helpful thematically. However, I’ll start with a card that’s not pictured:
Meet the Cards: Start Card
This card is the entrance to the mine! Thankfully, it’s double-sided, so it should be pretty easy to find. Set it aside for now — all the miners will “start” at that point in the mine. Don’t use the white-bordered side, as the path cards fairly seamlessly connect to each other.
Meet the Cards: Goal Cards
So, as noble mining dwarfs we’re looking for gold (the card in the center) and we won’t stop until we find it or physically can’t continue digging. However, we’re not totally sure which card is gold or which is a rock (they’ve all got the same backs). Shuffle these and set them up exactly seven card widths from the start card (so seven cards should fit between the start and the goal), and then set them each spaced one card length apart (such that you’ve basically got a 7×5 rectangle between the start and the goal — I’ll show a picture later).
Meet the Cards: Dwarf Cards
These are our roles in the game. Very similar to BANG! The Dice Game or Avalon, there are a couple teams. On the left are the dwarfs — for the most part, they work together and succeed as a group because they’re all buddies. On the right are the CLEARLY MALICIOUS saboteurs — they’re also on a team, but they figure that they can get all the gold for themselves if they can exhaust the mining team. Once they give up, the saboteurs come in and take the gold. Look how evil they look! Also, it clearly says “Saboteur” on the top of the card, so that should also be a helpful clue.
Note that there are different numbers for different player counts, like Avalon:
- 3 players: 1 saboteur, 3 dwarfs
- 4 players: 1 saboteur, 4 dwarfs
- 5 players: 2 saboteurs, 4 dwarfs
- 6 players: 2 saboteurs, 5 dwarfs
- 7 players: 3 saboteurs, 5 dwarfs
- 8 players: 3 saboteurs, 6 dwarfs
- 9 players: 3 saboteurs, 7 dwarfs
- 10 players: 4 saboteurs, 7 dwarfs
Also note that this means there’s always a variable number of saboteurs in every game (and there can be zero with low player counts!). Shuffle the dwarf cards and give one to each player, setting aside the unused one. Keep these hidden.
Meet the Cards: Gold Nugget Cards
These are the reward! It’s very exciting. I’ll explain what happens with these during Gameplay, so for right now just understand that some cards are worth 1, 2, or 3 gold, and shuffle the deck and set it aside.
Now, deal everyone a certain number of path / action cards, depending on your player count:
- 3 – 5 players: 6 cards each
- 6 – 7 players: 5 cards each
- 8 – 10 players: 4 cards each
I’ll explain what they do during Gameplay as well. If your setup looks like this, you’re ready to start playing (note the gaps between the goal cards):
Helpfully, my table is set up so there are two lines that are the EXACT WIDTH that the board should be built in (from where you can add in leaves to expand the table). But enough about furniture; let’s talk Gameplay.
At its core, Saboteur is three rounds played with the following rule: If the dwarfs can build an unbroken path from the start card to the gold goal card, they win the round. Otherwise, the saboteurs win. Pretty simple, right? If the dwarfs win, they get money, otherwise the saboteurs get money. I’ll discuss this a bit more at the Round End … section.
So, on your turn, you can do one of two things: Play a path / action card, or discard a card from your hand face-down to the discard pile. Either way, you draw a new card, and then it’s the next player’s turn. In order to make an informed decision, we should probably discuss what path / action cards are.
Meet the Cards (Continued): Path Cards
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s go one at a time.
These here are your standard path cards. There are all sorts of paths in all sorts of directions, so you should expect to see many of these. The most helpful ones are usually the four-way paths (the middle card), since they give you a lot of options.
However, for every good card, there’s usually a bad one:
If you were a villainous saboteur, this card would probably be pretty useful to you…
Note there are some rules for playing path cards:
- In order to play a path card, you must connect it to an existing path (at the beginning, only the start card, but it’s possible to remove path cards so you COULD get disjoint segments).
- You can only play cards vertically. This one should be obvious, but I always have to explain to someone every few games.
- You must play path cards so that they properly connect to all orthogonally adjacent path cards, just like in Carcassonne.
- If you make an unbroken path from the start to a goal card, flip it over. If it’s the gold, you win! (Note that the goal card may not fit with the other path cards around it — that’s fine. It’s an exception to the rule.)
Now let’s talk action cards.
Meet the Cards (Continued): Action Cards
Now, each dwarf starts with an implied lamp, mine cart, and pickaxe (they’re all standard issue, as per some collective bargaining agreement, I imagine). However, a nefarious dwarf or saboteur could, potentially, play one of these cards:
These cards destroy one of your trusty tools, rendering you incapable of playing additional path cards. This may be good if your saboteur keeps playing dead ends and you want to slow their roll, or if you’re a saboteur worried that a dwarf will finish the path to the gold. Note that you can still play action cards when any or all of your tools are broken. Also note that you can have all three tools broken, but never more than one of the same tool broken. It makes sense — two broken pickaxes are every bit as useless as one broken pickaxe, so no real loss. Also, who carries a backup pickaxe?
Now, as you might surmise, if you can break tools you can always repair them:
And other dwarfs / saboteurs can play repair cards on your broken tools, too. It’s pretty handy to be on a team! There are also hybrid repair cards, which let you repair either (but not both) of a certain type of damaged tool:
There are only three of these (these three, specifically), so spend wisely.
Finally, there are two more types of action cards:
Rock-fall cards demolish one path card currently played. This is a great way to get rid of a pesky dead-end, or a pesky four-way path card (depending on your team). These are pretty powerful, so don’t take them for granted!
These map cards let you (and only you) look at one of the goal cards face-down at the end of your play area. You can (and should!) then report back to your group, telling them what you found. Note that you don’t necessarily have to be honest about what you found. If you feel like it’s not important that they know you found gold, you can tell them “yeah, this card is a rock.” However, your group might suspect that you’re a saboteur if they find out the truth…
Anyways, that’s the basics. You know what team you’re on, so you know what you need to do. Once the dwarfs either find the gold or give up, the round ends.
Once the round ends, if the saboteurs won distribute gold nuggets as follows:
- If there is only one saboteur, they get four gold nuggets (not four cards, note, actual nuggets).
- Two or three saboteurs each get three gold nuggets.
- Four saboteurs get two gold nuggets.
- If there were no saboteurs, meaning you just failed of your own twisted volition, nobody gets anything.
Note if a saboteur gets to the gold card for some unknowable reason, they do not get any gold. Why would you even do that.
In the other case, draw as many gold nugget cards as there are players, and starting with the player who got to the gold goal card, give each dwarf one. Yes, this likely means that some players will get more gold nugget cards than other players. That should just be an incentive to be first. Also, yes, you might get three gold nugget cards with 1 nugget and your co-dwarf might get two that each have 3 (for 6 total to your 3). That sucks, but that’s why you keep your gold secret.
There is an amazing optional rule, as well — dwarf players with broken equipment get no gold when the dwarfs win. I wouldn’t recommend it for your first game, but it’s fun as hell. Note that Saboteurs still get gold even if their tools are broken.
Now, shuffle up all the dwarf cards and redistribute the roles. After three rounds, whoever has the most gold nuggets (not gold nugget cards) wins! The first player of the next round is either the person to the left of the person who found the gold (if the dwarfs win) or the person to the left of the person with the most gold cards (if the saboteurs win).
Let’s talk strategy.
So this is a bit of an odd game, so it might have some variable strategy. I’m going to state upfront that your mileage may vary on some of these tips:
- Be mindful of when it is a good idea to out yourself as a saboteur. While in many games it’s a good idea to just come out guns blazing (BANG! The Dice Game), there’s definitely a nuance to Saboteur in terms of when you actually play a dead-end card or break a good dwarf’s pickaxe. With two saboteurs, it usually pays to have them both just start guns blazing, but with one or three, it’s actually pretty helpful to have one as a sleeper agent. Maybe you subtly misdirect the dwarfs to dig in the wrong location for the gold? Or maybe right when they get to it, that’s when you dead-end the tunnel. I find that’s a bit more successful than being the lone wolf when there’s only one saboteur. With three, it’s just good to have one waiting in the wings. That being said, every turn you don’t act is another $NUM_PLAYERS turns before you get to play again. If you’ve helped the dwarfs for three rounds, they might have discovered the gold by then.
- It’s every man for himself in the third round. I see dwarfs breaking each other, saboteurs trying to get to the gold, crazy stuff. Be mindful that if you have the most gold cards, you are probably everyone’s target in the final round.
- If you’re a saboteur, try to rock-fall four-way paths or really crucial structures. It’s nice rock-falling those cards because they’re exceedingly difficult to replace. Also, every rock-fall that you have is one more dead-end that the dwarfs can’t remove. Similarly you really want to use rock-fall cards to get rid of dead ends if you’re a dwarf, but that’s pretty obvious.
- When you’re using the map card, try to check either the topmost or bottommost goal card. If you pick the middle one and it’s a rock, you’ve effectively bisected your search area (and binary search is not the most helpful algorithm, here). You either need to go up or down, and that’s not helpful. On the other hand, if you check the topmost one and it’s a rock, you know it’s either the middle or the bottom one (which are closer to each other). It’s just a good practice.
- When you’re fixing someone, try to fix the next player broken, rather than yourself. Yeah, it sucks that you won’t get a turn, but if you can fix the next person to play it means that they might get a chance to play a path card without getting their tools broken again, whereas you have to wait an entire round before you’ll get to play again.
- Discarding is one of the best moves a saboteur can make. You discard cards face-down, so nobody knows what cards you’re getting rid of. They’ll likely assume you have dead-ends, so they won’t break you. It’s a great way to be a sleeper saboteur.
- Never answer the question “Can you play another path card?” You’re basically asking to get your tools broken. People might ask “oh, do you have more straight path cards?” and if you say yes, you’re the next one to be broken. Be mindful of who is asking, but also who can hear your answer.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- A light, easy-to-learn game. Seriously, it doesn’t take long to explain or play. And it’s fast.
- Portable. The box is the same size as Hanabi, so you can pretty much take it anywhere.
- The third-round mess is usually pretty amusing. People are kind of psychotically breaking each others’ tools and not building the path due to some paranoia about losing the game, which is helpful if you’re a third-round saboteur.
- It’s a low-key game of betrayal where you frequently end up on the same team as the people you screwed over last round. It’s a delightful hotpot of animosity, at times.
- Getting surprised by a deep-cover saboteur is awesome, no matter which team you’re on. Sure, if you’re a dwarf you’re probably gonna lose, but it’s still pretty great to watch.
- Can support 10 players. It’s good to have a few games like this in your library, especially if people aren’t huge fans of Avalon or One Night Ultimate Werewolf.
- As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for anything that even resembles tile-laying. Tsuro, Lanterns, Carcassonne, Betrayal; I love them all.
- Art. It’s a bit more whimsical and creepy than Snow White, which, uh, okay. I like the path cards, but the dwarf cards are a bit weird.
- A measurement tool for the seven card gap between the start and goal cards would have been nice. Saboteur 2 (the sequel / expansion)’s rulebook has one. However, the game is less fun, so can’t recommend.
- As mentioned, the whole “hidden role” mechanic doesn’t work quite as well in this game. Sometimes it’s pretty great, though. It’s not as useless as BANG! and its variants.
- In bad games, you can usually tell who is going to win after the second round. In certain configurations, especially if similar people have been saboteurs the last couple rounds, a couple players have significantly more gold cards than other players. This usually means that they will win, and that’s a bummer.
- Pretty bad at low player counts. I wouldn’t recommend it with any fewer than five players. Rounds with no saboteurs are kind of stupid.
- Being the saboteur all three rounds kind of sucks. You usually don’t win unless you’re really good. Or rather, your entire team, because:
- One bad saboteur can tank the entire team. It’s not as cut-and-dry as Avalon where one burned spy is basically eliminated. If one saboteur decides to fake being a dwarf, suddenly you have effectively one more dwarf and one fewer saboteur. The game isn’t balanced for that.
- Not-quite player elimination is annoying. There are times where your hand is worthless and your tools are broken in such a way that all you can do is discard a card on your turn. It’d honestly be nicer to just be “out” for the round so you can do something else rather than having to go through the motions each turn.
Overall: 7 / 10
You know, I had to go back and recalibrate a couple of my reviews after doing this (Tides of Time, Dragon Slayer, a couple of the Lost Legacy packs, and Tokaido), but I think this is fair. I occasionally turn this down, but in general I think Saboteur is a pretty fun game. I like that it’s a bluffing / deduction game with a construction element (obviously), but I also find it highly accessible.
I think I just wish it were easier to win when you’re a saboteur. Maybe I’m just bad at it.