Full disclosure: A review copy of Most Wanted was provided by North Star Games.
Alright, let’s check out some more games from Gen Con; this time it’s Most Wanted, from North Star Games! I’m … gradually making progress on these, but I’m also pretty sure I’m going to be reviewing games from Gen Con in some capacity or another until the end of the year, so that’s exciting. Here’s another one.
In Most Wanted, well, you want to be that. Saddle up, get your gun, and quickly refresh yourselves on the basic rules of poker hand scoring and valuation, because we’re about to head to the Wild, Wild West. Will you be able to prove that you are both a desperado and a rough rider?
I’ll describe two different setups. First, set out the board:
Set out the Robbery Cards, light-side up:
You’ll also want to set out the Action Cards:
For even more wild fun, once you’ve gotten used to the game, you can flip the Action cards over for alternate Actions:
Give every player a character of some kind and their corresponding sheet:
The characters start below the first space of the board (they’re not on the board at all). Set out the money (players start with … 0):
Shuffle the cards and deal out 5 to each player:
You’re all ready to start!
So, the object of the game is to become the Most Wanted (helpfully, also the name, so if you’re ever talking about the game you won’t forget the core objective). To do so, you’re going to have to, well, do some mildly unscrupulous things so that your notoriety in town rises. Currently, nobody’s ever heard of you, so that’s not great. Get involved in robberies, duels, and the occasional shootout, but still make time for the church, maybe a drink at the saloon, or some honest / dishonest labor; up to you.
On your turn, you will choose one of any of the actions available. For your convenience, I’ll describe them all below:
- Pony Express: Robbery. Best two-card hand wins 2 points; all others pay Bail.
- Stagecoach: Robbery. Best three-card hand wins 3 points; all others pay Bail.
- Train: Robbery. Best four-card hand wins 4 points; all others pay Bail.
- Honest Labor: Discard any number of cards in your hand that are the same color. Gain two money for each card you discarded.
- Dishonest Labor: Discard any number of cards from your hand, face-down, that are the same color. You may lie about this. If any other players want, they may challenge you. If you were lying, they split the money you would have gotten between them, evenly. If you were not lying, they lose their next turn. Harsh, but fair.
- Church: Discard as many cards as you want, and then draw back up to 7 cards, rather than the usual limit of 5.
- Saloon: Pay 1 money. Discard as many cards as you want, and then draw back up to 8 cards, rather than the usual limit of 5.
- Duel: Choose a player; they must participate. Choose either 1 or 2 cards, and then best hand of that size wins. The loser pays bail and the winner gains points equal to the loser’s bail.
- Shootout: Choose any number of players; they all must participate. Choose either 1, 2, or 3 cards, and then best hand of that size wins 2 points. All others pay bail.
There are a couple terms that are a bit confusing to non-poker players, there, so let’s talk about them first. What does it mean to have the “best hand”, other than being a complex hand model that appears in one scene of Zoolander?
Well, in poker, typically you play a 5 card hand with values from 2 to Ace. In Most Wanted, the card space is constrained a bit (it only goes 6-7-8-9-10-Jack-Queen-King-Ace). There are also four suits: diamonds (blue), hearts (red), clubs (green), and spades (black), and that occasionally matters. I’ll use suit and color interchangeably in this review, since they’re double-coded. The following is a rough ordering of the hand’s quality, from worst to best:
- High card (worst): Among hands with high card, the hand with the highest single card wins.
- Pair: This is having a hand with two cards of the same value (they do not need to be the same suit). This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a pair, the hand with the highest pair wins.
- Two Pair: This is having a hand with two different pairs of cards (if they’re the same, this is a four-of-a-kind). This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a pair, the hand with the highest pair wins.
- Three-of-a-kind: This is having a hand with three cards of the same value (they do not need to be the same suit). This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a three-of-a-kind, the hand with the highest three-of-a-kind wins.
- Straight: This is having 5 cards in sequential order with no missing cards. So, for instance, 8-9-10-Jack-Queen is a straight. If all of the cards are the same color, this is a Straight Flush, which is even better. This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a straight, the hand with the highest straight wins. The highest straight is just the highest starting number. Note that this doesn’t wrap around, so Jack-Queen-King-Ace-6 is not a valid straight.
- Flush: This is having 5 cards of the same suit / color, in your hand. This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a flush, the hand with the highest flush wins.
- Full House: This is having both a pair and a three-of-a-kind in your hand. They cannot be the same value; otherwise you have a five of a kind. This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a full house, the hand with the highest full house wins.
- Four-of-a-kind: This is having a hand with four cards of the same value (they do not need to be the same suit). This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a four-of-a-kind, the hand with the highest four-of-a-kind wins.
- Five-of-a-kind: This is having a hand with five cards of the same value (they do not need to be the same suit). Generally, this is impossible in poker, as there are only four suits, but Most Wanted uses multiple cards of each suit, so it’s possible (if you were ever to play a 5 card hand, which sounds ridiculous). This beats every hand above it in this list, and among hands with a five-of-a-kind, the hand with the highest five-of-a-kind wins.
- Straight Flush: This is a straight where all five cards are the same color. In poker, a straight of 10-Jack-Queen-King-Ace where all cards are the same color is considered a Royal Flush, and is the single best hand in the game.
- Double Crosser! (best): This is kind of an anomaly for Most Wanted. Generally, a very good hand is all Aces. However, if, during any of these actions, a player plays a hand of all Aces and another player plays a hand of all 6s, the player with all 6s is the Double Crosser, and their hand beats everything, even if the Aces weren’t going to win! (A Straight Flush beats 5 Aces, but Double Crosser beats a Straight Flush, for instance.)
Some of these are impossible, since as far as I know you can only play a four-card hand on the Train, but it’s good to know these things in case new locales become available to you in the future, hypothetically. The only things you’ll need for now are High Card, Pair, Two-Pair, Three-of-a-Kind, Four-of-a-Kind, and Double Crosser!.
We covered that bit, so let’s talk Bail. If you look at the board, you’ll see the Most Wanted space, and spaces labelled 3, 2, and 1. Those labels are your Bail. If you lose certain actions with the “guy in jail icon” on them, you’ll have to pay that much money back to the supply. If you don’t have that money, you move down one space on the board equal to the money you cannot pay. Note that since you start off the board, your starting bail is 0; you just get off with a warning. As a result, your current money status is public information. You cannot and should not hide your money from other players.
If there is a tie for the best hand, all tied players will play 1 card from their remaining cards to determine the winner. This may mean that you run out of cards, in which case you draw the top card of the deck. As you might guess, best card wins, but you can Double Cross (a 6 beats everything if a 6 and an Ace are played).
After every action, all players who have played cards should draw back up to 5 cards in hand. If you already have five or more cards, as you might guess, you do not draw any more cards.
Eventually, you will run out of cards in the deck. When this happens and a player needs to draw a card, shuffle the Discard Pile to form a new draw deck. Also, flip the lowest-valued light Robbery Card over to its dark side. Now, it’s worth more points! That’s always fun.
Play continues until a player reaches the Most Wanted space; they immediately win!
Player Count Differences
The only major one is that at two players, you play against the Sheriff. The Sheriff only participates in Robberies, but they have special rules:
- Draw twice as many cards as the Robbery’s hand limit. For the Stagecoach, the Sheriff draws 6 cards.
- Form the best hand possible from the cards available. Note that this means if you have three 7s and three 6s for a three-card hand, you’ll play the three 7s, even if one of the two players has played all Aces. The Sheriff will not play a Double Crosser unless that happens to be their best hand.
- If no player beats the Sheriff, both players pay bail. That’s how it goes, sometimes. Can’t outrun the law.
Beyond that, play as normal at two players.
At higher player counts, you may want to create Action card sequences that incentivize faster play, otherwise you’ll get mired in the classic swamp of too many players that don’t want to lose slowing the game down to try to win. I have a slight preference for this game at 2 – 5ish, but with the right setup it’s pretty solid at high player counts, as well.
- It’s not a bad idea to have some money. Especially at higher points, you’d kind of want to have at least 6 money in case someone decides to try and Duel you out of your place. You’d really rather not lose a ton of points when you’re so close to the win.
- Watch out for those Robbery point-value increases. You might not see someone as a threat, but when they can score 5 points (instead of 4) on a Train Robbery, they might suddenly be able to win the game.
- Not always the best idea to get out in front immediately. A lot of people like to gun for the player out front. I find it’s often better to let someone else take that honor.
- Stockpiling cards can only get you so far. You eventually need to play something and you kind of can’t … draw back up when you’re at more than 5 cards, so having too many extras (especially if they’re not good) won’t really help.
- It’s almost never worth it to bluff on your turn for a Robbery. Nobody’s just gonna let you have it with High Card, in my experience; someone will play something if for no reason beyond messing with you.
- It’s a good idea to Duel players at high Bail when you’re at low Bail. Not only do they stand to lose more, you stand to gain more, and even if you lose, if you’re at 0, they gain nothing. So, that’s fun.
- Shootouts at high player counts (especially one-card shootouts) really benefit the player with a King and a 6. If even one person plays an Ace, you win with a 6, and then if multiple people play 6s, you go to a tiebreaker where you can drop the King. I’ve seen someone pull the terrifying 6 – 6 – King combo before, relying on the other 6-players to have an Ace up their sleeve. It pays off, occasionally, but it’s high risk.
- If you’re at 0 Bail, you should just kinda … go for things. Worst case, you lose, and you cycle some bad cards out of your hand (or lose some good cards). I usually participate in most Robberies when I’m at 0 Bail, especially if I have even a halfway-decent hand.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This game is super tightly designed. There’s a lot to like, here, in my opinion. You’ve got out-of-turn play, so players are highly incentivized to pay attention and stay invested between turn, which is great. Reducing the range of cards in the deck while increasing their number means that you’ve got a lot more contention for high-valued hands (and a smaller decision space), which is great. You’ve got mechanics that gradually speed up the game (Robbery cards become more valuable after the deck is shuffled), which accelerates the game towards its conclusion, which is great. You’ve even managed to integrate a take-that mechanic into a system where it has little consequence, so it doesn’t frustrate players who are the victim, as much (and it’s unlikely that any player would remain a target for very long). That’s just all very nice, and I appreciate the attention to detail put into this game. It comes off very well.
- The variable setups are awesome. The cards are double-sided (and there are some extras, as well), so you can play many different types of games in the system, all with their own strategies and complex interactions. Some cards I like better than others (Honest Labor >>> Dishonest Labor, for instance), but they’re all pretty interesting. I hear the bottom of the back of the rulebook hints at even more suggested setups, if you know where to look…
- Lots of good puns in the character names. Sister Chuck is a great character, and my usual mainstay.
- The game is pretty simple. The only real barrier is that you kinda need to understand poker scoring (not the rules of poker, themselves) to really do well, but you can kinda teach that quickly…ish.
- Duels and Shootouts are both ridiculous. I particularly enjoy 1-card Shootouts with the entire table (players all play a card; highest card wins, unless it’s an Ace and someone played a 6, in which case, 6 wins) because it’s just a giant game of chicken. Would recommend.
- It is kind of an aggressive trope that all Wild West games must have some kind of poker theme to them. I’m sure they had other hobbies, but, most games I’ve played set in this time period are rife with poker as a major game mechanic. It’s not bad, just, fine.
- At high player counts, if you knock yourself out on Dishonest Labor (by accusing someone of bluffing when they’re not), you … might as well always accuse on Dishonest Labor, since it’s likely the only way you’ll be able to get money ever again. Losing a turn in an 8-player game is a pretty hefty price to pay, especially if it compounds for you. While there’s a lesson in there about aggressively calling out other players, it’s also kind of unfortunate for the player. Only mildly, though, since you can still participate in most activities when it’s not your turn.
- Box is a bit large for the game. You could probably package the game in a much smaller box with no issues; almost makes you want to pull out the insert and see how much extra space there is. The insert’s rather nice, though, so this is just a meh, for me.
- Some of the alternate configurations can really delay the game at higher player counts. Playing the game with any risk-averse group can cause a number of rounds where players are just taking money to try and head off future tragedy, which, while a fair play, just kind of makes the game take longer. The game’s meant to be a fast / light party game, and if every player bunkers down then you run into the same problem that BANG! (the card game, not the much-faster dice game) frequently has. Thankfully, this occurs much less frequently than in BANG, and almost never at lower player counts.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, Most Wanted is a hoot! I don’t play a lot of party games (for a variety of reasons), but this is one that I’d definitely recommend. I think it feels particularly smartly-designed, to me, as it has a lot of things that are consistent with things I like to see in games. It’s got modular and variable setups, it’s got a lot of ability to accelerate the game as the game goes on, and it has something that I really like seeing more of, these days, which are mechanics to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn. My favorite of these in recent memory is SPQF‘s following mechanic, but I think it’s quite good here, too. And normally while folks will decry a dummy player, I think the Sheriff is actually really good at two? I think it’s a solid addition. If you can get past the poker mechanic (which is a smidge tired, but that’s hardly their fault), then I think you’ll hopefully find that Most Wanted’s a pretty great party game. I’m thinking it might be my go-to game for gift giving later this year. Anyways, I’d again, definitely recommend it, so if it sounds like something you’d be into, give it a shot!