Full disclosure: A review copy of No Swap No Pay! was provided by Mandoo Games.
Another title from Mandoo Games! I still need to review Castello Methoni, now that I think about it. That was a strange one. Maybe I’ll do that one in a few weeks. We’ll see. Either way, Mandoo had an incredible 2019. Kushi Express and Queenz were both just, really solid titles. That wasn’t all they released, though, so that’s why we’re here, talking about No Swap No Pay! now. Let’s dig into this latest title!
In No Swap No Pay!, you play as pirates coming back with the latest haul. It’s time to share the treasure, but you figure you’ll make it a bit more interesting. Everyone knows what coins are available in this haul, and everyone starts with the same amount of treasure. You’ll take coins each round, but then you have to try and swap with other players. If you do this right, you’ll end up with far more treasure than if you had split it equally. The problem is, someone won’t. You’d prefer that someone not be you. You’ll have to keep an eye on the prize if you want to take all that gold home; will you end up with treasure? Or just plundered?
Give each player a Player Aid card with the pirate of their choice:
Now, give each player a bag:
Also, set some coins aside:
Give each player one Gold and one Silver to put in their bag, to start, and then prepare the remaining coins by player count:
- 4 players: 2 Purple Coins, 8 Black Coins, 9 Gold Coins, 9 Silver Coins.
- 5 players: 2 Purple Coins, 11 of all other coins.
Put those coins in the Treasure Bag:
Have each player draw two coins randomly without showing other players and place the coins in their bag. You should be ready to start!
This one’s surprisingly straightforward. Basically, you’re pirates, trading coins and trying to keep the biggest bag of loot for yourself under the pretense of “fair trades”. No fair trades with a pirate, of course. Have the most money at the game’s end, and you win!
The game takes place over a number of rounds (one per player), and each player will go first once. Once every player has been the start player for a round, the game will end. During a round, however, there are three phases worth noting.
The Draft Phase is pretty simple. Draw two coins from the Treasure Bag per player, and lay them on the table. Each player takes one coin, starting with the start player and going clockwise. Then, starting with the player to the start player’s right and going counterclockwise, each player takes one additional coin. It’s a snake draft, if you’re familiar with that term. Place the drafted coins into your bag.
Here’s the interesting part of the game. Now, starting with the Start Player, each player must choose another player and demand that they swap loot bags. The other player may respond one of two ways:
- Agree to Swap: You both swap bags.
- Decline to Swap: The other player must give you one coin randomly drawn from their bag. The other players do not see which coin you were given.
Each player does this until all players have had a chance to pick a player to potentially swap with. Then, move on to the next phase.
During the Donate Phase, players must contribute back to the Treasure Bag for, uh, everyone’s welfare? Pirates are confusing. Every player must take one coin of their choice from their bag and return it to the Treasure Bag in the center without showing the other players. Once everyone has done this, the round ends. Pass the Start Player token to the next player on the left.
End of Game
After the Start Player token is returned to the first player to be Start Player, the game ends. Empty your bags and tally up your scores:
- Gold Coins: 3 points each.
- Silver Coins: 1 point each. If you have 5 Silver Coins, they’re collectively worth 15 points.
- Black Coins: If you have 1 or 2 Black Coins, your entire bag is worthless. Yes, you score 0 points in that case. If you have 3 or more Black Coins, the Black Coins are collectively worth 10 points. Try to be careful.
- Purple Coins: Purple Coins are worthless on their own, but you may choose to count them as a Gold, Silver, or Black Coin.
The player with the most points wins! Any player who scored 0 points just earns the “oof, that’s unfortunate” prize.
Player Count Differences
Not much of one, honestly. There are just a few additional coins added to the game to accommodate the increase in players from four to five. I might recommend being a small bit sneakier, given that there’s now an extra player who potentially has their eyes on your bag. I haven’t noticed many problems changing between the player counts.
For interested parties, there’s also a three-player variant where you play against a secret fourth player, the Ghost of Davy Jones! Why he needs money is unclear, but, hey, he wants your treasure, so you’ll have to play him for it. The game scales appropriately, but the big difference is that Davy Jones always swaps. He also gets coins randomly from the bag instead of drafting / donating, so, gotta watch out for that. And, my favorite dummy player rule is in effect: Davy Jones can still win! If you’re looking to bring this game down to three players, it does work. I will say I prefer the chaos of higher-player count games to three, but, it’s still pretty fun no matter how many players you’ve got at the table.
- Try to keep your opponents’ eyes off your bag. You need to distract them from thinking about how many coins you have by any means necessary. But also, be subtle about it. If they realize you’re trying to keep their focus off your bag, they’ll try to take it, and that’ll make it a lot less valuable.
- Keep an eye on what you’re taking and what your opponents are taking. The one to look for is a player takes another player’s bag and they immediately take it back. That means the player thinks that bag is better than other bags currently available. Might be worth helping yourself to it, if you can.
- You might need to bluff to take the heat off yourself. I usually complain about my bag if I can (depending on the group; sometimes silence is golden or double-bluffing is more appropriate). Other times you’re going to have to look another player in the eyes and just straight-up lie. That way, they might not take your stuff. It doesn’t always work.
- If you have a purple coin, keep it as long as you can. That coin can bail you out of a number of bad situations, especially around black coins. Just make sure you don’t lose it.
- If you get a bad bag (1 or 2 black coins), either get more black coins or donate the stragglers. You should have at least a couple rounds to donate, so, try to get rid of the bad coins or take more black coins in later rounds, if you can. Either way, you should be able to avoid the 0 unless someone tries to swap with you and you make a particularly bad call about trading with them.
- Don’t forget you have to offer to trade your bag with another player. Even if you have the best bag in the game, you have to try to give it away. This is where the bluffing comes in. If you can go after the player who believes they have the best bag, they may just give you a coin and let you be on their way without taking yours. Holding on to your bag as long as you can means that you have information that other players don’t.
- Let the other players fight over the “best bag”, if you think yours is better. No need to wrap yourself up in it if you don’t want to do so. They’ll sort it out among themselves. Do watch to make sure that any of the involved bags aren’t starting to seem more valuable than yours.
- Do not let yourself end up with only one or two black coins. That’s a pretty significant failure case, since, you know, your entire bag ends up being worthless. Try to avoid it.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I appreciate how much of this is just a shell game. Keep your eye on the best bag! But all the bags, they look the same! Your opponents? They’re adding new coins into their bags, too. Can you figure out who has more money than you? It’s amusing, especially for how simple it is. It’s a good player interaction mechanic, as well. Players are forced to talk with each other in a pretty non-destructive way (unless you’re passing someone a trash bag).
- Fun theme, too. I love a good pirate game. It makes sense that you’d be doing some devious bluffing and swapping bags of loot, too, so the whole thing fits pretty well. It’s solid.
- They did a great job making sure all the coins feel exactly the same in the bags. Same size, same weight, different colors. It does a nice job preventing players from gaining additional information, which I really appreciate.
- It’s a great opening game; lots of conversation and player interaction to get players invested. You have to do some talking or the game is just effectively random. If you’re not bluffing, you’re giving players mental space to try and count coins. Unwise! Add some noise to their deductions.
- I love the box art. Jonathan Aucomte did an awesome job with this one! It’s such a nice color.
- I’m somewhat amused by the idea that poor planning can cause you to zero out. If it were a longer game, I wouldn’t like it, but if you’re playing fast and loose enough that you run that risk, I think you kind of deserve what happens. It does make me wonder if it’s possible to play a really deadly strategy where you always have two black coins and then you pawn your garbage off on someone else before the game ends?
- Generally plays quickly. You can be done in 20 minutes if players aren’t agonizing over the choices.
- The box could probably be half the size it is, currently. It’s just holding coins and bags, but it’s the same size as Kushi Express. Seems a bit more than is totally needed, honestly.
- Unless you’re really into bluffing games, this game can feel like you don’t particularly have a lot of agency. If you’re just playing too fast and loose with the game, you’re going to end up with a random bag with random tokens. And you can play that way, if you want to, but it’s definitely not the most fun you’ll have with this title, I don’t think. Try to live your pirate instincts to their fullest and actually connive a bit for best results.
- Players can stall out a bit. This is definitely a game where your brain will want to try to analyze what players are taking and when to try and figure out an Optimal Choice. The problem is, nobody has to tell you any useful information. You don’t know what players are donating back to the bag, and even if you know your bag is the best, you still have to try to give it away. I usually tell people not to overthink it, but they still will, a lot. Just try to snap them out of it.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think No Swap, No Pay is a great game for opening a game night! I’m not sure I’d play it all night long, but it’s a great game to get players talking and lying and ribbing each other as they pass bags around. You learn names that way, you get surprises and betrayals, and it’s all pretty low-key, which I appreciate. The nice thing about these kinds of games is that while it can feel a bit luck-dependent (especially if you’re not engaging in the whole bluffing aspect), it runs quickly enough that half of the time it’s fun just to see who won. I’ve been trying to come up with a variant that includes a person’s name inside of their starter bag, just to see which player ended up with the “best” overall bag (more out of curiosity than anything else). But this has that same sort of whimsy that I expect from a good pirate-themed game. Jamaica, Extraordinary Adventures: Pirates!, Skull King, and Libertalia all do a good job of embodying the “anything can happen” sort of mood, and I think it works well for games where loot and plunder are your primary objectives. Like I said, this is probably the one I’d use to open up a game night; it would be even better if players got really into it (sort of like Dinosaur Tea Party where it’s better if everyone plays with Very Posh Accents, though I’d probably recommend against Posh for this particular gameplay experience). That’s a bit more group-dependent, though. Either way, if you’re looking for a fun and whimsical title for game night, don’t mind a bit of luck, and are willing to risk it all to score big, I’d definitely recommend No Swap, No Pay! I’ve had fun with it.