Full disclosure: A preview copy of With a Smile & A Gun was provided by Subsurface Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Alright, after this, I think there’s one more Kickstarter that I really need to process before I’m done for a little while. And that’s good! I have a bunch of published titles that I keep wanting to play but they get bumped because of these deadlines. And, I guess, I have new housemates moving in soon, so I need to start prepping the house for them and seeing what I can do about the ever-growing piles of board games that are making themselves known in the house. My throughput on reviewing has plummeted due to not being able to play games with my gaming friends basically at all, so it’s harder to play and subsequently harder to review, but the pace hasn’t lessened much so I need to figure out a temporary solution of some kind. I’ll work on it, but this paragraph is getting away from me. Speaking of games that have recently arrived, let’s try seeing what happens in With A Smile & A Gun!
In With A Smile & A Gun, you’re trying to control the city during the height of Prohibition. Thankfully, you don’t bother yourself with the laws and the law seldom bothers itself with you. A pretty decent arrangement, all things considered. Unfortunately, your big rivals are making a power play to put the city under their thumb once and for all. To you, this is bad for business, bad for your lifestyle, and probably bad for your life. If you’re going to wrest control of the city from them, you’ll need your wits and your weapons in perfect lockstep. Will you be able to show them who this city really belongs to?
Not too involved, but there’s a decent amount to do, here. First, set out the board:
Each player should choose a color and take a player reference card. Choose one player to be the First Player:
The players should take the green or yellow tokens, as well; the blue tokens belong to the police:
Place the Dice Mat near the board, putting the Time Token on the Clock’s 1:
Randomly choose a Shadow Card (the game recommends The Mole for your first game):
Then, randomly choose an Infusion (the game recommends Last Chance for your first game):
Place the Business Cards Monopoly-side down, above the board:
Set aside the Solo Tokens so that you don’t put them in the bag by mistake, like I did:
Add the Control Tokens to the bag and mix them up:
And set aside the dice:
Finish up by placing the Boss Meeples and the Shadow on the “0” spot on the game board:
You should be ready to start!
A game of With A Smile & A Gun takes place over three rounds, where each round is largely the same set of actions. I’ll walk through those now.
To start a round, either player may roll the 13 dice. Once you’ve done that, move them aside to create a communal dice pool for both players to draw from. Now, build the city. Draw Control Tokens from the bag and place them on districts with empty spaces, and then add Police Influence tokens to the spot equal to the number of blue squares on each token drawn.
At this point, whoever has the most Control Tokens claimed becomes first player; if there’s a tie, it just switches players.
Each player now takes three turns of taking two dice each (one die will be left over). When you choose a die, you use it to either Move or Act:
- Movement: Move your meeple clockwise around the board one space per pip on the chosen movement die. When you ultimately stop, look at the three districts in your row / column. Place three of your influence cubes on the closest district to you, then two on the second closest in that row / column, and then place one cube on the farthest district from you.
- Action: You may now use your action die to perform one action. You may perform the action corresponding to your die’s value or any value lower than the die you chose.
- 1: Add one Police Influence cube to any district.
- 2 / 3: Move one of your Influence cubes to any district from any district that has one or more of your Influence cubes.
- 4 / 5: Remove any one Influence cube from the board.
- 6: Add one of your Influence cubes to two adjacent districts.
You should finish this phase with one die remaining.
Move The Shadow
With the remaining die, the Shadow moves that many spaces and then performs its action, if relevant.
Check for Heat
Now, check the dice each player used for their Actions. Sum their values. If one player has a lower score than the other, that player may add 2 Police Influence cubes or one of their Influence cubes to any one of the nine Districts in the city. If there’s a tie, nobody gets the benefit.
Finish resolving the round, now! For each district, determine who has the most cubes:
- The player with the most Influence Cubes (including the Police!) takes a Control Token of their choice. Police follow a specific ordering (Hats -> Gambling -> Weapons -> Drugs -> Infusion). If there’s a tie, do not resolve this District. Everything stays put until next round.
- The player with the second-most cubes in the District gets their pick of the remaining tokens. If there’s a tie for second-most, discard all remaining tokens. Nobody gets anything.
- When resolving the Central District, since there are three tokens, the player with the third-most cubes can take the final Control Token. You must have at least one cube in the Central District to qualify, though.
Once a district scores, put all the cubes on that district back in the players’ (and the Police’s) supplies.
End of Game
The game ends after three rounds! Tally up scores, and also check majority control for Businesses. If you have more tokens for that Business than your opponent, take the card and score that many additional points. If your opponent has none of those tokens, you’ve claimed a Monopoly! Flip the card over and score double. This counts even if the Police have taken tokens if that type.
Finally, add in any bonuses from the Shadow or Infusions, if relevant. The player with the most points wins!
The solo game plays pretty similarly, but your opponent picks dice via a heuristic. If they can get to the same space as you via a Movement Die, they will always take that one. If not, they pick the lower of the two numbers that gets them closest to you (if it’s available). If not, they just pick the one that gets them closest to you. The problem is, they place 4 / 3 / 2 dice (rather than 3 / 2 / 1) when they move, so you don’t want them to end up on the same space as you!
They take action dice like so:
- Always take a 6, if available.
- Among the remaining dice, if there is only 1 die of a particular value, take that. If there’s a tie, take the lowest value of the singles.
- Otherwise, take the lowest available die.
Also, at the end of their turn, they take the lowest die in the pool, reroll it, and return it to the pool.
At the end of the round, if their Action Dice total is lower than yours, they gain a 3-point Solo Token. The game plays normally otherwise, but you always go first.
If you can beat their score, you win!
Player Count Differences
It is mostly a two-player game, but I did get a chance to try the solo mode, and I thought it was surprisingly good! It’s a lot more of a puzzle than the two-player mode is (since the latter is more of a tug-of-war). You’re a bit outmatched by the solo AI opponent, since they want to always be on the same space as you and they place one more cube than you do on each spot. This means that if they just follow you the whole round, they’ll always win. That said, it also means that their heuristic can be manipulated to your advantage. Hence why it’s a bit more of a puzzle than the other version. I like the puzzle quite a bit, though, so it works out. I’d be interested to play this a bit more solo, but it seems like it would benefit from some kind of Tabletop Simulator mode that scripts out most of the opponent player functionality for you to save time. Either way, I think that it does a nice job on the puzzley solo side and it’s fun on the tug-of-war two player area control side, so I’d happily play it at either player count.
- Don’t forget about those businesses. I think this is pretty critical, honestly. You can go after point tokens as much as you want, but if you let your opponent get two monopolies you’ve been slacking in a bad way. There’s no way to really stop them from getting at least a few point tokens, and you risk giving them huge gains by letting them get to monopolies.
- Similarly, though, don’t let your opponent take too many high-value hats just because you want the businesses! There are a number of high-value point tokens that you should endeavor to at-least-split with your opponent, if not mostly get for yourself. You kinda have to watch both ends of this if you want to come out ahead. I try to pressure my opponent towards Districts with 2- or 3-point tokens. They can have a bunch of those. If you can’t keep your opponent locked out, try to leverage the Police; they go after hat tokens first.
- Is it better to have the Shadow near you or far from you? Make sure you decide before that final draft. This depends a lot on what the Shadow’s ability is, for sure, but keeping an eye on their abilities and making sure you know what benefits you is pretty critical. I’ve seen a player lose 10 points to the Shadow because they weren’t paying attention to where The Historian was ending up (it rewards players if it stops on Districts where they have cubes).
- Most players are going to take the early 6s for the extra Influence cube placement. It’s just good to get as many cubes on the board as possible, so players will likely go for it. Besides, it’s not worth vacating them to your opponent just because you’ll get an extra cube placement down the line. You may gain one district (and possibly a critical one), but how many will your opponent gain as a result? Consider the consequences.
- Remember that the cops always go after hats first. This is a great way to mess with your opponent, as I mentioned first, and it’s also useful if you can’t beat the Police in a District. If they’re going to take the 2-point hat and leave you an Infusion or a Gambling joint, well, that’s their bad, I suppose. Take advantage of that to predict where you need to invest more influence.
- Sometimes you don’t need to beat your opponent; you just need to make sure that they tie either you or the cops. I do this a lot to prevent an opponent from scoring; if they tie, they get nothing, which can be super helpful if you can’t be bothered to invest enough to oust them completely. Just beware: the same strategy can work against you.
- If you can force your opponent to tie with the cops for second place, they get no tokens and they lose the ones they’ve already placed. This is the best tie since it completely wipes out the progress they’ve been making for the entire round, which is fun. They won’t lose that many cubes (generally), since there’s already a bunch there, but it’s still nice to see your opponent get nothing for their hard work.
- In the solo game, remember that your opponent wants to follow you. That means that you can potentially pull them towards non-optimal spots. I did this a lot to win the solo game. If you’ve got 5+ cubes in a spot, bringing your opponent to follow behind you means they’re following you but still aren’t going to be able to take that spot. You can also use it to bait them into disadvantageous plays, like going after low-value Districts. They’re following a heuristic; that doesn’t make them intelligent.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Noir is fun! Especially vaguely fantastic Noir? It’s a mysterious Prohibition-style era struggle between some shadowy groups and I think it’s awesome! I also really like how it plays with black and white with the occasional splash of color, even if it is a huge pain to photograph.
- I’m actually not a big fan of either area control or tug-of-war, but this plays pretty nicely. I think, for me, the reason I like it is that the decisions don’t have a ton of long-term consequences (beyond losing a game, I suppose), and they can be made pretty quickly without having to make a lot of additional considerations (because there are constraints on where you can move based on what dice are available). There’s still a lot of room for variability, but, within the game’s framework it’s a lot easier to play than many other area control games I’ve played in the past.
- I like the variability of Shadows and Infusions. The differences in Shadows do pretty drastically change the game, given that some are good and others are bad, but they also are good or bad depending on if you want them close to you or far away from you. This really affects what dice you want to leave at the end of a round, which can change up your moves a fair bit. Infusions also have a decent amount of volatility to them, but, I’ve definitely ignored them in a game or two without major consequences.
- I also like how unfriendly ties are. It’s good for a two-player tug-of-war game, but since you have that third faction in the game you can often develop that to your advantage to really mess up your opponent. You’ll have to if you want to win, but I think it was a smart bit of design.
- Dice drafting is also a fun mechanic, especially since the dice are used for two different things. I generally like drafting, but I think the dice drafting here is really nice because it mildly penalizes you for taking the “best dice” all the time and your movement is limited so players have a smaller decision space on their turns, which drastically speeds up the game. I’m always happier with decisions made to decrease the mental burden on players.
- Plays pretty quickly, which is nice, as well. Like I said, limiting decisions and not giving players too many options helps move the game along. The nice thing about drafting is that as the outcomes get more complex, you generally have fewer decisions to make, so it never takes too long (unless you’re doing something like Sagrada where your state lasts the entire game, so mid-game turns can be pretty lengthy).
- I really like the puzzle of the solo game. I think that it’s very well-made, personally. It has similar vibes to the two-player game, but fundamentally, the strategy you have to use to manipulate where your rivals end up in the solo game is different enough that it challenges me in a new way. I like that it’s two different-feeling games in the same system, and I think that it does very well.
- Long-term, I hope they come up with something that isn’t cubes for control tokens. It’s fine, it’s just very plain. The game does a pretty good job with theme in general, though, so I’m assuming this is just a “preview copy” thing. I’m excited to see what the final game looks like.
- I’d also like the Solo Tokens to be something different than the standard Control Tokens; I threw them into the bag when I first got them and sorting them out took a while. This was 100% my bad, but, to be fair to me, they also arrived mixed with the Control Tokens, so, it took even longer to sift through. They have nothing in common, so making them a different style / shape / texture / whatever will accelerate setup, too.
- It might be useful to have some level of inset to the board; I accidentally smacked some cubes a few times and it’s hard to recreate game state if you’re playing with a klutz like me. I generally dislike placing a lot of tokens on a board in general, just because this sort of thing always happens. Having inset spots for tokens, cubes, or even just making the actual city squares inset can reduce a lot of friction when the game is being played, though I acknowledge it adds to the game’s expense.
- Sometimes you have to really just put the screws in your opponent to win, which may not be fun for all players (if you’re not into that sort of thing). Personally, I find that it’s a bit less intense of take-that than other games I’ve played, and in a two-player area control game I do kind of expect that sort of thing. In this one, you can do more indirect attacks (by propping up the police to match your opponent), which I think makes the sting of the take-that less, but it is still take-that.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I’ve had quite a bit of fun with With A Smile & A Gun! That sentence does not roll off the tongue well, but, it’s written, so we’re gonna stick with it. It’s a fun noir-y game that doesn’t take itself too seriously but still manages to catch what makes that theme fun: you’re doing some skullduggery, you have to behave mysteriously, and you’re never quite sure if luck is on your side or if the game itself is going to betray you. And I think that rocks. I think, naturally, some of my pain points are just experiences with the preview copy of the game, but I’m gonna be really excited to see what this game looks like when it comes out! Hopefully I get a bit more stable by then so I’m not knocking pieces all over again. I will say if you’re looking for a game with zero take-that, this is a two-player area control / tug-of-war game, so, mechanically, you’re going to be pretty intensely disappointed. But, as someone who’s not a huge fan of that genre, I will say I enjoyed this one more than other ones I’ve played in the past! Maybe part of it is the theme; I do have a soft spot for noir. Either way, if you’re looking for less take-that, the solo mode does a nice job reframing it as a puzzle that you need to solve to thwart your rival gangs, which is nice. Beyond that, Shadows and Infusions do a good job of changing my strategy from game to game, which also makes the whole thing feel fresh. If that sounds appealing to you, you’re a big fan of noir, or you just want to make a name for yourself on the mean streets, I would recommend trying out With A Smile & A Gun! I think it’s solidly fun.