Banditos, a new and rather under-the-radar game from Baksha games, isn’t going to win any awards for its design. It’s a disorganized, somewhat sloppy game plagued with a badly written and confusing set of rules that fail to convey the relative simplicity of its gameplay. The enormous card deck which drives the game is ridiculously bloated with redundant cards. It’s an amateurish mistake- throwing in the kitchen sink instead of brandishing the editor’s machete. The first third of it tends to be oddly paced and hesitant, with players waiting to fish multiple cards out of that giant deck to really get the game started. There are a couple of errors and the card backs are poorly printed with indistinguishable markings between decks. Banditos, a game about robbing banks, looks like a heist gone wrong at the outset.
I’ve played a lot of games that have robotically precise rules written with the clarity of a diamond. I’ve also played a lot of games that represent the finest in editorial design and production quality. But I’ve not ever played a game that is about crossing the border into Mexico to steal devalued pesos from underprotected banks- in 1982. Nor have I played a game where I can play a card that causes “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest to come on the radio in another player’s car, causing them to speed and risk getting caught by the fuzz. With a completely unique concept and a spirited- if not technically sound- design, Banditos comes across as a game with lots of heart and a strong sense of genuine fun. And that is sometimes more important than watertight, supremely balanced rules writing.
You’ll take on the role of a small time crook- or a partnership of small time crooks. As expected, each has a special rule-altering ability and some start with a vehicle or a weapon. Each also has a base of operations in the US part of the map depicting the American Southwest and the Mexican border towns ripe for the picking. The goal is to get your hands on a set of wheels (all of which are real copyright-infringing cars, trucks, and motorcycles from the period), gas it up, and get armed. Once wheeled and armed, you sortie into Mexico to pull off heists. Then you’ve got to get back to your home base with the stolen Nuevo Pesos to stash them. Get busted with Nuevo Pesos, and you lose them in addition to spending a little time in a Mexican jail. It’s almost, in a sense, like some of the thematic process seen in recent pirate games. It’s just Nuevo Pesos instead of doubloons and a Datsun 280ZX instead of a galleon.
Cars and weapons cost money, and this is one of the places where the game seems to run aground. That big card deck is where all of the “seed money” comes from, you don’t pay for equipment with those pilfered pesos. This means you might be drawing cards for a while until you get the four, five, or six money cards you might need to buy a car. Then you’ve got to pay to fuel up your gas tank. And then you need seed money to buy a gun or a meat cleaver. It can be a complicated, lengthy sequence to tool up and move out- and then someone plays a card that wrecks your car. There’s quite a few “take that” style cards in the deck.
The turn sequence calls for a player to do something illegal first, and one of these actions is actually quite brilliant- and completely necessary, because without it the game would collapse into a literal Mexican standoff. The trick is that a player can steal cards from the discard pile. The top card requires a roll of better than one on a D12, and it’s more difficult by +1 per card below it. So when a player finally buys a car, that money is up for grabs and steal-able from the discard pile. It tends to remain in circulation, and you can keep stealing until you fail a roll. You can also attempt to steal gas in this phase.
The main criminal function is the bank robbery, and the game employs a smart system to track your “heat”. Doing illegal stuff puts heat markers on your character, your car, or the town in which they’re breaking the law. Each heat marker adds to the difficulty of the D12 roll. Certain cards, like Insider Information or distractions, might reduce heat. Others can be played to increase the heat on opponents. Succeed, and you get to draw a couple of Nuevo Peso cards. Fail, and you’re doin’ time.
The remainder of the turn is spent moving from town to town, buying gas, drawing cards, or buying and selling cards. I like that there’s an open economy and that players can freely exchange cards, but it’s also an area where the lack of clarity in the rules is problematic. And I’m not sure why I’d buy a card from someone and then have to pay to put it out, effectively increasing what could be a restrictive cost. It’s another issue where having the seed money in that giant deck bogs the game down.
But when the game is working- and moving- it’s definitely fun to play. The push-your-luck element combined with what is effectively a race to get those Nuevo Pesos back to base can be exciting, and there is lots of pitched interaction and competition. There are some nice details like being able to store a motorcycle in the back of a van, trade-in values for all the cars, and touches like the Madame character who can optionally bring along one of her girls- provided she’s got a two-seat vehicle. The concept and thematic material totally work, even when the mechanics tend to break down.
I’m not sure how concerned I am about the finer points of the design work in a low cost, more or less fun-first game like Banditos, but it is a somewhat frustrating game. More because it seems so easy to fix than because it’s a good idea squandered. The rules are flexible and interpretable enough that modifying them slightly- like giving each player a set amount of seed money or starting them out with a fully gassed-up car and a weapon- would fix some of its more major problems. And throw out half the cards in that damn deck while you’re at it. With a little more development and a second edition, Banditos could be the best game about robbing Mexican banks ever published.