Review – Vabanque
|Designer||Bruno Faidutti, Leo Colovini|
|Artist||Yolaine Glénisson, Clément Masson, Marcel-André Casasola Merkle|
|Release Date||2001 (new version in 2021)|
Vabanque is a game of bluffing and risk-taking, from a pair of heavy-hitter designers. After 2 decades out of print, the game has returned in a shiny new edition. Let’s see how it holds up today!
Vabanque is themed around casino gambling. This theme is quite abstracted, however; it is integrated about as much as in the game Las Vegas. It is probably fine for most audiences, but folks who take issue with the theme may want to stick to other games.
In Vabanque, 3-6 players are high-stakes gamblers trying to come away from the casino the richest. The goal of the game is to earn the most money in 4 rounds.
The game is played on a ring of circular tiles representing casino tables. Each player receives a token in their color, which begins on a table. Everyone also receives a number of betting chips in denominations of 5, 10, 20, and 50. The 5s are used for betting in the first round, followed by 10s in the second round, 20s in the third, and 50s in the final round. Lastly, everyone receives a set of 3 cards in their color: 1 multiplier card, 1 trap card, and 1 bluff card.
In the first phase of each round, players take turns placing chips at the tables. Once all chips have been placed for the current round, players move on to the card-playing phase. In this phase, players alternate placing cards face-down at tables until all cards have been played. Then, players have the option to move their tokens up to 4 tables clockwise, but they can stay put if they wish.
Finally, players resolve the cards. At any table where there is a player token, all cards are revealed. To resolve a table, players first determine the base value of all the chips there. Then, each multiplier card played increases the value of the table. For example, if the base value was $15, and 2 multipliers had been played, the total value of the table would be $45 ($15 for the base value, plus $15 for the first multiplier and $15 more for the second multiplier).
If a player has no opposing trap cards at their table, they receive the full value. (Multiple players can receive this full payout at the same table; the winnings are not split up.) Otherwise, if there is an opposing trap card, the player who played that card receives the money instead! It is possible for a player to receive a table’s payout multiple times over—each player they trap awards the payout again! The bluff cards have no effect, but they serve to mislead opponents about where trap cards or multipliers might be.
The chips remain on the tables from round to round. (Players take their winnings in the form of paper money.) This means that the stakes increase significantly as the game progresses. At the end of the fourth round, the player with the most money wins!
Vabanque is a very, very light game. It might be barely too complex to call a party game, but it feels like it belongs in that category. The entire game boils down to “how well can you bluff and double-bluff your opponents?” In a sense, it reminds me of Cockroach Poker, another game that is purely about bluffing and trying to read others.
At 20+ years old, Vabanque is starting to show its age. For one thing, it can be quite swingy. A well-placed trap card can be devastating and give someone a huge edge over their opponents. For another thing, since the chips remain on the tables from round to round, the late game matters much more than the early game. In the first round, a table might have $10 or $15 worth of chips on it, but by the last round, that same table could easily be worth $100 or more. This is already a huge differential, but when multipliers are added into the equation, it becomes an even greater spread.
That being said, though, this game is still great fun. As long as players don’t take things too seriously, they will get swept up in the table antics, the cheering and jeering that make this kind of game so enjoyable. (Think Sheriff of Nottingham.)
The production quality of Vabanque is high for being as minimal as it is. The player tokens are large and tactile, and the cards are nicely finished, with clear iconography. It would have been cool if the chips had been actual plastic poker chips, a la Splendor or Brass: Birmingham, but at least the cardboard chips in Vabanque are thick and durable. Overall, it’s a great-looking game with a striking cover.
This game is certainly not for everyone, but fans of bluffing games will likely enjoy it. If you are looking for a game with lots of meta-psychology in a rules-light package, Vabanque might be the game you’re after.
The Bottom Line
Vabanque is not perfect, but it's a lot of fun. Highly recommended for fans of bluffing.