For ages I have been after a card game that meets very specific requirements. It must be small enough to fit in a pocket - no extra pieces or whatnot, meaning I can bust it out when and where. It must have the option to play single-player. And finally, it must be obscure or stylish enough to ensure that when I play it I feel like I'm in on some great smug secret. I appreciate this last point is not endearing.
Anyway, Bandido! Sweet Bandido! Bandido is a lovely compact card game from Helvetiq, which I discovered over half-term. It fits in a very small box and is playable with elegant cards which are all a little thinner than normal playing cards. Hold them in your hand and it's a bit like holding a small cardboard coffin - perfect, it turns out, for such a claustrophobic treat.
Bandido is all about stopping a bandit from escaping prison. You place the bandit card in the centre of the table. This is the bandit's cell, with a series of potential tunnels leading away from it. Once that's in place, you take turns playing cards that slowly build a tunnel network out from that cell. Each player holds three cards and picks another up when they've played one. It's cooperative, which means it works beautifully with a single player.
Yes, you're building tunnels, but your aim is ultimately to cap each of them - to place a flashlight card that creates an end-point for the tunnel, meaning that the bandit cannot use it to escape. The problem is simple: as you place your cards, randomly dealt from the deck, you often end up opening new tunnels and creating new paths for the bandit to use. The game ends when all possible tunnels have been capped, or when there are no more cards. If there are uncapped tunnels on the final map, as it were, the bandit has escaped and you lose.
A few observations. Firstly, Bandido is one of those games that I love - a game where you create something as you play. The maps can sprawl and form very intricate shapes, all of them wonderfully game-like in their maziness. I cannot play a game of Bandido without snapping a picture of the layout afterwards. It's wonderfully creative stuff.
Secondly, Bandido makes me think about cost and opportunity in a cheeringly difficult way. I need to play my cards, and I need to create paths through the cards that line up, but I also don't want to play cards that create more problems than they solve - one path doubled back on itself, great, but with two more potential paths to now worry about. The cards you hold are ripe with dangers, but you're also at the mercy of the board that you have created. I have already started to hate the appearance of certain cards in my hand, and I have already started to avoid creating certain shapes on the board, because they in turn create such problems for later on.
Thirdly, Bandido is so simple and direct that I suspect for a certain kind of player it will become a prompt to do some designing themselves. One thing I've noticed, for example, is that while the cards are compact, you end up needing quite a large playing area because the cards create such rangy shapes. Would there be a way to hack the rules to make the board smaller, perhaps by creating scenarios in which cards can be removed or replaced? And while it's a great cooperative game, do the cards you have at your disposal allow someone to invent a competitive version - one player as the bandit, another as the cops trying to keep the bandit in jail?
I love all this stuff, even if I'll readily admit I am no game designer. What it all adds up to for me is a compact, slightly odd card game that I can play by myself or with others, and that I can also spend time playing in my head - thinking about the way it works, the choices it allows for, and the shapes it can describe - even when I'm doing other things.