Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Ever since I returned to tabletop gaming and picked up Race for the Galaxy (Rio Grande) in 2008, I've been intrigued by iconography in games; in my experience, nothing has come close to the sheer bewildering insanity that you encounter when first playing RftG (or, indeed, when you pick it up again after a time away). Caper from Jumbo Games and Keymaster gives it a run for its money in this regard but ultimately is more comprehensible, even if you might be bamboozled in the short run.
Caper is a two player game with variant rules for three or four. It's designed by Unai Rubio, with art by Josh Emrich. Mechanically, it is an area control game combined with elements of set collection and 'take that', all brought together by card drafting over six quickfire rounds. Thematically, players are criminal Masterminds assembling teams of top-flight thieves to amass 'Capers' (the influence/control reckoner), snaffle Stolen Goods and grab their unfair share of Points. The art and design throughout is excellent, evoking a humorous 1960s heist feel and imbuing the many personae and gadgets in the game with character. Those pesky icons are actually well represented, but as almost every card has a unique one, you'll find you're doing a lot of cross-referencing while you learn them.
Players alternate drafting Thieves and Gear over six rounds, meaning the first player is always first to draft a Thief and the second, Gear. Importantly, chosen cards are revealed immediately, meaning players can respond while bearing in mind what cards they'll be selecting from on their next turn. Each of three Locations has room for three Thieves per side, but with only six Thieves drafted, that means the decision to spread 2-2-2, 3-2-1, or even 3-3-0 is key. Similarly, each Thief employs up to three items of Gear, which yield special actions, Coins, Capers, Points, and colours/Stolen Goods icons which are used for those all important sets. Reading and reacting to your opponent while still setting yourself up for scoring may not be an innovative experience in a two-player game but it is done well in Caper.
Among the actions in the game are several 'take that' cards which are quite debilitating, bringing an aspect of denial reminiscent of Water decks in Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast) and messing with players' stuff in a potentially contentious way. More common cards with Coins also present an opportunity for direct interaction as, when the supply runs out, gains are ill-gotten from the other player, again causing strife in a good or bad way depending on your inclination. All the actions are shown in the multilingual rulebook and 'Caper' Catalogue: they may well befuddle you at first but, once interpreted, make sense later.
Over the course of the game, players' initially flexible plans become more fixed and, as options decline, those early decisions really tell. Final tallies comprise swingy Location bonuses, Points, and card sets for both colours and Stolen Goods. The last can be highly rewarding, potentially outscoring the preceding three categories combined if a player isn't paying attention on that front, though those cards tend to do little during play.
Each game uses all the cards, so, while Caper could be subject to perfect information analysis, there are three extra sets of cards added to inject variety which are used exclusively in London, Paris and Rome. These bring more character to each game as Paris emphasises sets, Rome changeability and London a distinct lack of cash. The three-player variant introduces the 'Snitch' player who plays the two Masterminds against each other (an appropriate role for my 9 year-old son!), winning if their scores are very close; while the four-player game brings in two Lookouts for partnership play in an unusual AABB turn order.
Overall, Caper pulls off what it sets out to do: to be a stylish and clever two-player game which ditches hand management for a combination of drafting, planning and yomi. The idiosyncratic icons don't exactly melt away once you learn them but it's worth bearing in mind that they are much less of a hindrance the more you play. If you're after a two-player game with direct oppositional play that digs a little deeper than Lost Cities (Kosmos) or tastes meatier than Pinata (Rio Grande), you could nab a hidden gem with the most accomplished Caper: just make sure those involved don't mind a crooked finger poking into their business from time to time.
(Review by David Fox)