“Extradition doesn’t mean anything unless you can catch him.” Fighting A Very Personal War on Drugs. CMON Games ‘Narcos’ Board Game Review.
Narcos: The Board Game. Publisher: CMON Limited. Designers: Fel Barros, Renato Silva Sasdelli. Price $54.99
Passed inspection: High quality components. Well laid out rules. Captures the feel of the Narcos television show and the events that inspired it. Requires cooperative actions and deductive skills.
Failed basic: Place name errors on the map suggest a lack of quality control and familiarity with the subject matter.
“Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor city, in a poor country, and by the time you were 28 years old, you have so much money you can’t even count it. What do you do? You make your dreams come true.” – Steve Murphy, DEA
In 2015 Netflix rolled out an ambitious television series telling the story of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar. Eschewing a simple portrait of a vicious, drug dealer bent on achieving power at all costs, Narcos provided a more nuanced view of the man, his confederates and those who stood in opposition to his goals. Part quasi-documentary and part telenovela, Narcos offered an in-depth view into the recent history of Columbia through the lens of the United States war on drugs.
Now, CMON games brings this experience to the tabletop in Narcos: The Board Game. The game consists of a sturdy cardboard box, a mounted map board, control dashboards for the players, injection molded plastic figures of the player characters, a number of cardboard counters, assorted cards, tokens, and a rule book.
The control dashboards, while not directly a part of the game board do a nice job assisting with play. El Patron can use his to drive the game turn and organize his Sicarios (minions) and his objectives. The hunter’s dashboard evokes a police detectives white board with clues and known information displayed.
The plastic miniatures are good likenesses of the characters from the show. You get many of the heroes and villains depicted across the three seasons of the television show. While the pieces are un-painted, a talented miniatures painter could certainly bring these to life.
The cardboard counters are cut from a thick, heavy duty cardboard and represent things such as money, roadblocks and area control, the ‘hit points’ of the Sicarios and other assorted status markers. It’s use for the money is inspired as the thick cardboard pieces convey the sense of thick stacks of dollars collected as profits from the drug trade.
The cards are used to depict the individual characters of each faction. The Sicario characters often have special traits and attributes that come into play when activated. The hunters are a bit more mundane, instead relying on their extensive toolkit of actions to achieve their goals. There are smaller sub-decks of cards that convey special actions such as subverting some of the hunters for a time or allowing the hunters to implement one-time special actions.
The plastic tokens – simple white cubes – represent stocks of drugs awaiting delivery to the distribution network or tokens that can be used to help track the search for El Patron. While the cubes are abstract, they pieces do evoke the bricks of narcotics to be smuggled north.
The rules are well laid out. As is the modern printing style, there is a heavy reliance on graphics to help sell the mood and theme of the game. The artwork is good but is neither straight screen captures from the television show nor simple sketches of the participants. Much of the artwork almost appears in for format of oil painting which has the feel of the ‘realism’ school while it conveys an emotional subtext. In a way the artwork also captures the setting of the game in the 1980’s.
Game play will be familiar to players of other cooperative play titles such as ‘Shark Island’, ‘Junta’ and to a lesser degree ‘Pandemic’. Shark Island is an apt comparison, if you think of the role of shark as being played by El Patron. The player controlling El Patron drives the game play towards securing either the adulation of the Colombian people or amassing a position strong enough to deter the other players from dethroning his empire.
Each turn, which the game refers to as a ‘season’ (as in, a television season) has El Patron reveal the objective for the season and start play by activating one of his Sicarios in pursuit of that goal. Play continues in an alternating fashion between the hunters and El Patron until all the hunters have taken a set of actions and El patron has taken four actions.
The game play for the hunters is dynamic. They can select from a roster of actions that focus on either eliminating El Patron’s industrial base of drug labs or engaging in intelligence gathering activities in an attempt to narrow the possible places El Patron might be hiding. El Patron contributes to this as well as his Sicarios must be placed within their range of El Patron’s hidden location. With each activation, El Patron gives the hunters another clue to his location. It’s a clever way of modeling the combined efforts of human intelligence and signals intelligence sources into simple mechanics that drive an outcome.
Once the players think they have fixed El Patron’s location, they can shift their efforts to apprehending him. This is somewhat like an educated guesswork version of ‘Battleship’. You have an idea where El Patron might be and you can call out a random location. If you pick the right location – you’ve captured him! But El Patron is wily and has many friends in the government. Modeling the historical events that the game aims to replicate, just capturing El Patron once won’t be enough. He can burn what is essentially a get out of jail free card thus forcing you to hunt him down a second time to achieve victory.
The last actions in a turn has the players determine if objective cards have been met and then you measure El Patron’s renown with the people (which is saying, did El Patron win the game?). If not, El Patron may be relocated to a new secret hiding space and move to the next season of the game. The hunt begins again.
‘Narcos: The Board Game’ does a good job of capturing the core conflict of the television series, and by extension the historical events surrounding the legend of Pablo Escobar. I continue to believe that an important role in historical table top games is to impart a sense of the historical and personalities involved in the events being portrayed. Narcos delivers that. Patron has a plan – achieve the full support of the Colombian people and win the Presidency, or achieve enough objectives to make the Medellin cartel secure in their dominance of the drug trade. Arrayed against him are a collection of enemies united in their goal to bring down El Patron.
The structure of the hunters in the game appears to be modeled on balance theory, best expressed as the enemies of one’s enemies tend to become your friends. In this case, the diverse coalition of rival cartels, police and the US DEA combine to form a fragile alliance united around thwarting Pablo Escobar’s efforts to consolidate his power.
The game turn structure works well. The hunters need to coordinate their actions based on the available intelligence and the geographic distribution of their pieces (i.e. their key characters). The wild card here is the specific set of action cards available during each faction’s game turn. A series of low value action cards may prevent the hunters from performing much in the way of meaningful actions. It’s a nice way of modeling the friction that exists from El Patron’s popular support, bureaucratic inertia and the systemic corruption that the hunters need to work to overcome. A lucky draw of a high value card was that one lucky lead you needed to break the case wide open.
With all the game has going for it, there are still a few things that missed the mark. First off are a pair of place name errors on the map. The locations of Cartagena and Barranquilla are reversed on the map. Both have similar attributes, but it suggests poor quality control and/or a lack of familiarity with the subject matter.
While the rule book relies on graphics of its characters and famous quotes to help set the theme and mood for the game, it has the effect of driving up the page count. Unfortunately, while it may help with the mood, this does not add direct functional value to the game in the process. Omitting these would have resulted in a shorter, more functional book, or allowed for comprehensive, illustrated examples of play to be included, especially for some of the special rules.
The focus on the hunt for El Patron marginalizes some aspects of the actual historical events and the events depicted in the television series. Most of the supporting cast of female characters have been omitted from the game. Mostly this comes down to the game’s focus on the hunt for El Patron, but aspects of the characters home and personal lives did play a role in the outcome of events and it would have been nice to see an opportunity to include more of the various female participants in the game.
The cooperative play aspects of the game masks some of the deeper and ever-present geo-political conflicts between the various hunter factions. Lost in translation are the struggles between the government and the FARC, the ELN and the government aligned AUC narco-militias. It would be nice if the game captured more of this tension and conflict between the hunters. Just because they were united in their opposition to Escobar does not mean they’d cooperate in other areas. As a counter point, you get a feel for this kind of ‘the enemy of my enemy may not be my friend’ tension with GMT Games ‘Andean Abyss’. As it stands Narcos feels like it takes place in a socio-historical vacuum that insulates it from the context of its times or the fallout of the legacy of the war on drugs.
From a simple mechanical standpoint, the game’s got a good presence on the table. I’d say it’s almost too large a presence. The game definitely has a large tabletop footprint. I could barely squeeze it onto a standard 3’x5’ dining room table. At that there was not the required depth to display the player dashboards and card as recommended in the game set up. It really needs a 4’x6’ table to be a comfortable set up for the players.
For all you solitaire gamers I’ve got some bad news to deliver. Narcos: The Board Game does not lend itself to a solitaire gaming experience. To have a really successful gaming session requires that there be an information gap between El Patron’s faction and the hunter’s faction. The actions of each faction shape and drives game play. Without the tension of the search to drive the action, there’s not much of a game to be had.
As the only player – you know where El Patron is located. There are no AI bot’s to automate the actions of either El Patron or the various hunter factions. You can step through the mechanics by yourself, but there’s not much tension or uncertainty as you have all the hidden data at your fingertips. Much like Upper Deck’s ‘Shark Island’, Narcos: The Board Game is a dish best enjoyed with a few of your friends.
But bringing your friends to the table will lead to an immersive experience as you take on the role of either El Patron or one of the hunter’s faction. The game makes the action quite personal for both El Patron and the hunters. So, go roundup your gang for an evening of fun. If you enjoyed the television series and you like cooperative play style games – run down to your local game dealer and score a copy today!
Armchair General Score: % 92
Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play): 1
Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Manager in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.