Pull up a chair, put on a comfy sweater, fix a mug of something warm and settle in, because this is going to be something approaching a love-in. I normally hate to give the conclusion away at the start of a review, but if your days have been troublesome, your bills overbearing and your friends just a little too harshly critical of what you feel are your distinctive character traits then bookmark this page and come back to it to remind yourself of what is right with the world. Something warm and fuzzy has happened to this writer over the past weeks, and that warmth and fuzziness has been bestowed upon your good scribe by the unmitigated delight that is Burgle Bros.
Being naughty is fun! Welcome to Burgle Bros.
Hang on, that sounds a little – how shall we put this? – illegal. Burgling? Taking things from people, unless it is the start player marker in Agricola, is against the law, and it is even a pretty nasty thing to do in Agricola, so why should the thought of nefarious deeds and naughty nastinesses be quite so appealing this time round? Well, right from the start Burgle Bros. sets you up not as some kind of breaking and entering scallywag but instead as a George Clooney-a-like smoothie because the box (oh, the box!) is illustrated as if it is a tower block with huge posters on the side advertising something coincidentally called Burgle Bros., and there are silhouettes of the guards in the windows of the three floors if you look closely enough. “No one executes the perfect heist alone” it says, and that is so true because Burgle Bros. is a cooperative game, and the cast of ragtag characters is illustrated on the other side of the box together with the tag line “Get in. Get The Loot. Get Out.” There is even a heliport on the top, pipes and electrical cables on the bottom. Are you feeling the love yet?
What’s not to love about this?
Not yet feeling the love? Ok, let’s open this wonderful box and see what is inside. There they are, snug as a bug in a rug, the components. Lovely thick tiles, cards, tokens, wooden blocks to act as the walls, character pieces, dice and the pesky guards, with the rules slotted down the side for good measure. Barely a molecule of space is wasted, and yet it all has enough space to relax and breathe. Are you listening, all you other publishers who think you can just throw stuff into a box and assume we gamers do not notice these things? Even before you get to taking the rules out of Burgle Bros. the game is whispering “quality” into your ear.
Let’s stick together! Cooperative burgling!
But, heavens, we have encountered chrome before and it can be like putting gaming lipstick on a pig, so let’s just hold back a little longer on our declarations of unconditional love and play this thing first. The components are all good, if a little on the small side, but this is clearly a payoff for the game’s extreme portability, and necessary once it is all set up on the table, because it does need space. Mention does need to be made of the art design, though, which is simply great – cartoony, fun, engaging, and absolutely everywhere, from the character pieces to the box to the cards. It is full of personality and gorgeous – hats off to Ryan Goldsberry for this, and I am glad that his name is on the box itself, and more than once.
Cast and crew, Phil Lynott at the back.
As mentioned, Burgle Bros. is a cooperative game but it is also playable solo, either running a single or multiple characters, and the aim is simple. Get in, get the…oh, hang on, it says it already on the side of the box. Clever. The three floors of the building are set up at the start of the game as face down 4×4 grids with walls dotted around, and decks shuffled for Events, Tools, Loot and the Patrols. Players choose their characters at random, each with a basic or an advanced ability, and receive three stealth tokens. The guards are set up on each floor, you and your team decide where to enter the building and off you go.
The start of the heist. This should be easy!
Actions, stealth and patrols! Time for decisions…
On each player’s turn they have four actions, and while that sounds decidedly coop-by-numbers yawnworthy the truth of the matter is that Burgle Bros. goes about its sneakage in a subtle and refined way. Because the game starts with all tiles except your point of entry face down your first task is to find the safe. You can move directly into an adjacent face down tile for an action, but this is highly risky. You can peek at it and turn it over which is safer but costs an action. Hmm, decisions. There is a safe and a set of stairs on each floor, but also alarms, computers for hacking those alarms, cameras and other tricks and treats besides.
Moving without looking can be disastrous.
However, it is not quite as simple as that, because there is that pesky guard on each floor, patrolling, always patrolling, and if you happen to set off an alarm they will come to investigate. These guards will normally follow a preset route to their current destination at the end of your turn, but once they get there the top card of the patrol deck will determine where they head next, and this can provide nasty surprises. If you ever find yourself on the same tile as a guard (or in a Foyer when a guard is nearby and can see you) you need to spend a precious stealth token. If you need to spend one of these and you have none left it’s game over for everybody.
In safe hands? You’ll need the combination!
The jewel in this piece of design is that the guards get more agitated as the game goes on, and that as a team’s supply of stealth tokens diminishes the more limited their options become until – boom! – you can only take one or two actions in a turn. Lovely, cuddly Flash Point: Fire Rescue allows you to save these unused actions for your next go. Burgle Bros. instead makes you draw an event card. Some of these are good, some are very, very bad indeed, and this tiny wrinkle in the design places the players under severe pressure, because you cannot simply hide and wait for a guard to sweep past without the fear of uncovering some terrible event. It is all so obvious yet so clever and so effective that it makes me want to kiss designer Tim Fowers’s feet.
Here’s looking at you, kid!
When (if) you eventually find the safe you need to determine its combination, and to do this your team has to uncover the other tiles in the safe’s row and column, for each floor tile has a small number printed on the bottom right, and then you need to roll dice to crack the safe. Firstly you must be on the safe tile, secondly you must place a die on the tile at a cost of 2 precious actions, and then you must roll. Thankfully you only need to roll a single incidence of each number (so a combination of 244461 only requires you to roll 4 once), but deciding whether to add another die to the rolls while maintaining the need to dodge the guards is just delicious pain, and it actually feels like trying to crack a safe while in a blind panic, not that I would actually know what that feels like. Honest.
Cracking the safe takes time and nerves of steel.
Grab the loot…but don’t be a cat burglar!
What is worse, you and your team have no idea what lies hidden in each safe, and this is yet another joyous piece of design. You would like to think that you can just grab the loot and run, but not so. The lovely mirror allows you to flummox laser alarms, which is A Good Thing, but is heavy, which is A Bad Thing, while other items can be more troublesome. The Persian kitty, for example…well, actually I am not going to tell you what the Persian kitty does because that would spoil the surprise. Let us just say that I laughed out loud when I first encountered it and found out how it behaves, which is just like a cat.
Not all the loot is helpful.
First few times through Burgle Bros. is all about diving in and having a great time, but then it starts to reveal its subtleties, especially when the character abilities come into play. What say we set off an alarm on purpose to distract this guard so that another player can get a clear route to the next floor? How about we use the service duct to look around the first floor for a bit? Each game is fun, but each successive play of Burgle Bros. is just another part of a grand adventure.
I need to move before the guard comes to check the alarm.
Tense but fun! Is that really possible?
There are also variants in the box for beginners (two 4×4 floors) and veterans (two 5×5 floors), and there is an online layout generator as well. It really does feel as if the designer and his merry band have thought about everything. Every. Thing. Yet the greatest of those every things that Burgle Bros. does is to provide all that escalating, terrifying tension of the classic coops such as Pandemic, but to keep it knockabout fun from start to finish. There is never that migraine-inducing hassle of trying to manipulating broken computer parts and wilting greenery as in First Martians via a gazillion chits and tokens and subrules. Instead you laugh ever so quietly as you hide in the lavatory while the guard passes by outside, or use donuts to stop them from patrolling…for heaven’s sake, I’m smiling and chuckling to myself even as I write this!
You may have gathered from this review that I am in love with Burgle Bros. After reviewing many games that are good but not great, or average but not even good, it has reminded me that what I want most from gaming is engagement and fun. The polish of this design hits you when you see the box and just keeps on going, and is a testament to what can be done when quality is put at the forefront of every single decision. Would that more publishers and designers could adopt this attitude.
Simple and advanced abilities for every character.
Quality stuff! Better by design!
I’ll finish with a story. Burgle Bros. has been on my radar for at least a couple of years now, but I worried that it would be too long and that I just did not need another cooperative game. It came to me for review via a slightly circuitous route, but come it did, and now my younger self is grinning mockingly at me across the mists of time and saying “I told you so”, and I am actually sad that I have lost time with this wonderful game. With all the variants in the box Burgle Bros. promises to have decent longevity as well as levity, but it is also just plain out and out fun. When people come round and I want to get them into gaming I will very often pull out a coop, usually Pandemic or Flash Point, but Burgle Bros. has that extra quality of being able to learn as you play. Get to grips with the moves as you find the safe, then uncover the combination, then break the lock, then do it with the other safes, then get out.
Tokens, tokens, tokens.
The only reason Burgle Bros. does not score full marks is because it does not feel quite as desert islandy as something like Tigris or Agricola, but it is still an impressive piece of work. From start to finish Burgle Bros. is utter joy, with simply wonderful art and design, in-game quirks that make you feel as if you are in a fabulously directed film, and thoroughly satisfying gameplay that ratchets up the tension until you either make it out of the building or fall off an unlit walkway into the clutches of the guard, laughing all the way. Congratulations, Mr. Fowers, Mr. Goldsberry and everybody else involved, I am officially a slavering fanboy. A triumphant 9 out of 10.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.