Sheriff of Nottingham

Ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing, bribery and lies.  What could go wrong?

PRACTICE:

  • negotiating, bartering and haggling
  • agreeing and disagreeing
  • real conditionals (making suggestions)
  • hesitating

WHO IS IT FOR?

  • Upper-Intermediate learners and up (CEFR B2-C2)
  • Ages 15+

THE RUNTHROUGH:

Sheriff of Nottingham is one of the few games which works just fine straight out of the box.  If you’ve never heard of or played Sheriff of Nottingham (SoN), then you should definitely try it twice.  Why twice?  Because you’ll learn so much about the game the first play through, that it’d be a shame not to play it again.

The object of the game is to build the most successful market stall in the castle.   The only hitch is that you first need to get your goods into the castle, past the Sheriff.   There are a mixture of legal goods (apples, bread, chickens and cheese) and contraband.  How do you get any of this stuff past the Sheriff?  In a bag.  A wonderful bag.  A bag with a popper on it.  A truly magical popper.

Sheriff of Nottingham (Arcane Wonders) - What's in the box? Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2431484/sheriff-nottingham?size=original (Nuno Silva)
Sheriff of Nottingham (Arcane Wonders) – What’s in the box?
Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2431484/sheriff-nottingham?size=original (Nuno Silva)

In the course of a typical round, one of the players will assume the role of the Sheriff.  Each player will take it in turns to be the Sheriff.  The players will start with a pile of coins and six randomly dealt cards.  For their first action, they may choose to change some of these cards.  They draw from the deck, either taking cards which are face-up and visible to all, or drawing blind.  Based on the cards they receive, they will decide to put a number of them into their Bag.  Now they can put whatever they like in the bag, but the Sheriff will ask them to make a declaration.  There are only 2 rules about the declaration: they have to be truthful about the number of cards in the bag, but they must declare only 1 type of card (i.e. 4 apples, 2 bread, etc.).  Now they could have put anything in there.  Based upon their approach and the Sheriff’s reaction, one of x things will happen:

  1. The player was telling the truth and the Sheriff decides not to check.  The player then puts all their goods on their stall.
  2. The player was lying and the Sheriff decides or was persuaded/bribed not to check.  The player then puts all their goods on their stall.
  3. The player was telling the truth and the Sheriff decides to check! As the player was not being deceitful, the Sheriff must pay the player a penalty dictated by the cards value.
  4. The player was lying and the Sheriff is not impressed by any of the player’s efforts to make her/him look the other way.  The player now loses all the cards that they were lying about and must pay the Sheriff the corresponding fine.

That’s the crux of the game.  The magic though is the popper.  As far as negotiation is concerned, anything goes.  You can offer money, goods on your stall or even future favours, right up to the moment of that little “pop!”.  As soon as the seal is broken, it’s time to pay the piper.  Well, sheriff.

BEAR IN MIND:

  • Because of the way the game works, this is not game to play with strangers.  You need to make sure that the class know each other, and get on well.  With strangers, they don’t get so involved in the negotiations and, most importantly, shy away from using some of the options at their disposal.
  • Speaking from horrific personal experience, if you want to keep you cards (and bags) intact, then I recommend showing students the best way to open the bag. Place the bag flat on the table and ‘unpop’ the bag while pressing down in the middle of the bag.  If they don’t do it this way, you’ll have a heartbreaking mess of bent and broken cards.
  • It can be worth reminding students that you don’t have to lie to be successful.  If they don’t like the idea of lying then they don’t have to.  It’s not as much fun, but hey.
  • This is not a good game to choose as a ‘first’ game for a class.  Why?  Because the inter-personal dynamic in SoN is so important, the students need to be focussed on the other players, and not worried about managing their materials.
  • I have experimented with doing this as a team game, with players working in pairs, but I felt that it lost a lot of the magic which makes the game shine.  It’s very difficult to conspire against the sheriff when you have a partner in crime, so to speak. On top of that if you do this, there is the problem of what the sheriffs do while the others are preparing their cards and getting their stories straight.
  • Even though the box says 3-5 players, the magic classroom number is definitely 4.  There is too much downtime with 5, as non-native players tend to be slower in their negotiations.
  • As I mentioned above in the Runthrough, you really need to let the students play the game through a couple of games.  That’s one of the reasons that 4 players works so much better, as the games are a bit quicker.  You need to allow at least an hour for them to get the most out of the negotiation practice it offers.
  • Of all the negotiation games I’ve used in the classroom (such as Panic on Wall Street), I’d say the pace is just about right in SoN for players to refer to the useful language handout and plan their strategy.  In fact, the handout makes an excellent prop.  I’ve caught students deliberately checking the negotiation language and tricking the Sheriff into paying them hefty fines by not lying at all.  I was quite impressed!
  • I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention the scoring.  Oh, the scoring.  I absolutely suck at maths.  Explaining and working out the scores is going to take your class about 10 minutes.  Just take account of this in your lesson plan.  And take a bunch of calculators.

SUMMARY:

With a friendly group that get on with one another, Sheriff of Nottingham can be a barrel of laughs.  It is one of those games, however, which improves with practice.  The more the players experiment with the options at their disposal the better.  This can be a big downside as many players only start to get the hang of it in the final round and there often isn’t time for another game.

If you have a group which is interested in looking at language of negotiation, then your options are fairly limited for practice activities.  I’ve done plenty of the regular negotiation role-plays with students, and honestly, they never really work as there is nothing ON THE LINE; none of the students are invested in the outcome.  Even though SoN is ‘just’ a game, it makes a massive difference to the way that students treat the language and the potential consequences.  It’s certainly worth a try with a good group, especially if they have enjoyed other games.  I wouldn’t want this to be the first game they tried though.

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