During the Christmas holidays this year, this new title from Mayfair Games was among the additions to our family repertoire. With characteristics similar to Scotland Yard, it’s a quick and funny game I consider superior to the famous detective game. Suitable for all ages and capable of supporting a large number of players, Nuns on the Run is a game I would recommend for any casual board game collector.
The dominant mechanic in the game focuses on sneaking — always a trick in a board game, where every player’s actions take place mere inches from each their fellows. As in Scotland Yard, the board is marked with paths and numbered intersections, and players record their moves in secret on a slip of paper, noting their movement distance and the number of their destination spot. The ultimate aim of each novice is to secure a key from somewhere in the abbey, take it elsewhere in the abbey to unlock the acquisition of their “secret wish,” and then make it back to their cell — all while avoiding capture.
However, unlike Scotland Yard, the roles of sneaker and seeker are inverted: all the players play novices scampering through the sleeping convent, while one takes the role of the hunter and controls the Abbess and Prioress characters, who in concert attempt to find out and catch the wayward novices. Thus, each turn consists of a table-wide covert movement by the novices, followed by the overt and obvious movement of the nuns. This systemized hide-and-seek ensures that every turn is exciting and nerve-wracking, even if you think your novice is safely ensconced in an alcove or a broom cupboard and can’t be seen or heard.
The convent is big and maze-like enough that it would seem a safe path could always be had, but there are twists to the movement mechanic. Foremost is the idea of speed and sound — a novice who runs can get further away but is more likely to be “heard” by the Abbess / Prioress, whereas taking it slow or even standing still will not produce much progress but is a much safer guard against attracting attention. The movement of Abbess and Prioress, on the other hand, is predictable: they begin with a set of paths and target spots they travel, like a night watchman’s circuit, known and understood by all. They will also always walk, keeping a regular speed. However, if one of the novices makes too much noise (as mentioned above) or if they stray into the sight line of one of the adults, the Abbess or Prioress can divert immediately from their route and take off running in the direction of their suspicion, and their controlling player has complete control to path them wherever he wishes as long as continues to uncover sensory evidence of the naughty novices. Whenever this occurs, it’s a mad scramble to avoid the rampage — in my game, one careless novice forced three others to dive behind walls and hide in bushes for several turns while the Abbess tramped up and down before losing the scent and returning to her path. It could easily have cost us the game, if the same thing had not occurred a few turns later with the Prioress on the other side of the abbey!
In contrast to Scotland Yard, which is a much more systematic, collaborative process of analysis and zone defense, the movement of the novices in Nuns on the Run is purely individual and, for the most part, completely opaque to everyone else including the other novices. This makes each turn more anxious and often hilarious, but suffers from a lack of novice-to-novice interaction. Two novices could literally be standing on the same spot or following the same path, and their controlling players would have no idea unless spooked by the Abbess or Prioress. This prevents players from playing off each other, hiding in each other’s “radar shadow” or deliberately alerting the adults in an attempt to get another novice nabbed. Each player’s midnight run takes place in a vacuum, for the most part, and it can be disappointing to be playing along and simply discover, as if from nowhere, that another play has won.
Trust also plays a big role in the prosecution of victory, as the validity of a path can only be verified once a player has claimed a win. And even if the players are well-intentioned, mistakes can happen particularly with younger players. Nevertheless, the game does not require such rigid precision that a misstep or two would ruin the session.
Even after one play-through, I was deeply impressed by the balance and tension of the game, and by how cleanly it remained engaging throughout. The constant threat of discovery, combined with the time pressure to be the first home with little or no knowledge of the plans of the progress of one’s competitors, made for a speedy and exciting game. Having played Scotland Yard a number of times I was familiar with the idea of recording secret moves, but the inversion of the hunter/prey roles made for a more madcap and amusing experience. And it scales elegantly, often becoming more difficult and exciting with more players, and a higher density of novices in the abbey means more chances for the Abbess / Prioress to see or hear someone and abandon their plotted course.
In short, Nuns on the Run is a delightful game, one I intend to add to my library without delay. I heartily recommend it to all, particularly those with children or otherwise mixed groups of players.