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Nuns on the Run - title

Here is a weird and somewhat unique game that pretty much everybody who I've played with has absolutely loved. More than once, I have had friends over, and we're looking for a not-too-long game to play to kill some time before other players show up for a bigger game. When this happens, after passing up games like Terraforming Mars or Bloodborne: the Card Game or Dominion (all of which are great games), I often just pull out Nuns On the Run and say, "OK, let's try this!". They're always skeptical of the choice, but I say "trust me", and by the time we finish a game, they all want to play again.

Nuns On the Run is a kind of an ideal game for a casual session. It's very quick and easy to set up. The basic rules are pretty easy to explain (even though the rulebook isn't great). It plays pretty quickly and smoothly, with most player action happening simultaneously. And it tears down quickly, making it a great "warm-up" game for a larger game, or as part of a marathon of light or medium-weight games.

Player movements are secret, so their tokens are not moved around the board unless detected by guards.

Secret sin

The theme of Nuns On the Run is that most players play as one of 6 different "novices" (young women in training to become a nun) in an abbey or convent. At night, each novice sneaks out of her bedroom to try to retrieve some secret wish and sneak back to her bedroom before dawn. However, another player (or 2) plays as a pair of adult nun guards, who patrol the convent and try to catch the novices and send them back to their rooms before they fall victim to their sinful desires. The secret desires range from relatively innocent things like a "letter from Mom", to a bottle of laudanum, to more exotic and malevolent things such as a "Book of Dark Magic" (which I always refer to as the Necronomicon).

The gimmick of the game is that all of the novices' moves are secret -- both to each other and to the player(s) playing as the guards. Instead of moving player tokens around the board, novices spend their turn writing their movement action and position on a sheet of paper. The guards, however, are on the board, and they follow pre-defined paths, which are public knowledge to all players. The game has line-of-sight rules, and also rules for novices making noise while they sneak around. If they are ever spotted by a guard, they put their token on the board in the location where they are seen. If they make a noise or disappear from a guard's vision, they place a "vanished" or "sound" token on the board at their last known position.

The secret movement means that all players take their turns simultaneously, so the game moves along swiftly, with hardly any downtime. After committing to their chosen movement, each player checks if their character would have crossed the line of sight of one of the guards, and then rolls a die to determine how much noise they make. The specific movement chosen modifies the die roll, and if the modified roll is less than or equal to the distance from the specific novice to a guard, then the guard hears the novice. Then the guards make their moves and roll a die to determine if they can hear any novices from the guards' new positions.

Secret wishes range from letters from loved ones, to sleeping medicine, to a book of black magic.

The first novice to claim her secret wish and return to her bedroom wins the game. If no novice accomplishes this goal before the end of the 15th turn, the sun comes up, and they are all caught out of bed after curfew, and the guards win. The guards also win if they catch the novices a specified number of times.

The guards are locked into their chosen patrol paths, unless they see or hear a novice in a given turn. However, they don't necessarily have to chase the novice who they spot or hear. Once alerted, the guards can move anywhere to chase or look for novices. Choosing which paths to follow, and where to look for novices when they see or spot something, makes up all of the strategy for the guards. It is best for an experienced player to play as the guards, since knowledge of the board, rules, and locations of keys and secret wishes makes a big difference in how the guards play.

Competitive sin

Moves are recorded on a sheet of paper.

Because movement is secret to other players as well as the guards, Nuns On the Run is competitive, but it isn't antagonistic. In fact, after one novice claims victory, the other novices usually want to keep playing to see who gets second place, etc., or if they can get back to their rooms before the the end of the 15th turn. So even though the game is a competitive race, it doesn't really feel like you're playing against each other. Everyone kind of just takes their own turn, but you do still have to be a little bit mindful of what the other players might be doing. Another player getting spotted or making a noise near your novice could result in the guards deviating from their path and either disrupting your plans or outright spotting you. But because players don't actually know where each other is, purposefully interfering in such a way with another player is almost always accidental and almost never malicious.

Of course, having more novices in play means more moving parts, which means more potential for a guard to spot a novice or hear a noise. I've had games with 5 or 6 novices, in which one player failing a die check results in a cascade of a guard finding multiple players over the course of a turn or 2 because they were all hiding in the same general vicinity. I've also had games in which a novice or 2 is able to narrowly escape from such a situation and avoid a cascade of failure. Either way, it can lead to a tense couple of turns.

Conversely, if you're playing with only 2 or 3 novices, the board can be a little sparse, and the players can be so spread out that it's hard for the guards to every catch anybody. One way to address this is to have each player select 2 novices to play as, so that there's still 4 or 6 novices in play. In this case, a player would only win if they get both of their novices back to their rooms before the end of the 15th turn. Of course, you should probably only do this if the players have at least 1 game of experience.

Unfortunately, malicious play can still be a problem. Because all moves are secret, it's very easy for a dishonest player to cheat, or for a careless player to make an honest mistake. A player moving to an illegal location, or lying about whether she crossed line of sight or was heard by the guards can definitely happen if all the players are not playing the game honestly and in good faith. Yes, all moves are recorded on paper, and can be reviewed after the game is over, but there is no mechanism for checking that other players aren't cheating or breaking rules during the game. Finding out that a player broke a rule shortly after the rule break occurs could possibly be reconciled by rolling back a turn or two. But finding out that a player broke a rule after the game is over will invalidate the entire game, especially if the rule breakage occurred early in the game.

Don't bother trying to play Nuns On the Run with a player who you don't trust to play in good faith. It would just be a waste of everyone's time.

Even if the players are all playing honestly and in good faith, Nuns On the Run doesn't really have any good gauges of other players' progress. There's the turn counter, which tells you how long you have to bring your objective back to your room (or catch the rest of the novices, if you're the guards). But there's nothing to indicate how close the other novices might be to winning.

Each novice must essentially go through 3 gameplay phases: finding the key to unlock the door to the room containing their secret wish, taking the key to collect the secret wish, and then returning to their room with the secret wish without being caught. Players are supposed to mark on their paper when they've obtained the key and their wish, but the rules do not require that they announce that they have done so. Guards' patrols never take them through the secret wish rooms, and they aren't able to notice that a key or secret wish has been taken. Further, each player's secret wish is a secret, so the guards don't even know which wishes are in play. As a novice, you have no idea if another novice has already retrieved their secret wish and is en route back to their room, or how close they might be to returning to their room. As a guard, you also have no idea if you should be focusing your patrols on paths near the secret wishes, or falling back to patrols near the bedrooms. Everyone can make educated guesses, but nothing is certain.

Guards can't check to see if a secret wish has been stolen.

There could easily have been a set of tokens for each key and secret wish that could be placed on the board during setup. Then, after each novice makes her movement, there could have been a phase in which the guard player(s) close their eyes, and novice players can remove those tokens from the board if the key or secret wish has been claimed. This would retain almost all of the secrecy, while still giving all players a better gauge of progress. And if there's any question of whether it should have been possible for a player to obtain a particular item, play can be stopped at that point, and movement sheets can be consulted to verify that no rules have been broken. Unfortunately, no such tokens exist in the game, not even as an optional rule or variant. I guess I could make my own markers out of card stock or with a 3-D printer if I really want to.

Rules are not divinely-inspired

There's also some problems and hiccups with the rule book, including some poorly-worded or ambiguous rules. One of the biggest rule omissions is a clear explanation of how discarding Blessings works. Each player (including the guards) is given a "Blessing" card at the start of the game, which is a once-per-game super power that lets them change their movement, modify a die roll, place a false noise somewhere on the board, or some such ability. But the rulebook doesn't clearly specify how and when these cards are played and discarded; the cards only say that they are discarded after use. So does the player need to publicly reveal the card when it is played and discarded? Or is it discarded face-down so that it remains secret?

The Blessing that allows a novice to re-roll a die would have to be publicly revealed and discarded for obvious reasons. The others feel like they unfairly give away too much about the novices' location, and can be as much of a liability as they are a blessing. Is this intended by the designers, or just poorly thought-out and/or poorly-written rules?

I would think that playing a card should be secret because otherwise it would kind of break the intent of some of the cards and give away the novices' proximity. For example, if a novice plays a "false noise" to try to lure a guard away, but also has to publicly discard the card after it's been used, then the guard player is going to know that the noise is false and either ignore it, or go off in a different direction because she knows it's a decoy. Fortunately, the designers recognized this, and this card clearly specifies that the novice can chose to wait a turn before discarding the card. But still: do you discard it face-up, so that the guard now knows that the noise last turn was a decoy? Or do you discard it face-down so that the guard doesn't know which blessing was used?

When and how should a Blessing be discarded?

Other blessings, however, aren't as cut-and-dry, and feel even more counter-intuitive. If a novice has to discard a blessing that allowed her to modify a die roll in order to avoid being heard by a guard, and then has to publicly discard that card, then the guard player will know that the novice is nearby, and can make a much more educated guess as to where that novice might be.

There's also the question of whether the noise modifier from a blessing affects all players' rolls, or just the roll of the player who played it? And does it apply to both the player die roll and also for when the guard rolls the die in the same turn? Further, if a guard plays a noise modifier blessing, then does it modify the die rolls for both guards, or just for the guard who played the card? The text on the card uses plural "guards" and "novices", which seems to imply that it modifies the die rolls for all guards or novices on that round, but the rules say that each guard's blessings are separate and only belong to the one guard (even if both guards are played by a single player). So it's kind of unclear just how powerful this particular card is.

The rules also don't clearly state that the guards should write down their movements and positions each turn of the game. Their moves aren't secret, so they don't need to be written down in order to prevent cheating, but if a game ever requires going back through the history of moves to make sure that somebody didn't cheat, then you're going to need a record of where the guards were each turn as well; otherwise, you can't be certain that rules weren't broken.

If you ever have to review a game for cheating, you would also need to write down each players' die rolls, but the rules also don't instruct the players to write that down. So reconstructing a complete game from just the moves written down by each novice is not actually going to be very useful for verifying that rules weren't broken.

Visibility isn't always obvious at a glance,
but there is a chart reference.

Line of sight is also not always obvious. There's a handy chart on the back of the rulebook that says whether most spaces on the board have visibility with other spaces on the board. Unfortunately, there's only a single copy of this that has to be passed around if multiple players have questions about what can and can't be seen, which can slow down the pace of the game, as everyone else has to wait. It would be nice if there were at least 1 or 2 extra printouts of this sheet so that this process could go a bit faster.

There's also a handful of rules that I always forget, even though the game is relatively simple and doesn't have that many rules. Forgetting rules is more on me than on the game, but some of these rules are a bit counter-intuitive. One such rule is that any colored key can unlock any lock. I always forget this and mistakenly tell players that keys only unlock the doors of the same color, and that other colored locks (including the white locks of the Abbess' room) are impassable. It would make sense for color-coded keys to unlock only the same colored locks, but it's simply not the case. The colored locks are just a short-hand to make the locations of the specific secret wishes stand out on the board.

I also commonly forget that the guards are supposed to roll for hearing noises at the end of their own movement, even though this is clearly printed on the turn summary, both in the rulebook and also on the reference page on the back of the rulebook. Again, that's all on me!

I really need to print out my own little FAQ or cheat sheet with these commonly mis-played rules.

Metal Gear Crucifix

Nuns On the Run is almost like a "nun-themed, reverse Metal Gear Solid game", in which multiple "Solid Snakes" must sneak past a single pair of guards. Just like in MGS, the guards' patrols are pre-determined, and just like MGS, you have to avoid both the line of sight of the guards and also be careful not to make too much noise when near them. About the only thing you can't do is chokehold the guards or hide in a cardboard box. So if you like Metal Gear Solid and other such stealth video games, and you're bemoaning the cancelation of the Metal Gear Solid board game, then maybe Nuns On the Run would be a fun, casual consolation.

Players must be careful not to make noise, or else they'll be caught by the guards and reset their progress.

Nuns On the Run is also similar to a game like Scotland Yard or Letters From White Chapel, except again, Nuns On the Run is kind of the opposite. White Chapel has multiple players in the roles of police officers cooperating to catch a single Jack The Ripper player who makes secret moves. Nuns has multiple secretly-moving players competing to sneak past a pair of guards that are usually played by a single player.

The light deception and secret-keeping of Nuns On the Run can also be a nice warm-up for a game like Dark Moon or Battlestar Galactica.

Despite the game's few weaknesses and silly premise, my friends and I all enjoy Nuns On the Run. It's a good casual game that doesn't take too long to play, so I doubt anybody is going to take the game seriously enough to throw a fit over a rule ambiguity or a broken rule here and there. This is a game that gets pulled off the shelf often when we have an hour or 2 to kill, and everyone almost always wants to play another round after the end of a game.

WHAT I LIKE

  • Secret movement
  • Tense, stealth gameplay
  • Competitive, but not antagonistic
  • Very little downtime
  • Silly theme
  • Easy set up and tear down

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Very easy to cheat
  • No gauge of other players' progress
  • Multiple printouts of visibility charts would be convenient
  • Some ambiguous or poorly-explained rules

FINAL GRADE: B

Manufacturer(s): Mayfair Games.
Lead Designer(s): Fr├ęderic Moyersoen
Lead Artist(s): Jared Blando, Jacob Chabot
Original release: 2010
MSRP: $35 USD
Player(s): 3-8 (best with 4-7)
Age Recommendation: 12 years old and up
Game Length: less than an hour

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