Apples to Apples. Trivial Pursuit. Pictionary. Guesstures. Scattergories. On and on. These games all have their place, and in their own way they are fun, but these are mostly specific skill based games. (We all, I'm sure, know what it's like to play with the know-it-all in Trivial Pursuit. Or the artist in Pictionary. Or the actor in Guesstures. Or the wordsmith in Scattergories.) Cranium seemed so revolutionary because it balanced these skills against each other...but it's still very much a specific skill based game. If you have the skill outside the game, you have a heavy advantage within the game. What's often missing in party games is strategy and atmosphere. This is where a game like Bang!, the Wild West card game, fills a gap.
Bang! can support 4-7 players, according to its packaging, and if you have the expansion(s), it can support up to eight players. From my experience, five is the absolute minimum needed, and six is probably ideal. In Bang! each player is dealt a Western-themed character card with a special ability (basically, a way to break the rules of the game in some way) and a role at the beginning of the game. The roles are sheriff, deputy, outlaw, or renegade. Each character card has a health meter, indicating how many times he must be shot to be eliminated from the game. The sheriff is the only player who reveals his role; the other players' roles are kept secret until either they die or the game is over.
Game-winning conditions vary depending on which role card you are dealt. If you are the sheriff or a deputy, you must defeat the outlaws and renegade. If you're an outlaw, you must defeat the sheriff. If you're the renegade, you must defeat all the other players. (As you can imagine, it's tough to win as the renegade.) This is the genius of Bang!: the sheriff and deputies are on a team; the outlaws are on a team; the renegade tries to act like both--and no one, at least at the start of the game, knows who the others are. Players try to deduce the identity of the other players as the game goes on. (For example, if Jimmy is shooting the sheriff, there's a good chance he's an outlaw.)
So. That's where the strategy in the game comes in. Players each have a gun, and their goal is to get their enemies' health down to 0, but they have to do so subtly and with some bluffing. Shooting too early can be a mistake; shooting too late can also be a mistake. Players can upgrade their guns, put other players in prison, visit the general store, and pretty much do everything else you see in an old spaghetti Western.
And that provides the other component of what's missing from most other party games: atmosphere. Where Bang! really excels, in my opinion, is atmosphere. The main title of each card is in Italian, and half the fun of the game is announcing what card you're playing in the best Italian accent you can muster. Yelling "Mancato!" ("missed," at least if I can trust the card's subtitle) never gets old, unless maybe you're not the one yelling. But you probably will be, because the game brings it out of you.
But this leads me to what I don't like about Bang! It involves player elimination, which is my least favorite part of any game. And it's not just "Hey, a player's out--the game's almost over." Depending on who has the upper hand, the game could just be getting started. Getting eliminated in Bang! isn't quite like losing Monopoly, but it's still not a pleasant experience.
Another thing I don't care for in Bang!: the cards have very little text on them. The cards use a system of iconography that can be a major barrier, especially for new players (and especially for new players who are unfamiliar with games in general). I can't tell you how many times a new player has had to reveal his hand to me so I could explain what his cards do. This is a hindrance for a game that's based on subtlety and bluffing.
Bang! is the kind of game that some players love and other players hate. I fall somewhere in between. I think the game is okay, but player elimination is almost a deal breaker for me (normally because if a player can be eliminated, that player will be me). But in college, at our family game nights, there was a group of guys who would only show up if we played Bang! For them, it was Bang! or bust. So Bang! certainly has its advocates.
I don't think I'm one of them. I'll play it, and it's enjoyable when I do, but I think Bang! has a tendency to cause bad blood, something I'd rather avoid in a party atmosphere. While Bang! certainly has its advantages (great atmosphere, strategy, hidden roles, bluffing, cheap cost), its major disadvantage (player elimination) almost outweighs its benefits, and there are other games out there that avoid its pitfalls. Maybe for my next review I'll suggest one of these alternatives.
***EDIT*** Another advantage I forgot to mention before is that it's fairly easy to get new people to try Bang!, even if they aren't used to games that involve strategy. Some games seem too geeky just by looking at the box, but I've had a lot of luck introducing others to Bang! So kudos to the designers of Bang!