Hot Lead is the third in a series of three games from designer Reiner Knizia and publisher Bitewing Games. Called the Criminal Capers trilogy, the series consists of three card games. All three games—Soda Smugglers, Pumafiosi, and Hot Lead—occupy a seedy underworld of anthropomorphic animal gangsters and cops. All three feature simple rules, easily teachable in under five minutes. You might even be able to teach all three in that time, actually, assuming a particularly keen audience. Finally, all three feature absolutely fabulous art from Paul K. Halkyon.
It’s Pronounced “Lead” like “In the Play,” Not “Lead” Like “Balloon.”
Hot Lead is a brisk little set collection game themed around evidence collection, as players work to track down leads that will enable them to make arrests. The cards in the deck are numbered 1-55 and feature wonderful illustrations of police officer penguins and detective elephants. The game is played over the course of a single hand. Each round starts by revealing a number of evidence cards equal to the number of players. Players then choose and simultaneously reveal a card from their hands. The highest card takes the piece of evidence closest to the deck, while the lowest takes the piece of evidence furthest away.
The thing is, because you’re accruing evidence to build a prosecutable case, you don’t want to investigate too aggressively. If you end up with more than three cards in any one evidence category, you scare off the suspects. They had time to bury the evidence, and you have to immediately discard all of those cards. At the end of the game, you score the printed value of each card, plus bonus points for each category of evidence—there are five—in which you have exactly three cards and another bonus if you have evidence in all five categories.
This is, fundamentally, a fun and silly game. It’s full of dopamine hits. Every time you manage to guess what your opponents are going to go for, when you thread the needle and get exactly what you wanted, you experience a rush of delight. You start grouping your cards, thinking about which evidence position they’re most likely to help you nab. As the game progresses, as more cards get played, you can get a pretty good idea of what kinds of evidence other players are going for. With that information, you can be much more intentional with your own choices starting at about the halfway point.
Like the rest of the Criminal Capers, Hot Lead is social, it’s quick, and it’s full of dramatics. It is somehow both my least favorite of the three, and also the one I can imagine myself continuing to play for the longest. That’s a testament to its short play time and the excellent art.
Make sure to check out the other the other two games in the Criminal Capers series: