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Soda Smugglers Game Review

I Need a Drink.

Soda Smugglers is a charming bluffing game in a small box that kids love to play.

Disclosure: Meeple Mountain received a free copy of this product in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This review is not intended to be an endorsement.

Soda Smugglers is the first 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.

The Soda Smugglers box, which uses a fun color palette of dark purples and light greens.


If we assume that each entry in Criminal Capers establishes canon for the others, which seems reasonable, then all three take place in a world where soda is a controlled substance. In Soda Smugglers, players try to provide the soda supply to match ravenous black market demand. Each round, one player takes on the role of a customs official inspecting suitcases at the border, while the other players offer bribes in an attempt to get their goods across.

Three cards played out on the tale. Two, the facedown cards, stand tall, like pillars, while a third card sits above them, sideways and open.

Each would-be smuggler is dealt five cards, representing suitcases. Each suitcase contains anywhere between 0 and 3 bottles of soda. The round starts with each player simultaneously choosing three cards to set out on the table. One will be the bribe they openly offer to the customs inspector, while the other two contain whatever soda they’re attempting to bootleg. After that, the border guard has three actions they can choose to perform. The actions are all voluntary, and the number of times you can perform each action will vary with the player count, but they must be done in the following order:

  1. Accept Bribes: The customs official can choose to accept bribes from one or two smugglers. Those players pay the official from their personal bottle cap supply—oh, I didn’t mention, currency in this game is bottle caps—before revealing the contents of their suitcases and taking the appropriate number of caps from the general supply.
  2. Inspect: The customs official can choose to inspect one suitcase per Inspection token. They choose a specific card and ask for the player who owns it to flip it over, revealing the contents.
  3. Arrest: The customs official can choose to arrest players suspected of ferrying felonious quantities of soda. So long as the individual arrested has more than one bottle of soda in their closed suitcases, the official takes the matching number of bottle caps from the general supply and the smuggler gets nothing. There’s a risk here, though. If the suitcases are empty, or there’s only one bottle between them, it’s a false arrest, and the official has to pay two bottle caps from their personal supply to the arrestee.

Soda Smugglers comes from a familiar pedigree. If you have found yourself thinking that it sounds like Sheriff of Nottingham, you are not alone. They play similarly, though Smugglers is significantly more streamlined. There’s no offering bribes to inspect someone else. At first, I was worried that would deprive Smugglers of any sense of fun, but that doesn’t end up being the case.

A pile of bottle caps next to four suitcase cards, containing from zero to three bottles of soda.

The first thing Smugglers gets right over Sheriff is playtime. If you’re playing with a large group of kids—the game really shines at around 5 or 6 players—it might take a while, but that number of adults can crank out a relaxed game in about 20 minutes. In my experience, Sheriff has always overstayed its welcome. Another crucial difference: Sheriff can be reliably won by playing honorably. Just don’t lie, and don’t pay other players when they’re sheriff, and you’ll probably win. There’s not much of a game there.

Soda Smugglers rewards neither steadfast honesty nor dishonesty. It’s all about pivoting between the two, and double-thinking players at the table. If you get a bad hand with nearly all empty suitcases, then you can try to make the officer think your suitcases are loaded with goods. You can even use your position in the game to your advantage: a player who’s doing well will face greater scrutiny, and the inspector is more likely to arrest you than accept your bribe. Knowing that, you can offer a hefty bribe while packing empty suitcases. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a player who’s behind can offer a paltry bribe and sneak by with a massive haul.

Soda Smugglers is a fun little game, which is all it wants to be. At the after school program where I work, my review copy proved such a massive hit with both the kids and the staff that they ordered a second copy. Without exaggeration, I don’t think a single day has gone by in the last two or three months where it has gone unplayed. It’s simple, it’s punchy, it has bottle caps for money. Crack open a copy of Soda Smugglers and take a sip.

Make sure to check out the other the other two games in the Criminal Capers series:

  • Great - Would recommend.

Soda Smugglers details

About the author

Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch was a very poor loser as a child. He’s working on it.

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