It also happens to be the winner of the 2013 Harder Than Granite contest at the Free RPG Blog. And, I can see why. It is a well-designed game that has also has a solid layout. While I do have a few questions about some of the rules, it's a pretty impressive job for an eight-page pamphlet.
The core of the game is built around a deck of regular playing cards, with each suit reflecting a different plot element. Spades represent sneakiness, diamonds represent braininess, clubs represent skills and hearts represent force. Each character gets one plot device for each suit, plus another random one from a random draw.
The game is broken down into two parts, planning and the job.
The GM draws random card and that is going to be the job. The rules don't actually state that the suit of the card determines the nature of the job but I'm taking that as a given. The GM writes down the nature of the job on a Post-it note and sticks it on the card.
The team now does the legwork, investigating the job. You do that by drawing a card and adding an element to the job based on the suit. Write it down on a Post-it and add it to the job card. There is a time limit to this, though. For every 15 minutes of real time that the team is investigating, the GM gets to draw a card that they can use as an obstacle against the team.
Players start out with no cards in their hand. You get to draw cards by using your aspects or plot devices during the job. I'm pretty sure that you get draw cards for using aspects of the job that was developed in the planning stage. The rules don't explicitly mention that but it makes sense as a way of rewarding the players for developing the job and penalizing them for taking too long.
The GM puts obstacles in the teams way by discarding a card and using that suit to define the obstacle. If a player can discard a card matching that suit, they completely handled the obstacle. If they discard a card that doesn't match the suit that matches the color, they get a yes but result. Something still goes wrong and the GM gets to draw a card. If you can't even do that, the whole job falls apart.
You can also resolve the obstacle by discarding your entire hand. Of course, that's not only going to leave you in a bad state but it's going to make you work harder on building up your hand. But every time you have to reshuffle the deck, the GM gets draw a card for every player.
There is a lot that I like about Heist Aces. I really like all the players work together to put together the adventure. That means that you can just sit down and play because the set up is an active part of the game. I also like how the narration and the mechanics or so tightly tied together. The players have to actively create a story in order to get cards to handle their problems.
However, there are some gaping holes in the rules. I know that part of that is because the contest restricted the layout to an eight-page pamphlet and 24 hours to design the whole thing. Still, I had to make some assumptions on how some elements worked, as you probably noticed.
One of the biggest holes is what kind of hand does the GM start out with? Do they get a starting hand, like one card per player? Do they start out with an empty hand and build it using aspects of the job? The rules do describe how they get bonus cards but they need some kind of hand in order to get the obstacles rolling.
The list of obstacles also look like they're supposed to relate to specific suits, which I assume they do. However it was not explicitly clear, although me being colorblind might not of helped. (Like, were they in black and red?)
That being said, these gaps in the rules can be addressed with some fairly simple fixes. The structure of the game is clear enough that it just requires a few Band-Aids, as opposed to a major overhaul or heavy house rules.
And I do think that the structure of the game is sound. More than that, I really like how everyone gets to design the adventure and how tightly the role-playing is tied to the mechanics.
Heist Aces has a lot of potential in one tiny little pamphlet. I've already recommended it to the number of my old gaming buddies back east.