Players are merchants (most of the time), and want to bring goods to the city to sell. Every round one player plays the sheriff, which in this game is more like a customs officer to me. The law says every merchant can only bring in one type of good. The merchant declares the type of good he is carrying to the sheriff, and the sheriff decides whether it is necessary to inspect the goods. If the merchant is caught bringing in other types of goods, or contraband, he is fined and the illegal goods are confiscated. The fine conveniently goes into the sheriff's pocket. However if the sheriff detains a merchant for inspection only to find that he is an honest trader (at least for the current round), the sheriff needs to pay the merchant instead. Think of it as compensation for not lodging a complaint to the king. The merchant can try to bribe the sheriff, asking him to close one eye, or even asking him to inspect another merchant's goods. It's all negotiable.
A number of rounds is played to allow everyone to have two opportunities to be sheriff. After that you compare wealth to determine who wins. You add up cash in hand (i.e. cash that changes hands through bribes and fines), the value of goods that get past customs, and bonuses for being the largest sellers for each of the four legitimate goods (chicken, cheese, apples and bread).
The player board is just a simple reference chart showing the steps in a game round, and also the bonuses for largest sellers. The cloth bag is for storing the goods you plan to bring into the city. It is nice, but not necessary. The number of goods must be declared truthfully. By having your cards face-down is already sufficient to hide what goods they are. You don't really need to put your cards into this bag.
There are two draw decks and two discard piles. At the start of every round, everyone draws back up to 6 cards, since most players would have attempted to transport some goods in the previous round. Before deciding which goods to transport for the current round, every merchant has one chance to discard some cards and draw the same number of cards. You can draw from a discard pile or a draw deck, or both. If you decide to draw from both, you must draw from a discard pile first, and then a draw deck; and there is no turning back to a discard pile once you start drawing from a draw deck.
When making a customs declaration, the merchant must truthfully report the number of cards and one good type. If all other cards are of this same good type, then the whole shipment is legal. But of course the merchant can mix in other goods and even contraband. Contraband goods are higher valued than normal goods, but the fine is also higher if you get caught. For goods that make it past the customs checkpoint, normal goods are turned face-up and placed next to your player board. This is to allow others to see how much sales you have made. Players compete with one another to sell the most of these four legitimate goods types. Contraband which makes it past the city gates are kept face-down, and are only revealed at game end. Some contraband cards count as two or more of legitimate goods, so there can be some surprises at game end.
Legitimate goods are placed face-up on both sides of the player board. Contraband is placed face-down above the player board.
Gameplay is all about player psychology. The sheriff needs to guess whether the merchants are sneaking in any undeclared goods or contraband. Is that loud and righteous-sounding guy who refuses to pay any bribe really an honest merchant? Is that poor scoundrel offering a tiny bribe really doing so badly in business that that is all he can afford? The merchants can pull off (or attempt to pull off) all sorts of tricks. When you are transporting fully legitimate goods, you can pretend to be seedy and lure the sheriff into inspecting your perfectly legal shipment. When all you have are weapons and jewellery under your top layer of apples, you can try to bluff your way through, scoffing at the idea of bribery. How you draw cards can be used against your fellow players too. When you draw from a discard pile, everyone sees what you are taking. You can use this information to mislead them, which was what Heng did in our game. Since the game is played over a number of rounds, you can use your track record to trick others. Being clean for a few consecutive rounds may allow you to get away with one big shipment of contraband. Playing smuggler for a few rounds can help set a trap for the sheriff when you suddenly go clean.
One thing I tried to do was to offer "honest" bribes. I offered large bribes which were calculated based on how much I would get fined if I were caught. I hinted that if the sheriff caught me, he'd earn less than the bribe amount. So why not go for a win-win? This worked somewhat. But sometimes the sheriff may not trust you and may suspect you are going to make even more money. Also sometimes the sheriff may just get annoyed with your smug look and decide to inspect your stuff just to show you who's boss.
This huge stand-up marker is to indicate who the sheriff is in the current round. Obviously the sheriff is a corrupt official.
The convention I used was to put my bribe on the bag. The sheriff can easily see how much is on offer at a glance.
Sheriff of Nottingham is all about player psychology and player interaction. It is a game where you are gaming the players and not gaming a system. You need to watch your opponents closely and guess their intentions. There is no downtime. The rules are simple and this game can be easily taught to casual gamers and non-gamers. It works well as a party game.