Growing up, frankly, cowboys were crap. Rhinestone-clad Republicans in family 50s movies in silly hats or urban gay men in tight jeans posing as men living off the land.

Then I later discovered Unforgiven, and then other spaghetti western films, and I was hooked. Done right, it was even grimmer and more violent and nihilistic than the urban punk world that spawned The Crow, with the added bonus of the fact that that kind of thing really did happen. I ended up when I was in Wyoming and South Dakota truly grooving on the Badlands, cheroot stuck between my lips.

So when a group of friends pulled out some cards and suggested I learn this addictive card game called Bang!, I initially declined. I'd seen people do these collectible card games. A game with a sufficient number of cards is indistinguishable from Magic, (or Pokemon, or Yu-Gi-Oh, so suchlike).

Turns out that no, you work from a defined deck, or from a specific deck plus one or more expansion sets (e.g. the entire accessory deck in one) or, the ne plus ultra, the whole collection in a tin bullet called Bang! The Bullet.

The mechanics of the game and its origin are described in the above writeup. A Bang! card represents a shot fired at another player (who must be either sitting next to you or reachable by a gun, a card with a number on it representing how many people away from you you can reach). Shots are modified by horses (which bring you closer or further away), a barrel (which, when you're shot at, you draw a card- if it's a "heart", he misses), or the cliches of a Sombrero (which takes the bullet instead of you), Bible next to the heart, or iron plate. Shots can also be negated by a Missed! card or a Dodge card. Bang! and Missed! make up the majority of cards.

Bang!s must also be played by all players when someone throws down an "Indians" card (which represents a Native American ambush), and if unavailable, the unlucky player takes a "hit". A player with a large number of Bang! cards may use "Duel" in which he picks any player, and they discard Bang! cards in turn until one runs out. The first one to run out of cards is "hit". Or, at least, the first one to not throw one down.... keeping a shot or two in reserve....

Beer and Tequila cards revive the player (returning a bullet). The Saloon card heals EVERYONE by one bullet. Occasionally someone will pull Wells Fargo, which grants him three cards. Or the General Store, in which a number of cards equal to the number of players is put on the table and each one in turn pick the card up adding it to his own collection.

Character cards at the beginning (you can pick one of three you're dealt and play that person) determine special powers you might have - one can hold ten cards (otherwise, you're limited at the end of a turn to the number of bullets, or "hit points" you have left - as a character is more and more wounded, he or she cannot hold on to potentially life saving cards...) You are also dealt a role card, identifying you as an Outlaw (who must kill the Sheriff), a Deputy (who must protect the Sheriff), the Sheriff (who must kill the Outlaws and Renegades) or the Renegade (who must kill everyone else BEFORE the Sheriff, then the Sheriff.) The person with the Sheriff card shows it, and everyone knows his or her role. The other players' roles are unknown until they are killed (at which point they turn over the role card).

This leads to some interesting and complex strategy. If the Sheriff dies, the Deputies lose. If there are other people alive, the Renegades lose. If the Sheriff kills the Deputy, he forfeits all his cards, usually at a time when wounds are a-plenty. If the Sheriff dies, the Outlaws win. So you're not sure if the guy shooting the guy trying to kill the Sheriff is a Deputy (to protect him) or a Renegade (to keep him alive until the end), until enough people are dead that it is impossible for the person to be one or the other.

A few ready made personalities, some simple game mechanics, and some interesting strategy choices make for a quick and entertaining game. You can't help but get into some kind of character, and the mystery of who has what role leads to some entertaining guesses, and some spectacular failures. Plus, if you buy the decks other than in the Bullet collection, the cards are in Italian and English. I mean, how cool is that?