Is it just me, or do French game designers have a fascination with the Old West? I wonder if it’s a general cultural allure, or only from the tabletop studios of Faidutti and Cathala, et. al.? They certainly have some nuggets that run away with western clichés, stereotypes and caricatures. Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy playing them. It reminds me of the good old 1950’s Westerns with super-tanned white actors playing the Indians.
How to Play
In Longhorn, you and an opponent play dueling cattle thieves – the hackneyed romanticized outlaws. Luckily, cows are pretty dumb animals so you can just sort of pick ‘em up and mosey along. Unfortunately, your fellow rustler isn’t so slow and might get you cornered with an ambush and stampede, or even set the sheriff on your trail.
The game board consists of nine location tiles randomized in a 3×3 grid. It’s supposed to represent Texas or Northern Mexico, according to the rule book fluff. But they’re all geographically generic except for one that’s labeled Tulsa. Which is in neither Texas nor Mexico. Anyway, these are seeded with a number of cow meeples (coweeples or cowples?) as each locale specifies. There are 36 total cows in four colors. Each location tile also receives a random action token. Finally, take the double-sided player disc and flip it like a coin. The player whose face lands up goes first while his opponent chooses a location to place it, as long as it has exactly four cows. Now you’re ready to rustle.
Every turn you steal some cattle and then move the outlaw token. You might also resolve the locale’s action chit. To round up some doggies, simply take all of the cows of the same color at your current space. Then you must move a number of tiles equal to the amount of cows you just rustled, without doubling back, and you must land in a spot that contains more bovine. It can’t be empty. Then flip the player disc to your opponent’s face, denoting it’s his turn. Before moving, however, if you took the last longhorn from your location, you must resolve the action token there. Sometimes that’s good. It might be a gold nugget worth points at the end of the game, for example. It could also be a rattlesnake that spooks off part of your herd. If it’s the sheriff, you lose immediately!
These shenanigans continue until one of three conditions. First, as just mentioned if a player gets nabbed by the law, he loses. If one outlaw manages to wrangle all nine cows of the same color, he wins automatically. That I can’t imagine any player would ever let his opponent get away with. In that case, the game will end when there is no legal move after stealing cattle.
The scoring mechanism is rather interesting. Stolen cows earn $100 for each other cow of the same color still on the board. So you’ll earn more points by taking less cows, as long as you can keep a fair number of the same breed in play. After calculating your score, add any nugget tokens acquired and the winner gets to appear in the next Randolph Scott movie. Oh, well, you’ll just need to travel back to the 1950’s.
Git Along Little Doggies?
Kids games are great…for kids, obviously. They’re very important in training young gamers. Unfortunately, parents often don’t enjoy playing them. We do it because it’s in the best interest of our kiddos, so we must endure. Yet the juvenile themes and simplistic choices grow old really quick. But thankfully we can graduate our young ones just as quickly to titles that begin to bridge the gap between these two generations. These games are simple to learn, but require some deeper thinking without convoluted strategies. And the themes are more interesting and mature, even if it’s about romanticizing illegal activity in a historically caricatured setting. The important thing is that parent and child both actual enjoy the game, while the youngster learns and develops at the same time.
The strategy in Longhorn is all about trying to plan ahead two or three turns at a time. It may not seem as big a deal when the game first begins, or even early on. However, thanks to the random distribution, you can quickly start emptying locations of their cattle since you’re taking whole color herds at a time. After several rounds, you need to be mindful of setting up your opponent. Unless your move benefits you more than it helps the other guy.
If you can land your foe where he’s forced to take the sheriff or rattlesnake, then it’s an easy choice. Manipulating a string of moves to achieve that is easier said than done, however. But most actions are positive, so you’ll tread carefully lest you give the other outlaw a free bonus by simply plopping them on a location with single-colored cows. So you need to plan ahead in order to rig your opponent’s move, forcing him to land you in a choice spot, instead.
Thanks to the scoring system, you also want to try and grab as few cows as possible, if you can leave a number of them on the board at the same time. You’ll earn more points in that scenario. That’s hard to control, because your opponent is taking cows, too. If you can manage it, it’s lucrative. Say you grab three orange cows and four are still on the board, that’s $1,200. If you corral six head and there’s only one left in the game, that’s only $600. More is not necessarily better. However, if it looks like only one or two cows of the same color will be left roaming the pastures, then go ahead and grab what you can, anyway, before your opponent locks you out from scoring any of that breed.
While accounting for cattle is a nice abstract puzzle element, the action tokens are the heart of the game. There’s an acceptable variety of actions for the game’s mood and weight. And since they’re assigned randomly, they keep every session fresh. Yes, they can be swingy and situational and over-powered. But the concept is very much true to form for Cathala’s French school of design. Combining the two elements and tying both to the importance of basic movement is brilliant. It will get younger gamers acclimated to processing multiple moving parts that are lacking in kids games, but are of course staples in the hobby.
We didn’t play with the sheriff token at first. It seemed a little harsh to my kids and they obviously weren’t as savvy in planning around him. Once they groked the game’s subtleties, however, they’re just fine with his appearance now. Since the actions are random each game, it won’t be included every time. And if you’re looking for a way to make the game more or less cutthroat and complex, then you can add or keep it out intentionally as desired.
There’s not much negative to say about Longhorn. For older gamers with their peers, it’s not really innovative or deep enough to be anything beyond a quick filler. Though it would certainly fill that role well. It might even be a good choice for casual sessions with not-so-serious gamers. Beyond that, this is an absolute must for kids and families. It’s not that the design has endless avenues to explore or mind-boggling strategy. Yet it’s still thinky and tactical, but wonderfully accessible. If you’re tired of one-dimensional children’s games with kiddie themes that you could play in your sleep (though those titles do have their place), then do you and your kids a favor and rustle up Longhorn.