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Review: Bountytown

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You know that no-good thief Laura Bullion has been spotted in Bountytown.  Why the lyin’, two bit scoundrel no doubt has her mind set to hole up at the miner’s camp.  Except you know she can’t stay out of trouble.  So when she gets to causin’ a ruckus again, you’ll be ready to take her down.  She may be safe from the badge in this lawless town.  But she didn’t reckon to throw down with a bounty hunter like you.  And she’s wanted.  Dead or alive.

How to Play

In Bountytown you’re a bounty hunter shooting (literally) to clean up the boisterous frontier town so that the railroad can come through and, with it, a little respectability.  Of course, you’re not the only gun-for-hire aiming to bag some crooks.  While you might think more equals better, that just means some other quick draw artists are crowding in on your reward money.  A duel or two to steal a bounty from some other gun just might prove the old adage that this town ain’t big enough…

Using a straight-forward action point allowance system players navigate the town to hunt bounties, use location abilities, lock up outlaws and even duel each other.  Each player assumes a character with a unique ability.  The town itself comprises a 3×3 grid of location cards.  Three are permanent – the sheriff’s office, Doc’s, and the general store – while the other six are randomly dealt each session.  Locations either provide specific actions you can perform while there, or may otherwise have an ongoing effect in particular situations.

Time to clean up this here town!
Time to clean up this here town!

Stacked just outside of town is a bounty deck of cards depicting wanted outlaws.  There will always be a few laid out to choose from.  These indicate where in town you can find the fugitive and how many cards he/she draws in a duel.  A train card is shuffled into the bottom of this deck.  When it arrives, the game ends.

There is also an item deck placed near the general store.  A number of items are laid out face-up for purchase.  You can also gain items when taking certain bounties.  These provide helpful bonuses during play.

The goal of the game is to earn points by capturing bounties.  That requires dueling – but this high-noon showdown is with cards!  Normally you’ll have a hand of five.  These come in values from 1 to 5 in five different suits – the standard hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs…plus coins.  Coins act like any other suit and you can also expend them to buy items in the general store.

Open for business.
Open for business.

After declaring a duel, you have a chance to discard and draw back in order to make the best poker hand possible.  Winning hands are determined by their rank, based on the usual pair, three of kind, two pair, full house, four of kind, straight, flush and straight flush.  For this design, there’s also five of a kind and something called a rainbow consisting of one in each suit and ranking just below a flush.  When facing off against a bounty, the outlaw’s card specifies what hand they begin with – usually between one and three cards – and how many additional they get to draw.  They do not get a discard phase.  Instead, construct the best hand possible with their draw.  If you beat it, you bag the bounty.  If you tie, you still capture the fugitive, but get wounded.  If you lose, take the wound and the varmint gets away.  For good!

Wounds are worthless cards that clog your hand and still count towards its size limit.  You cannot discard them except by expending an action while at Doc’s or through the first aid kit, which is an item card.  The more wounds you have, the more difficult it is creating winning Poker hands.

Bounties are the name of the game. Literally. No really, it's actually called Bountytown...
Bounties are the name of the game. Literally. No really, it’s actually called Bountytown…

If you’re at the same location you can also duel other players to steal any bounties they haven’t locked up at the sheriff’s office.  The process is similar to dueling a regular bounty, except your opponent enjoys the same discard and draw step that you do.  But in addition to squaring off against his/her hand, the bounty also gets to draw so that you’re effectively vying against and must best two hands.  If you beat both hands, your opponent takes a wound and you win the bounty.  If you tie for best hand, you still nab the fugitive, but also take a wound.  If the bounty proves to have the best hand, both players are wounded and the scoundrel gets away!

When the train finally arrives it brings with it civilized and polite society…and an end to all the fun.  The bounty hunter with the most renown gets a dime novel reality series contract while the others must mosey on down the line to the next dusty hole in the ground.  If there is a tie, well then one final showdown on the deserted streets should settle that matter!

Book 'em, Danno!
Book ’em, Danno!

Quick or Dead?

In the 1971 western comedy Support Your Local Gunfighter, ladies’ man and con artist Latigo quips to a citizen of the rough-and-tumble, backwater mining town Purgatory about his native upbringing on the Hudson River.  “Well, they don’t carry guns. And they got a cop on every street corner to keep people from shootin’ one another.”  On the lawfulness scale Bountytown is closer to Purgatory than New York City.  You’re there to take advantage of its rowdiness while helping to clean it up.  And with the most appropriately thematic Old West gaming mechanic: Poker!

The evergreen vying game has been a recurring influence in the hobby’s history.  In some titles it’s quite central and up front, as is the case with Dice Town, Black Sheep and Pandante.  In others it plays a more subtle role with murkier presence, as in games like Battle Line and Shadows over Camelot.  Then again, the core concept of collecting pairs, sets and sequences is a universally recognized element throughout much of gaming.  In Bountytown it’s essentially half the game, but blends smoothly with its other aspects.

Quite the cast of characters.
Quite the cast of characters.

Of course when a design integrates such an established “game within a game,” it risks alienating those either not familiar with it or who simply don’t like it.  As such Bountytown does pose a greater learning curve for non-Poker players and may put off its detractors from the start.  Now if you’re a fan of Poker and the Old West, this should prove one sure bet.  If you count yourself amongst the prior demographics, on the other hand, you may still find this freshman effort from designers Kyle Van Winkle and Michael Huven-Moore a pleasant surprise, if given a chance.

That’s because despite the impediment that Poker may pose for playing prospectors, the design succeeds in minimizing its extent through some simplification and twists.  Rather than four each of thirteen ranked cards as in a standard Poker deck, Bountytown includes only values 1-5 and lots more of them.  It’s a small modification, but facilitates managing hands more easily.  Adding a fifth suit is another positive touch.  One, gold has a useful dual purpose in purchasing supplies at the general store.  Two, it allows for a couple of unique hands like five of a kind and the fun-to-throw-down “rainbow.”

Whoa, straight flush!
Whoa, straight flush!

Perhaps the best element to ease non-Poker players/fans surrounds the outlaw duels.  While face-offs with other players are dicier – since they get the full discard and draw opportunity that you do – duels with bounties are usually more calculated.  You already know part of an outlaw’s hand because it’s designated on his/her card.  Likewise, you know what his/her chances of improving that are from the knowledge of how many cards are added – without the ability to discard and draw.  So most of the time, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re up against, which helps to alleviate some angst, indecision and double-guessing.  That can make it easier to go after something.  Of course, that’s a double-barreled shotgun, because those are all characteristics that make Poker great.  So hardcore fans could easily decry it as knocking out some of the vying game’s teeth.

In spite of, or more likely because of, those elements Bountytown lends itself to a few different play styles – subject to your group’s personalities.  You might approach it as a straight up Poker game.  Or you could emphasize and utilize multiple items and location abilities to sow chaos and hone a more tactical experience.  Depending on the players, it can also vary from a strong solitary affair to one with lots of interaction and any degree in between.

Bountytown example item cards

Items and locations can spice things up like tossing a rattlesnake into a heard of cattle.
Items and locations can spice things up like tossing a rattlesnake into a heard of cattle.

Speaking of player duels they can be a mixed bag.  On one hand, they are a lot of fun providing tension, meaningful interaction and a certain thematic sine qua non.  Beyond that, mechanically it is a wonderfully designed element that may combat a runaway leader issue.  Though agreeably not always.  Because the catch-up component isn’t necessarily automatic.  You still need a good hand, deception and an opportune moment to strike.  Or a lot of luck.  When successful, player duels substantially keep others in check thanks to their zero sum nature – your gain in bounty points is the exact equivalent of your target’s loss.

Conversely, all of this interaction can gum things up like an unpolished spittoon.  After all, it’s pretty contentious.  Losing a bounty really stinks.  On top of that, your hand will likely be depleted while suffering such a setback.  That means you’ll need to waste an action to reload before doing much on your next turn. Or worse, you’re now vulnerable if another player goes before you and decides to gang up and take advantage.  Mechanically it also increases session length.  The game ends by depleting the stack of bounty cards.  The more attempts after previously captured outlaws means less cycling through the deck.

This town ain't big enough for...oh, never mind...
This town ain’t big enough for…oh, never mind…

Another small burr in the bar is the reload action.  Design-wise, I understand the purpose.  After a duel, rather than automatically drawing back to your hand limit, you’re shooting blanks.  Indeed worse, you’ve essentially an empty gun!  So if you end your round dueling, you’re vulnerable to being challenged on a subsequent player’s turn aiming to steal a bounty.  Which is really dumb, so don’t do that.  Practically speaking then, any turn in which you duel you effectively have only two actions, because you’re always going to ensure you can reload.  And you’ll be dueling a lot, so that’s the majority of the game.  Maybe it’s more semantic or perhaps my kids and I are a bunch of yellow-bellied city-slickers scared of getting caught with our britches down?  However, we always made sure we could reload after a duel.  There are enough opportunities to use items and location abilities to make challenging players both attractive and effective that I think the design would be better served by allowing for a new hand as part of ending each duel.  That would also avoid any ganging-up.

That said, the three action limit keeps the game tight and focused while generating the bulk of tension.  Bountytown is one of those designs that leave you lamenting you can’t do everything you want.  Which is a good thing, essentially making every decision a crucial one.  It also strikes a nice balance in number of options.  I appreciate how the move action allows you to go anywhere in town, rather than spatially restricting you only to adjacent spots.  And the two action cost to lock up a bounty is more inspired than at first blush.  Protecting those bounties from theft is tempting and often critical to secure points.  So it’s fair that it comes at a small price.  That is essentially an entire turn – one action to move to the sheriff’s office and two to lock ‘em behind bars.

The artwork is fittingly stylized.  Rendered by VPG veteran Brett Mitchell, who also illustrated Villainous Vikings, the form works particularly well in Bountytown.  The portrait-style drawings remind one of the Old West wanted posters and the earthy and drab colors are appropriately suitable for the rugged and rustic theme.  Beyond that, the components are customary VPG fare.  The character standees work just fine, though more difficult to wipe the soot from the intricate cuts and edges when punched.  The cards, unfortunately for a Poker game, are of lesser stock than what you’re accustomed to from a standard deck.

All in a day's work for an honest...or not so honest...bounty hunter.
All in a day’s work for an honest…or not so honest…bounty hunter.

Bountytown isn’t the first board game to incorporate Poker, but it does it well and for arguably the most appropriate of themes.  Smoothly blended with its action point allowance mechanic, the vying aspect is simplified to appease casual players, while still retaining the showdown and bluffing qualities that make the card game so universally regarded.  Like any rustic frontier town worth its salt, it can be a little rough around the edges the more crowded the table.  But otherwise it provides some straight up fun, flush with tension, whether playing with three of a kind or a full house.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Bountytown.

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  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Poker element smoothly integrated
Great variability
Poker and artwork nicely thematic
Paces well with 3-4
Games are usually pretty close

Cons:

Poker isn’t everyone’s cup of tea
Dueling players not always as effective
Downtime increases quite a bit with 5-6

7.0 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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