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Review: Western Town

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The Wild West!  Full of romance, beauty, new starts, and those really cool swinging doors!  Also full of bushwhackers, hostile natives, unforgiving weather, and people who don’t bathe but once a month!  Now, with Game Salute bringing a new western themed Euro from all the way across the Pond, you can you carve your name into the vast American wilderness.  Will you bring peace and civilization by constructing general stores, banks, and the railroad?  Or will your rustic, frontier community squalor in crime and vice by bringing in the saloon, gallows, and outlaw’s hideout?  Of course, we all know which one is more fun, nudge, nudge.  Well, find out – because victory points and anachronisms abound in Western Town.

How it Plays

Western Town is a city-building, resource management, and building activation strategy game.  It also has some elements of bluffing and deduction.  As marshal of your own 1860’s frontier town, you will utilize buildings to collect resources, lure settlers, and build other buildings with which to repeat the process through five game turns.  Watch out for Indian raids as you grow too big.  The player with the most points (the calculation of which varies each game) gets a big, fat, “Thank you” from President Lincoln himself!  You heard that right…Honest Abe.  Read further.

Each player begins the game with their own personal town board and four cowboys to defend against the Indians.  All of these boards have the same four basic buildings to get you started.  Players also randomly draw a marshal who specifies a variable amount and type of resources you begin with, plus gives you a fifth building.  To conclude the set-up, you’ll lay out seven additional buildings which will be available for construction (each player has their own personal set).  Two of these are random; you will add two more random tiles each of the next two turns.  Every building tile comes with a corresponding card.  When you build something, you add the tile to your town board and take its card into your hand, which is used to activate that building in future turns.

A three-player set-up.

Each of the five rounds is played out the same.  First, a Lincoln card is drawn and identifies what he’s looking for most that round – a combination of inhabitants, lure, or exported gold.  Next, everyone selects cards from their available stock (which corresponds with buildings already in their town) to form their hand.  Each may have 4, 5, or 6 cards, depending on the development of their town.  Then, beginning with the Lead Marshal (determined randomly at first), players take turns playing cards from their hands in a unique individual/simultaneous fashion.

The Lead Marshal plays one card, activating that building and resolving its effects.  Only the carpenter allows you to build new buildings.  Most others provide the various resources that the game includes, and/or give you specific actions.  Then also, available first in turn three, are the “green star” buildings which remain in the play area once constructed.  Instead of requiring a card for activation, these buildings provide a permanent benefit that triggers when a certain event occurs.  After playing his first card, the Lead Marshall and the player to his left play one each simultaneously.  This paired action resolution continues around the table with the last player activating her second of two cards individually, just as the Lead Marshall started.

While this building activation sequence is original, it is still nonetheless a solo affair.  What really mixes things up is the next stage, called the Exploit Phase.  Again, beginning with the Lead Marshall, each player takes turns going around to either play and activate a third building, exploit a building in neighboring town, or pass.  You cannot pass until you’ve played your third and final card.  That action is resolved in the same manner as the first two in the previous phase.  Passing declares you out for the remainder of that round.  The first player to pass also becomes the new Lead Marshal.

First choose which cards to make your hand, then pick which ones to activate.

Exploiting buildings is different.  In addition to a building’s play effect upon activation, each one also has a separate, generally smaller, exploit effect.  On your turn during this part of the round, you can show a card from your play area or hand that matches one played earlier by your neighbor to the left or right.  Turn that player’s card over and resolve the exploit effect listed.  If the card you are using to exploit came from your hand, you return it to your hand.  It was not “played,” therefore does not fall to the table.  If one of your played buildings was exploited earlier and thus flipped over, you cannot use that card to exploit another.  You may exploit your opponents’ buildings as many times as possible.  Of course, once out of options and after having played your third card, you must then pass.

When the round is concluded, everyone consults the Lincoln card.  Whoever has the most combined points in the resources that the president desires that round wins the card, which gives that player an extra house; yet another of the game’s resources (some buildings require that you have a certain number of houses before you may erect them).  Players then collect all cards remaining in their hand, with those played and exploited on the table, as well as the unused ones from the stock.  Draw a new Lincoln card for the next round and then select another hand for play.

In addition to the Exploit Phase, Indian raids provide another form of semi-interaction.  The developing towns cause the natives to grow concerned and restless.  As you activate certain buildings you will be required to roll an Indian die which will add warriors to a separate Indian camp.  There are two tribes, both of which attack at slightly different strengths and target different towns.  If you can time it right, you may just set-up and Indian raid that targets one of your neighbors.  But be careful, sometimes these ambushes are unpredictable and the tables may turn on you.  You must have cowboys to defend your town, otherwise you’ll lose a structure (or maybe inhabitants) that costs precious resources or a special card activation to repair.  A fun twist in this process is that the Grand Manitou gets to choose the building that is targeted.  That role is always played by the person to the right of the Lead Marshal.  So often times, you can really try to cripple your neighbor.  Unless it’s your town that is under assault, in which case you’re free to choose a less critical mark.

Hear the war drums in the distance? No? Neither did we, really.

After the fifth round, the Lead Marshal collects all of the Lincoln cards to calculate final points.  First you’ll count how many times the three resources – inhabitants, lure, and exported gold – show up on the cards and multiply that by the number you have in each category.  Then, you’ll earn a few points based on how you rank in the number of homes that you possess from among all players.  Finally, some buildings are worth points, either straight up or for meeting particular conditions, and you add these, as well.  The player with the highest score is declared the rootinest, tootinest marshal of the West winning a cabinet post in Lincoln’s administration as Secretary of Historical Inaccuracies.

Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word?

There’s plenty to like about Western Town.  But I have to start with the wonky thematic bits, because I really like theme.  Right away, both of my fourth-grade boys questioned the use of Lincoln.  Chronologically, it fits, since the rulebook clearly states the time period as the 1860’s.  However, very few people associate the 16th president with the myth and image of the Old West.  I’m sure he wouldn’t want too many people settling out West, but rather stay back East and fill the army’s ranks and civilian factories.  The desire for exported gold makes a little more sense in order to fill the war chest.  Furthermore, all of the artwork seems to depict the Southwest, which is problematic for two reasons.  That was not really the growing “frontier” of the 1860’s, and the game uses the French-Indian term “Manitou,” an Algonquin reference from the Great Lakes region.  Furthermore, why are you a marshal, rather than a mayor or rail baron or something?  Since when were lawmen responsible for building up a town?  Plus, it would have been better to use sheriff, since marshals generally refer to federal agents and are responsible for a regional jurisdiction.  And then there’s the whole cowboys versus Indians cliché?  If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Western Town was designed by a 1950’s Hollywood director, complete with super-tanned, white actors playing the roles of Indians.  But while I may roll my eyes at all the thematic elements, what about the rest?

The bank requires 1 wood, plus 1 wood or gold, and 7 houses to construct (see lower right of tile).

Player decisions drive WesternTown.  There are only three random elements, all of which are minor and affect everyone equally.  The first two deal with the types of buildings that will be available during the game and what resources Lincolndesires.  Rather than creating frustration or chaos, these two factors instead make every game a little bit different, adding to the overall replay value.

The third random element, Indian raids, are a touch more unpredictable, but one can always make sure to have enough cowboys for defense.  Indeed, these attacks are resolved by pure numbers, meaning there’s really not much suspense.  The only sense of immediacy is in replacing cowboys after successfully defending, so as to not risk later exposure.  As a Euro game, I understand the desire to give players a good deal of control over this more chaotic component.  But as a result, it’s an awkwardly disjointed mechanic, forcing players to address yet more resources whose only benefit is in preventing penalties to the ones that actually produce points.

Player town boards do not come with real muddy streets. Even I think theme can go too far…

Not only are player decisions the heart of game play, they’re also tough and provide a good deal of tension.  Basically, you’re only activating three buildings in a given round.  That’s most acutely felt in construction, with only one building each turn.  You can build a second carpenter’s shop which would potentially allow you to build two buildings.  But, still, if that doesn’t sound like much, believe me, it’s not.

There are times you wish you could do more, because the game forces you to diversify.  You can, and usually will, concentrate in a couple areas of production, but you will lose if you ignore other things.  The endgame scoring already requires you to address inhabitants, lure, exported gold, houses, and buildings.  Inhabitants score slightly different from lure and gold, which all score differently than houses and buildings.  While abundance in one category can sometimes make up for a lack in another, it’s not always that cut-and-dry.  Plus, in addition to these scoring related resources, you must still make sure you don’t neglect cowboys for defense.

Blacksmith is a permanent effects card that provides 2 cowboys when the Indians attack.

While the number of actions is limited, there are two ways to augment them.  First, there are a couple of buildings that allow you to re-play a previously played building.  Essentially, then, you’re activating four buildings instead of three, and one of them will be duplicated.  Worth noting, if that duplicated building is the carpenter, you can manage two new buildings that turn.

The second, more intricate, method of increasing your production is in exploiting your neighbors.  Simply put, this segment of the game is brilliant.  It gives WesternTown character and adds an interactive element without being overly abrasive.  However, it can be swingy.  In one round you’ll be able to do quite a bit extra, while the next you end up accomplishing very little.  Typically, this tends to balance out between players over the course of all five turns, though the better or more experienced player will often prevail.  The Exploit Phase offers a few dimensions that require some careful planning to reap to the fullest.

First is the bluffing and deduction aspect to the mechanic.  At the beginning of each turn, you select your hand for that round from the stock of available buildings which you’ve already completed.  Obviously, you’ll want to pick cards which will net you some much needed resources or abilities, but you must also consider what your opponents (specifically neighbors) might play.  If you don’t have the matching card to a building they’ve played, then you’re unable to exploit it.  The reverse is true, as well.  If you can manage to play buildings that are unique from your opponent’s hands, then you’re safe from being exploited yourself.

Exploiting Stagecoach Depot lets you take 2 inhabitants if you have less than 4 lure (see bottom row of icons).

Since the two buildings you activate in the first phase are vulnerable to exploitation in this one, you’ll want to balance the order in which you play your cards.  If a neighbor activated Gold Mine, and you have the same card in your hand, you may not want to play it in the first phase.  That way you can exploit the gold mine first, and then lay it down later as your third play and receive its normal effects.

There’s even a smidge of push-your-luck with this part of the game.  Any card played to the table is exposed to exploitation by neighbors.  Therefore, not only are you concerned with the order you play your own cards, but also with the order of how everyone else may try exploiting each other.  If you correctly deduce how others will play, you can potentially rack up a lot of resources.  If you misjudge a move thinking it will be available your next turn, things can quickly spiral out-of-control in the opposite direction.

WesternTown is not a casual game.  For one, the rulebook is somewhat unwieldy, which might be chalked up to translation.  To be fair, it is kind of a difficult game to explain.  Turn structure is straight-forward, but the exploit phase sounds more cumbersome than it is until you’ve played a round or two.  The main barriers to learning are all of the icons and the fiddliness.  Not only does each resource have an icon for representation on cards or tiles, but many times icons are associated with an action symbol to identify things like “or,” “discard,” “exchange,” and “if.”  It has an extensive amount of cube pushing as you collect, exchange, and spend resources.  Then finally, the endgame scoring is mentally fiddly enough that it includes a small, handy pad of score sheets.  Suffice it to say, there is a moderate to high learning curve to this title, depending on your gaming experience, of course.  Most seasoned Euro gamers will grasp it well enough during their first game, but other types may struggle longer.

Civic Pride is not associated with a building, but activating it let’s you resolve the effects of a previous played building, again.

Due to the nature of the Exploit phase, Western Town shines a great deal more with three or four players so that you have more opportunities to exploit.  In fact, if there are only two of you, you’re better off with another title, in my opinion.  For more than two, this title is a nice medium-weight option that plays in around ninety minutes or less and clips along at a reasonable pace, yet still offers meaningful decisions.  The production values are off the charts.  It is a visually stunning game with nice artwork, colors, and design layout.  The wooden bits are fine.  The boards, tiles, and tokens are all super thick.  The cards are also sturdy and linen textured.

Lots of stuff to keep track of. And here I thought marshals only busted heads and took names.

Western Town is primarily a Euro with player-driven game mechanics, a good deal of tension, tough choices, and plenty of them.  There is some fiddliness in managing your resources and towns, a good deal of cube pushing, and some times you really will be wishing you could do more.  Meanwhile the Exploit Phase introduces a well-balanced interaction element that gives the title some heart and soul, without over-frustrating players.  This will appeal to gamers who prefer a bit more direct conflict, while not driving off hardcore Euro fans, at the same time.  Briskly paced, smooth, and with little downtime, Western Town is a solid choice for anyone looking for a medium-weight offering that plays in under ninety minutes – and who can forgive a few thematic miscues.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute for providing a review copy of Western Town.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Player decisions drive game play
  • Nice pace with minimal downtime
  • Great tension and usually close
  • Interaction is well integrated and reasonable
  • Good replay value

Cons:

  • Has a learning curve
  • Can be mentally and cube-pushing fiddly
  • Exploit phase may frustrate some
  • Will be wishing you could do more
  • Not heavily thematic
8.0 Very Good

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

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