The high noon sun beats down mercilessly. Sweat soaks your hat’s wide brim, tiny droplets rolling down the side of your unshaven jaw. Your horse snorts nonchalantly as you slowly ride into the town’s dusty main street, coolly observing the surroundings. Wary townsfolk eye you suspiciously. Shop owners scramble inside, shuttering their windows. Young ladies hurry their children along, out of site – and out of danger? Tumbleweed rolls lazily by. At the end of the narrow street, you find your target. The ramshackle jail what holds your gang and you’re here to break them out. With files? A sturdy rope? Dynamite? Nah…you’ve got your dice!
How it Plays
Desperados of Dice Town, as you might gather from the name, is all about dice and desperados. Specifically, you play a gang leader busting to spring your posse from the old “Graybar Hotel.” Each player also rolls into town with a stash of money – and this purse will be taking some hits throughout the game.
While blazing six-guns and a pack of dynamite would probably work faster, it’s also pretty violent and messy. So instead of Sam Peckinpah, you get Laura Ingalls Wilder – this jailbreak involves rolling dice. Though that was considered just as sinful as murdering and thieving back in the day.
Your gang consists of five incarcerated characters, each one a specific type. You have your Brains of the outfit, your Ugly, a Tough guy, the Lady, and the Boss, all identified by a particular icon. The whole gang is represented by individual, large round cards laid out before you with the “jail” side face up. Cards have numbers, from 1 through 2 (the Brains) on up to 1 through 6 (the Boss), around their circumference with a key symbol at the end, indicating the number of actions needed to bust them out of the Hoosegow.
On your turn, you roll four custom dice. You may throw these up to three times, keeping whichever results you like while re-tossing the others (Yahtzee, anyone?). The dice have faces with icons matching the five character types and an action symbol on the sixth side. Action symbols are matched to the icon(s) you roll along with them to allow those characters to take “actions.” Multiple action symbols can be matched to the same character icon, but not vice versa. So if you roll an action, the Boss, the Tough, and the Ugly – then any one of those three characters may use the lone action. If you roll two actions, the Boss, and the Lady – then either your Lady or the Boss can take both actions, or each can take one apiece.
When still behind bars, the only action your gang members may take is to move one step closer to freedom – so you rotate cards one click towards the keys for every action per character. When you finally bust one loose, turn him/her over, and now he/she can hit your opponents for each action, making them loose money. Each character type across all gangs (excepting the Brains) hits opponents for the same amount. The easier they are to spring from jail, the less money they hit for – but the more actions you roll in a turn, they greater damage they can cause.
The trick is you can only hit opponents as long as their same character type is still in jail. So if you hit with the Lady, only those gangs with the Lady still locked up take the monetary hit. Anyone with his/her Lady free is immune to the attack.
The Brains characters act differently – each gang’s has a special ability for their freed actions. Rather than hitting other players for money in the regular fashion, actions trigger these unique effects. Also, Desperados has card play. These provide a good variety of rules-breaking abilities – anything in the form of tacking on extra hits, backfires, stealing, protection, mitigating dice rolls, and gaining back some of your lost cash.
All of the attacking and card play is important because you need the most money to win. Of course, the goal is to spring all of your mates for the next big bank heist or train robbery. But getting out is not enough. Rather, the first leader to free their entire gang and have the most money wins.
Good, Bad or Ugly?
One of the defining staples of the Western genre is the Good guys versus the Bad guys. Used to, the sheriff was always clean cut and wore the white hat; while the outlaws wore black and were dirty and unshaven. Modern Westerns now often blur that line, but it still usually comes down to good vs. bad in the end. Most of the time, people would rather be the hero. Who wants to be a low-down, ignorant, murdering, horse-stealing varmint? But sometimes, you just want to shoot up the town. This is your game for those times.
Desperados is part of what is now called the Dice Town “universe,” probably with tongue firmly in cheek. Essentially, it has the same look as the first game with the same great artist, Pierô La Lune, the same designers, and they are both Westerns, of course. And both titles use dice mechanics. Other than that, they play differently. In the this one you’re basically aiming for sets, and in the later you’re trying to roll poker hands. But you know, “universe.”
At its core, Desperados is a social game. It’s not quite a filler in the sense that I would think of that term, but some might view it as such. In truth, it generally does not take long to play. It’s interesting, though, because it has much more direct interaction than the typical social game or filler. Not only is interaction part of the game, but you must attack your opponents to win. Trying to free your gang before everyone else through exciting, push-your-luck dice rolls is already fun and generates lots of screams – both of delight and anguish! But “free at last” is not good enough. You also need to hit the other players to lighten their purses along the way.
The cards add a lot to the design, and the game would not be nearly as fun – or funny – without them. Most cards are pretty significant and create big swings in play and/or fortuitous breaks for its owner. In fact, they can be maddeningly frustrating, but still a blast to play. If enough of them are circulating, the game becomes just as much about the cards as the dice! There are four ways to acquire these. If you fail to roll any actions on your turn, you get one as a consolation prize – but again, these powerful abilities can be a very good consolation. If you roll a triple, you may draw three cards, instead of taking an action, and keep one of them (rolling a quadruple lets you draw four and keep two). One gang’s unique Brains ability allows you to draw cards for his escaped actions. And finally, there are some cards that allow you to steal or draw or keep more cards.
Knowing when to hold cards and when to play them can make a big difference, which adds to the game’s push-your-luck element. Do you use “Never Ever” to avoid an attack now? Or wait, hoping to spring it for protection against a more damage hit? There’s more than a little bluffing involved, because these benefits create tension and suspense as you never know when a large attack might backfire in your face. Best of all, they provide even more laughs. Unless you get your feelings hurt easily, in which case, you should probably play something else.
Not only do you, as a player, need the interaction to meet the win condition, but the game really needs it, as well. A lack of interaction can be the only main issue in Desperados. The game is literally made for it. If everyone rushes to bust their prisoners out immediately in some peace-loving general amnesty, then attacks become difficult because the likelihood increases that multiple players will have their same characters escaped, thus possessing immunity to attacks. Then the only way to attack others is through card play, so everyone sits and waits while you all try to draw the right cards by rolling triples and etc. For it’s weight and style, that can take the steam out and potentially drag.
Otherwise, with the dice and cards and luck and bluffing, Desperados has a nice poker aspect to it – which fits the Old West theme. It has a nice “show-down” feel, the interaction is appropriate given the game’s mood, and you’ll need to read your opponents when they’re holding a hand of cards that just might create mischief for you. And money is poker chips, so that’s cool. They are cardboard chips, but still just right for the overall theme, nonetheless.
The design works well with two players and runs pretty quick. However, as a humorous casual game, it’s really suited more for 3-4 gunslingers shooting the bull and some time. This one doesn’t take itself too seriously with cartoony, but cool looking, artwork, corny card text, clichéd character types, and Western gang names. It know its limits and has fun with it. However, even though it’s not a strategy game, it should still appeal widely – from families looking to have a blast together to hardcore Euro gamers wanting a light, amusing diversion. Plus it’s an attractive price point, so there’s value.
Desperadoes of Dice Town is a fast, furious, and funny family game. Don’t go into this one expecting any strategy, clever choices, or tough challenges. You do make a few decisions and there are cards to mitigate luck, so perhaps Desperados is a step up from its dice gaming deputies. However, make no mistake, partner – they don’t call it the “wild, wild West” for nothing. It’s chaotic and brutally interactive as you push your luck and risk it all with every roll, laughing the whole time at your own misfortunes and others’ misery just the same.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee Games for providing a review copy of Desperados of Dice Town.