Thursday, June 09, 2005

Get out of Town you Yellow-Bellied Galoot!

‘Chinaman’ Choy narrowed his already squinty eyes and spoke in gravely tones.

“Get out of my town,” he said evenly, without fear.

The notorious Baker gang stood unflinching, hands poised over Colt Peacemakers and Winchester triggers.

“This here’s our turf now, Chinaman. Best you go on back to San Antonia and take up laundrywarshing.”

Choy surveyed the quartet of gunslingers arrayed against him, “Abilene’s mine, Baker. You and your kin ain’t welcome.”

“Then I reckon this comes to shootin’ irons,” Jeb Baker growled. He went for his gun.

A fusillade of pistol fire rang out. At the end, only the Chinaman still stood, short-shadowed in the noon-day sun.

“I told you to get out of my town,” he spat.

* * *

This week’s theme was “Cowboys and Cutthroats: 19th Century American Capitalism”. In keeping with the theme, dinner was beef burritos and pork and beans, supplemented by jalapeno chips and gummy worms (worms – tequila – get it?). The game for the evening was Way out West. A session of US Patent Number 1 had also been planned, but a late start and enthusiasm for our first game put the nix on that idea.

Way out West is typically described as a tile placement game. It is, in a sense, but it also has a strong wargame-lite element to it which gives it a bit more kick than your average session of Puerto Rico or Tigris and Euphrates. The concept is that the players are robber barons / gang leaders / venture capitalists in the gunslinging, cattle-rustling Wild West. The board depicts five old west towns (San Antonia, Kansas City, Abilene, Dodge City, and Deadwood) of various maximum sizes, each with a upper limit on the number of ranches and buildings that can be placed there. The players begin with $25 and three cowboys. The cowboys are placed one at a time in turn order determined randomly at the beginning, and then the game begins.

The game mechanics seem dense at first, but after an initial hump, they come across (to me, at least) as rather elegantly refined to allow for interesting strategies but also reflect the theme very well.

There are 12 turns (9 in 5 or 6 player games), and every third turn is a money-making turn. The round begins with a short bidding round, beginning with the first player of the last round. The bids proceed until a player does not bid, at which point the player puts in any money already bid (if any) and places his turn order marker on the turn order track. Bidding continues until all the players drop out and the turn order for the turn is determined.

In turn order, each player selects one of several actions: build, hire a cowboy, buy cattle, move cowboys, start a gunfight, drive cattle, or place a farmer. After one round of selecting actions, in turn order, the players select again in turn order for their second action.

Building involves placing one of several types of building, all of which either earn money/VP, multiply money/VP earned, or provide additional security (Jail). Hotels earn $1 for every cowboy belonging to an opponent in the town during a money making turn. Stores earn $1 for each cow belonging to an opponent and $2 for each farmer. Stagecoaches earn $1 each time a cowboy comes into town from out East or leaves the town. Banks earn $2 for every other building or transport belonging to an opponent in the town. Trains double the income from all cattle in the town, not just those belonging to the player. Jails provide a sheriff which can fight for or against inhabitants of a town during a gunfight.

Hiring a cowboy brings in one or two cowboys at a cost of $1 each. Each player has a limited number of cowboys (and buildings, for that matter). Buying cattle works similarly, save that there are restrictions on where cattle can be placed – the towns are numbered 1 to 5, and lower numbered-towns must be more than half full before cattle can be placed in the next higher numbered town.

Moving cowboys involves moving cowboys already on a map, and is usually a precursor (or a result) of a gunfight.

Gunfights involve a simple dice-combat, with the side with the lower number of cowboys firing first, each die roll of 5 or 6 killing an opponent cowboy. When numbers are equal, combat is simultaneous. Cowboys have the option to retreat after the first round of combat, losing the round. This is the principle random / tactical element of the game; everything else is pure strategy. Winners of gunfights steal cattle, take over businesses, burn down jails, rob banks or kill farmers, depending on the target of the showdown.

Driving cattle involves moving a cow from one corral to any other empty corral on a map (useful to get your cattle out of a town with a farmer, or if your control needs shoring up elsewhere).

Placing a farmer is essentially a “screw your neighbour” mechanic. Farmers reduce income (and VP) from cattle in the same town. They also have the ability to displace a cow from the corral they are placed in.

The game is won by a tally of victory points. Buildings count for VP equal to the total number of buildings in town, as do cattle (1 VP) and the special “train” transport, which adds one VP to each cow. Players also earn 5 VP for the most money and 4 VP for being the most notorious. There is also a town bonus (equal to the size of the town) given to the player who “controls” a town by having the highest total of buildings and cattle in a town. Farmers subtract 1 VP per cow in the same town.

I find the theme of this game irresistible, and the integration of theme with game mechanic is very well done. Theme aside, however, this is also a clever little game of strategy and tactics, with a dollop of diplomacy and alliances thrown in for good measure. The only dodgy element of the game is the sometimes frustratingly random results of combat. Despite comments from other reviewers on BGG, I found that most combats, with one or two exceptions, resolved about how one would expect – the outnumbered cowboys usually lost, and when numbers were close or equal, it could go either way. I really enjoyed both games, and felt that despite a serious strategic blunder in the first game, I was having fun throughout.

I did note that Easy suffered what amounted to a two turn dearth of actions due to a daring bank robbery by the Shemp clan. I suppose one could blame Easy for leaving such a juicy target undefended, but we’re still learning. Hopefully that dry spell was not too painful for Easy.

As always, in re-reading the rules after a play through, I did discover two minor things which we did wrong – fortunately, I don’t believe that in either case that it had much effect on our game. First, all cowboys involved in a bank robbery must leave town and disperse to different towns (max one each) if there is a jail in the town that was robbed. I think the bank robbery only happened once, and I don’t think the dispersal of Shemp’s cowboys would have had much effect on the remainder of the game. It’s possible that there was no jail in the robbed town, so the issue may be moot. Second, you must have MORE than half of the corrals full before you can place in the next higher town - we played with if there IS half, you can place them in the next higher town (always when you have a cowboy there). That might have had a larger effect. We'll have to remember that rule for next time.

I thought after playing that I had gotten the “you always roll at least one die in defence” rule incorrect, but after a careful re-reading, it seems we had it right. This seems a little strange to me in that it’s just as safe to leave cattle undefended as to have a cowboy in the same town, but if you had a bank or a jail in town as well, it would be safer to have cowboys rather than depend on the intrinsic defence.

One thing that was not covered in the rules, FAQ or errata as far as I can tell, is what happens when all of the cowboys are killed in a simultaneous combat. We played it as if the defender won in this case. I will check on BGG for confirmation.

This is not a perfect game by any means, but I do find it very successful in a number of areas in which I rate “The Perfect Game”. I also found it fun, which is a key factor for me, at least. Another interesting twist in this game is that it is not economically smart to have a stranglehold on a town - you have to let the other hombres in to get a piece of their action. The various things that can happen in a turn do technically make this a little more dense than would be understandable for most non-gamers, but for me, I found this to be just the right combination of simplicity with diversity of options.

Hapi ran away with the first game (due in no small part to some spectacular gunplay by some of his cowboys) and Easy won the second. I suspect additional games will be closer, and I look forward to paying another visit to the Wild West very soon.

15 comments:

  1. A quick look at BGG determined that the designer says that the defender wins combats in which all cowboys/defenders die. Just FYI.

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  2. I also posted some hypothetical game variants here at BGG:

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geekforum.php3?action=viewforum&forumid=69&gameid=884

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  3. Great post, Kozure... Your intro was a great description of one of the highlights of the games last night (When Luch, hopelessly outnumbered, took down Shemp's forces). Probably not a highlight of Shemp's evening, but I thought it was entertaining...

    Way out West was a very fun game. I agree that this is a great example of a theme which is well integrated into the rules. All the parts work together in a logical way (Your hotel generates money according to the number of opponent's cowboys in town, Banks bring in good sums of money, but they can be robbed, etc).

    In practice, the game felt to me like a cowboy themed cross between El Grande and Fairy Tale (or, to a lesser extent, RA). From El Grande, you have the bidding for turn order, the actions to be chosen from (which are "used up" as players take them, another incentive to go first), the "scoring every third round" mechanism, and the area control aspect (majorities score points at the end game). From Fairy Tale (or RA), we have the rather complex interrelationships between objects... This building is worth a certain amount based on how many of these other things you have. The result works, and once combined with a combat mechanism similar to Pirate's Cove, you have a strategic and tactical game which also involves some luck and excitement.

    I got blown away the first game (came in last) because I totally didn't understand the endgame scoring until it was too late. It's funny, because the way things are setup, the requirements for success DURING the game are almost opposite to those at the ENDGAME (over the course of the game, you nromally make money based on how many counters of your opponent's are in the same city, which would imply that having a few key tokens in each city is the way to go, but at the endgame it's all about majorities). That's not a bad thing, it's actually quite unique and interesting, but the contradiction became really apparent near the end of our second game, where Shemp didn't understand why Luch was trying to take ove Dodge City... it was all about the endgame points! I wonder whether getting really good at this game means focusing on one of two main strategies: aiming for the in-game points (wanted posters, money, etc) vs end-game points (majorities), or if in practice it really has to be a balance of both.

    On my way home, I thought alot about "Strategic Complexity" vs "Rules Complexity". I made an offhand remark last night about how I felt that, as much as I liked the game, that it would never work outside of a gaming group. I was genuinely surprised to hear back that others felt differently. Luch and Shemp suggested that El Grande and Tigris and Euphrates where more complicated. I guess my position would be that those games are easier to "explain" (i.e. they have fewer rules, fewer excpetions, etc), but it takes longer before you understand WHY you would do any of these things. As I think of it, Modern Art is very similar. Players very quickly know "how" to play the game, but are usually at a loss to understand how much to bid, or what they can do to turn the game to their advantage, etc. Way Out West, Fairy Tale, Power Grid, etc are games which may or may not be "Strategically Complex", but seem to me to be "Rules Complex". It's hard to remember the shear amount of things you need to know before getting gowing. There are rules for each interrelationship of each piece, there are rules for placement, there are rules for gunfights (which change according to the number of characters on each side, which buildings are in which towns, or whether anyone is there at all). It goes on. Similarly, Pirate's Cove, a pretty light game in most ways, is a challenge for me to get on the table with non-gamers because by the time I've explained all the parts of the ship, how to upgrade them, how combat works, how to play their turns and what all the treasure types mean, I still have to explain the cards (and what parrots do, how the reinforcements work, the difference between a volley and a battle, etc). Bang! and Puerto Rico are two more games which take long to explain just because of the amount of cards/ buildings which need to be explained and understood before things get going, compared to other games of similar "weight".

    It doesn't make them bad games, and "Strategically complex" games are not any easier for newbies to play than the "Rules complex" ones, but it is an aspect of game design that I admire, when rules are distilled enough that everything works without a need for hundreds of rules.

    Anyway, that was really long, but I'm curious what you guys think about it!

    Way out West: 7.5

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  4. I feel this game is a 5 on the rules complexity scale (Puerto Rico making it up to 6 and Tigris ranking around 3 or 4). I think its strategic complexity is actually a bit more deep than its rules complexity. Not as deep as, say, Tigris and Euphrates/Chess/Go, but certainly very interesting.

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  5. Actually, after reviewing the rating I have given other games, I've decided to revise this to an 8.

    Dont' get me wrong, I thought it was a very good game. Complexity isn't a BAD thing (I also think power grid is very good), just that it can be an obstacle to teaching to other people. I'd probably rate it higher than you did, complexity wise, but you're probably comparing it to wargames and such, which obviously bury this one on a scale of complexity.

    Anyway, in the end it doesn't matter because WAGS is our group, and we know it now and I look forward to playing it again!

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  6. Also, I wanted to add that the "Bank incident" didn't bother me much at all. Your financial analysis on BGG was interesting, and it's obviously not as good an investment as I suspected, but the simple fact that no building can be placed into a city twice ensures that at some point, if the larger cities are to be filled, someone will build one. It was my own fault that I didn't protect it better... no need for different rules in my opinion (although the part about 1d6 per cowboy... maybe to a MAX of 3d6, sounds interesting). Your other variant, with the kitty and the various places to withdraw money, is likely well balanced but fairly complex.

    Also, I noted from Tom Vasel's review that any one player can only build a maximum one 2 buildings in any one town!!! That would certainly encourage more cattle rustling!

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  7. We played with building only two buildings. You can steal as many as you like - but you can only build two. We played that way in both games.

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  8. Really? So Luch must have stolen 2 buildings in Dodge City...

    Funny, because my original plan when starting the second game was to build 4-5 buildings in the 5th town (don't remember the name), to go for the 5x5 bonus. Circumstances led me to go another way, I guess that was a good thing!

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  9. I know he definitely stole one (Shemp's). It's possible he slipped building a third under my radar, but most of the time I was watching closely to make sure people weren't building more than two.

    *shrug*

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  10. So much to respond to! May be somewhat disjointed -

    First - loved the game. Don't have a handle on strategy yet, but that will come, I'm sure. Give it an eight, mainly for the reasons already outlined by Kozure. The theme really enhanced the game, and I don't usually care about theme all that much, myself. There's a small deduction for leaving lots of empty space on the board while making the areas for cowboys too small.

    I also especially liked that getting a stranglehold on a town is suboptimal - but once you share a town with a rival gang, you are in danger of losing resources to them. I think this sets up a situation where the endgame is always going to be fairly exciting, since 'going for it' is the option that makes the most sense a lot of the time.

    I like the idea of the "peacekeeping" tokens and victory points raised in one of the variants at your link - that is something that would be worth trying, in my opinion.

    Now, on the complexity front, I don't find the rules on this one very confusing at all. Each piece does it's own thing, and learning how those work and interact makes the game Strategically complex, but rules-wise, I thought this was a walk in the park. Bid to determine turn order. Everyone does two actions in turn, limited by the allowable actions on the board. Bid again. Score every three turns. Not allowed to ranch in a bigger town unless there are already a certain number of cattle in the smaller town. Not allowed to place cattle in a town unless you have a cowboy there. Roll dice to resolve conflicts. It's all pretty basic stuff, and there's about seven steps to remember. So, I'm disagreeing there, on the complexity. And I have a real hard time believing that T&E is easier to explain, if that is indeed what you said up there, Easy.

    Strategy wise, like I said, I don't have a handle on it yet, so, sure, it's complex.

    I don't think that either of the rules errors we made would have changed things that much, had they not been made - my cowboys that robbed the bank were killed the next turn, I do believe - the cattle rule was equally wrong for everyone, so we could just consider it to be a 'variant', eh?

    I suspect you will always need to balance the need for income with the need for victory points, or the number of available actions will just dwindle to nothing.

    AND

    As we were driving home, Luch and I agreed that the bidding mechanism feels a little bit tacked-on. That said, it is still largely successful & well balanced - I'm looking forward to more plays.

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  11. Oh yeah, AND ---

    Nice write-up, Ko-daddy~!~ Captured the evening, I'd say.

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  12. Been a while since we've had so much discussion! This is great!

    I see where you are coming from now... I agree that the base game is pretty straightforward. When I talk about complexity in this game, I mean the scoring ( the cash each round and the victory points at the end)

    There's lots of pieces and they interelate differently. Plus, they act differently again at the end. Since knowing all those interelationships is crucial to playing the game successfully, I feel that the game is heavy rules wise.

    Again, I didn't say that the game was too complex for us, but I bet if we'd try to teach it to Priscilla, Hilary, my sister, my step father or my mom etc their eyes would glaze over far before you finished explaining all of it. That's all I was saying, and I could very well be wrong.

    Anyway, enough of that. It's a good game, we all enjoyed it, and I suspect we'll see this one again!

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  13. Well, I think that 80% of the games we play would make most people's eyes glaze over - but I do see your point now. You pretty much state the difference in our points of view above - you were talking about playing the game SUCCESSFULLY, whereas I was just talking about following through the mechanics. That's my personal bias, because when I'm confronted with a new game, I just kind of jump in blind. I find that's the method of learning that works best for me personally - not so good for the statistics, though.

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