23 September 2011

Carson city [Boardgame review]

I got this game from my friend Calle, as he pretty much wanted to throw it away. I asked why, and he said that he could not even begin to understand how the hell the game worked. I laughed and poked at him, then tried to figure it out myself and came to the same conclusion.

Carson city is one of those wonderful games that are at the core really simple but somehow appear to by overly complex. The rulebook does not help in this regard, and I did some research on the internet in order to fully get a grip of how the game works. The main fault is that the rulebook lacks any kind of flow chart or summary. It does explain how every single feature works, but it is all out of context imo. What surprised me was what a fun game it was, once you actually know how the hell to play it.

So let's start from the beginning.

Carson city is a old west themed worker management game, 2-5 players compete against each other as they build the city of Carson from scratch. The goal is to cash in as many victory points as possible by the end of turn 4.

Now you generate victory points through numerous ways but it all boils down to earning money which in turn is exchanged either by you yourself through various actions or by the game itself automatically at the end of each turn. Already I feel that I'm getting ahead of myself.

The game starts with randomly determine the turn of play for all players involved. When the turn order is sorted out, you generate Carson city mountain tiles by rolling 2D6 and placing them on the areas generated by your result. This is followed up by each player, starting with the first, placing 1 parcel on the map. Anywhere you wish as long as the area is not already occupied by another players parcel. Players work their way from the first to the last player placing the first parcel, then in reversed order they place a 2nd parcel.

These two parcels are the starting land owned by each player upon which a building can be built. Buildings need a free parcel owned by the player to be built, so parcels are pretty important for the overall strategy in this game.

 When the starting position parcels have been placed the players pick 1 out of the 7 "character cards". Each character card provides a bonus ability for the remainder of the turn. These characters also function as turn initiative markers. So after all players have picked their character the turn sequence is corrected according to the character currently held by each of the players. For instance, the Sheriff, has turn initiative value 1. So a player picking the sheriff will always go first that turn. The interesting thing here is that the sheriff is limited as to how much money you can keep at the end of the turn and while he does provide you with 1 "Sheriff" cowboy marker that cannot be challenged by the other players he is not really that interesting.

On the other hand, late turn sequence characters such as the Army character can allow you to quickly boost your ranks with additional workers if you have the cash to spare. So picking character cards each turn is a matter of an ever changing personal strategy. During turn 1 you may wish to do one thing, and as such you may want to be early in the turn initiative - or you may prefer to pick a more potent character and be further down the turn initiative from the other players. What is important is that at the end of the turn you have to follow the "max income" limit printed on your character card and discard any surplus money you have.

Again, during one turn you may want to stockpile money for the following turn, while in the following turn you may want to spend a lot. The character you had in the previous turn decides how much money you will start with during the next turn. This is a very interesting mechanic and it works really well. And to not make the player going first "auto win" the game by being able to pick the characters first next turn, the game has a built in mechanic that allows player to "pass their turn" and by doing so jump down the initiative track ahead of the other players.

Now the game is about earning the victory points I mentioned earlier, and earning money is the main way of getting victory points. But earning money and just having it around is not enough. Preferably you want to buy victory points before the turn ends. Your surplus cash will be exchanged for victory points but at a worse rate than if you exchange money for victory points yourself. Other ways to earn victory points is to have parcels holding buildings or mountains, for having empty parcels and for every 2 "firepower".

So you want to claim pieces of land on the map, buy parcels to place on that land, buy buildings and place those buildings on a parcel. The building will generate income based on the building type and surroundings. A ranch will generate more income if it has empty space all the way around it, while a mine will generate more cash for each adjacent mountain marker. Pretty much all buildings have special criteria that have to be fulfilled in order to generate cash. Some buildings will generate "firepower" tokens as well which brings me to the next step.

As you are competing against the other you place workers on the map where you want to claim land, raid buildings, protect your own revenue and also place workers on various actions that can be performed. Almost all actions are exclusive, meaning only 1 player can perform them during 1 turn. Players will clash over strategic slots such as buying buildings, exchanging money for victory points, getting roads, gambling, cashing in building revenue etc.
Workers placed on the map or in any of the above action slots are dedicated to that action. If another player places his worker in the same slot there has to be a duel to decide which player gets to perform said action.

Duels are fought by rolling 1D6 each, adding to that fire power tokens, workers in reserve  and any other potential positive modifiers from character cards or game tokens. The player rolling the highest total wins the duel and forces the other player/players to retreat. The defeated workers are not discarded but placed in the worker reserve pool. This means that players who are getting defeated numerous times actually get stronger as their worker reserve pool is increased and thus enhancing their next duel modifier. The winner gets to either perform the action or simply discard the victorious worker. Sometimes you just want to prevent your opponent from being able to perform a specific action which would earn that player lots of victory points.

So for 4 turns, the players pick characters, place workers on the map and action track, duel each other, build buildings, raid enemy income and try to squeeze forth as much money as they can so they can boost their position on the victory track by another few points.

The game board itself is really good looking and is actually double sided. One side has a river running across the map while the other is all desert.  The character cards are also double sided, with "basic" and "advanced" game versions of their rules. The game also features a alternative for dice based duels by having small tokens with numbers printed on their backs which could be used instead if you don't like the random outcome of the duel combat when using dice.

The components are solid but not mind blowing. The parcel markers are simple, the cowboy workers are small wood tokens. More effort has been put into the board itself, the house tokens, the money tokens and the character cards, all of whom are made out of very thick and hard cardboard.  Does it have to be prettier, not really, it's not the kind of game that requires state of the art components. You need to components to keep track of what you are doing more than have them around to create a certain atmosphere.

The game, once you learn it, plays fast and flows really well. The numerous options you are faced with each turn really allow for highly different approaches. You can either try to get your hands on cheap parcels holding lone mountains and cash in on those at the end of the game, try to build the right building type in the right place and pretty much get rich off the other players achievements, gamble a lot or use your work force to generate money rather than focus on building stuff. Sometimes you can feel that you are far behind the other players only to make a huge jump in victory points at the end of the game.

Does it feel like a "western" game then? On the whole I would say it does. You get that backstabbing/pioneer/frontier feeling while playing. I do recommend it, if you have the patience to learn the rules and google around for crib sheets or visit BoardGameGeek to check up on things that aren't fully explained in the rulebook. It can be overwhelming, I'm not sure this rundown of the rules was fully comprehensible, as there is a lot of options that need to be explained. This is NOT a game that you can "learn on the go" when playing newcomers and veteran gamers as everyone needs to know every aspect of the game before you start so that each player has an even chance of winning.

I recommend printing the crib sheet and handing it out to each player so that you know the turn sequence and in what order all the actions are resovled.

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