Friday, 14 May 2010


Homesteaders is published by a small publisher, Tasty Minstrel Games, and is designed by Alex Rockwell (a.k.a. alexfrog), a BGG member well known for his strategy articles, especially on Puerto Rico. Given this background, I expected Homesteaders to be a deep Eurogame, and I was right.

The Game

The rules of Homesteaders are surprisingly simple. In a nutshell, you participate in 10 auctions, in which winning some will allow you to construct some buildings, and throughout the 10 rounds you make use of your building powers to gain resources, which can be used for constructing more buildings or earning victory points. But then, the devil is in the details. In this game, that means the buildings.

Buildings give various types of benefits. The basic type is giving you a resource (wood, food, iron, money, livestock, gold etc) every round. Sometimes this benefit requires you to assign a worker to the building. Some buildings allow you to convert something to something else. Some buildings give a one-time benefit when you build it. Some buildings give victory points at game end depending on a specific criteria (i.e. like the big buildings in Puerto Rico and San Juan.

The auctions are in most cases for the rights to build a certain types of buildings. You don't bid for a specific building. This means you have some flexibility in pursuing different strategies. Sometimes the rights being auctioned allow you to build more than one type of building, sometimes all types. Sometimes they also give you bonuses, like a free worker. You have to be careful with workers though. Once you hire, you can't fire. You must pay their full salaries whether you use them or not. So it's not a good idea to employ more people than you have work for.

There is always one right less than the number of players up for auction every round, which means at least one player will not win any right. Sometimes more than one player will suffer this fate, when they can't afford or do not want to pay even the minimum bid. These players get to advance on a Railroad Development Track, which I think of as a consolation prize track, because you do gain a consolation prize. The types of prize you can choose from depends on how many times you've failed to win an auction. These prizes are actually quite helpful. So not winning any auction is not too big a disaster. In fact I suspect sometimes you may not even be interested in any of the rights up for auction (just a wild guess, since I've only played this game once).

The game board is very simple, 3 spaces for auctions (3rd one empty because it is for 4-player games only), and one Railroad Development Track a.k.a. consolation prize track. This board was actually home-made by Allen because he didn't like the board that came with the game. This one is mounted and quite sturdy. Graphics is exactly the same as the original board.

Some of the buildings.

One important concept in the game is the marketplace and the trade chits. You can always buy and sell goods (and hire workers) at the marketplace. The buying and selling prices are the same, i.e. trading is not a viable business model. Every transaction costs you a trade chit, a special resource type in the game, which limits how many times you can use the marketplace.

The Play

Han, Allen and I played a 3-player game (the game supports only 3 or 4 players). Although the game structure and rules were very simple, I quickly realised that there was a lot more to the game. There were many buildings to consider, and it was very overwhelming trying to come up with much of a strategy in the first game. Han got a gold mine, which was very helpful in maintaining good cash flow. He mined gold every round, and could use the gold as $5. He won the most auctions throughout the game, and also kept the start player marker most of the game. Allen tried to grab as many victory points as quickly and as early as possible. I decided to try to get as many railroad tiles and workers as possible. Railroad tiles give $1 every round. During the game I tried to get buildings which gave victory points based on the number of railroad tiles and workers. My cash flow was pretty bad, and I lost many auctions. I was struggling.

At game end when we tallied up our scores, it came as no surprise that Han beat both Allen and I handily, at 60pts. What surprised we was I actually narrowly beat Allen, 41pts to 37pts. I had been so sure I would be dead last.

Railroad tiles, buildings and workers are public information, i.e. in front of the player screen. The rest of the resources are secret. I had a lot of trade chits, but I never quite knew what to do with them.

The game moved very fast. Many things could be done simultaneously, e.g. assigning workers, gaining resources. The auctions went fast, since most of the time money is tight. I literally had a headache because of analysing the many building abilities and working out possible strategies, within the very short time between actions in the game. It was like trying to eat a 10-course meal in 15 minutes. Too much to digest.

The Thoughts

Homesteaders is a game that takes less than half a game to learn the mechanics, and probably 10 times that to learn the strategies. There is still so much I have not yet explored - different combinations of buildings, strategies focused on different types of goods, etc.

This is very much a Eurogame, so don't expect much in terms of theme. It's all about the game mechanics. Player interaction is all via the auctions, which sometimes can be quite brutal. The game is very streamlined. I am amazed at the depth that could be achieved given such a short playing time. There is nothing ground-breaking in terms of mechanics, so the game can feel a bit samey to other deep Eurogames.


John Biggs said...

I came across your blog and am very impressed with your analysis of games and the vastness of it. Very enjoyable read.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks John. :-)

wankongyew said...

Hmm, I heard about this guy from his extensive strategy articles on Agricola. I've been curious about this game but I still don't really understand how it plays.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

From just reading the downloaded rules (which are very straight-forward), it is very hard to imagine how the game works. You will really need to look at the buildings themselves to know the various possibilities you have. Via the auctions, you have to try to put together a combination of buildings that generate you a good number of victory points. And because these are auctions, you don't always get what you want. Throughout the game you need to manage your resources and your workers. You have to manage cash flow, because otherwise you will keep losing out at the auctions. I'd say this is an engine-building game. You need your "engine" to maintain good cash flow and good resource production, so that you continue to be competitive in the actions and continue to be able to build more buildings. But of course all this is working towards the final goal of earning as many victory points as you can. In a way, it's similar to many eurogames, but you'll probably need to play the actual game to see its uniqueness.