Saturday, 11 September 2010

Way Out West

The Game

On Thu 9 Sep 2010 (Hari Raya Eve) Han and I joined the Old Town Kopitiam folks to play. We did a 5-player game of Way Out West, an out-of-print Martin Wallace game published in 2000. The game is, of course, a cowboy game. You raise cattle, you develop new towns, i.e. constructing hotels, train stations, stores, banks etc, and most importantly, you have lots of gunfights. Throughout the game you spend money on constructing buildings, buying cattle, employing cowboys, and you try to earn money from your investments, so that you maintain sufficient cashflow to continue your investments. At game end, you score victory points by a number of different criteria. Most of the points come from cattle owned, buildings owned and economic monopoly of towns. You also earn points for being richest, and for being the best gunfighter in the west.

The game has 12 rounds, and in each round you have only 2 actions. There is a chart showing all the possible actions that can be taken in a round. Some actions appear more than once in the chart. When you take an action, you place a marker on the action space, preventing others from taking the same action this round. You earn money once every 3 rounds, so there is some time (i.e. 6 actions) before payday.

The tokens in the game. On the upper left are the cattle and cowboys. There is one single farmer token per player. It's a one-time-use token and it doesn't belong to any player. The two black discs are action markers. On the right are the 6 building types - bank, jail, hotel, store, train, stagecoach.

There are five towns on the board. During game setup some cowboys will already be placed onto the board. There is a fixed number of slots for cattle and for buildings at each town. During the game, you can buy cattle to place in a town, or you can construct buildings. You can also recruit cowboys to protect your properties, and perhaps to, ahem, convince others to share with you some of their properties. Cattle is an important source of income. Most buildings also help earn money. A hotel gives you $1 per other players' cowboy in town. A stagecoach gives you $1 every time another player's cowboy enters or leaves town. A train doubles cattle income. The jail is one unusual building. It doesn't give income, but it gives you an extra gunfighter (i.e. the sheriff) whenever you get into a gunfight. You can even use the sheriff to help another player who is being attacked. The bank is a funny building. (only in a boardgame article you'll see such a statement) The bank provides income for each building in the town, but it can get robbed. If the robbery is successful, the attacking player robs money from the player owning the bank. If the bank owner can't pay up, the robbers get upset (putting it mildly) and burns down the building. In addition to that, if there is a jail in town, all the bank robbers will scram.

Most buildings' benefits are based on other player's properties, e.g. the saloon gives $1 per other players' cattle. This forces you to coexist with others. You won't earn much from buildings if the whole town belongs to you. Also you can't build a third building in a town if you already own two. You can only gain additional buildings by taking them over. It's tricky how to encourage others to also develop "your" town. There is a very intesting tension between confrontation and cooperation.

There are actions that allow you to move your cattle and your cowboys. There is one weird action that allows you to place a farmer. What the farmer does is he halves cattle income in the town he's in, and if he's still around at game end, he can reduce the cattle victory points to zero. Every player only has one farmer token to place for the whole game.

Now, the most exciting part of the game - the gunfights. In a 5-player game, there can be up to 5 gunfights in a round. You basically decide to use your cowboys at a particular town to attack a property in that town owned by another player. Whoever has fewer cowboys roll the dice first, one die per cowboy, plus some additional dice e.g. the sheriff stepping in, or the bank security guard's roll if a bank is being targeted. You hit on a 5 or 6, and an opponent cowboy is killed. The gunfight continues until one side retreats (by dispersing all surviving cowboys to other towns) or is wiped out. The winner gains a nice WANTED poster, used for measuring notoriety at game end. If the attacker wins he takes over the targeted building (or cattle).

That's the game, without going into too much detail. Honest. This game is a very Martin Wallace game - medium-complex Euro with some confrontation, very thematic, tight finances, lots of turn angst. There are a number of small rules which other designers may decide to leave out or simplify, which I'm glad he didn't, because they add a lot to the immersion into the game.

The Play

In our game, right out of the gate the arms race started. Everyone piled on the guns. Heng was the only peaceful guy who tried to avoid confrontation, and even used the cattle movement action to move his cattle to the most distant and quiet town. For normal cattle placement you can only place cattle in a town if the previous town is already at least half full. So normally the cattle slots will fill gradually from the small start town towards the larger end towns. For the first few rounds no shots were fired. However once the gunfights started, things got ugly pretty quickly.

Early game. Only cowboys and cattle placed. See the arms race that had already started in the first two towns, San Antonio and Kansas City. In San Antonio, I was green, Jeff red and Heng orange. Heng's cattle didn't last long there. In Kansas City, Han was yellow and Henry blue.

Round 2. Already there was high tension in the first two towns. I (green) had built a stagecoach at Abilene (town#3). Heng (orange) had started developing distant Deadwood (town#5).

Round 4. Tension was building up at Kansas City (town#2, lower left) and Abilene.

Jeff and I had a stalemate at San Antonio (town#1, i.e. smallest town among the five), and since we were roughly equally matched, neither of us attacked each other. The stakes were not that big anyway. In fact, after the initial big arms race, both of us gradually reduced our cowboys there. It was mutually beneficial. We both continued to gain income from the town, and we could put our cowboys to better use somewhere else. San Antonio stayed peaceful for at least the first half of the game.

In Kansas City (town#2), Han and Henry had a big gunfight. Han eventually became the king of Kansas City, and no one bothered to challenge him for the rest of the game. I invested in Abiline (town#3) early, building a stagecoach early, and later a hotel too. Unfortunately I lost to Henry in a major gunfight, and never managed to recover after that. It was tough for me, losing my cattle, stagecoach and hotel. Henry became the boss of Abiline, and despite some threatening moves later by Jeff and Han, was not challenged for the rest of the game.

A major gunfight broke out here between Han (yellow) and Henry (blue). Heng (orange) stayed to watch the show.

Abilene, where I (green) was first to develop, was later fully taken over by Henry (blue).

Kansas City, now monopolised by Han.

I tried to work on Dodge City (town#4). Han and Heng had established themselves here earlier, so there weren't many slots left for me. However, in a twist of fate, a gunfight broke out between them, and when their number of cowboys dwindled, I grabbed the opportunity to attack and take over some of their properties. Heng was first to invest in Deadwood (town#5). Later Jeff also went in. They were evenly matched, and things were pretty peaceful.

Action shifted to Dodge City, where Heng (orange), Han (yellow) and I (green) all had a bunch of cowboys.

Other than Dodge City (town#4), a lot of action also took place at the initially peaceful San Antonio (town#1). I was already in a bad position, so I decided I had to gamble. I broke the peace and attacked Jeff, despite knowing the odds were against me. Jeff had a jail, i.e. a sheriff on his side. It was not meant to be. I lost my cowboys and of course afterwards Jeff took over the cattle I had there. Peace didn't last at all. Han rode to town for some action, and in the following messy gunfight, all his and Jeff's cowboys were killed, leaving a power vacuum. Henry and I took advantage of this and swooped in quickly. We both took over some of Jeff's cattle. However peace didn't last long. I did yet another gamble, using my two cowboys to attack Henry's two cowboys. The chances were fifty fifty, but since I was very far behind, it was worth a gamble. Unfortunately all I managed to achieve was to get my cowboys killed.

Round 10 of the game. We later realised we had made a mistake. With a 5P game, we should have only played 9 rounds. Kansas City was monopolised by Han (yellow), Abilene by Henry (blue). Some action started to develop at San Antonio (town#1, lower right). I had failed to attack Jeff (red), and now Han (yellow) came to challenge Jeff.

At San Antonio, after the mutual destruction between Han (yellow) and Jeff (red), Henry (blue) and I (green) swooped in.

The opportunist cowboys.

During the game, Heng gradually emerged to be the richest player. He was getting stable income from Dodge City and Deadwood. He had no foothold in any other towns. For quite a number of times he selected to pass instead of taking an action. This was shocking, because in Martin Wallace's games actions are usually very precious. However passing was probably indeed the best thing that he could do. He couldn't construct more buildings because he already had two in those two towns. He wouldn't want to start a fight because the risk would probably be more than the reward. His positions were quite optimised and any rash decision would likely jeopardize that.

Bidding for turn order was pretty fierce in the last round. Heng paid a lot for it, but he still managed to be richest player at game end. Henry was the undisputed top gunfighter. As we tallied the final scores, I realised how important cattle was. I had misunderstood the scoring method. But I think even if I had understood it correctly, I probably wouldn't have been able to do much. Heng, the pacifist, won at 32pts. Henry, the most wanted, was a close second at 28pts. Trigger-happy Han was a distant third at 18pts. Steady Jeff had 17pts. And Downward-spiral Hiew surprisingly had 16pts. Being in the last position was no surprise, but I wasn't as distant as I thought I'd be.

Realising the importance of cattle, we joked that this game was so democratic that even cows got to vote. When determining majority control of a town, cows count but cowboys don't.

The Thoughts

This is a tense game! Well, afterall this is the wild west where there are no rules. Guns rule. You plan to build something? Buy cattle? Better make sure you hire some guns first to protect them. I like the tension between cooperation and competition. A "multi-coloured" town is lucrative for everyone involved, but then can you really trust all your "business partners", especially when they all carry big guns? When will the first shot be fired? Starting gunfights can be a game of chicken. When two parties fight, in particular when it is a big fight, likely both will eventually be losers, because a 3rd (or 4th?!) player will be hovering like a vulture, eyeing his "inheritance".

Heng described my situation in our particular game as a slippery slope. Once I lost my first big gunfight, things went downhill and I never managed to recover. I have been thinking about how this aspect of the game should be managed, but haven't quite come up with a solid idea. I thought about retreating to preserve my cowboys (although they would be dispersed to different towns), but in that particular gunfight I had a lot at stake. I couldn't really back down because if I did, my properties in Abilene would just get taken over one after another. Maybe I should disperse my cowboys and then move them to threaten Henry's other properties? Since everyone has at most 9 cowboys, if all are on the board, it's a matter of how you distribute them - where to concentrate on, where to let go.

Another thing I have been thinking about is the timing for retreating. I think one serious consideration is to retreat before your cowboys dwindle too much. Bringing cowboys back into the game costs money and actions. Yet another approach may be the stalemate approach, or uneasy peace approach, which worked quite well for Jeff and I in San Antonio, at least until I became desperate. Perhaps the best way is to not need to get into gunfights at all. Afterall the game was won by Heng, who was not involved in many gunfights.

The jail is one very interesting building. When a gunfight breaks out, shooting order is determined by number of cowboys. The sheriff provided by the jail doesn't count. So if you have 4 cowboys and the jail and your opponent has 5, you get to shoot first and you get to roll 5 dice, 4 for your cowboys and 1 for your sheriff. The shooting would have been simultaneous if both of you have 5 cowboys. Shooting first can be a critical advantage, because if you can score some hits, you'll remove some enemy cowboys before they can shoot back. So sometimes you actually want to maintain a cowboy count that's one less than your opponents.

Despite how critical the gunfights can be, I would say the game is more an economic game. You need to make sure you generate enough income to remain competitive. Scoring is mostly for how well you do in developing the wild west. You can rob others of their cattle and buildings, but I think to do well in this game you need to make sound investments, make sure you protect your properties well, and then you use your cowboys to win some gunfights to gain an edge over your opponents. I don't think purely playing bandits will work.

Way Out West is a game that makes me feel a little uneasy, like a number of other Martin Wallace games. This is because it mixes development and confrontation. I get nervous when I know my little lovingly built business empire can be destroyed or taken away from me. I don't have this kind of anxiety in straight conflict games, like the Axis & Allies series, Martin Wallace's Waterloo, Struggle of Empires (also by Martin Wallace), Twilight Struggle. After the Flood is another Martin Wallace game which has a mix of development and confrontation, and it makes me nervous too. In these games you can't fully avoid either aspect, the peaceful or the aggressive. I think that is the intention of the design, and I say Martin Wallace achieved his goal.

I find that Han and I both quite like Martin Wallace games, which are mostly heavy Eurogames, but he tends to like the more confrontational ones, and I tend to like the more economic ones. He has After the Flood, Waterloo, Way Out West, Byzantium. I have Automobile, Age of Steam, Brass. The exceptions are him owning Railroad Tycoon and me owning Struggle of Empires. I suddenly realise we together have quite a collection of Martin Wallace games.

Before this I keep thinking that Way Out West is a very old game, maybe something from the early to mid 1990's. But it's actually a year 2000 game, and after playing it, it doesn't even feel as old as a 2000 game. I wouldn't be surprised if it were a game published in the recent few years. I quite like the Peter Dennis artwork. He also did the artwork for Brass, Age of Industry, Byzantium.


Aik Yong said...

The lone cowboy in Han's city wasn't a cowboy, he's a renegade! ;P

Hiew Chok Sien said...

:-D I was half expecting someone to comment on Dodge City first.

Mads Sorensen said...

hehe, way out west it is ;)