In Carson City, players develop a cowboy town from humble beginnings, buying parcels of land, constructing buildings and roads, earning money, and most importantly, earning victory points. During the game there are multiple ways to earn victory points, e.g. buying them in cash, or earning them based on the number of buildings you own. At game end, you also earn victory points for buildings and mountains you own. Carson City is a worker placement game like Agricola and Caylus, and one innovation that it brings to the worker placement mechanism is gunfighting. Your cowboys can fight for spaces on the board.
The game lasts only 4 rounds. At the start of a round, each player selects a character, which determines turn order for that round, and also gives special abilities. After that you place your cowboys on the board. You need not place all cowboys. You can save some to help in gunfights that you get into. After all players are done with placing cowboys, the actions are resolved in a specific order. There are many types of actions - earn money, gain roads, gain guns (which help in gunfighting), buy parcels of land, construct buildings, earn victory points (multiple spaces awarding points based of different criteria) etc.
The core of the game is the development of Carson City. There are many different types of buildings, most giving some income based on certain criteria. A mine gives $3 per adjacent mountain. A ranch gives $1 per adjacent empty land. A bank gives $3 per adjacent house and per mine belonging to the owner. Houses enter the game with other buildings - you build a house for free anywhere when you contruct some other building. They are all initially neutral and benefit all players' buildings. However it is possible to buy over a house (by buying the parcel of land it is on) to make it benefit only your buildings. Land price is interesting. There is a base price of $1, but it goes up by $1 for every building/mountain on or adjacent to it, i.e. it can cost as much as $10 (e.g. you buy a parcel of land under a neutral house that is fully surrounded in all 8 directions). There is an interesting tension in when to buy land - buy it early while it is cheap but a building on it may not be very profitable yet; or buy it later when there are more adjacent buildings but at a higher price. The income of buildings can be changed by players' actions, e.g. as more houses are built next to a saloon, its income will increase. When buildings are constructed next to a ranch, its income drops!
Now let's talk about the gunfighting. In this game you can fight over action spaces. You can fight over parcels of land to purchase. You can attempt to rob another player's building (but you can't burn it down). When you fight, you roll a die, and then add the number of guns and idle cowboys you have. Some buildings give you guns (ranch, prison, mine). There is also an action space that gives you 3 temporary guns for the current round. One of the characters gives guns too, but of course also only for the round that you choose him. If you lose a gunfight, it means you lose the right to use an action space, or you lose the right to buy a specific parcel, or in the case of your building being attacked, you lose half its income. However your cowboy returns to your pool, increasing your strength for the next gunfight, if there is one. At worst, that means an extra cowboy to place next round. You don't lose your cowboy.
The gunfighting adds an extra layer of consideration to the worker placement mechanism. When you place a cowboy on an action space, it is not guaranteed that you will be able to take that action. Sometimes you need to have some firepower to deter others, or even to attack others. That said, starting gunfights is a risk to yourself too. If your attack fails, you waste a cowboy that round, which you could have used for something else.
Allen, Afif, Atiqah and I played a 4-player game. All of us were new to the game. In the game setup (random every game), many of the mountains were close to one another, creating some very lucrative sites for mines. The town centre was near the western edge, which made things a little cramped. We had some gunfights, but not many. We mostly built and built, and tried to earn as much money as we could. The gunfights were rather iffy. Even if you have a few guns more than your opponent, you can get unlucky and lose the fight. I guess it's all about taking calculated risks. There may actually be more incentive for a trailing player to take such risks to try to catch up. For a leading player it may be better to go for safer, if less profitable, options.
From the start of the game Atiqah had one parcel of land which was ideal for building a mine. It was surrounded by 5 mountains! However she kept missing out on building a mine, sometimes due to losing gunfights, sometimes because there were no mines available to be built. She didn't manage to build the mine until the second half of the game. The buildings available to be built each round is random, except for the first round when at least 2 mines and 2 ranches are available. This creates some variability.
I was first to get robbed. I think I lost $12 or so. It was significant enough, but thankfully not too devastating. There were some twists of fate in our gunfights. There was one time when Allen and I competed for the 3-extra-guns space and the $5-per-VP space. We fought for the extra guns space (which is resolved earlier) only because we both wanted to win the $5-per-VP space. I won the 3 extra guns, but when it was time to fight for the $5-per-VP space, Allen had gained some more guns by having built a jail. We were on about equal footing again. Then he rolled a two! Ha ha... time to die my friend... and I rolled a one!!! So he ended up being the one laughing all the way to the bank to buy VPs.
I was the first to start using the spaces for buying VPs. We had been building and making money, but had not been thinking much about VPs. I think this was the crucial move that won me the game. In round 3 (of 4) I gained a bunch of VPs at $4 a piece, and it gave me a big lead. In hindsight, all of us should have started thinking about VPs much earlier. In Carson City there is a cash limit at the end of every round, which depends on the character you have chosen. If you exceed the cash limit, you are forced to buy VPs at $10 a piece, which is basically daylight robbery. Every round there are some spaces which you can use for buying VPs, at better rates, ranging from $2 to $5. At the end of every round, the cheapest space is blocked off permanently. Buying VPs early means you can get a good rate, but you need to be careful to keep enough money for the next round (to buy parcels of land and to construct buildings).
There are other means of gaining VPs. There are action spaces rewarding VPs based on number of parcels owned or buildings owned or guns owned. Naturally you won't own much property or guns at the start of the game. Then in the later game when everyone has more of these, there will be tougher competition for these action spaces. So in Carson City there is an important decision on timing when to start shifting from building infrastructure to earning VPs.
To me Carson City is more a "we build this city" game than a worker placement game. I think it is quite well balanced (at least for the 4-player game). The size of the city area feels just right - big enough for each player to get started off in the early game without feeling too constrained, and small enough that players need to fight for space as they enter mid game. The number of action spaces is numerous enough that you don't feel forced to engage in gunfights to be able to do anything useful. But of course some action spaces are more attractive than others, so there is some incentive for starting gunfights.
City building is interesting, because you are always competing with other players for good locations. When you place the free houses you also want to make sure you get the most out of them and at the same time minimize the benefit other players gain. The limited number of buildings available each round, and the different costs, are yet another source of competition. Different buildings have different interactions with other buildings, so depending on what you already own and what are already built on the board, different buildings will have different values to different players. Sometimes you may need to buy a building not to benefit yourself but to deny others.
Overall though, Carson City is just an okay game for me. The formula of build-infrastructure-then-convert-to-VPs in the game feels a bit too familiar, although the game does have a number of new ideas.