Saturday, 6 September 2014

Wildcatters

Plays: 4Px1.

Wildcatters is a 2013 Essen release from a small publisher (I think a self-publisher). I recently heard that a larger company is going to reprint it, so I was interested to give it a try to see what kind of economic game it is.

The Game

Players are multinational oil companies in the 19th century, at the start of the oil industry. They build oil rigs, produce oil, build transportation infrastructure, deliver oil to refineries, and eventually supply oil to various regions around the world. On your turn, you pick one of 8 region cards on the table to decide which region on the board you will take actions in. You will only get to take actions there or in one other white region. Due to this restriction of the region cards, and the limited number of rounds in the game, you need to piggyback on other players' turns, and you need to have some level of cooperation with your competitors. A region can only start producing oil when there are at least four oil rigs present. Building all four yourself is costly, so it is always good to have multiple players develop the same region. When one player starts producing oil, others who also have oil rigs in the region can piggyback on this player's action and start producing oil too. They need to pay him shares, so it's a win-win. When any player transports oil from a region, others can piggyback on this action too. Again, this means being able to act on someone else's turn. All these encourage players to cooperate.

There are two currencies in the game - cash and shares. Every turn you get a base $10 income, and possibly a few extra dollars depending on the region card you choose. You need to pay cash when you build infrastructure (oil rigs, trains, ships, refineries) and when you produce oil (i.e. convert an oil rig to a pumpjack, and place 3 barrels of oil on it). However when you use another player's train or ship, or when you piggyback on another player's produce oil action, you need to pay him in shares of your company. If someone delivers oil to your refinery, he is effectively forcing you to buy his oil, and you must pay him in shares too. There are many ways to spend shares of your own company, and it is important to make sure you keep a healthy number on hand, because if you run short, you will be forced to take a loan, and loans are expensive to repay.

Whenever a refinery is filled up (5 barrels delivered), the oil can be supplied to the continent where the refinery is located. The refinery owner earns four shares (of any company) per barrel, unless the barrel is his own. If you process your own oil barrels, you either supply them to the continent without earning any shares, or you discard them and earn shares as if you are processing other players' barrels. Barrels supplied to continents are placed in the scoring boxes for the respective continents. At the end of Round 5 and at game end, area majority scoring is done for every continent box. Whoever has the most barrels score some points, second most scores a little less, and so on. Scoring is also done for share holdings for each of the four companies in the game, and for cash on hand. These are the main ways to score points in the game. There are other ways such as building refineries, selecting certain region cards, and collecting wildcatter tokens.

The Play

I did a full 4P game with Jeff, Dith and Vence at Boardgamecafe.net. Jeff has played Wildcatters once before, which was handy. Although I had read the rules, there were some finer points which I wasn't sure about, and also some which I had misunderstood. The game supports 3 or 4 players. With three players, all four oil companies will still be in play, just that one of them will be neutral, and the game setup is slightly different. I think the game is best with four.

This was the start of the game, after the initial setup was completed. Every player gets to place items onto the board for free as part of initial setup. Placement depends on setup cards dealt, so you need to work within some constraints. The setup sets the stage for the rest of the game. It provides variability from game to game.

Now Canada (i.e. northern half of the North America region) and West Russia both have four rigs, which means it is already possible to start producing oil when Round 1 starts. During setup, every player must place one refinery (large rectangle with 5 circles) on a different continent. I (green) placed mine in West Russia, Jeff (red) in the eastern half of South Ameria, Dith (yellow) in Canada, and Vence in East Asia.

Players need to build trains and ships to transport the oil produced. If others use your trains or ships, they pay you shares of their companies. If you expect to do much transportation in a region, it may be worthwhile to build your own infrastructure so that you can save on shares which you would otherwise have to pay to others for their services.

Region cards. On your turn, you must pick one, and your choice limits where you can act. Each card gives some bonus, e.g. cash, shares of a specific company, victory points. Some cards give a one-time-use privilege of clearing a non-full refinery and supplying the barrels there to the region where the refinery is located. Normally a refinery only supplies oil when it is full.

The round tokens with W's are the wildcatters, the namesake of the game. These are individual oil prospectors and small companies hoping to make a fortune in the oil rush. Every region with potential to produce oil is seeded with one or two wildcatters during game setup. When a region produces oil for the first time, each wildcatter produces one barrel of oil too. The wildcatter tokens and the oil barrels on them are auctioned to the players (i.e. multinational companies) who have presence in the region. Wildcatter tokens are worth victory points at game end. The first token is worth 2VP, but every subsequent token is worth 2VP more, so they can contribute a significant chunk of points at game end.

When you start producing oil, you swap your oil rig with a pumpjack (round disc) and place three barrels of oil (wooden cylinders) on it.

Shares and money. At the top left, you can see that Jeff (red) and I (green) have supplied some oil to North America.

Jeff's (red) oil tanker has just delivered three barrels to his refinery in South America. Two more slots to fill, and the refinery will be able to supply oil to the region.

Round 4. We are all still very much focused on the four regions where we have set up our refineries. By now the oil in Canada is almost fully depleted. In the row of boxes at the bottom, you can see that only North America, Russia, South America and Asia have received oil. Europe, Africa and Australia have been neglected.

One minor complaint I have about the game is the cards are quite thin. But then I wonder whether it is intentional, because during the course of the game you need to hold many cards in your hand, like this. What I'm holding in my hands in this photo is quite normal. In fact, I did poorly in this game. I think most of my opponents have even thicker stacks of cards. The cards don't have different denominations. No 5's or 10's, only 1's.

Round 6. This is after the intermediate scoring at the end of Round 5. Now Jeff (red) has built a refinery in Africa, and I have shipped 3 barrels there. West Russia's oil is almost depleted now. Dith (yellow) is going solo in USA - noone else is working with him in developing the region. That's an expensive effort for him, but when he does start producing oil, he will be able to grab both the wildcatter tokens there.

From this photo you can see that I (green) have been mostly collaborating with Vence (blue), while Jeff (red) mostly partnered with Dith (yellow).

One ironic thing in our game was the Middle East (i.e. West Asia) never produced a single drop of oil. Jeff and Dith developed it late. I think at one point Jeff could have initiated oil production there, but he decided not to do so because it would not have given him many points, and it would have benefited Dith too.

Game end. Vence (blue) and I (green) still had many barrels in Russia and Asia not yet transported to refineries. What a waste.

The final score. Jeff (red) won with 81pts.

The Thoughts

Wildcatters is a game with character. Definitely not a mechanism-looking-for-a-theme kind of game. I like how you need to collaborate with your opponents, while at the same time try to not allow them to benefit too much from the joint ventures. The restriction imposed by the region cards means you need to think carefully and plan carefully where you want to act. The limited number of actions makes collaboration necessary. You want to leech off others' actions. Gaming the production lifecycle is interesting. You try to grab opportunities at every step. In the game we played, I think we all tried to do a bit of everything, and didn't really attempt to focus on any particular stage of the production lifecycle, e.g. only doing the refinery part, or only doing the prospecting and production part. I wonder whether such strategies are viable.

I like 90% of the game. The 10% that stops me from wanting to buy it is the area majority scoring mechanism. I have this thing about area majority games. This mechanism tends to rub me the wrong way, and I can't really explain why. It's the same reason Dominant Species was just OK for me. Strangely, I love China. In Wildcatters, scoring mostly revolves around area majority. There are twelves areas to compete in - the seven regions to supply oil to, the shares of the four companies, and cash. That's area majority overload for me!

This is a game with a lot of heart. If you like medium-heavy economic games, and don't have anything against the area majority mechanism, I encourage you to give Wildcatters a go.

4 comments:

Paul Owen said...

Wow, this sounds like a game right up my alley. I like games where you have to cooperate with your opponents to make progress, as in Chicago Express and Airlines Europe.

The map looks huge. It looks like a game that would take a long time to play.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

The box says 2 hours. Before we started playing, a friend who had played it before said it took 4 hours in her first game. However my first game took only 2.5 hours. I guess having one player who had played before helped. I'm quite sure with experienced players the play time would drop below 2 hours. It's not a Splotter-length game. More like Power Grid.

Matteo Targa said...

Hi Hiew, which sleeves have you used? Cannot find any whic fits :(

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Not too sure which size the sleeves are. The game belongs to Jeff. But if I remember correctly the sleeves are from Swan Panasia. You can check out the available sleeve sizes at boardgamecafe.net (which is based in Malaysia). Not sure whether any retailers near you stock them though.