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Monday, November 28, 2011

Carson City - A Duel in Eagle Valley...

Game Designer - Xavier Georges
Game Publisher - Eagle Games
Game Type - Euro / Worker Placement

Carson City - A Duel in Eagle Valley...
When I had first heard of this game the only other worker placement game I had played up to that point was Agricola. I had sort of built up the mechanic up as a saving grace to my gaming tastes. There was something I really enjoyed about Agricola, something that seemed fresh, and so it seemed this new freshness was the worker placement mechanic. Now I know I was a little late to the WP party... I had not played Caylus yet, just heard about it's checkered reviews full of bickering over whether the game was even any fun or just an exercise in accounting, and from of the incendiary commenters, that the game was just a contrived, soul-less pissing match.  Agricola certainly wasn't all those bad things to me, so a hunt was on for Caylus. For whatever reason the FLGS in my area never had it in stock and with my curiosity towards this new-to-me mechanic soaring, I started looking towards some alternatives. That's when I first heard about Carson City, read some reviews, bought it, played it 20-30 times and here we stand.

I consider Carson City to be my second favorite worker placement game behind Agricola. I have now played the majority of the notable games that make up this group, so not much mystery is left. I've played Caylus several times and despite the extremely strategic, dense and tight game play, I have found Carson City does a better job of putting those qualities in a fun to play package. Minute-for-minute, decision to decision I feel Carson City provides a very similar experience to Caylus in less time and with more drama. As far as comparing it to Agricola, the game play is so different I hesitate even to do so. This shows that just because games have a shared mechanic it does not necessarily equate to a similar feel as a whole. I think Agricola might be the superior game, but it certainly isn't my favorite worker placement game.

As opposed to doing a detailed review with rules, explanation and strategy, I'd like to point out a few things I really like and expound on them. There are a ton of other great reviews that do a much better and thorough job of explaining the finer points... here are some that jumped up and bit me right in the heart.

  • The Roles - Each player per round will select a person from Carson City to help them out. Role selection is a nice way to give players special "powers" for a given amount of time without working into the rules all the extra fiddliness of acquiring them. The roles are varied and mostly balanced. (there are a couple less-desirable ones) Some help you get more guns, workers, cheaper buildings, VP's, money... The role placards are double-sided, you use only one side per game chosen prior, so there is a fresh set on the other side for a re-match! I personally prefer the red sides of the roles, they seem less powerful but require a little more finesse to take advantage of. These roles also help decide turn order (by rank) and cash limit (explained a lil' more later). There is a promotional role called "The Indian" that's pretty easy to proxy/obtain for some additional variety and a unique twist to the usual role benefits.    

  • The Map - I really enjoy the "interactive" aspect of the map. In a lot of worker placement games all you have is a board that looks like a menu at some sort of hieroglyphic themed diner. What I like here is that there is a spatial element to the strategy, that goes beyond just preferential positioning in a queue. The buildings that you will be constructing won't be worker placement spots in the future, but rather your economic engine for the game. You need to find and claim necessary area on the board to accommodate your economic strategy. So not only do you need the money to buy the buildings but also you may have to do a little "city building" to get your ducks in a row. All players are carving out their place on the same board. I crave this sort of interaction in games. When it's absent I notice. I'm not really stating that it's necessary for a game to have heavy player interaction for me to enjoy it, but it's just one of those things... when I think about boardgames I think about people trying to out maneuver their competition. This isn't always present in games like this, so to me, it comes across as refreshing. One thing to note as well, the board is double-sided. The basic board is one side, mountains scattered about, with a lot of room for players to spread out and find their own niche. The other side is the Carson River Variant. A river runs bold through the center of the play area. It provides for a tighter play area and a couple interesting strategic and tactical nuances. 

  • The Buildings -  There are quite a few different possible buildings that might cross the market path in any given game. The market is preset with 4 buildings (2 mines/2 ranches) to get the game started, but after that you draw replacements for the market from a cloth bag. There are several considerations when buying buildings: some need to go on specific types of plots (tile placement), they have different effects on income, they offer permanent benefits (guns, protection) and some even need a certain amount of existing infrastructure (roads, houses) to be placed. Couple all of these factors with the uncertainty of which buildings will come up for purchase in the game and you see some different building strategies each play. 

  • The Duels/The Guns - A point of direct conflict. In Carson City worker placement is not exclusive. Everyone is entitled their opportunity at any given action spot, the duels occur when two or more players choose to do the same thing. This ranges from buying the same buildings, trying to buy the same parcel of land, choosing the same action etc... When this happens, the involved players duel to see who will be the only player to receive the benefit or action of that spot. To do this players add in the gun tokens they have collected through various means along with their roll of a standard D6 die. All the losing cowboys are returned to their respected owners and the winner is allowed to take the action. There are a couple spots where multiple players can reap rewards, but besides those, there can only be one winner per action spot. The other way a player with a lot of guns can wreak havoc is buy robbing businesses of the other players. If someone is sitting pretty with their cash cow milking it turn after turn you can place a cowboy on their building for half of the money. It's a stickup! Before resolving actions the defending player can attempt to defend his earnings by placing one of his cowboys there, but a duel must be fought and won to protect his cash. One of the more subtle, and dare I say friendly, aspects of the design I started to appreciate in my later plays, was how the loser of the duel got to use his cowboys in the next round, almost always having a numbers advantage next time around. It just seems to balance things really well with almost little to no headaches from a design/mechanics/theme standpoint. It works really well and feels very fair.

  • The VP system - I couldn't really think of any term to adequately describe this, but the way the VP's are dished out in this game is tricky! All VP's you earn, besides those awarded for your buildings in end-game scoring, are purchased with your income. There is a sort of countdown on the bottom of the serpentine action track which allows you to place a worker for the exchange of money for VP's. Just like any of the other exclusive reward spots, only one worker will be allowed to convert cash to VP's at a reasonable rate. This means that you will need a worker on this spot and be able to withstand the dueling attempts from other players. Each turn the best value exchange spot is taken away, so not only are the exchange places becoming fewer but the rates at the remaining places are more expensive. On the last turn just one of these exchanges still remains at a whopping $5/VP whereas the first turn exchange can be had for as little as $2/VP. This makes pushing for the guns a very reasonable pursuit. As the head gunner you can very easily command that top exchange spot, and given a big enough advantage, force some of the other players to worse exchange rates for fear of dueling you. Another facet to this system is the cash limit built-in to the different roles. If you decide not buy VP's for whatever reason this turn you can only carry so much money to the next round. This is indicated by the character card you chose at the beginning of the round. So if you want to save some loot over to the next round, you had better have deep pockets. All money that falls over this line is exchanged at a rate of $10/VP and that's crazy expensive. So generally you want to do one of these on your turn with your loot: spend most/all on a bunch of productive buildings, spend most/all on VP's or choose a character with a high cash limit so you can achieve "baller status" for the next round as MC MoneyBagz with all that carry-over coin.

  • 2P - A lot of the games that I get to play to repetitive death are with my friend Nicole. So therefore, I try and find games to purchase that are good two player. They don't have to be best with 2, but as long as they work they'll get a nod where from me where they succeed in this task. I must say, Carson City plays almost as well with two as it does 3-5.  The board definitely get's tighter and play more interesting with more players but the 2P games have left me feeling very satisfied. The river variant side of the board is great for ratcheting up the land grabs and even succeeds in tightening up the market a little bit. 

  • A New Beginning - This was a little expansion/giveaway that was put out at Essen 2010. We haven't played all that much with this little expansion/variant yet but the premise is to allow for players to choose their own starting supplies. You can basically start with more or less of any given resource, work force, money and VP's. There are also a few other nifty things like being able to choose either side of the role cards, choosing two roles or even rolling two dice in the duels instead of one (keeping your favorite).  It seems like a ton more variety... but with so many moving parts and a little time between games (can't play this everyday!) we haven't really had the opportunity to mess around with the different possibilities. I think we've tried this twice, each time deciding just to stick to varied amounts of starting materials and no new "abilities", but I'm confident as we continue to have fun with this one through the years that this "advanced setup" may soon become our "normal setup". 

I think Carson City does a great job of marrying some of my favorite aspects of euro-typical games with a little bit of "take that" for a really unique experience. The role luck plays in the game keeps the strategy heavy player on their toes and lends itself well to more creative play. I think the variety found in the double-sided roles and map and various playmates will keep this hitting the table for quite sometime to come. It's a game I researched quite a bit before I jumped on, there are a lot of threads out there that will try to convince you that this game is broken/unbalanced, rude/mean, but I think it's a delight and one of the most interesting pieces of cardboard I've laid eyes on. It's game play perfectly matches it's theme... Carson City is a tense and exciting game with a lot of variety, leading to unexpected outcomes. Fits the old west theme mighty fine! 

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