Gaming retrospective 2019, part 2: My top gaming moments

I had another busy year of gaming, visiting seven board game conventions (including SorCon and HandyCon, which missed out on mentions below). But I largely stuck to the same groups, both at cons and at home. So it was a bit of a fail in terms of gaming evangelism! Hopefully this year will see a few new converts.

This is one of my favourite posts of the year to write, because it allows me to go back over my plays for the year and all the great memories that evokes. On one side, it was a year low on exciting plays of brand new games. But that’s the beauty of the hobby. While technology may become obsolete and fashions come and go, those old favourite board games – and the friends I play with – give value time after time.

My 5 best gaming experiences of 2019

  • AireCon: This was, once again, my favourite board game convention of the year. The main reasons are how well it’s organised and what a nice place Harrogate is to visit. But equally how much I can truly relax – I have no responsibilities there at all, so can just game all weekend. My hotel is booked and I can’t wait to get back to this great town, and great event, in March.
  • Bristol: Sarah and me went to Bristol for a Saturday night gig. She hadn’t been to the city before, so we made a long weekend of it. This included two visits to Chance & Counter – a cracking little board game cafe in the town centre. While a bit on the noisy side one night, it had a great game, beer and food selection – perfect for an afternoon or evening of gaming.
  • LoBsterCon: As one of the organisers now, our bi-annual trips to Eastbourne are a little more stressful than they used to be. But with trips to London now limited, these are some of the few opportunities I get to game with old friends. It’s also lovely to be by the sea, have a chance to walk up onto the cliffs. And, of course, to play drunk Eldritch horror…
  • Essen: No year would now feel complete without the annual pilgrimage to Germany. The world’s best gaming event still blows me away each time, despite being a bit of a veteran. A thousand new releases, tens of thousands of gamers, and everyone who’s anyone in the industry all in one place. And that’s before mentioning the late night gaming sessions.
  • New Year in the New Forest: As people who hate pubs on NYE, Sarah and me enjoy getting away to the countryside instead. This year we escaped with fellow gamers Karl and Ann to a little AirB&B in the Hampshire countryside. Don’t worry – we were just as drunk as everyone else! We just did it playing Thurn and Taxis, with a cursory five-minute stop for fireworks…

Best games: January to June 2019

January: While my debut play of Mythos Tales pushed it close, a two-player game of Oracle of Delphi with Sarah won out. It looked like she had the win, but I just managed to get to the fight we both needed first, forcing her the long way round. This was just enough to give me the win by a round – and I would’ve lost the tie-breaker. It’s brilliant how this game so often ends in a super close finish.

February: There are several reasons why my first play of Tales of Glory wins this month easily. First, it was one of my gaming finds of the year and a close finish, with four of us within 10 points. And my favourite play on another fun weekend at SorCon. But it was also my last ever play with veteran gamer Keith, who has since passed away. RIP sir.

March: Lots of Airecon highlights, including a game of Archaeology: The Card Game with Ronan. He was so drunk he could barely stand, and had never played… but won anyway. I also really enjoyed a play of Gnomopolis with Keef and Clare. But the highlight was a late-night game of Basari: Das Kartenspiel with Fokos and Effi. This classic little game doesn’t look like much, but with the right crowd (and preferably three players) it’s an absolute classic.

April: A tough month to call, including great plays of Terraforming Mars, Downfall of Pompeii and Bora Bora. But the little two-player filler that could, Balloon Cup, walks away with the prize. 2-2, only two scoring cards left out, with only red playable. Sarah had no reds. She discarded 4 cards and drew… the 13 red, which won her the game. I had a winning card for me in my hand, so if she hadn’t drawn that it would’ve been mine. Great game!

May: A month dominated by great plays of The Romans. The first was at LoBsterCon, but the second at home just pipped it. The game was close throughout, but I pulled away at the end to beat Jonathan and Chris. The two games felt very different due to how the cars came out. One was senator heavy giving loads of actions; while the next was the opposite, instead giving lots of scoring options. But importantly, both offer interesting challenges.

June: A tough one to call between two learning games of heavier euros. Gaia Project was really enjoyable, but not dissimilar enough from Terra Mystica for me to want to pick it up. Want to play more though. So the win goes to Nations, played in Sweden on a trip to see my friend Janne. It has fired Through the Ages from my collection due to its more balanced player interaction. But also the way it ebbs and flows, making it feel more dynamic.

Best games: July to December 2019

July: A month with a lot of fun plays, but no stand-out one. So I’ll give it to a fun play of Eternity with Alex and Tom in Eastbourne, where we’d met up on a fact-finding mission – and a night out, of course. It’s a great little trick-taker that plays really well with three. The twists on an old standard are simple to understand, but offer an interesting puzzle. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the prettiest card games in my collection.

August: This had to go to The Gallerist, taught to us by Alex at HandyCon. I lost count of how many hours to took, but I really didn’t care as I was engaged throughout. It is such a clever design. Everything interlocks beautifully, with the ease and common sense of the flow making a complex game much easier to understand. Add in the gorgeous production values and you have a real winner. And I won – which was a pleasant surprise!

September: I had a brilliant holiday in the US, largely to see friends and Pop Will Eat Itself. Which also massively curtailed my games played (only 16). But I did spent a weekend in Portland, visiting The Portland Game Store and playing a few games with Dawson Cowals (Cohort VIII Games) and Sean Epperson (Thing 12 Games). We all taught games we were involved in, so it was great to teach them both Empire Engine. And yes, of course I lost.

October: After a long Friday in the halls at Essen, I enjoyed a few beers with Alex. After we headed back to his hotel in Bredeney, where I was taught Crystal Palace. I was with a fun group, there was lots of beer, and I really enjoyed the game. It was the only heavy game I played all weekend and one I’d like to play again. And this was despite knowing I was going to lose from about the second round.

November: Despite a lot of fun plays at LoBsterCon (including Eldritch Horror and Pitch Car), I’m going with a game of vanilla Ticket to Ride at Morph and Lauren’s house. It was a typical teach of this classic. New-to-games player Lauren was nervous about her introduction to the hobby, made lots of excuses why she’d be awful – then nearly won it. Hopefully it will be the first of many games with them over the coming years.

December: Another easy one – my only yet glorious victory on our trip to the New Forest. Karl was on fire all weekend, but when we played Azul everything somehow came together for me. It’s not a game I’d say I’m good at, but it’s a favourite. So amassing 97 points was something of a result – winning by more than 10 points. Everything just fell into place each round. A perfect storm. And a perfect way to see out the year – and decade.

How is 2020 shaping up?

I’m still excited for the launch of Europe Divided, a co-design with David Thompson, which should’ve released last year.

It might have made it to Essen, then Christmas and now, well, soon? Sorry to those who wanted it for Christmas. I can only apologise and say this kind of production issue is out of my hands.

There’s one more of my games left with a publisher, which we were hoping would see the light of day in 2020. That is now looking unlikely too; while several expansions for games have also been mooted, but things keep stalling. Some dev work is keeping me ticking over too. But all in all, it has been another frustrating year in terms of designing. Is it any wonder I’m struggling to get excited about that side of the hobby?

I’m planning to attend a few new cons this year, but beyond that I’m happy just to keep dabbling in design and play as much as possible. I’m aiming to play the 30-ish games in my collection I failed to get to this year. But beyond that, who knows? Hopefully I’ll see you across a table sometime soon.

Game retrospective 2019, part 1: Best new titles and gaming stats

The end of a decade always suggests a period of reflection, but I can’t see myself doing a ‘twenty-tens’ retrospective. Why? Because games are still games.

Sure, there have been some interesting steps in the hobby. But the majority of bestsellers are still competitive two-to-four-player card and board games, as always. And that suits me fine. Instead I’ll stick to my annual look back at my gaming over the past 12 months.

I found it a weak year release-wise. The terminally ordinary Wingspan making it into the Top 100 titles on Board Game Geek summed it up. There’s still a focus on volume over honing great games, creating a glut of mediocre titles. And I think the amount of new players coming into the hobby is giving mediocre/unoriginal but easily accessible games much higher ratings than they deserve. Sure, some ‘good’ games were released. And quite a few I’m still looking forward to playing. But it was not a standout year.

Top 5 new (or new to me) games of 2019

There are quite a few 2019 releases I want to play. Star Wars: Outer Rim, Maracaibo and Azul: Summer Pavilion spring to mind. While 1987: Channel Tunnel, Fistful of Meeples, Isle of Pan and Pharoen sit unplayed on my review shelf. But these titles did make the grade:

  • Tales of Glory (2018): I’d wanted this at Essen 2018, but the publisher didn’t want to give me a review copy. It’s a fantasy themed tile-layer where you build you own little tableau. Simple, cute and clever with lots of paths for points. John brought it to SorCon in February and I loved it. Honourable mentions to Whistle Stop and It’s a Wonderful World – also sub-hour light euros I’ve fallen for.
  • The Gallerist (2015): My first experience of a Vital Lacerda design and wow A meaty, challenging heavy euro game that also looked gorgeous. A bit of interaction, but not in a frustrating/game-ending way. In the same vein, honourable mentions go to The Romans, Gaia Project (Terra Mystica in space) and Nations (Through the Ages with more military flexibility).
  • Dizzle (2019): This was certainly a good year for roll-and-write games with some substance. Dizzle was just about my pick of the bunch, as it’s so interactive and has multiple games in the one box. Honourable mentions to That’s Pretty Clever and Welcome To, which hit the table a lot in 2019 – especially as Sarah has really taken to all of them.
  • Just One (2019): As much as I love Codenames, it’s very much a gamer’s word game – and really needs six players to work (or two for Duet). Just One can be played with anyone, works well with three to six players, and plays fast. We’ve had a real laugh with it across abilities and player numbers.
  • La Cour des Miracles (2019): I seem to like this more than most people I play it with… but like it I do. It has loads of interaction, some great opportunities for clever moves, and simple rules/short play time. I’m not normally keen on very interactive euros, but this gets it right. Area majorities are fluid and you’re all in constant competition, so it never feels as if you’re being picked on.

Despite not getting many plays of them, I largely stick by the 10 games on my 2018 list. The five I owned are still on my shelves, while I’ve added Junk Art to my collection. I still want to play more Fallout and Mini Rails, and would pick them up if I saw them cheap. And I’ve enjoyed Pitch Car again since. The only one I’m a little less interested in now is Decrypto, but I’d still happily play it.

Game play and collection stats

I’ve managed to keep my collection at below 160, with the current count at 156. I didn’t count games for sale and unplayed review copies, as those will either be added on a one-for-one basis or will immediately go. But it’s getting harder for games to stay, as most of what’s left I really want to keep hold if.

My ‘shelf of hope’ still contains Exit: Forgotten Island from last year (Shafausa has gone, while I really enjoyed Mythos Tales). Egizia: Shifting Sands (I love the original), On the Underground (looks right up my street) and Scorpius Freighter (a gift from that Dunstan fellow) were new additions. The plan is to get them all played once the review pile is a little lighter.

I slipped below 400 plays for the year (371) – but at least the average was above one game played per day. Very little changed in terms of my groups, but I did have some very low-play months (just 16 in September). Cancelled game days were the biggest frustrations of the year (sometimes by me, sometimes others). But as you get older, real life just gets in the way more – especially for friends with young/ageing families.

But Sarah continued to pick games she loves, so favourites got multiple plays. I picked shorter, easier games to review, making my life easier this post-Essen. While my attempt at playing all my games in the year saw old faves hitting the table.

Vive la difference

I played 197 different games in 2019, with 126 only played once each. Both records for me.

This was largely down to me trying to get all of my collection played in the calendar year. It meant my ‘most played’ list (below) ended up being pretty unusual, but hey – I was still blown away by that stat.

I still record all my plays on Board Game Geek. And the extended stats (by BGG user Friendless) blow me away. The Extended BGG stats page is still improving and not quite back up to full speed. Yet it makes fascinating reading for the big nerd in me. Some fun numbers about my 2019 include:

  • I played 32 different games in July 2019 – my highest ever.
  • Seven games hit 10 all-time plays in 2019 (including Azul), while three hit 25 total plays during last year: Thebes, Codenames: Duet and Kingdom Builder.
  • The only games in my Top 50 ‘most played’ that didn’t hit the table in 2019 were Macao (currently lent out), Uruk and Puerto Rico.

My most played games in 2019

Plays of ‘unpublished prototypes’ were up to 43 (from 24 last year), showing a bit of a resurgence in my interest in design. I never include plays of my own designs. So outside those it was:

  1. Azul (11 plays)
  2. That’s Pretty Clever (9)
  3. Ticket to Ride (8)
  4. Dizzle (8)
  5. Thurn & Taxis & Adios Calavera (7 each)

This is the first time ever Race for the Galaxy (4 plays) hasn’t been on the list. Shocker. Codenames Duet (also 4 plays) is also still a favourite despite falling from last year’s list. That’s Pretty Clever and Dizzle became instant hits, with Azul gained Ticket to Ride level ‘classic’ status for me. Excluding games mentioned elsewhere in this post, the only other non-review game to hit five plays in 2019 was Uptown (as it did in 2018).

My biggest frustration was missing out on plays of meatier games. The top games in those categories were Terraforming Mars (4 plays), Concordia (3) and Oracle of Delphi (3). Favourites with just one play included Terra Mystica, Snowdonia, Deus and Yokohama. I’ll have to try and write this wrong in 2020.

I’ll be back soon with Part 2, which will include my best gaming events and individual plays of 2019. So until then, Happy New Year!

SEE ALSO: Entries for 201220132014201520162017 and 2018.

A festive ‘thanks’ – and some board game resolutions

This time last year I thanked y’all for visiting and made some New Year’s Resolutions based around board gaming. Of course you remember. Anyway, it seems only right to look back at how well/badly I did and to set some new ones. I’ve been writing here for just over eight years now, with average views still rising well above 30,000 per annum. Not too shabby for an old guy rambling on about board games. So thank you once again for sticking around. Or, indeed, turning up.

2019 board game resolutions

  1. My number one 2019 priority was to keep my collection at 150 games. Success! At last count it was 156, with a few on the ‘for sale’ list. It still feels like a good number: loads of choice, with all bases covered – but a good reason to seriously consider each new game, in terms of its worthiness to stay on the shelves. 
  2. Next was clearing my review pile by March. This was tough, as while reviewing time was fine playing time was the hard bit! But I got there and by March the nine-game pile was gone. And I did learn: this year I made less promises, and picked up lighter, shorter games I know I can get played by all my groups.
  3. Sticking with successes, my pledge to give Sarah every second game choice pretty much stayed intact. Well, until Essen! Since then it has been about reviews – but I intend to return to this policy as soon as the pile is manageable. It also shows, with many of her favourites in my most-played games of the year list.
  4. Clearing the ‘unplayed’ list met with mixed success. There were 10 games on it, four of which didn’t make it to the table – Brass, Mombasa, Twilight Struggle and Uruk. I actually made this harder for myself by setting an extra challenge of playing all my games in 2019. That was fun, but really hindered this.
  5. Finally, I didn’t pitch a new design at Essen. While I do see this as a failure, there were unforeseen circumstances – namely the opportunity to do some paid game development work, and being asked to work on several expansion projects. And this list did encourage me to get my design mojo back. I’ve been working on-and-off on a new game design project since, so watch this space…

2020 board game resolutions

  1. As it worked so well, while being tough, I’m going for it again: keeping my games limit at 150. I’ll also be clearing the review pile and giving Sarah loads of picks – but they felt organic, so I don’t feel the need to make them ‘resolutions’ again. 
  2. I tried to play all of my 150 games in 2019. It was going well, but like a fool I forgot Essen in October would put a stop to the year for old games. There are 30 left on the list (including the ones over from 2019’s ‘resolution 4’ above) – so I aim to play all of those at least ones during 2020. Otherwise, why own them?
  3. The resolution to pitch a game at Essen 2019 did help me get on with things (as did fellow designer Federico – thank you sir!) – so that’s coming back for 2020. The dev and expansion work is continuing apace, but it shouldn’t stop me aiming to get a new design I’m proud of from my notebooks to the shops. 
  4. I went to HandyCon for the first time this year, which reminded me how much I enjoy trying new gaming experiences. So in 2020 I’m going to try to get to two ‘new to me’ conventions. I’ve got a few ideas, so let’s see how they pan out.
  5. I’m kind of rubbish at social media – but I’m comfortable with that. However, there are loads of great bloggers out there I’d like to collaborate on some posts with. So, I’m going to set myself the challenge of getting four collaborative blog posts done during 2020. So if you’re reading this, gaming blogger, you know where I is…

Dizzle board game: A four-sided review

The Dizzle board game is a Yahtzee-style roll-and-write dice game for 2-4 players, lasting around 30-45 minutes. And the printed age range of eight-plus feels about right.

Plus the abstract design and simplicity of rules make it approachable for just about anyone. In fact it almost has an anti-theme, throwing in features such as bombs, gems, spaceships and chequered flags with childlike enthusiasm.

The game comes in a standard small roll-and-write box (the same as That’s Pretty Clever, for example). Inside you’ll find a large pad of game sheets, four cheap felt-tip pens and 11 small black dice. The components are standard at best and get the job done (see ‘key observations’). And I’d much rather have this at the price it is – around £10 – than pricier with flashy dice or artwork.

The pad of game sheets splits half way. The first half have level 1 on the front and level 2 on the back; the rest levels 3 and 4. These represent a growing level of complexity you can play with different groups, or work through as you play with a regular group. (It reminded me of the escalating ship designs in Galaxy Trucker). You all have to play the same sheet, but it’s a clever way of bringing genuinely different levels of play to this popular genre of board/dice game.

Teaching the Dizzle board game

In the old tradition of roll-and-write games, this really is one for the whole family. You can literally teach as you play, rolling the dice and walking through the first turn – by the end of which, everyone should be up to speed. To start, each player takes am identical game sheet. You’ll notice a couple of places crossed out; these are the start spaces.

The start player takes the dice (8-13, depending on player count) and rolls them, also crossing off ’round one’ on their sheet. They choose one dice and places it on their sheet on a space matching the number rolled – and orthogonally adjacent to one of the start spaces. Each other player then does the same, in clockwise order (you can always place on round one, as the numbers 1-6 are all represented next to a start space). You always have to take and place a dice if you can.

On your next turn things get a little trickier, as the dice has to go orthogonally adjacent to one you’ve already placed. The exception is if you’re now boxed in. In this case, you go again as if you were just starting (so you can place next to any start space). If you can’t place, you have two choices: pass, or re-roll.

Stick or twist…

Passing simply puts you out of the round with your already claimed dice intact. Rolling again is risky, but can pay off. You re-roll all remaining dice. If you can now place one, you do. If you can’t, you put back a dice already on your sheet. A set back – but at least you’re still in the round.

When the dice run out, or if everyone passes, the round is over. All players put an ‘X’ on the spaces they’d placed dice, gaining any special effects (see below) they mark off doing so. These spaces also now become extra start spaces for later rounds. The dice now pass to the next player clockwise, who marks off their ’round one’ space and the game continues as before. Once each player has been start player 3-6 times (depending on player count), the game ends and final scoring begins.

What makes the game come alive are the effects of the spaces you cross off. Some trigger end game points (straight points, or bonuses for completing rows/columns). Others affect your opponents. Bombs are safe for the person who triggers them first, but everyone else loses points; while chequered flags score most for the first person to reach them, with diminishing returns for other players when they cross out the same space. Later level effects open previously locked areas of your sheet, or score negatively if you’re forced to cross them out.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Several modern roll-and-writes have nailed keeping players involved in every decision. What Dizzle adds beautifully are knock-on consequences to those choices. While I wouldn’t compare the game directly to Azul, there is clearly a bit of that thinking in the design choices. What will be good for me – but also, what might screw others over. And, like Azul, these decisions are baked into an incredibly simple design which won’t scare off grandma. Later levels even have genuinely different paths to victory.
  • The thinker: I’m not sure why I tolerate this, but I do. You can’t plan much due to re-rolls and there’s lots more luck than I’d like. But on the more complex levels, you can go for a direction: work out how you want to score points and try to head that way. This makes it pleasingly thoughtful, while being short enough not to become infuriating. At least the last player only gets one more round if everyone else has passed, so they can’t go on some mad gambling run a la Ra.
  • The trasher: Dizzle doesn’t have what you’d call direct interaction (except the bombs), but it’s pleasingly interactive. I find myself watching what each player is taking, where they’re heading on their sheet; even assessing how likely they are to gamble on a re-roll. There’s plenty of room in this genre for more interactive games than this, but for a family game this ticks an awful lot of boxes.
  • The dabbler: Winner! We taught it really easily and everyone got involved. Different groups reacted really differently though. Some were goading each other to take risks, and oohing and aahing on re-rolls. While others were playing proper poker style, looking out from their sheets with stoic looks. But importantly, both groups were enjoying the experience. What more can you ask for?

Solo play

The Dizzle solo mode is well thought out and pleasingly simple. You roll eight dice and choose one. Then you roll a separate two dice: if they match any remaining dice in your pot, you remove a matching one (so a max of two dice are removed). I find this maintains the sense of dread/randomness from the base game nicely, although for some it will be too random.

What’s odd to me is that, unlike That’s Pretty Clever, Dizzle doesn’t have an app or easily accessible online implementation (it is available at Brettspielwelt). Especially as it comes from the same publisher. Maybe it’s just too early and it’s on the way. Or maybe they’re waiting to see if it becomes a bigger hit. But either way, it feels like an opportunity missed when you need to do something to stand out in a large crowd. Especially as the popularity of ‘Clever’ will be driving traffic to the online portal already.

Key observations

While the sheets are pretty good layout wise, some of the dice numbers on some of the images are a little hard to read. This is frustrating, as it is such a fundamental part of the game. It’s also a little tricky to see what people need, as the dice on their sheets obscure the numbers behind them. You can work it out, as your sheet is the same, but it does detract a little from the experience. But these are both minor niggles.

Others criticise its generic/abstract look (fair, to each their own) and a potential lack of replayability. Some are already finding it repetitive, or found it a little long for what it is. Sure, it doesn’t have the ‘I have to beat my score’ addictive quality of ‘Clever’, but it isn’t going for that. And yes, you may not want to play each level 10 times. But at this price, and in this modern era when many games are played a few times then traded, I’m a little surprised by this criticism. Roll and writes are filler games: this is no different.

It’s also worth noting an expansion has already been made available for the game. It is a new pad of sheets, this time with levels 5-8 on them. They look likely to add some fun new challenges and I hope to get hold of them soon (looks like they’re only currently available in Germany). And the price, at less than €5, looks like solid value.

Conclusion: The Dizzle board game

If you’d said last year I’d give three good reviews to roll-and-writes in 2019, I’d have laughed you out of the building. But as with That’s Pretty Clever and Welcome To, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my plays of Dizzle. If you’re a fan of the genre, I’d say it’s a must try. And if downtime and turtling have put you off the genre until now, this is definitely worth taking a look at. A simple, fun and engaging filler dice game.

Sierra West board game: A four-sided review

The Sierra West board game is a puzzley euro aimed at more experienced gamers. It’ll take 1-4 players 1-3 hours to play (not 40 minutes, as the box suggests; maybe that per player). And while the game involves a lot of tricky decisions, the age on the box should be more like 10-12+ (rather than the advertised 14+).

Each time you play you’ll choose one of four game scenarios, each with a different theme. But they share the ‘old west’ for a backdrop. The art is nicely done, but that’s where the theme ends and the mechanics begin. Basically, don’t go in expecting to feel like a pioneer at any point in proceedings.

The graphic design works well enough and the rulebook does a passable job of getting across the rules for each scenario in a cohesive whole. It must have been a devilishly tricky task but could certainly have been done better. But I got through without making mistakes. In the box you’ll find nine boards, 100+ cards, 100+ cardboard chits, 100+ wooden pieces, 32 plastic pieces, four player aids and a dice. The component quality feels pretty much average for today’s euro games. And equally the £40 price tag feels pretty standard.

Teaching the Sierra West board game

Sierra West is definitely a game for seasoned euro players. While there’s nothing here that will blow your mind, there are lots of interconnected yet familiar mechanisms vying for attention. Deck-building, hand management, set collection, resource management, multiple ways to score. The gang’s all here. You have a choice of four modules to play, but the basics of the game aren’t affected. Also, the game is at the high end of fiddly to set up (more on that later). ‘Playing the game’ starts on page 10 of the rulebook…

Players take turns, clockwise. On yours you’ll draw three cards from your deck and ‘plan’ how to use them. They slide into a section of your player board, covering certain actions on each card and leaving others available. These actions are divided into two ‘paths’, with each card also having a ‘summit’ action. As you’ll see from the artwork, thematically you’re heading up a mountain to collect resources then get stuff done.

Each player has three meeples. Two live on your player board, one moving along each paths doing actions as they go. If they reach the end, they can also do a summit action (you may choose to stop beforehand). You can switch between them as you see fit. This is important, as some actions give resources while others spend them. You’ll also build huts on your player board, which a meeple can go to and aid the other one. So, a hut may give bonus stone when your other meeple collects it – but only if he’s in the hut (once you’ve left a hut, you can’t go back that turn – complicating the decision process).

Get stuff, do stuff, get points

During other players’ turns, you may get to use these two meeples again. You have four animal tiles you need to ‘trap’ during the game (or lose points). While if another player scores on their turn you can get a little reward by ‘tracking’ them. Both actions are often desirable – but if done, you can’t then use that meeple in a cabin on your next turn.

Anyway, on to your third meeple. He hangs out at the bottom a mountain (read: pyramid of cards) and will ascend it using ‘boot’ actions. He will then use ‘dig’ actions to excavate cards from it, which are added to your deck to make it (arguably) better. When a certain number of cards have been taken, the game will come to an end.

And, of course, there’s scoring. The amount of cards you’ve taken from the mountain gets you some points. Also, many summit actions allow you to spend resources to move along homestead tracks (read: columns on a scoreboard). Then you have a little wagon that trundles across the bottom of the card mountain. The further it has moved (another way to spend resources and boot actions), the higher the multiplier you’ll get on all the homestead tracks. Add any mode-based scoring, and you have a winner.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I like Sierra West’s idea of having multiple modes you can swap out to make the game different on repeat plays. But which is the ‘right’ mode for me? There’s no suggestion in the rules as to how they’ll differ in play. And, in practice, the answer is ‘very little’. One is basic, two a little more interesting, then the last adds an ill-advised ‘output randomness’ rule. The amount of fiddliness this mode choice introduces to every game is huge. For me, it sadly dwarfed any replayability it may have added.
  • The thinker: Card play gives some interesting choices. But due to the card makeup, its hard to visualise without placing them on your board. This slowed the game down for me, as I couldn’t easily plan my next turn. Also, trapping and tracking should add interesting decisions on other players’ turns. But they don’t. Along with huts, all they add is a few annoying things you need to do to avoid losing points, while making an already quite AP puzzly game more so. (The variant, where you draw four cards instead of three and discard one – even more so again). So while the game had interesting elements, I found them too buried beneath forced zero-sum complexity to win me over.
  • The trasher: Nothing for me here! I thought the ‘Outlaws and Outposts’ mode would add some interaction. But no. It adds a ‘roll to hit’ to see if you can score a few points mechanism. Oh dear.
  • The dabbler: I struggled through my first play but did get the hang of it near the end. I wanted a second go. But by halfway through that, I’d had enough. The game looks super cool on the table, but then you try and move a card on the mountain and everything gets nudged. And every time you try and slip your action cards under your player board its annoying. Things I thought would get less annoying simply didn’t. I think that if this was an app, I could probably get into it. But on the table? It looks good, but no thank you!

Solo play

If you like a fiddly and complex euro, you may also like a clever card-based AI for your opponent in solo mode. If so, Sierra West may well be for you. It takes a while to play your AI opponent, but it gets quicker as you start to learn the actions it takes. There are specific rules for each mode too, giving you the variety you need. There are also six ways to make the AI more of a challenge once you’ve beaten it down a few times. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the solo mode and it works well.

Key observations

Critics suggest you really must want to play Sierra West to get past the (32-page!) rulebook. And to stick with it as the card mountain slides around the table and you struggle to slip your cards beneath your player board. This kind of thing is kind of common with a euro – but some people have rated this as low as a one for these reasons. That’s some serious frustration right there.

Another common criticism is the mechanisms don’t feel connected. Some feel huts, tracking, trapping etc feel tacked on. I think what the developers did was solve the wrong problem. The actual problem is the game takes too long for what it is and downtime is very high. So giving you something to do between turns feels counterproductive. Also, deciding whether to trap/track will affect hut usage on your turn, so can actually add AP (not increase immersion). For the knockers, taking things out would’ve made more sense than adding mechanisms in.

The game has a complexity rating above three on BGG, but critics don’t see a game of complex decisions. For all the elements on show, the array of actions is small. And there is really only one route to victory. You cannot ignore wagon advancement, which multiplies almost every meaningful way to score in every scenario. The decisions you make each round are normally pretty obvious. It’s the fiddly nature of the components that slow you down. Plus extra decisions about largely arbitrary side mechanics.

Yet the game has an average rating of above 7/10 (at time of writing). Positive comments are, unsurprisingly, the opposite of the above. Players enjoying the ‘smorgasbord of mechanisms’, for example, and the choice of four scenarios. But even those who rate it high suggest game length is an issue (many say 3/4 players make the game too long). And the solo mode gets a lot of love, which is understandable – but you do need to want a euro game with a complex solo AI.

Conclusion: Sierra West board game

I had high hopes for Sierra West coming into Essen, but for me it didn’t rise to them. I find myself agreeing with those who have ended up rating the game poorly. And its a shame, because the ideas that showed promise on reading are interesting. Choosing certain actions over others, then moving along paths in the right order to get what you need done. I still like those elements, but they ended up lost beneath too much detritus. So it’s a no for me, but those happy with a fiddly, puzzly euro (and who can take some downtime – or play solo/with two) should take a closer look.