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.

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