This weekend I had the opportunity to play several rounds of the Deadwood board game published by Fantasy Flight. This is not a game based on the fantastic HBO television series, but instead is a game where you play rival games competing for control of the town nestled in the Black Hills. The goal of the game is to be the game with the most money by the time the railroad truly arrives in town, or by the time it devolves into a lawless hellhole.
The game itself is incredible simple and fast. The board is a pyramid of empty squares, with spots for rails to be laid, and two “out of game” locations, Boot Hill and the Abandoned Mine. Dead cowboys end up in Boot Hill, and are Really Most Sincerely Dead. The Abandoned Mine is where you end up through player action or if you skedaddle from a fight. The game always begins with three locations placed on the board in the same plots. The Town Hall, the Sheriff’s Office, and the Church. There are five more locations then added randomly to the plots marked with a star, save one of them must be the Saloon.
Each player starts with $5, one bullet, one horse, and three cowboys in their gang. There are three types of cowboys of varying strength. Greenhorns are the weakest, marked with a 1 in the corner and on the back. Gunslingers are the middle tier, marked with a 2 in the corner and on the back. Trail Bosses are the toughest, marked with a 3 in the corner and on the back. These numbers denote how many dice you get to roll if you are in a combat with another cowboy. A bullet cartridge is expended to add an extra dice to your pool, and a horse allows you to expend it to avoid combat and skedaddle to the Abandoned Mine. Money is used to determine the game winner, and you may spend it at the Saloon to hire additional cowboys from your pool of nine total cowboys (three of which you begin the game with, so this pool of hired cowboys is really six).
On a turn you only have two options to choose from, place a cowboy at an in-town location and take control of it, or remove any number of cowboys from the board and return them to your ranch (the ranch is really just code for your hand or inventory). When you take control of a location, or annex it in game terms, a variety of things might occur. This is different in every location and is marked fairly clearly on the location tiles, but you will probably want the rules open the first time or two you play the game because you might not be familiar with the nuance of the symbols. If the tile is occupied by another player’s cowboy, with the exception of the church, a shoot out occurs. That is, unless the Sheriff is protecting the area. The player that controls the Sheriff’s office may move the Sheriff to any intersection of three plots. These do not need to be plots with tiles on them, but you will probably want the Sheriff protecting actual tiles. The reason is that not only can no shoot outs occur in locations the Sheriff protects, meaning that no one can take a controlled location from you, but if you control the Sheriff’s office, other players who choose to annex a tile the Sheriff is touching must pay you $1 for protection money. Any number of players may annex the church, but only one cowboy from each game may be in the church at the time. The church allows you to get rid of Wanted posters.
What are Wanted posters? Well, you accrue wanted posters by being an outlaw, or by other players assigning them to you through game locations. One of the ways in which the game can end is if the pool of Wanted posters is empty (five Wanted posters per player are pooled at the game’s start). Wanted posters subtract from your money at the end of the game, at a quickly scaling rate, or if someone rats you out of the Courthouse you must pay $1 per Wanted poster, or collect another Wanted poster. If someone controls the Newspaper, they can either assign or remove a Wanted poster from a player. If a player controls the Town Hall, they remove a Wanted poster from themselves, in addition to the other abilities of the Town Hall. If the player goes to the Church, they remove one Wanted poster from themselves, or one plus an additional one for each Laundry they control on the board (max of three for one visit). You receive Wanted posters for initiating a shoot out, regardless of outcome, or robbing the bank. Of course, robbing the bank does get you $5…
The Town Hall is one of the most important locations in the game. When you annex the Town Hall you perform three actions: remove a Wanted poster, lay a railroad tile, and place three tiles, one from each stack numbered 1-3. The railroad always has two directions to travel, and starts at the bottom of the board. There are four rail tiles, and the game ends when the Train Station is placed. This means that five annexes of the Town Hall will end the game, no matter what. Laying a rail tile does a few things. It destroys any location tile it travels through, sending all Cowboys there to the Abandoned Mine, the player who controls the Hotel gets $2, thanks to the boom in business, and any adjacent tiles may be immediately re-annexed by the cowboys on them. As you can see, laying a rail is a very powerful thing in the game.
Outside of the Town Hall, the Stage Coach allows you to place a single location tile. If you control the Stage Coach and the game ends through any other means besides placing the Train Station, you receive an extra ten dollars. The game can end one of three ways: the Train Station is placed, a gang is out of cowboys, or all Wanted posters are out of the pool. The Wanted post pool may be increased or decreased by controlling the Telegraph Office location, at a rate of plus or minus two. Cowboys can be acquired at the Saloon, with Greenhorns being free, Gunslingers costing $1, and Trail Bosses costing $3.
Combat is interesting. The aggressor first always picks up a Wanted poster. Then the defender may declare he or she is skedaddling. If the cowboy skedaddles, there is no combat. If not, the combat commences. Each player then declares if they are using a bullet cartridge, which adds one die, and then the die pools are compiled. If there a dice difference, the player with the larger pool rolls this difference first. Die are always rolled one at a time, simultaneously. On a roll of 4 or 5, the cowboy is wounded. On a roll of 6, the cowboy is outright killed. Two wounds results in death. All wounds are healed at the end of combat. If the attacker wins, the location can then be immediately annexed. If the defender wins, they just hold the location.
Learning the locations is the key to the game, with the General Store allowing you an extra move if you have a cowboy in town, the Dance Hall allows you to remove up to two cowboys from the board, and the Grifter lets you move two cowboys from other gangs to the Abandoned Mine. These extra moves and forced movement are really game changers. As in most games, the more you can move, the easier it is to win.
Out of the three games I played, I won all of them with mostly the same strategy: Get all the Greenhorns, which cost no money, never spend any money, and always try and get at least $2 a turn if you can. The first game I just robbed the bank over and over. The second game I focused on the stage coach and the Wanted poster removal via telegraph. The third I just tried to get as much money per turn as I could. This seemed to work out very well. I am not positive that combat and hiring more high killing cowboys is the right move, but in the last game the second player was very close to me in value, so I might just have been getting lucky.
It seems like a lot, but this game is very, very simple and fast to play once you get into it. It’s probably 30-40 minutes per session, even with up to the max of five people. I would give the game two smiley faces, with the caveat that this might climb to three smiley faces if it is revealed that cowboy murder really is a significant part of the strategy of the game. Right now, it doesn’t appear to be, and that kind of red herring makes it frustrating for some players who think it’s a valid way to play the game. It really might be, but three sessions didn’t reveal it as such.
It’s a solid addition to any board game collection, and with five players the game was much more interesting and crazy.