Buzzworthiness – Spurs: A Tale in the Old West

I’ve gotten to play a friend’s copy of this Kickstarted game a couple of times now, so I’m ready to do a review of

image by BGG user onekccs
image by BGG user onekccs

Spurs: A Tale in the Old West is a game by Ole Steiness and Sean Brown that was just recently published by Mr. B Games.  This is a 3-5 player game (with a possible 6-player expansion) that takes 90 minutes to play.  A successful Kickstarter campaign (which I talked about in my first Kickstarter Blitz) raised $23,902 on a $16,000 goal, and the game delivered right on time.

Spurs is a game set in the Old West (obviously), and the object is to gain the most fame points.  Players start out with their cowboys at different places on a map.  There are four different types of terrain – badlands, plains, forests, and mountains.  Also positioned around the board are three different towns.  The board is seeded with eight different challenge tokens.  Each player has a character with its own ability, and begins the game with a bag of bullets and some money based on turn order ($0 for first, $5 for second, $10 for third, and so on).

On your turn, you roll 2-3 red dice (based on your characters movement speed), and use two of them to determine how far on the map you can move.  You can move as many steps as you want up to the chosen number, and can stop where you want.  Some outlaws and animals won’t let you move through their space without stopping to fight.

If you stop in a space with a challenge token, you’ll stop and resolve it.  You know what you’re getting into when you stop as all tokens are face up (though they are face down until placed).  Here’s what you might see:

  • Cattle – You roll dice and have a certain number of moves to group all the cattle together on a separate board.  Once you run out of rolls, you collect $5 per cow that is next to at least two others.  You can also choose to just rob the rancher for $15 and take a wanted poster.
  • Horse – You try to break a horse, taking several rolls to ride it around an enclosure and not run into anything.  If you succeed, you keep the horse, which adds one to your movement until you sell it or it gets stolen from you.
  • Animals – You can try to hunt an animal by pulling three bullets out of your bag, hoping to pull a number and type indicated on the tile (such as two rifle bullets).  If you succeed, you get the animal, which you can sell at a town for money and fame.  If you fail, nothing happens unless the tile shows a red bullet – if that’s the case, you get wounded if you fail.  A wound is a red bullet that goes in your bag.
  • Outlaws – These work just like the animals.  Fight ’em, then take ’em to town for your reward.
  • Desperados – Draw an indicated number of Desperado cards and fight them one at a time, pilling bullets for each one.  A reward is listed on the card, which you collect immediately.
  • Gold – Pull an indicated number of nuggets from a bag.  If any of them are gold, you can sell them in town for $15 each.  Any that aren’t gold get put back in the bag.  However, after you draw, you’re going to have to fight Desperados (even if you don’t get anything).

When a challenge is fully resolved, it is removed from the board and an event card is drawn.  This event tells you where to put a new token, as well as giving an event.

If you land on a space containing another player, you can fight them.  You’ll both simultaneously draw bullets from your bag (get it? DRAW!!!) until you get two of a type you specified at the start of the duel.  The first one to get them and slap the table wins the duel, gaining a fame point (or two if you beat someone ahead of you in points).  If the loser had Wanted posters, you get $20 for each one.  You can also steal half their money, a gold nugget, a piece of equipment, an animal or outlaw they are carrying, or an escorted stagecoach.  If you steal, you’ll get a Wanted poster.  Shooting a man is OK in the Old West, but by gum we do NOT steal.

If you head into town, there are several options, each of which you can do once on your turn.

  • Sheriff – Turn in your outlaws for the ransom on the card.
  • General store – Sell your animal pelts and horses.  You can also buy equipment cards.
  • Doctor – Draw two free tokens from your bullet bag.  If either are wounds, discard them.  Otherwise, you can pay $5 per wound to get rid of them that way.  You can never have more than three wounds in your bag at a time.
  • Saloon – You can buy a round of drinks for $40, which earns you a point.  In fact, you can buy as many rounds as you want for one point each.  Whether you do or don’t, you can also choose to draw a saloon card which could give you another opportunity to fight or earn cash and points.
  • Bank – This is only present in one of the towns.  Here, you can sell your gold OR, if you’re feeling daring, rob the joint.  Robbing gets you a wanted poster, and basically consists of try to get two of a certain type of bullet in three draws.  The bank starts with $15, and may earn more as the game goes on.

When one player reaches a predetermined number of points (10 for a short game, 20 for long), the game ends.  A bonus 2 points is awarded to the players with the most money, bullets, and wanted posters.  The player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: Most of my complaints about this game are going to come from this section, so I’ll start with the good.  This game comes with some nice cowboy minis with plastic bases to differentiate them from each other.  From looking at the Kickstarter page, I thought the cowboys themselves would be different colors, but they are all gray.  Which is fine, Im glad there are different colored bases.  The character sheets are nice and big and do a good job giving you all of your pertinent information.  The art used through the game is nicely thematic.  The bags re also decent quality – certainly better than those used by WizKids.  The cardboard bullets are serviceable – they are printed on one side of a rectangle so you can’t tell by feel what you are grabbing.  The black back also means that you may have an extra step to flip it over when you pull it out of the bag, which adds to the tension.  One of the Kickstarter stretch goals was for wooden bullets, but that wasn’t achieved.

Now for the bad, and these are mostly aesthetic choices that I’m grumpy about but can’t really fault them for using them.  First off, the game uses paper money.  I know it’s a cost saving thing, but I hate paper money and would probably replace it with poker chips in a heartbeat.  There are some very tiny cardboard chits used for marking your score and for horses and cattle.  They’re just very small and annoying, and I might replace them with cubes.  Also, the game makes use of tiny cards, which I never like.  The event cards are a good size and do a great job giving you information, but the Desperados, saloon cards, and equipment cards are all that tiny type that are impossible to shuffle.  I know they’re commonplace in games, I just don’t like them and wish they could have been bigger.  Again, a cost-saving thing.

I can forgive all the issues above.  However, there are two other problems with the game that I can’t look past.  For the sake of staying thematic, let’s call them the ugly.  First of all, while the board does a great job differentiating the different terrain types – badlands, plains, forests, and mountains are all easy to tell apart – the irregular spaces of the board are separated by this brown line that blends in perfectly with some of the terrain types, specifically the forests.  You have to get really close to the board to see where the border is, and that’s just bad planning.  Make the lines in the darker regions lighter – they need to stand out more than you need everything to look uniform.

The other thing is the direction dice used with the horses and cattle.  These have arrows indicating which direction you can move your animals.  They are blue dice with black type, and impossible to read from any kind of distance.  Terrible choice – the print really should have been white.

Overall, I would say the components aren’t terrible, but they’re really not anything to write home about either.  This is definitely not a game that will get by on its looks.

THEME: The Old West is a very rich theme that has inspired countless movies, books, TV shows, and tourist attractions.  Yet, it doesn’t seem to be very big in board games.  The games that do use it tend to have it as a background to the mechanics in more of a Eurogame style.  Spurs, on the other hand, would not exist without its theme.  Everything in it is designed to give you the experience of being a character in the Old West.  Time and time again, you’ll find yourself speaking with a Western twang, or roleplaying your character, be it Lawman or Bandit or Hunter or Pioneer.  There are Wanted posters, shootouts, saloons, horses, bears…everything you’d want in a Western game is here.  This is one of the most thematic Western games I’ve played.  Granted, that’s a short list, but I’ll even go as far as to say it’s one of the most thematic Western games I’ve heard about.

MECHANICS: With a theme as rich as the one you find in Spurs, it stands to reason that most of the mechanisms in place are there to move the story rather than for elegance.  This is apparent in the fact that movement is determined by rolling dice and moving.  Roll and move is kind of a dirty phrase in hobby gaming, but this is at least different from the Monopoly way.  You roll two dice and move up to the number, and if you have a high enough riding skill, you roll three dice and choose which two to use.  The dice are customized with horses, and only go up to three on each one, so you won’t go any further than six spaces (more if you have a horse).  There are different costs to enter different terrains, which also helps slow people down.  With large spaces on the board, you can still cover some good ground with six.  I think the roll-and-move is handled well, and doesn’t ever feel as swingy as it can in other games, primarily because you always have choices of where to go.

There is some pick-up-and-deliver in the game, as you have to take outlaws and animals back to town in order to get any rewards.  But you also have the danger that another player is going to come up and rob you.  Which leads to my favorite mechanism in the game – combat resolution.  Rather than rolling dice, this game has the innovative idea to have players draw bullets from a bag.  In addition to being a really great pun, this leads to some great moments of tension.  There are ways to mitigate the luck – you can get more bullets in town, and can even train your weapon so black bullets (misses) are replaced by rifle or pistol bullets.  You can also collect spurs that will allow you to add bullets or reroll.  Combat will be used throughout the game, whether against another player or fighting any NPCs.  I like it a lot.

The player powers are all fairly decent.  None of them seem particularly overpowered, and they generally help define your strategy from the beginning – the Lawman wants to catch outlaws, while the Hunter wants animals.  And so on.  Some of the characters can only roll two dice for movement, which seems a little unfair.  However, it’s not a big deal – they tend to be a little more powerful in other areas (bullets and powers).

The saloon cards provide opportunities to fight and make some cash.  A lot of them have entry fees, but sometimes you’ll be able to do something without paying.  The events generally give you more money for delivering to particular places.  The Desperados range from being fairly easy to very difficult, which makes sense thematically.  The horse and cattle collection processes are kind of random with the dice rolling involved, but generally are not too hard to do.  Again, you have an advantage in these with a higher riding skill.

The mechanics all work pretty well, and nothing feels overly clunky.  In fact, I think they integrate with the theme pretty well.

STRATEGY LEVEL: I don’t mean this as a criticism, but this really isn’t a game that you need to spend a lot of brain cells on.  The game is primarily theme, which means there’s a healthy dose of luck involved and there’s not really a lot of strategic opportunities.  There are certainly decisions to be made, but a lot of what happens is going to come down to luck.  That kind of goes with the territory in an American style game – you’re really there for the experience rather than the strategy.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a difficult game to get into.  The theme helps, and the mechanics of the game are simple enough that people can understand.  The rules can take a while to explain, but the game is fairly accessible.  I think the biggest barrier to entry is honestly the luck – someone with a bad run can easily feel shafted.  However, I’d say the accessibility is high.

REPLAYABILITY: With all the different roles and variable places the challenges pop up, I’d say this game has a pretty high replay value.  It may start feeling the same after a while, but I think each role gives you a different enough avenue that you can enjoy the game again and again.

SCALABILITY: I don’t think this game scales particularly well.  I have played it with six and with three.  My three-player game was a lot of fun. My six-player game was kind of drawn out and overly chaotic (admittedly, it was the first time for all of us).  The game is turn-based, and while turns don’t take a very long time, you still are waiting around with nothing to do (that is, unless someone comes up and declares a duel on you).  The more players you have, the more difficult it is to formulate any kind of plan as the board will likely be completely different at the start of your turn than it was at the end of your last one.  I’d say 3-4 is probably the best number for the game, and 5-6 might be more fun in a game where everyone knows what they are doing.

FOOTPRINT: There is a lot of stuff in the game.  You’ll need a lot of table space for the board and all the extra cards and chits.  Each player has their own player area and bullet bag, but you’re not really going to have a whole lot to keep track of yourself – just some spurs and whatever equipment you buy.  Still, you’ll need some space to spread out when you play this game.

LEGACY: If you look at the American West category at BGG, you’ll see that among the top games are Carson City, Homesteaders, Dice Town, Wyatt Earp, and Oregon.  All of these are more in the Euro style – Carson City is a worker placement game, Homesteaders is an auction game, Dice Town is all about trying to get the right sets to gain benefits, Wyatt Earp is a rummy game, and Oregon is all about tile placement.  You also get Bang!, which is a social deduction game, but generally, theme is not the most important thing in most of these games.  So Spurs comes in and fits into that niche – it’s an Old West game that feels like an Old West game.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I think it really depends on what you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for a thematic, fun, rootin-tootin cowboy game, then yes, you should check it out.  If you’re looking for deep strategy, I’d suggest something else.  My issues with the components aside, this is definitely a game I would recommend that you check out.  It’s a lot of fun.  Thanks for reading!

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