Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore
(Numbskull Games, 3 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 120 minutes; $49.99)
California Gold is a 2015 release from author Patrick Stevens and published by his company, Numbskull Games. But don’t let the title fool you; California Gold is about “Orange Ranching, the second gold rush” as the slogan on the top of the box clarifies. The game supports 3 – 5 players, and there is an expansion offered to expand the game up to 6 players.
The sturdy box is of moderate size. The contents include a good sized map, two decks of beautifully illustrated cards, a few wooden pieces and some miniature plastic poker chips. The two decks of cards are the highlight of the production.
Since the late 1800’s, the citrus industry has used crate labels when shipping their produce. Over time, these labels have become appreciated as art. Sadly, the individual artists are unrecorded. Nevertheless, many of these labels are stunning works of commercial art worthy of framing. Using this art in a game about the citrus industry is a brilliant stroke. Each card in the game has a different illustration and, with over 100 cards included, this makes for a beautiful presentation. The map is attractive and well made. The remainder of the presentation, however, is a bit uneven.
The wooden houses in the game are intended to be used with the small plastic poker chips. In the game, players need to use three different buildings: Packing Houses (green buildings used to support up to 3 growers in the same county), Nurseries (orange buildings used to attract extra growers to join your collective) and Agencies (blonde-wood buildings used to gain access to additional actions).
The overall goal of the game is to be the most popular orange-growers collective. I’ve mainly been playing four-player games where we strive to be the first player to have attracted 15 growers to our collective. There are different targets for 3 or 5 player games. Each player begins the game with a small amount of money and one free packing house.
6 growers are always on display. These growers will be based out of one of the 11 counties (areas) on the map. A packing house can support 3 growers, but these growers must all be in the same county. A quick look at the map shows that some counties have lots of growers while others have as few as 3 growers. Since the growers appear randomly out of the deck, locating in a more populated county is clearly a good idea.
Attracting a grower is free. Simply select the card from a county where you have a packing house. But just about everything else you do will take money, and your small amount of starting funds will quickly dwindle. Fortunately you can collect membership dues from your members. Unfortunately, their dues never seem to be enough. Income is chiefly defined by the type of orange that grove grows. The grove that raises navel oranges is twice as valuable as a grove that grows Valencias. However the navel orange is vulnerable to freezes.
The starting player of each round has the obligation of playing a special card called the Farm Report. Everyone has a hand of 6 farm Reports at all times. Nearly all of these cards are difficulties (citrus mold, freezes, strikes, etc.). The starting player MUST play one, even if it would hurt himself. The Farm Report cards can be mitigated. Each player has the opportunity to take preventative actions, such as fumigation, irrigation, improving working conditions, and others. However, using an action to take these steps is onerous.
The game allows a way to access these actions through the building of an Agency. An Agency is expensive, but once built, it allows a player to take a routine action (such as attracting a new member, or collecting dues), and then follow it with a secondary action (such as fumigating or irrigating). Gaining access to an agency is of keen interest. Sadly, scraping up enough money to do so is hard to envision.
California Gold is a game of adversity. The game system itself is challenging. But the real adversity comes from the other players. There are several things to consider as you play this game. In addition to the Farm Report cards, players compete in a number of ways:
- Packing Houses in the same county allow players to vie for Grower Cards.
- Players may wipe the display of 6 cards, spoiling another player’s intended move.
- Players compete for shipping contracts with the three railroads that serve the region.
- Agencies also allow for favorable positions in political influence and advertising revenue.
I’ve found California Gold fits comfortably into a typical evening devoted to games. We generally finish this game in about 2 hours. Teaching the game is not especially difficult, and should be able to be accomplished in 10 – 15 minutes.
My chief complaint with this game is the use of plastic chips and the generic colors used for the buildings. The trouble is that each player also plays a color. To designate that a green/orange/blonde building is owned, a player is to slip a small colored poker chip of their color under the building. This is awkward and undermines the overall production value of the entire package. I disposed of the chips and instead substituted various shaped colored houses in each player’s color. However, this is an added expense and effort. Other components include a few player aids and the rules manual. While serviceable, none of these materials are inspired. Patrick Stevens has a terse approach to rules and I wish he would open his style of rules writing to make readers feel more welcome. This terseness also shows up on the player aid. The game also comes with play money although this reviewer used poker chips when playing the game.
Also, it is worth noting that the game requires constant monitoring of working conditions at each player’s collective. This requires constant adjustments to a chart on the board. We found this somewhat tedious.
My bias is towards games such as El Grande, games where you can interfere with other player’s efforts. In that respect, California Gold is not a “friendly” game. I view California Gold as a good game slightly marred by uneven production values but the colorful map, beautiful cards and unusual theme paired with challenging gameplay make this game a success for me. If you like coping with adversity, this may be a game for you. – – – – – Kevin Whitmore
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