Reviewed by Andrea “Liga” Ligabue

(NG International, 3 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 60-120 minutes; $59.90)


dakotaThe events of the Old West and the struggle between Cowboys and Indians is a subject of endless fascination and relevance which can be read and interpreted at various levels. The advancing white civilization conquering the prairies bringing wealth and prosperity is faced with the great Indian tradition of respect and communion with nature. There is infighting among the various Indian tribes strongly influenced by firearms and alcohol carried by “white faces”, there are internal struggles for power between the various European nations and the economic interests of wealthy investors.

We could discuss these things for hours and hours but that is off topic for a magazine that wants to talk about games. Closer to the mark is how a game like Dakota handles these topics. It is interesting that both the designer, Piero Cioni, and the publisher, NG International, are from the old Europe: Italians actually! With Dakota and Magestorm, Piero Cioni has finally found his style elegantly mixing typical aspects of “German games” and the “American style”: not easy, but who better than a designer used to tackling games as diverse as complex wargames to light “family games”. In Dakota, the designer has decided to focus on the conflict between the various Indian tribes and white factions, creating a game in which typical German mechanisms are combined with diplomacy, discussions, disputes and betrayals.

At the beginning of the game, each player chooses whether to play with the Cowboys or the Indians. All players have a coin with Indians on one side and Cowboys on the other side. Secretly, they decide which side to play using the coin to mark they decision. All combinations are permitted except the most extreme (all Cowboys and all Indians): if that is the case, all players have to choose their factions again. All the players now turn their two-sided personal board to display the features of the faction they have chosen. The game works well and has different dynamics depending on the make-up of the factions in play.

The game is played on a map made up of many areas: grasslands, rivers, plains, forests and mountains. Each area produces different resources: natural ones before being exploited and then other resources. In rivers, for example, the fish soon yield space to the gold diggers and the mountains, rich in natural resources in the beginning, become full of mines from which the “white faces” take the metal used to grow their civilization. Resources used by Indians and Cowboys are different: the former have an interest in preserving the lands in their natural state while the second run to “civilize” and produce gold, metal and grain.

Each player has three pawns to place every turn in one or more territories. There are also “neutral” pawns: Cowboys and Indians, to balance the initial choice: in a game, for example, with three Indians players and only one Cowboy there will be 10 neutral cowboys and 4 Indians. The recipe for the neutral pawns for each side will be 1 + 3 times the number of tribes / settlements on the other side.

dakotapcsAfter all players have placed their pawns, the turn will proceed in reverse order: each player has to place 3 neutral workers (can be Cowboys, Indians or a mix). Then we have to consider, territory by territory, supremacy. Only at this stage of the game do factions cooperate with each other: all the Indians present in a territory fight against all the cowboys in the same territory. Fighting is handled simply. The faction with more pawns in the territory wins the battle. The losing party retreats with no rewards while the prevailing party will have access to the resources. The choice will be made in order of presence and then, in turn order. (At the end of the turn, the territories that were not visited regenerate resources.)

I think it’s clear that this mechanism, really brilliant in my opinion, helps to generate disputes, discussions, alliances and betrayals. Each player will pick a resource from the territory for each pawn, but only if his faction is the winning one. If an area runs out of all its natural resources, it will become civilized and the next turn will generate different resources. If a civilized territory runs out of resources, it is “exploited” and will not generate more resources during the game.

With the resources received, players can buy buildings/improvements that will be worth victory points at game end: Indians and Cowboys construct different buildings but the total building points available are the same. Resources can also be sold to the market: a bison will be worth 5 gold coins for Indians only 2 for Cowboys, conversely, gold is worth 6 gold coins for “white faces” and only 1 for the Indians. Gold coins can be used to buy victory points, additional workers and / or some improvements. Each player can acquire 3 extra workers but it is rare for a player in a game to buy more than one, because the fight for victory is often very close and a new worker costs as much as a victory point. To preserve the balance. every time a new worker is acquired a neutral pawn of the same faction is removed from the game.

Some advances make it possible to transform a worker in a rider. The rider is a normal worker in all respects (in terms of positioning and map resources acquired), but counts as two workers in the calculation of supremacy. In a game as balanced as Dakota, this can often make the difference.
Although competing with each other (there is only one winner at the end). there is some interest in collaborating with other factions. For the Indians, it is vital to ensure that the territories are not civilized too soon while the cowboys, in need of gold and metal, should aim to “civilize” the mountains and rivers fast.

A very positive quality of this game is the length; it rarely exceeds 2 hours. I often had the feeling that the end of the game was approaching too soon. Obviously more rounds would require a rethinking of some strategy since Cowboys’ power rises from turn to turn and the Indians become weaker. Of course this is not the right game for people looking for a classical German game. As mentioned in the introduction, Dakota has a German style but it cannot be played without a certain amount of diplomacy. Materials and graphics are top level but the greatest strength of this game, which I think only time will confirm (or deny), is that despite using unequal factions and initial set up, Dakota still remains balanced. As far as I can see, there is not a prevailing faction and/or a killing strategy.

While Dakota may not hit the table all the time, I’m sure it will be played several times during the year. It is a tense and demanding game thanks to the great diplomatic effort you need to win. Dakota is a quality original game that stands together with the best Essen releases.


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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