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Homesteaders

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

(Tasty Minstrel Games, 3 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 90 minutes; $39.95)

 

homeboxAlex Rockwell has developed the reputation on board game internet forums as quite the analytical thinker. He will often conduct an in-depth study of a game, producing lengthy posts or even tomes on a plethora of strategies and tactics that can be implemented. Perhaps his most famous study was conducted on Puerto Rico, the number one rated game on the popular Boardgame Geek website (featured in the Spring 2002 Gamers Alliance Report). It is no wonder that his first published design is a game that requires careful planning and thorough analysis, and seems to provide wide latitude to explore various strategies and tactics.

Homesteaders takes players back to the birth of the Old West which was precipitated by the free land giveaway that was part and parcel of the Homestead Act of 1862. Players purchase land at lively auctions, then utilize their resources to construct buildings. These buildings generally provide more income and or trade opportunities which can be used to continue to expand a player’s holdings and wealth. The player who is best able to properly construct complementary buildings and conduct shrewd trades will become fabulously wealthy and yield tremendous power in the burgeoning town.

Players begin the game with a modest treasury and one worker employed at their homestead. On each of the ten turns, three parcels of land will be available for purchase at the auction house. These parcels of land are usually zoned for specific types of buildings: residential, commercial or industrial. When a player wins an auction for one of these parcels, he may, if able, construct a building of the appropriate type.

The auctions can be quite lively, and work in a fashion similar to those found in games such as Evo, Vegas Showdown and Amun-Re. There are bidding tracks surrounding each of the three auction houses with allowable bid amounts beginning at $3 and rising to a high of $21. Players take turns bidding by placing their marker on one of the tracks onto an amount they wish to bid. If the player is subsequently outbid, he must bid higher on the same parcel, bid on a different parcel, or pass. When passing, the player moves his marker on the railroad track, with each space granting a specific reward such as an additional worker, trade token, resource, etc. Sometimes it is wise to pass not only to save money for a future round but in order to acquire these valuable benefits.

When a player wins an auction, he may construct one of the available buildings of the type allowed by the parcel won. Buildings require the expenditure of specific resources in order to be constructed. Players initially have access to wood via their homestead but will earn additional resources, income, workers and/or victory points from new buildings. If a player does not possess the required resources, these often can be acquired at the market. However, trading at the market requires trade tokens for each transaction. These tokens can be gained — you guessed it — via buildings or advancement on the railroad track. Many buildings also provide enhanced or more favorable trading opportunities. The game’s main challenge is constructing a multitude of buildings that complement each other and provide a healthy mix of resources, trade tokens, workers, income, trade opportunities and victory points. That’s easier said than done!

As in Puerto Rico, many buildings require workers in order to produce. At the beginning of each turn, players allocate their work force amongst their various buildings, hoping to maximize their production. Workers aren’t free, however, as each one earns a dollar per turn for their labor. So, players must maintain a steady, sufficient income to not only pay their workers, but win auctions as well. Loans are available, but they can be quite costly if unpaid by game’s end.

home2As the settlement grows into a town and ultimately into a city, new and more productive buildings become available. Of course, the buildings tend to cost more to construct, so players must properly prepare for this by constructing a finely tuned array of buildings that mesh together well. Since the game is only ten turns in duration, a misstep or two will likely be quite costly.

At the conclusion of the tenth round, players will calculate their victory points. In addition to points earned during the course of the game, players will earn points for their buildings, bonuses granted by some buildings, and certain resources, including gold (not dollars), livestock and copper. Unpaid debts cost victory points; the more debt, the greater the loss of victory points. The player with the most victory points becomes the toast of the town and wins the game.

Homesteaders is an easy game to learn; the rules are only a few pages long. However, it is difficult to master. Indeed, the old cliché used to hawk many a game seems to ring true here: “Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master!” The real challenge of the game lies in understanding the powers granted by the wide variety of buildings, and developing a strategy to acquire the correct combination that provides wide flexibility and produces maximum results. As mentioned, this is not an easy task.

About halfway into my first playing, my head was spinning. I’ve never been particularly adept at engine-building games, and figuring out how to properly acquire a set of buildings that would construct a fine-tuned machine was eluding me. Suddenly, however, the light went on, and I recognized what had to be done. I didn’t win that first game, but I fell only a victory point shy. The strange thing is that subsequent games have followed a similar pattern: I feel lost after a few turns, but manage to put things together and be competitive. I still haven’t won, but it took me twelve tries before winning Puerto Rico. I still have time to achieve my first victory.

Homesteaders should tantalize and satisfy gamers seeking a game with depth. There appears to be a wide variety of strategies to explore. There are a large variety of buildings, so different combinations can be tried. The trading aspect allows players to produce some very clever transactions, helping them achieve their goals. It is a game that will reward smart and clever play. In short, this is a gamer’s game, which is something that should not surprise anyone considering its designer. Bravo, Mr. Rockwell!

 


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