Reviewed by Herb Levy

PIONEER DAYS (Tasty Minstrel Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 45-60 minutes; $59.95)


In the early days of western settlement of the United States, it took hardy folk to undertake – and survive – the dangers that awaited them as they trekked from the east to the far reaches of the west. This demanding journey is revisited in the new game from designers Matthew Dunstan and Chris Marling: Pioneer Days

Players act in the roles of leaders of their individual excursions west. There is a selection of player boards with all players dealt two, choosing one as their character for the game. (For your first game, it is suggested to use the identical side of ALL boards granting disease immunity for ONE of your townsfolk; later on, you can flip to the other side which grants you a special advantage/power during play.) These player boards also give you a starting “supply” which could include a wagon (wagons come in both large and small sizes), wood, medicine, equipment, gold nuggets or cattle. 

There are two game boards: the “main” board and a “scoring” board. The main board has room for towns that will be visited along the journey, equipment tokens (one more than the number of players made available each round) and townsfolk (that may be “recruited” to join you on your trek west). There are five sets of townsfolk cards (labelled from A to E) and two of these sets are mixed. Each round, six cards are drawn and placed underneath the icons of the dice pictured. Finally, there is room to chart potential disasters!

The game uses sets of six sided dice in five different colors, all with the same six icons.  A supply of dice is added to the black dice bag (five of each color for each player in the game plus one additional set). The starting player draws one die for each player plus one, rolls them and, in turn order, everyone chooses one of the dice and does one of the three possible actions that that icon allows. 

The six icons are a jester (wild), a pickaxe, equip, cattle head, wood and medicine. Of course, you can do the action of the icon. The pickaxe allows you to draw a nugget from the yellow bag which can be worth 1, 2 or 3 Victory Points at game’e end (there are more 1s than 2s, more 2s than 3s). Equip allows you to add one of the equipment tokens (generally one more equipment than players are on display each round) to your wagon, a cattle head adds one cattle to your holdings while the wood and medicine allow you to add 1 wood and 1 wood medicine respectively. (Each space on a wagon can hold one item except for medicine and wood where a space can accommodate two of each. Need more room? You can always purchase additional large wagons – at a cost of 8 silver – or small wagons – for 5 silver.) But you can do something else instead. Rather than do the action, you can collect the amount of money that appears above that icon on the board (for example, $6 in silver if medicine is chosen) OR add the townsfolk situated underneath that icon to your expedition. Townsfolk don’t take up space in the wagons; they just “travel” along. (The jester allows you do ANY of the five other actions but you can NOT take more than the $1 in silver nor recruit any other townsfolk except the one appearing beneath the jester icon.)  

When everyone has chosen their die and done their chosen action, there is one die remaining. The COLOR of that die advances the matching color disaster one space. (If a black die is left behind, ALL FOUR disasters advance one space!)  When a disaster reaches the end of its track, the disaster is triggered and must be immediately resolved.  (Once resolved, the disaster token “resets” and may be triggered yet again later on!)  The four disasters are Storm (where you will need to pay one wood for each wagon you have or suffer damage), Raid (where you will lose HALF or your silver rounded up!), Famine (requiring you to spend 1 silver per cattle or LOSE cattle you can’t pay for) and Disease (demanding a medicine for each of you townsfolk or they die!). This activity continues until there are no more dice to be drawn from the bag. This completes a week of travelling (a round) and interim scoring occurs.

First, players receive any “end of week” rewards granted by townsfolk who are part of their expedition. 

Townsfolk usually provide an immediate benefit upon joining (additional medicine or wood, silver, cattle etc.) and always provide an end of game scoring bonus (for having cattle, or supplies of one type or another or even having more townsfolk). Then, all players score 1 Victory Point for each cattle they have. VPs earned are charted on the scoring track.  Finally, all players may visit the towns on display. 

At the start of the game, a deck of town cards is shuffled and 9 stacked on the town space of the board. Two of these are revealed for the first “week” (round) with two more revealed in each of the following two rounds and then THREE for the last round of play. These towns bestow “favors” upon players who trade in various specified resources (equipment and/or wood and/or medicine and/or silver etc.) Favors are Victory Points (1 Favor = 2 VPs). 

Now all dice are returned to the dice bag, unchosen townsfolk and equipment removed (with new ones replacing them), the start player shifts to the player to the left, and we do it all over again. This continues for three more rounds (weeks). At the end of the fourth week, after scoring for cattle but BEFORE visiting the three towns remaining, ALL Disasters advance one more space! Any Disasters triggered at this point are resolved before visiting the towns. Then, after visiting the towns, final scoring occurs. 

Players gain 1 VP for every nugget shown on any gold token they have. VPs for Favors are now added to scores. (Why “Favor” is used rather than Victory Points is a mystery and certainly doesn’t make things easier.) Finally, VPs earned for bonuses granted by surviving Townsfolk are calculated and added to scores. Any damage suffered by wagons from Storms (at the rate of MINUS 2 VPs per damage) is deducted. The player with the most VPs wins! (Tie? Then the player with the most silver gets the victory!)

Pioneer Days is very thematic, strongly capturing the feeling – and dangers – of a wagon train heading west. There are decisions to be made at every turn and meaningful choices to make as well. Cattle are a steady source of Victory Points but the vast amount of VPs will come from those end game scoring bonuses by the townsfolk.

Recruiting two or three (or more) townsfolk that generate VPs the same way will help you concentrate on a specific “resource” and double or triple your VPs, maximizing the value of your moves. For example, having a townsfolk who grants VPs for cattle may result in 5 VPs at game’s end if you have 5 cattle. But have THREE folks who share that bonus and your VPs jump to 15! More engine building is possible through equipment. 

Equipment tokens display a wide variety of items (and each player board actually lists them for easy reference). Most have an icon (in white) that displays one of the dice icons. When choosing a die with that face, the very act of choosing that die activates that equipment and grants you a bonus of some sort (extra medicine or wood or cattle or gold nugget etc.) By picking and choosing equipment with identical icons, you can create a veritable avalanche of bonuses in addition to the the standard choices an icon presents, again maximizing a single move. 

Dice drafting is the key mechanism here and, although you might feel dice rolling adds too much of a luck factor, in actual play, this is not the case. Each die offers three choices and, although not all choices may be available after awhile (a townsfolk may have already been recruited so that option for that icon is no longer available), you can always spend 3 silver to change the face of a die! A curious thing though. Although we have a wagon train moving westward facing danger from storms, raids, famine and disease, Indian attacks are nowhere to be found (unless you consider those raids for silver to be the work of Native Americans). 

Graphically, the game is strong but not perfect. Really enjoy the cattle “meeples”, the first player horseshoe piece and the thick tiles. The artwork (which is fine) tends to shift from a “realistic” approach to a “cartoony” one. Player pieces (for tracking scores) are all in the brown family and a bit too similar. This game cries out for an additional piece or card or something so players can remember who is who!

One caveat. Some townsfolk state:  “1 VP per wood or medicine“. To many (including me), this means wood OR medicine. However, the designer has confirmed that this is inclusive and means wood AND medicine. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to use the “and” instead of the “or” and avoid any confusion? Speaking of townsfolk, the five decks available may be mixed (A with B, or A with C etc.) but deck E adds a bit of die-rolling to the card effects. In our plays, we have found deck E to be the least satisfying and is probably best left in the box.

Pioneer Days recreates the trials and tribulations of those hardy pioneers who risked their lives to journey west for a new life for themselves and their families and does it in a way that keeps you completely engaged. Each turn offers choices, each round challenges. It makes you want to echo the sentiments of Horace Greeley who exhorted Americans to “Go West, Young Man”. In this case, both men and women will enjoy travelling west and spending their gaming nights with Pioneer Days. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -Herb Levy

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