Reviewed by Herb Levy
SIERRA WEST (Board & Dice, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 40-60 minutes; $50)
In the 1840s, the American West had a certain cachet: a land of opportunity where hardy souls could challenge the diverse elements and, through some hard work and a little luck, make themselves a fortune! In this new game designed by Jonathan Pac Cantin, players become expedition leaders who attempt to meet that challenge as they move west across the Sierra Nevada mountain range to do what they need to do to achieve success as they venture Sierra West.
Sierra West is more than just one game; it is a series of modules (Apple Hill, Boats & Banjos, Gold Rush and Outlaws & Outposts), all sharing the same basic game mechanisms but with some specific cards and pieces designed for use with each one. (There is even a solo mode designed by David Turczi included.) So, with that in mind, let’s focus on an overview to give a firm understanding of how the game plays.
Each player receives a player board and a set of 8 starting cards (plus one “module specific” card) for a starting hand of 9. All also get a frontiersman (placed at the foot of the mountain), two different pioneers (placed at camp on the player board) and a wagon (which starts on the trail). Everyone also receives 5 animal tiles (beaver, rabbit, fox, bear and one specific to the module). Six special mountain cards are shuffled with one randomly placed below the wagon trail. The 15 basic mountain cards and the remaining specials are used to construct the mountain.
Mountain cards are placed in a sort of pyramid with 6 at the base, then 5, 4, 3, all placed face down, with the final 2 placed face up at the summit. Players shuffle their decks and draw 3 cards as their starting hand.
The 3 cards drawn by a player on his turn are slipped underneath the top of his player board, arranged in a panorama so that two “pioneer paths” are created. Each player’s two pioneers are noticeably different and they are committed to either the top green path or the bottom tan path; they cannot be interchanged. Player boards also have spaces for cabins as well as Tracker and Trapper actions.
Cabins may be purchased during the game and offer benefits IF a pioneer is assigned there. (Pioneers are “color-coded” in this regard and color is a restriction when assigning them to cabins.) A pioneer may also be assigned to the Tracker space out of turn. That will allow that player to gain a resource earned by ANOTHER player during their turn! A pioneer assigned to the Trapper space will trap an animal shown on ANOTHER player’s cards during their turn, allowing that player to flip over one of his animal tokens to eliminate a possible 3 Victory Point loss as well as being able to gather resources from that now trapped animal on future turns. Unlike cabins, Trapper and Tracker spaces are available to either pioneer. But assigning a pioneer to a cabin, Tracker or Trapper space means that particular pioneer will not be able to go “pioneering” (advance on its respective path) that turn so you have to critically weigh the advantage/disadvantage of such a move.
If both pioneers remain on their respective paths, players may move them, from space to space, green path or tan path, alternately if they wish but always going forward, and perform the actions on spaces they land upon. Actions include gathering resources (wood, stone and food), movement (of their frontiersman or wagon), trapping (gaining resources from trapped animals), gaining a mule (which can act as an extra “pioneer” in some respects) and more including a shovel.
A shovel allows you (at the cost of a resource or two) to buy a cabin, adding it to your player board. Each board has room for 4 cabins in total: 3 green and 1 brown. Filling a cabin space not only gives you a possible benefit should you assign a pioneer there but also avoids the 3 point penalty for each empty cabin space at the end of the game. Alternatively, a shovel may be used to gain a card from the mountain provided that the player’s frontiersman has moved and is already standing on an exposed (face up) card. Once claimed, that card is either added to the top of that player’s deck or to his/her discard pile. Cards no longer covered by the removed card are flipped over and available for a future claim. (Any “special” cards revealed go below the wagon track.)
But the trail is not all friendly. Possible penalties await which can cost you resources or, if unable to pay, a cabin or advancement on the wagon track or prevent that pioneer from advancing on his/her track. When any of your pioneers reach the end of the path (and even the mule, if you have it), “Summit” actions may be performed.
The top (i.e. “Summit”) of each player card in the created panorama depicts various “exchanges” where it is possible to convert resources into movement up the “Homestead Scoring Board”. (In the Apple Hill module, an auxiliary board with red and green apples is also used.) By placing one of your pioneers who has completed its path (and/or the mule) on the top of a card, those exchanges may be made. Each step up the tracks of the Scoring Board not only grants you Victory Points (to be scored at the end of the game) but also rewards you with a bonus of sorts such as gaining the Mule or a Double Boot token which counts as 2 movements or gold. (In the Apple Hill board, the bonuses are a free trapping action and 2 gold.). Another consideration is the movement of your wagon. As wagons advance (at the cost of movement and resources), their positions act as 2x, 3x, even 4x multipliers for VPs earned on the Scoring Board.
When the final special card completes the row below the wagon trail, the endgame is triggered. That round is finished and one final round played. Then we score.
Each gold held by a player is worth 1 Victory Point as are all of the “Double Boot” (2 movements) tokens in a player’s supply. Each empty cabin space and each face down animal token costs 3 VPs. But the bulk of points comes from the cards collected off the mountain and the Homestead Scoring Board.
Cards added to your deck generate points quickly with 1 card worth 1 VP, 2 cards worth 3, 3 cards 6, 4 cards 10, 5 cards 15, 6 cards 20 with each subsequent card worth an additional 5 VPs. Then the positions of your markers on the homestead board are added and MULTIPLIED by the value of the position held by your wagon on the trail. (Any additional points possible in the particular module being played are added as well.) The player with the highest combined total wins!
There is a lot going on in Sierra West, a ton of moving parts (in some cases, quite literally) as you are always slipping and sliding cards underneath your player board and moving cards from the mountain down to your deck or beneath the wagon trail. (Some of this “slipping and sliding” can make for a little difficulty in arranging your cards the way you want them). Lots of wood and nice quality boards here too to give you a strong sense of the challenges of the time in which the game is set.
When building your engine to victory, you can be distracted by all of the options but you have to focus on getting cards from the mountain and Summit actions that will propel you to the top of the Homestead Board. Cabins and animal tokens can be helpful but, in generating VPs, not so much. Unless the paths you have created are so inconsequential to your grander schemes (and, from time to time they will be), it is better to use pioneers on the trail rather than removing them to a cabin or Trapper/Tracker action. In a smart design move, penalties for not fulfilling your “cabin quota” or for failing to flip your animal tokens provide a bigger incentive to make that choice more reasonable. It is tempting to try to avoid those 3 VP penalties but, in general, you are better off taking the penalties, making up for them in using your pioneers more actively.
Sierra West is a full package. You have a bit of deckbuilding, card management, programmed movement and more – but it all manages to hang together in a game that is thematically very strong. The High Sierras beckon here and you will have a good time answering the call. – – – – Herb Levy
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