Spaghetting my hopes up
My favourite opening sequence to any movie has to be the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western classic, Once Upon A Time in the West. As a kid, I thought the coolest thing ever was the moment the three bandits told Charles Bronson they were shy a horse and he responds with a subtle shake of his head, “You brought two too many,” gunning all three down before they can even draw. How I longed to be as effortlessly enigmatic as Charles Bronson.
In gaming terms, Western Legends really steps up to the plate to scratch that itch. But it’s a big game and hard to get to the table often. This meant, I was really excited when I heard about Final Frontier Games’ A Fistful of Meeples, designed by Jonny Pac. Could a small-box, abstract game deliver the feel of an Ennio Morricone scored epic? The gorgeous art by The Mico on the front of the box promised that it might.
This town aint big enough for the both of us
A Fistful of Meeples is as much of a genre mash-up as the Spaghetti Westerns from which it draws its theme. A shotgun marriage of mancala and worker placement that looks so wrong on the face of it but feels so right when you play. The mechanisms complement each other seamlessly in a game that is simple to learn and teach while being crammed full of interesting decisions and strategy/tactics.
To setup the game you randomly distribute the four main types of meeples (deputies, bandits, miners, builders) into the houses either side of main street. 2-4 players choose a building to claim as their starting property. The goal is simple; mine, rob, build, shoot and catch bandits to have the most points at the end of the game. Good wholesome fun. If A Fistful of Meeples was a real town, Gene Hackman would be Sherriff.
The Quick and The Dead
Play is fast and easy. Scoop up the eponymous fistful of meeples from one of the buildings and place them one at a time clockwise or anti-clockwise on the spots in front of the neighbouring buildings. This is the mancala element
Placing workers is how you will get resources. These are dawn blind from a bag and comprise of stone (grey cubes) and rarer gold (yellow cubes). The number of resources you get, depends on the worker used and where you put them. Builders (brown meeples) can spend resources to buy and upgrade buildings. Owning buildings gives you access to more resources whenever you or an opponent places a yellow miner meeple there.
Miners should be careful, though! A gang of red bandit meeples are out to rob them. Which is why the blue deputies are hot on their heels trying to round them up and put them in jail. Players do get the option to bust the bandits out. This can be a lucrative move but puts the risk of a dangerous dynamite cube into the draw bag.
The game also has regular shootouts. Whenever two different players cross the end of the street a shootout will trigger. The winner will be decided by dice roll modified by the type of worker their shootist is. The type of worker they shoot a hole of daylight clean through will determine how many resources they can claim. And, if that wasn’t enough, you might also use the special purple “madam” meeple to entice builders back to the saloon after a day building up a thirst on site. They have to pay, of course. That’ll be a resource each, fellas!
Meeples is thinky yet fast. The lead can seem to swing one way then the other which I like in a shorter game. There are three possible end triggers players must keep an eye on. Either three dynamite are drawn from the bag, all six gold bars are claimed from the bank or the graves on Boot Hill are filled with dead frontier folk. When any of these conditions are met gold is counted and building values added to determine the winner. In the case of a tie, grab your pistols, mosey on out to Main Street and draw at the chime of noon.*
*Duel-to-the-death tie-break optional.
For A Few Meeples More
A Fistful of Meeples is a whole lot of good, very little bad and, thanks to The Mico, a wagonload of NOT ugly. The little cowboy meeples are cute, the mechanisms smooth and gameplay competitive and exciting. You really need to think about which pot of workers will give you the most return without benefitting your opponents or leaving them something better next turn. Timing is key; when to bust the bandits out of jail, when to convert gold to cash at the bank and when to call last orders in the saloon all form part of a successful strategy.
Overall, the main draw of Meeples is the accessibility, small box size and fun and ease of play. I wouldn’t be able kick the saloon doors in packing Great Western Trail and Western Legends in my holsters. The boxes are too heavy. But every time I’ve got the slinky A Fistful of Meeples out down the pub people have become interested. It’s a bold individual. Like a Pale Rider trotting into town on his horse, it sparks intrigue from the locals. Pretty soon you’ll have people round the board squinting at each other suspiciously from under the brims of their hats, their twitchy trigger fingers wiggling nervously over the pieces ready to draw. Some bloke in a poncho hauntingly blowing a few bars of Ennio Morricone into a mouth organ…
Ok, so A Fistful of Meeples might not be the most thematic Western game, but it’s enough to satisfy your inner Eastwood when you don’t have time to go the full Dollars trilogy. In addition, its brash sense of fun and accessibility to hobby outsiders might just swell your gaming posse some.