I like a game to have a theme that perfectly suits the gameplay. I also really like the Old West as a theme for my games. So, does Pioneer Days (designed by Matthew Dunstan & Chris Marling) make me happier than a frontier man with only 2 teeth? ‘Yee haw’ it does.
Dice Drafting Again?
Pioneer Days is all about setting off down the Oregon Trail heading west to make your fortune. But it is not going to be an easy journey as you will be dealing with storms, raids, famine and disease. 2 to 4 players will be travelling for four weeks (rounds) and at the end of each week you will visit a town where you can donate certain items you have collected on your journey for favours (points).
The items obtainable during your journey are wood, medicine, equipment, cattle, gold nuggets, money and helpful townsfolk who will join your party (for as long as you can keep them alive).
As you are competing with your fellow pioneers any items found on the trail are shared out with the good old trusty dice drafting mechanism. There are five different coloured dice in this game. Blue represents storms, red for raids, yellow for famine, green for disease and black which is wild. All of the dice have six symbols on them which are a pickaxe, equipment, cattle, wood, medicine and wild.
Each week of the game is made up of 5 days (turns) on which each player will draft one die per day. The current starting player takes dice out of the bag equal to one per player plus one more. These are rolled and then placed on the main board in the spots for the symbols shown. Each player drafts one die and the remaining die is used to increase one of the disaster tracks. However, if the black wild die is the die left over all of the tracks will increase.
Play continues with the next player taking more dice out of the bag, drafting, increasing disaster tracks until all of the dice have been used when you visit the town.
Preparing To Set Out
This game includes a lot of very good quality components from the lovely wooden cow meeples, perfectly weighted custom dice, main board and player boards, and various obtainable items.
The art by Sergi Marcet is mostly very good with a real cartoony feel to the townsfolk. However, some of the characters are not as good and almost look like photos which have been drawn over. It doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the game but can sometimes look a little strange especially compared to some of the better cards.
The set up is fairly easy with most of the components going in the middle of the table. Depending on the player count you will need a certain number of dice in the dice bag and equipment on the main board. Then take two groups (out of the five available) of townsfolk and shuffle them together and place six face up below each of the dice symbols. Finally, shuffle the town cards and place nine faces down on the board with the remainder going in the box. Then place two from this stack face up in the relevant spaces. These are the locations you will visit at the end of the first week.
A lot of variation between plays of Pioneer Days comes from the different towns you can visit each week and the five groups of townsfolk that you can recruit.
So which type of pioneer will you be? Each player is dealt two that have different starting equipments, money, items etc plus a unique player power. If you don’t want to be one of these you can flip your player board over and be the standard pioneer.
Everyone gets a starting wagon (size dependant on your pioneer) which is used to store your wood (two per space), medicine (two per space), gold nuggets and equipment. Money, cattle, favours and townsfolk are not stored on your wagon and instead can be placed around your player board.
Along with the unique player powers, the game increases the variety by allowing you to obtain specialist equipment during the game. This is done by drafting the equipment die. There are 12 different types of equipment available and each player board gives a good description of what they do. Some of these will prevent a wagon from getting damaged in a storm, your cattle being immune to famine, gaining money after a raid and so on. If you choose the right equipment, you can obtain additional bonus items when drafting a certain dice. For example, you could obtain money, cattle and wood whenever you draft the wood dice. This leads to some great engine building and by the end of the game, you will have a vastly different pioneer from your competitors.
However, space is limited on your journey and to store all these newly obtained items and equipment you will need more wagons. Thankfully you can purchase these on your turn by spending $5 for a small wagon (4 spaces) or $8 for a large wagon (6 spaces).
Panning For Gold
This game gives you a lot of choices when drafting a die. You can use it to obtain its face up value (wood, equipment, medicine, gold nugget, cattle), sell it for money as per the value of the die on the main board, or recruit townsfolk beneath the location you drafted from. Don’t forget when drafting a die you also trigger any equipment you have with that symbol. Finally, you can pay $3 to change the face of the die to any other symbol (but this will not trigger any equipment in your wagon. The wild symbol can be used to obtain any other item.
When taking the pickaxe symbol you pan for gold by randomly taking a gold nugget out of the gold bag. The values of the gold nuggets range from one to three.
When recruiting a townsfolk they provide either an immediate bonus, ongoing bonus, or an opportunity to gamble. They also provide bonus points at the end of the game and by choosing the right townsfolk that works with your equipment and pioneer power you could score really big.
When a disaster token reaches the end of the track you immediately deal with the disaster before continuing to play.
- When a storm occurs, you have to pay 1 wood per wagon you own. If you are unable to pay a wood you take a -2VP token and place it on your wagon covering two of the spaces. You can no longer use these spaces on your wagon. At the end of the game each of these tokens you have is worth minus two points.
- When you are raided you lose half your silver rounded up.
- When a famine occurs, you must pay $1 per cattle you own. Any you cannot afford to pay for are returned to the main supply.
- If disease occurs you must pay one medicine per townsfolk you have recruited. Any you cannot heal are removed from the game.
After you have resolved the disaster, move that particular token to the beginning of the track. It could be that several or in the worst case scenario all of the disasters occur at the same time by the black wild die moving all of the tokens along to the end of the tracks in one go. In this case resolve the disasters one at a time from the top to the bottom.
Arriving at town
At the end of each week you arrive at a town. Firstly you trigger any special abilities on your recruited townsfolk, then you obtain one point per cattle you own, finally, you can try to satisfy the towns requirements for favour tokens. They may require you to donate money, cattle, equipment etc, or a combination of these. For each successful trade you obtain the noted favour tokens.
The favour tokens can cause a bit of confusion as each one also has its value written on it. I have played with people who have confused the two victory points as the number of favours. It is only a small gripe but one that could have been addressed by not writing the value on each token and instead just advised people in the rules that each one is worth two points. Sticking with the rulebook it is not the best I have ever read and I had to refer to online forums to understand some of the rules. With a few more examples it could have been a better read.
Before you set out again you have to remove all current townsfolk cards not recruited and replace them, remove the current town cards and replace them (two per week except the final week which has three), put all of the dice back in the dice bag, remove any equipment not taken and replace with new equipment.
At the end of the forth week you arrive at the final town. Before resolving the town you have to advance all disaster tracks one more time and deal with any disasters that occurs. Then resolve the town and calculate the final scores. Each gold nugget is worth one point. Two points per favour token (plus five points to the player with the most favours), gain points according to your townsfolk cards, lose two points per damage to your wagons. The winner is the pioneer with the most points. In the event of a tie the pioneer with the most money left over wins.
Pioneer Days - Final Thoughts
This game hits all the right notes with me from its amazing table presence, very little downtime between turns, artwork and components of a very high quality, clever use of dice drafting, brilliant theme that matches the gameplay, engine building, contract fulfilment, and lots of variety between plays thanks to the different townsfolk and town cards.
There is very little not to like about the game, I have already mentioned some of the character art is a little off, the favour tokens sometimes cause a little confusion and the rule book could do with fleshing out but these are all very minor points.
I have never played Pioneer Days and not been completely satisfied at the end of the game regardless of whether I win or lose.
Do I recommend this game, well let me take you back to my original statement ‘Yee Haw’.