Pioneer days is a light to medium weight Euro style game. You gather resources to fulfil objectives and gain Favour tokens whilst trying to mitigate obstacles that could sap them. It was designed by Matthew Dunstan and Chris Marling. The art by Sergi Marcet. For 2-4 players. The play time is from 45-75 minutes and it is published by Tasty Minstrel Games.
This game popped onto my radar because I met one of the designer, Chris Marling, at Airecon in Harrogate in March 2018. In an email he invited me to review his game. The theme is not one that I would gravitate towards, but it is one that has not been over done. Having met Chris and I did like the look of the game I thought I would give it a go and review it. I got in contact with the distributor (Asmodee) and they sent a copy. Many thanks!
Pioneer days is a game that places the players in North America during the colonisation of the country. Think of it like the Oregon trail (travelling from the Missouri river to the state of Oregon by wagon in the early 1800’s). The game is played over four weeks (turns) split down into five days (rounds) each. Along the way you need to acquire resources to earn ‘Favour tokens’ (that earn victory points at the end of the game). They can also help you overcome disasters that are detrimental to your journey and sap your resources.
The main mechanic of the game resolves around dice drafting. There are five coloured custom dice with six different faces. At the start of the round, the first player draws one dice plus one for each player out of the bag and roles them. They take a die and resolve it. Each player does this in turn. The last remaining die advances the disaster track according to its colour. If the die is black then all of the disasters advance by one. The first player marker (a horse shoe) moves on clockwise and the process is repeated.
When you draft a die it can be used in three ways based its face: Take it as income in silver; perform the action indicated on the die (mine for gold, gain equipment/medicine/wood/cattle) or recruit the townsfolk card beneath the corresponding icon on the main board. Some equipment can help you gain extra resources off the same die. This can give you a huge boost if you play this well.
Each player will have a different character (there are eight in total). In the basic game it does not matter who you have they all start with the same resources and have the same power. In the advanced version (my personal preference) each character has different starting resources and a unique ability. There is no increase in the difficulty and I like games with variable player powers. You have to work out how best to utilise them.
If the marker on the disaster track reaches the end the respective disaster is triggered. There are four disasters that adversely impact your wagon train. If you do not prepare for them they can hit you hard and undo a lot of your work. In some cases, you can see the problem coming, but you cannot obtain the right or enough resources to overcome them. However, if you are little crafty you can use them to your advantage. E.g. you have no silver after spending it all on a wagon, you can choose a red or blue die. By taking the blue, the remaining red die would trigger the Raid disaster (if it is one away from the end). Your opponents will lose half of their silver rounded up. If they have a lot this will thwart their plans and not impact you. Some of the townsfolk will give you victory points at the end of the game according to the number of wagon you have.
At the end of the fifth turn (the week) you move to a new town. If you can fulfil the town’s requirements you can earn more Favour (and therefore more VP) and other resources. You can also score extra depending on the number of cattle you have and if townsfolk have that ability. After four weeks the game ends.
Pretty much everything about this game is quality. The custom dice are engraved, clear and colourful. All of the boards and tokens are made from thick cardboard. The cards are good too with a linen finish. The cattle, player wagons for the scoring track, first player and horseshoe are wooden pieces.
The player boards are well laid out with a guide to what each of the pieces of equipment do. The wagons fit onto the side of the player board. The tokens are a good size too so they are not fiddly to pick up.
There is a large eight page rulebook with everything laid out well and illustrated.
The draw string bags for the dice and gold tokens are okay. I would say they would be lowest quality components, but they are still functional. I am nit picking here.
The art is pretty, cartoon-esk, colourful and bright. It is consistent throughout. The scoring track is also thematic. It looks like a map with a dotted pathway on it. The pictures on each disaster starts off fine and as you move along each scene it becomes progressively grimmer.
The insert is just a piece of cardboard with a separator in the middle. The components fitted back into it okay even after I put tokens into partitioned storage boxes and a tub for the coins. It is functional and does its job well. There is a little bit of extra space in the middle so the boards sit at the top.
The only complaints (and these are minor) are:
- Two of the wagons were differing shades of brown. One a chocolate brown and the other tan. One could have been purple? It was good that they were not the same as the disaster track tokens or the dice (that would of been confusing).
- It would have been nice to have a corresponding token to put on the player board so you can tell who is associated to which wagon with a space on the player board.
- I was not a huge fan of the scoring track because the wagons were often close together. It could have been the same size at the player board and therefore wider. This would have made the spaces in between wider.
The main dice drafting mechanism is a well established one, but how it works within the game that is what matters. As mentioned earlier, each die face gives you a number of options. It is trying to work which one is the optimal one that presents a challenge. This is not always easy because what you are trying to fulfil the objectives of the next town, build-up an efficient game engine and mitigate or shield yourself from upcoming disasters. It is challenging to cover all of them. Sometimes you will want to do more, but you cannot. There are times when you do feel like the game is out to get you.
There is also a semi-coop nature to the game. Most of it everyone is trying to avoid triggering certain disasters unless of course it will not affect you, then let them rain havoc to the others. Leaving a black die is not good as all the disasters will progress. There will be times when you are the last player to draft in the round and you have two black die with more than one on the brink.
There is also a mechanism related to the equipment. Some of the items will give extra resources when you use a certain die face. We found this confusing at the beginning, but a proper read of the rulebook corrected this. Being able to obtain two or more items from single die is a huge advantage if you can make it work. But watch out, some of the objectives require you to discard an equipment token to fulfil them and earn favour tokens.
My gaming group thought this was the weakest link of the game. You can see after a few games it will feel a bit repetitive. I can see their point, but it does a legs. The goals at each town change, the equipment tokens are wiped at the end of the week, you can play a different character and there are five decks of unique townsfolk and you only use two per game. Because of this, there is no consistent strategy that will work every time. So much is influenced by what goals and disasters are present.
Value for money (3/5)
The publishers have pulled out the stops components wise. If you got this game out to play with your friends, they will be impressed by the quality alone. One woman wanted to play the game just because she thought the cows were cute. I can see this one being in your collection for a good time and being played from time-to-time. It is not one that jumps off the shelf or screams to be played, but it has its place (see the conclusions). The cost is about right whether you will play this a lot depends on your personal tastes.
The theme is strong in this game including the components. You do feel the struggle of the early pioneers trying to acquire what they can for the long journey, but everything is scarce and you just have to make do even with impending disasters lurking on the horizons. Gamble on the wrong option and trouble awaits you. The theme is one that has not been over used and abused. If you like it, this game will rise to occasion. Just cue the tumble weed and scavengers when the famine strikes. One person in my gaming group thought the theme was weak. It was just an exercise in collection tokens.
The game, even at four players, does not have an awful lot of down time. Drafting the dice is pretty quick and the up keep is very small. Only until you arrive at a new town does the game require a bit more as you refresh the townsfolk and equipment, but not much if everyone chips in. Even scoring is quick and simple.
The game plays smoothly and well with no superfluous mechanisms. The learning curve is very shallow (some may find the equipment trigger mechanism confusing). After a round everyone will know how it works. Everything holds together well in a pretty package.
This is a solid game with a fresh theme and a gorgeous production. This game would be great for relaxing games evening with your friends. It is not too taxing with elements of co-operation and take that with the triggering of impeding disasters on the horizon. The disasters do add some tension to the game. All this whilst you are trying to build-up your resources with an efficient engine using equipment and/or townsfolk to do this. It is not easy and the nature of the dice rolls make it challenging, but it can come together for you in this game. It is also hard to know who will win the game until the end. You can earn bonus victory points from the townsfolk that maybe enough to give you the edge especially if you have more than one for the same commodity. This could really ramp up your score. Definitely one for this gamer’s collection.
Have you played Pioneer Days, if so please post what you thoughts especially if you thought the theme was strong or week? Is this a theme that would appeal to you?