An Even Weirder Review: Deadwood

(I am porting over older reviews from my BGG profile. These might be old and/or bad. Please excuse their old-and-or-badness.)

Deadwood is a worker-placement game with a dash of dice-rolling PvP conflict. Players control a small gang of three cowboys of varying strengths, and place them on buildings to receive bonuses in the form of money (both currency and victory point), bullets (used to gain more dice in combat), ponies (used to flee like a coward), and wanted posters (used to look cool while being penalized in the end game). Conflict takes place when a player puts a cowboy on an already occupied building: this conflict takes the form of Risk-like dice battles. In dice battles, the stronger player has a “first strike” advantage, but after that, they’re fairly even roll-offs where a six is a head shot… an instant kill. The winner can occupy the building, and annex it to use its ability. As for the loser… once dead, a worker is dead for good. But you can hire a limited number of replacements down at the saloon.

Some buildings, when occupied, allow the player to place new building tiles on the map. Understanding what is in each of the stacks of tiles is key to forming a good strategy later on; wise use of the coach station can allow an important building to come out and stop a runaway leader.

During the game, a railroad is growing towards the town, knocking over some buildings in its way. Buildings NEXT TO the railroad when it moves in can be activated again for free by their occupants. Buildings IN FRONT of the railroad are less fortunate.

The game can end in one of three ways:
1: The railroad has been completed — The city hall has been “annexed” (activated by a worker) five times. (Each time it is annexed, the player builds a railroad segment towards the town. Once it reaches the town, the station is built and the game ends.)
2: The wanted posters pile has been exhausted.
(Flavorfully, this means that the town is SO lawless that the railroad has elected to build another route. There are a few means for furthering this goal, including Bank/Church combos and repeatedly using the telegraph to burn extra wanted posters.)
3: A player has lost all of his cowboys.
One of our games was very nearly won by a greenhorn (weakest cowboy) going on a suicide mission. Unfortunately for that player, the greenhorn won that battle. Had he died, the game would have ended and that player would have won the game.

Among worker-placement games, Deadwood is relatively mechanically light. The complexity in the game comes from the number of unique location tiles, but even all those special abilities are easy to understand because the buildings’ actions and resources make sense with the theme. You get Wanted Posters for doing crimes. You get dollars from businesses. You get guns from the gun-smith, and horses from the… horse-smith? I guess a blacksmith makes horse-shoes so I can see it. Newspapers spread lies in the form of wanted posters, Telegraphs can change public opinions, and praying for absolution at church can remove those same “sins”. The railroad brings people to the surrounding businesses, making them more profitable. In addition to the mechanics and theme connecting quite well, the iconography is, for the most part, easy to interpret. These features make the game potentially a very good “gateway” game despite its weight since it is great to look at, dripping with theme, and introduces a lot of interesting decisions and mechanics without being overwhelming.

The game isn’t perfect, however. There are a few problems that have popped up over my plays of this game. First of all, the game’s pace is often set by the least experienced player. New players want to see more building tiles, and it feels nice to build them, so they hit Town Hall over and over without taking into account that other players will get to use the new tiles first, or that building railways only really helps the leader. This does a weird thing to the pace of the first game though by the second, the new player has seen their error. But, there is usually a second game!

Additionally, while I have nothing against dice, with only three workers to start, a run of bad luck (and a very good chance of someone squatting in the saloon) can potentially all but kick someone out of the game very early, leading to a painful experience for that player and an extremely bizarre early game end. This player will likely not want to play the game a second time. We had one of these happen on my first play, and it was quite unpleasant for that person.

Additionally, for a game with so many mechanics wrapped around its combat, the odds sure do go a long way to ensure me that I never want to fight anybody. First of all, I get a wanted poster. Secondly, fights have a very high risk of losing your cowboy AND wasting your turn. What’s more, it’s also possible that BOTH PLAYERS WILL DIE when there’s a gunfight. In the games I played, many dice battles resulted in either lost turns, or both players dead. Unless you have a steady influx of new blood, the battles are too risky, especially considering that dead workers are dead for good.

Finally, while the bits in this game are beautiful for the most part, the money (printed on cardboard chits) is quite difficult to tell the denominations apart at a glance. Different colored chits, larger cards, or even the dreaded paper money would be preferable.

Even with those complaints, I think the game shines. As previously mentioned, the game “feels” like its theme, which is very helpful both for getting it to the table, and for teaching the rules (since most of them are thematically intuitive). It’s also odd for a game of this type to have you collecting resources which feel so significantly unlike each other, let alone have a mechanical relation to the thing they represent.

Secondly, the variable tile stacks add both replayability and depth. The placement of locations (and the ability to clobber unwanted buildings with railroad tracks) allows for some cool (and risky) plays. If I plan on having a lot of wanted posters, I can try to make a move which will allow me to place locations I don’t like (like the courthouse) where I can run them over with the railroad. This carries some risk, though… if the railroad goes around it, the building will be activated more times, punishing me.

There’s also a nice little combo-y feel that can pop up during these game. Locations like the Dance Hall and the General Stores allow for plays which make players feel like strategic geniuses. It’s very satisfying to collect a ton of money and end the game by building the train next to your general store, bouncing workers around and building the station immediately after. Even when these chain reactions fall in your lap by accident you feel like you have done something great.

The variable ending condition of the game allows for players to work towards different strategies. I was worried that because there is only one true resource and that resource is also the victory condition, that there would be single obvious strategies, but gladly that’s not the case; players are often blocking Town Hall to stave off the end of the game one turn, then after a big influx of money, are telegraphing wanted posters away or hunting down a player’s last cowboy in a bid to end the game before someone can catch up.

All in all, I had a lot of fun with Deadwood. There’s plenty of meat on the game. My game group (comprised of a couple hobby gamers and a couple PC gamers that we rope into things) enjoyed the game, and often request that it be brought to the table on our game nights. I’m happy to oblige, and I think it’ll take a while (or a couple more players killing their gangs off with bad dice) for the game to wear out it’s welcome.


About anevenweirdermove
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