When you get right down to it, Longhorn could be about pretty much anything. Hacking yottabytes of corporate secrets out of a protected server, for instance. Or gathering gems for your medieval patron, because apparently we love that crap. Instead, Longhorn woke up one morning and decided to be about stealing cows, swigging moonshine, and trying not to get a snake in yer boots.
It’s the very definition of pasted on, though I appreciate the effort to appeal to my Western sensibilities. Like most of the folks in my neighborhood I enjoy rustling cattle, have done so since I was old enough to balance atop a burro, so the setting would seem like a natural fit. Then I crack it open and discover it’s got just about nothing to do with a real cattle drive. More’s the shame.
Well, good news, because tacked-on setting or no, Longhorn is fine as cream gravy.
Hold onto yer hats. Here’s how Longhorn works.
You’ve got a grid of locations before you, each of them populated with cows of different colors. You’re an infamous Texan rustler come down to Mexico to drive cattle across the border, but you can only take one color of cattle at a time. Why? Because game, that’s why. Then you drive the cows a number of spaces equal to the number of cows you stole: steal one and you move one space, steal four and you’ve got to move four. Now, any old hand can tell you that having more cows oughta slow you down rather than slick lightning to your backside, but son, this here’s a game. More cows mean you move farther.
So you take three cows and move three spaces, then flip over the movement tile to the other side, revealing your competitor. Then it’s his turn to steal and move, then it’ll flip back to your turn.
Sounds simple enough, yeah? Well it ain’t, because the moment you deplete a location of cattle entirely, you’re honor-bound to complete its action token. These are laid out at random at the start of each game, and they completely change the way you approach your traveling plans. Sometimes you want to take a space’s final cow, because then you can brand cattle in an adjacent location, pick up some gold nuggets that are worth cash at the end of the game, hold up your rival for some cows of his own, or drink “snake oil” to take an extra turn. Then again, the space might be something bad, no place for a respectable criminal to hang his hat. It might be a rattlesnake gulch, stampeding some of your precious herd into adjacent spaces. Or an epidemic, killing off every last of one color of cow on the map — which can be good or bad, since the value of cows is higher when the game ends with lots of them left over, so it’s possible to purposely trigger an epidemic to wipe out your competitor’s favorite stock.
The worst option is the last one. Land on the Sheriff’s location and take the final cow, and you’re apprehended and bound for the noose. All the gold nuggets and prime beef of Chihuahua won’t save your hide then.
Truly, this is where Longhorn gets fore-handed. Which is a good thing, if’n you ain’t familiar with how to speak. See, every game offers something a bit different. Sometimes it’s big pickings, all gold and liquor; others you’ve got the Sheriff on your trail, turning the game from a race to acquire the most cash into a desperate attempt to stay out of the law’s way. Either way the rules stay the same, but it has a way of getting you to count out each possible move, figuring all the angles to assess which does you the least harm. I might even use a five-dollar word like zugzwang if Longhorn were German instead of Western, but we don’t say things like that on the prairie and count on escaping with our lives.
Even so, it’s a slim thing. It takes maybe a quarter hour from start to finish, and isn’t primed to blow your socks off. Instead, Longhorn is a steady hand. It knows what it’s doing. And as a two-cowpoke game for whittling away the time, it cuts a fine figure.