There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills
There are five resources in Gold West, and every turn shoves about a dozen ways to use them in your face. And yet, Gold West is also one of the year’s simplest, most streamlined titles.
Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it by the most unlikely method possible: by running you through the rules.
Every turn in Gold West follows the same three steps. One two three. Simple as that.
1. The Supply Track
You’ve probably heard of mancala, that family of games where you move sets of beans or pebbles or whatever between cups. Here in the Actual Real-Life West, we use deer pellets. As you move a handful of pebbles, you deposit one in each cup, plink plink plink. Don’t ask me how you win, because I’ve never won at mancala.
Well, the first step of Gold West revolves around a miniature game of mancala. You’ve got four slots on your player board, each loaded with little piles of resources. We’ll talk about what they do later; for now, just pick up one of those piles and move it off your board, depositing one resource in each passed slot. When you’re finished, the tiny heap of wooden resources is what you have to work with that turn.
Those five resources are divided into two categories. For now, we’re concerned with precious metals, the copper, silver, and gold you’ve stripped out of the resplendent hills of California. If you’re fortunate enough to have some of these in your heap of resources, now’s the time to use them.
The thing is, even if you’ve managed to amass some of these metals — more on that in a moment — you’ve now got to figure out which of three investments will yield the best payout. The quickest solution is to just ship them out of town, an option that’s great for when you only have one or two metals. This will send a little stagecoach hurtling along a track, picking up points, with a hefty bonus for crossing certain thresholds before the other players. The second option is to fulfill one of the contracts that were randomly drawn at the start of each game. These are substantial investments, requiring a specific set of four or five metals at once, but their immediate payout is also the highest. Lastly, there’s the Boomtown. Like the contracts, the Boomtown is assembled at random each game, providing a grid of scoring opportunities that you can claim by investing a pair of metals. In one game, a Shipping Office might make it more worthwhile to ship metal out of town, while in another, a Surveyor’s Office might make a certain pattern of camps on the map unexpectedly valuable. The trick here is that the available spots gradually fill up as everyone visits town, so you’ve got to hustle to claim the best spots. Then again, that’s the case with every investment.
3. Build or Loot
The last step revolves around our two remaining resources, wood and stone. Spending one of these will get you a camp on the map, earning that location’s resources and a bit of influence in that terrain type. Spending both wood and stone will earn a settlement, which does the same thing but gives you double influence.
Again, having a carefully-tended supply track pays off. You can only build one camp or settlement at a time, and any resources left unused are gone for good. Worse, if you don’t have either wood or stone on hand, you’ll have to claim-jump a space rather than place a camp. This loses points, sacrifices the influence you might have gained from that terrain tile, and might even cost you extra points at the end of the game if you rely on it too often.
In either case, any resources you picked up from building or looting are then placed in one of the slots in your supply track. Put them up front and you’ve given yourself an easy turn sometime in the future; place them in successive slots and you’ll earn points.
Now, there are a few things I absolutely love about Gold West, though this isn’t the sort of game that’s going to appeal to everyone.
First of all, this is a mathlete’s game. The setting doesn’t inspire much by way of narrative beats — really, the best way to describe the tightness of this game’s systems is to, well, describe the systems. This is a bit dull in one sense, but rather exciting in another, like explaining the whys and hows of chess. Players generally have their heads down, calculating resource slots, possible metal payouts, and occasionally grumbling when someone else claims a contract, occupies a room in the Boomtown, or claims the campsite they wanted. However! The system itself is gorgeous to behold. Figuring out the best way to manage your supply track for those extra few points every turn, nabbing the opportunities that conform to your strategy, and slowly gaining the lead are all thrilling, in their very mathy way. There’s room for player disruption, though it’s the subtly aggressive sort rather than the flashy “I shoot your factory with a space-laser” variety. The design is improbably smooth, very much mined from the same vein as a Riner Knizia game, its tiny ruleset yielding tremendous depth.
Secondly, you’d think that with all these options every round that a game of Gold West would take a decent while to complete. Not so! Even though later turns can get more thinky than usual, with the supply track becoming ever more critical and every single resource measured out, a game with four people still tends to last around 45 minutes. Maybe an hour if you’ve got analysis paralytics in your group. There’s possibly some manner of time-bending witchery involved. Or perhaps Adam McIver’s visual design really is that crisp.
As I see it, the major downside of Gold West is that I’ve never finished a match and said, “Man, that was so great when I took control of the Mayor’s Office, then claim-jumped the forest you had your eye on, but still didn’t get penalized too much because Geoff was always in trouble with the law for looting!” Instead, we nod solemnly, shake hands, and tut-tut the fact that so-and-so ended with a whole lot of points.
Not everything needs to be flashy to be excellent, and Gold West is a prime example. Watching the game’s engine churn from land to supply track to contracts and back again is breathtaking in its cleverness. Learning how to efficiently manage your own prospecting business is sublime. But then the game ends and I find myself hankering after something with a little more flavor; such is the burden of a perpetual child like myself.