Rocky Mountain Dan

As always, Hayden's eye for the illustrative talents of his team hits an interesting mark, rough yet all the more evocative for it.

There’s something rejuvenating about getting lost in the woods. Of course, I’m not talking about getting really lost. Lost in the sense that I know the trail is somewhere over that hill, or that if I walk a few miles I’ll descend into the rich folks’ suburbs. Lost with cell coverage.

Nate Hayden’s Rocky Mountain Man is a game about getting lost. Wholly, truly, stuck in place, walking around in circles until the sun goes down lost. Good thing you’re a mountain man.

You also don't see the twenty rifles we drag around everywhere as potential gifts.

All but the crayons, cards, reference charts… okay, just some of it.

Here are the things you need to know to become a mountain man.

First, mountain men love making maps. That’s why Rocky Mountain Man is a crayon game, scrawled within a folio that can be preserved between sessions until it’s ready to be wiped clean with a tissue. Mountains, hills, scrub, deserts, rivers — these features not only spring into existence as you trek across the landscape, they’re also essential to your commerce. The more you chart, the more dollars you earn when you return to civilization.

Second, mountain men take everything in stride. Setbacks, injury, the loss of equipment or life. All of it. You’re here because the old world chafed. It wasn’t amenable to your ways, your walks, the pace you preferred. Compared to that, every minute in the wild is a minute extra. You’re here because it’s where you belong. And even the last flickers of thought that run through your mind as you lay dying constitute a memory of that belonging.

Mind you, this isn’t to say you’re going to go easy. Mountain men are also crafty survivors. Trapping, hunting, parlaying with Indian tribes, hiring guides and scouts, bringing plenty of rations and pack horses to haul your things. Oh, and rifles. Bring extra. Anything that helps you scrabble back from the brink.

Fourth, mountain men flip cards. So many cards. Enough cards to last a lifetime and then some.

so many

Lots of these will be flipped.

Some games are about winning. Crud, most games. Nearly every game. Rocky Mountain Man isn’t devoid of a victory state, but it isn’t like that. It’s like taking a walk. A walk that’s liable to kill half your companions, see your horses stolen, and leave you staggering back toward home a little more leathery than when you set out. But a walk all the same.

It works like this. You leave Missouri with a party and some supplies. Once you step past the known boundaries of the white man’s world, nearly everything is unknown. Entering uncharted territory is dangerous for a host of reasons. Maybe you’ll happen upon wolves. Maybe your last guide will get spooked and decide to leave one morning. Maybe your canoe will tip as you pass through white water. Maybe you’ll get scalped. Maybe you’ll meet Spanish dragoons and wind up fleeing to save your hide. Maybe you’ll wander so long that winter comes and blackens your toes.

Everything is a risk. The beauty is that the risks are yours to take. It’s possible to return to Missouri by known paths. To only parley with friendly tribes. To paddle your canoe through calm waters, never through rapids. To avoid traveling too far in a week. To bank on safe rolls and safe draws.

But that isn’t the life you’ve elected to lead. The risks are worth the reward. No, not money, although money keeps you afloat. The reward is what might happen when you press into the horizon. Sometimes you make friends in unlikely places. Or discover things no white man has seen before. These aren’t impossible things. The landscape may be alien, but it’s still terrestrial. Hot springs. Peculiar mountains. Stones that stand in an otherworldly way. Stretches that teem with life despite being barren. Things whose sidelong glances at ordinariness only make them all the more extraordinary.

You could wring those leathers to produce a stew.

These mountain men sure seem… flavorful.

Don’t confuse this for an easy life, or an easy game. I mentioned the flipped cards. Every step into the unknown sees you flipping a whole sequence. Terrain, rivers, discoveries, encounters, encounter movement. That’s after rolling to determine whether you’re lost, before rolling to summit a mountain to survey the nearby land, and before again drawing more cards for said surveying. Meanwhile, every step requires careful bookkeeping. A sharp pencil and good eraser are essential.

Nor should it be confused for a conventional play experience. Especially when undertaken with a partner, Rocky Mountain Man runs on a timer. It isn’t uncommon for one party to take multiple turns in succession while the other pauses to treat the consequences of an encounter. This is also the case solitaire, although the timer marks the changing seasons, moving from the abundant hunting of the spring through to bitter winters. In neither case should the result be hurried, apart from those moments when one realizes it’s time to race back to civilization or link up with the mountain man rendezvous. And in those cases, some flexibility is in order, although it’s worth considering the role constraint plays in spinning a yarn.

The yarns are worth it. One expedition saw me crossing a span of territory to reach a distant destination, drawing a stripe of color across the map’s blankness. Another saw me competing with trappers for furs, only for our rivalry to gradually sour into something more malevolent. Once I prepared a cabin, thinking I could take advantage of some lake country to trap beavers, only to watch as one friend after another succumbed to the cold. These were momentary beats, minor among the larger tasks necessary for mapping the Colorado River. But they soon became defining moments of pursuit, escape, survival, and triumph.

It even looks cold.

Wintering, pestered by friendly natives as I attempt to trap beaver.

After Hayden’s horror titles, there was no telling which direction Rocky Mountain Man might travel. The result is a thing of meditative beauty. It’s even sensitive to the vanishing nature of that beauty, the development of its land, the removal of its natives — named Indians, the rules note, because of the preference of the tribes depicted within. The worst depredations will come later, but they begin with a map. Like the marks of crayon on its folio, these sights will not last forever. So breathe them in while they remain, and linger, and remember the scent.


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Posted on April 14, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I really enjoy my copy, and I’ve taken to writing a journal alongside me as I play. It’s crafted quite a narrative; a newly-wed couple dying in our first winter (a blizzard ridden one at that) due to my own bad decisions, making good friends with the Shoshone, accidentally massacring a party of Cheyenne when an attempt to be friendly goes sour, making a lot of money trapping and with interesting discoveries.

    I really enjoy it, I don’t have another game in my collection quite like it.

    • I wish I had kept more of a journal. I took notes on a 3×5″ card, but that only accounts for the biggest moments of each season. If I get around to doing a second campaign, I’ll likely journal it.

  2. Dan, my eyes lit up when I got the email showing you reviewed this game. This has been such a gem over the past couple of months—I’ve had a blast with it. It is genuinely relaxing to play at the end of the day, in the same way as being sucked into a good book. It absolutely deserved more attention than it has received. Thanks for another great review.

    • It’s such a perfect “wind down at the end of the day” game, isn’t it? I played almost every night for two weeks. I wish more games would try to pick “relaxing” as their mode.

  3. Nate Hayden is one of my favorite designers and a personal friend. I remember vividly playtesting Psycho Raiders and thinking the man can tell a story. THose who came before me said that the playtests of San Quentin Kings and After Pablo are legendary.

    Thanks for another great review, Dan.

  4. After listening to a SUSD Podcast about solo rpgs (this is kind of that, especially if you do a journal, right?), I was on the lookout for something to scratch a laid back/meditative game itch. Almost perfectly, I feel like this is what I was looking for, even if it’s technically not a solo rpg. Needless to say, I ordered this immediately after reading your review. I really like your quote, I wish more games would try to pick ‘relaxing’ as their mode,” in your comment above.

    Thank you!

    • This is very much a solo RPG! Not quite as explicitly as Thousand Year Old Vampire, but it generates stories in a similar way, albeit with mapping and events rather than story prompts. I’d even go as far as to say it’s better solitaire than two-player.

      • Very neat! I’m not prescriptive to the point where I “needed” a solo RPG, but after listening to that podcast, there was a part of me that yearned for the experience they were detailing. They’ve obviously talked about solo RPGs in the past, namely Thousand Year Old Vampire, and the podcast I’m referencing discussed Delve, Field Guide to Memory, and Alone Among the Stars. They all seemed interesting, but this experience (Rocky Mountain Man) struck me more. Admittedly, I haven’t looked into TYOV much, but the “and another thing” regarding support on its website has definitely piqued my interest. Inevitably, I’ll read your review, check out another, and buy that experience at some point as well.

  5. Have you played Source of the Nile?

  6. Definitely sold me! Went and watched a video playthrough by the creator along with his other title sea evil. I never knew about such games and wondering if you knew of any other avenues to find/play more games like this (other game makers who make these rich ameritrashy simulation games)

    • Every single one of Nate Hayden’s titles. LOL

      Well, everyone of his games is incredibly immersive, often with a much darker theme.

      • Yeah. super dark, haha!

        I think it was Calandale in his coverage of one of Nate’s games who mentioned such scenario-based games being included in some gaming magazines.

        Interesting stuff. I can definitely see the appeal of having a section of magazine games in one’s collection (just need those magazine baggies to keep the chits/cards in check).

  7. whitenoisemaker

    wow this brings back memories as a young lad picking up folio games or backpack games from my tiny FLGS or hobby stores of yore. I would bring them to school for lunch break or taking the late bus home I had something to do during the longer ride home. I might have to check this one out. triggering a lot of memories.

    • Yeah, I’m late to the game! haha!
      Got me wondering if there are ways to make games like this workable in the 2020s.

      They seem to be nice in terms of carbon footprint at he very least lol!

      • whitenoisemaker

        oh for sure. but triggering imagination and wonder is a great thing for a game to do. and these types of games always could do that. even if your using a grease pen or crayon. Looks to be sold out on the site. hope they have another run of it soon.

  8. Slingshot Divining Rod

    After reading your stirring review of Comanchería I was wondering more about how Rocky Mountain Man represents the Indians?

    In particular, does the player’s interactions with Indians avoid tropes about savagery/naivety/magic in a way that contemporary indigenous people in the Rockies might endorse?

    I love Nate Hayden’s auteur style but some his choices in past designs value the pulpy aesthetic over inclusive representation (e.g., Fiery Path and Wong the Cook in Sea Evil).

    • The short answer is yes. RMM does a good job with its representation.

      (I’d give the longer answer, but I’m tied up at the moment.)

      • Slingshot Divining Rod


        (Would be curious to know more of course but a simple affirmative is enough for me to wishlist!)

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