The North Goes West
It’s been a while since we traveled to The North, John Clowdus’s high-tech take on an apocalyptic wasteland. Such a while, in fact, that there’s now a sequel, The West: Ascendant, which abandons the robotic striders of the frozen wastes for the latent facilities of the blasted wastes. Seems a wanderer can’t catch a break.
There are a few things I want to mention up front.
Veterans of The North who choose to venture into The West will likely notice a shift of tone. Mood, even. For all its simplicity, The North was a downright chilly game. Aaron Nakahara’s illustrations and Clowdus’s dwindling decks gave it a lean edge, hungry like a long-empty stomach. The West is at once pacier and more remote. The fiddliness of checking card backs is gone, only to be replaced by the fiddliness of mid-turn reactions not unlike those found in Dirge: The Rust Wars. And if anybody was afraid that Clowdus would sell out with an intuitive scoring system, fear not: The West is every bit as impossible to parse from its rules alone as Clowdus’s most serpentine tallies. This is a game you uncover over multiple plays.
So dedicated is Clowdus to plunging your head into the kidnapper’s sack that he doesn’t even provide the usual scene-setting for context. The North was about reprogramming ancient machines, a thesis codified in the gameplay and given a few sentences of justification. The West, I gather, is about building a nomadic cityengine from the landscape’s many dormant facilities. But that’s only a guess, a personal mental map for the sake of tying everything together. Clowdus may be one of this decade’s most interesting independent card-game designers, but his medium is clearly found in the cards themselves, not their surrounding text.
Fine by me. Especially when he continually designs such tantalizing morsels. The West is one such mouthful. Here the watchword is set collection, with four ancient facility types passing in and out of your hand — and powers triggering wildly whenever they move.
Like many of his more compact games, The West is played via reference card. Turns are multi-phase affairs — where would John Clowdus be without a grocery list of phases? — bouncing between card collection, an opposing reaction that takes different forms depending on the active player’s chosen option, and a sequence of minor points that read like bookkeeping but may well be the game’s most critical steps.
At its heart, though, stand those four facility types and the locus cards that trigger from their various arrangements. Your goal is often to accumulate as many of both types as possible, sometimes snatching an entire spread from the central card offer, sometimes capturing a single high-value locus card. These are then spent: discarded to whittle at your opponent’s score, discarded in sets to erect doppelgates (whatever those are), exchanged to active your cityengine.
The peculiarity of the final scoring must be kept close at hand, because unlike most games about amassing cards, The West pulls one final trick that informs everything that comes before it. Locus cards and doppelgates are your big earners, but that’s before you lose an entire heap of points. Every card still sitting in your hand counts as a negative point, and their sum is multiplied by how many facility types you’re holding. Moments ago you were amassing sets — now you’re harshly penalized for them. Those who missed out on a turn to build their worldengine have the advantage here, dumping every card of a single type before scoring.
It’s convoluted, and can land as quite the gotcha without a careful opening disclaimer, but The West’s scoring ties everything together with a neat, if imposing, bow. There are plenty of opportunities to discard cards, an option that seems superfluous until you realize that you aren’t just collecting sets, you’re collecting tight sets, as small as possible, with the scantest of leftovers. The tension is cutting. Packing your hand with cards means you have more options, but also bestows an obligation to get rid of all those facilities.
It’s no surprise that The West: Ascendant is clever, despite its hiccups of opacity and pacing. At this point, the bigger surprise would be Clowdus designing a boilerplate title. Of his recent games, though, it doesn’t quite match the splendor of Bronze Age or The Middle Ages, both of which were laser-focused and more immediately intuitive. Horace Greeley famously commanded 19th century youth to “Go West, young man.” That same advice applies here — but only for those who know what they’re getting into.
A complimentary copy was provided.