Do ya like hiking and exploring? How about fishing? Or maybe picking apples is more your speed. No? Gold-mining? Hunting down outlaws? Anyone? Bueller?
Well now there’s a game for you. It’s not a sprawling sandbox game drenched in theme like Western Legends. This is a shorter, tighter, brain-busting game with layered and meshing mechanics, where you choose one of four modules to slot in to provide additional actions and VP generation. This is Sierra West by Jonny Pac Cantin and released by Board&Dice Games.
Each module sets up slightly differently, but the central focus is always mountain-pyramid made of cards, some of which are unique to the module you choose to play and upon which your Pioneer piece will move to claim cards. Below the mountain is a wagon-track; the farther your wagon gets on that track during the game, the more points you score and the more advantage you can take of the module-specific cards that begin appearing there.
Players (up to four, including an excellent solo mode) get playmats representing both their encampment and the paths their two settlers take every turn. They also get a starting deck of cleverly-laid-out cards which provide actions and resources.
Every turn you take the top three cards from your deck. You choose one out of a possible six ways to place them overlapping each other to provide paths for your two campers to gather resources and take actions. (The advanced rules have your draw four cards and choose three, but unless you play with a timer or AP-minimal buddies I would avoid that.) Those actions and resources, in turn, enable you to garner VP’s a zillion different ways.
That’s the gist of it, although there’s lots of chrome I’ve left out because in the end, you either like this sort of thing or you don’t and the details don’t matter much one way or t’other. The four modules each add a new layer to the game’s bedrock:
Sierra West’s most satisfying moments are when you pull together an awesome combo whereby you generate the resources you need to take the actions to get lots of things done on your turn. So it’s a gamer’s game–ain’t no gateway game, that’s for sure. It’s not hard to teach or learn if you’re up-to-date with the current state of the game design art, being as it is a mixture of deckbuilding, resource-management, and engine-building. If you’re not, though, I think the learning curve is pretty steep.
The rules and artwork are very well-done, and the solo mode I mentioned above is simple to run but challenging enough to keep you interested–and it works with all four modules.
Where the game sags a bit is its theme. The “West” portrayed in Sierra West is a sanitized version focused on the colonial experience at the expense of indigenous narratives. There are no First Nations in Sierra West; everything is just laid out in the open ripe for the taking by enterprising settlers.
This isn’t surprising in a game like Great Western Trail; many Middle Europeans have harbored a fascination for an idealized “Wild West” for over a century, and designer Alexander Pfister may well be one of them. But Cantin is from California and presumably has less of an excuse not to know better. Not that every game set in the West has to involve First Nations: my point is that the modules in Sierra West could quite easily have been set almost anywhere else in the world. The Western US does not have a monopoly on apples, minerals, fish, or outlaws. By choosing a Western theme, then, Cantin made a statement whether he meant to or not, and some players will turn away from his game because of it.
Sierra West is a game I will keep in my collection, at least for now, if only for its excellent solo mode. What about you?