Gaming Unplugged: Carson City

May 23, 2010

There’s a lot going on in what will soon become the bustling town of Carson City (published in the US by Eagle Games), although all that’s there at the start is a single residence, a bunch of mountains, and from two to five groups of cowboys looking to lay claim to the surrounding territory. Roads will be laid down, various buildings erected, and there might even be a firefight or two (although not near the churches) before all is said and done. Carson City combines several mechanics into a unique gaming experience; role selection, worker placement, and tile laying all need to be tackled to get the job done and earn the most points.

Players begin with one gun, one road, some cash, and three cowboys. After randomly determining the initial start order, each player claims one plot of land on the map; eight mountain tiles are randomly placed (using dice and the marked grid) as is the center of town, but the remaining squares are all up for grabs. A second plot of land is claimed in reverse order, and then the real game begins.

The first order of business each round is to choose one of the seven roles available. In addition to determining play order, each role has its own special ability and cash limit. Some abilities happen as soon as you select the role, others take place at the appropriate time in the turn. The next phase is placing your cowboys either on the buildings you wish to purchase, the plots of land you wish to claim (which can include any unclaimed space, even mountains or houses), or various actions you wish to take. The order for the next turn’s role selection is determined by the order in which players pass out of the placement phase, giving some players a reason to not use all of your guys on a given turn.

Once all of the players have passed, the actions resolve in order. However, with the exception of two basic actions and the universal actions, only one player actually gets to use each space. Conflicts are resolved with a shootout in which each player’s strength is compared; your strength is a random number from 1-6 plus the number of guns you have and how many cowboys you have left in reserve (another reason to hold some back, especially if you’re expecting a fight). The winner gets the space, while the loser gets his “dead” cowboy returned to him for future use (including future fights in that same turn). All cowboys that are successful in their placement are consumed, as there is a strict maximum of ten cowboys per player at any given time (you get an increasing amount at the start of each round).

Any buildings purchased as the actions resolve must be placed on the town map, preferably on a plot you own if you want to earn any cash from it. Each building also causes a house to be built, and all buildings must be accessible from the center of town by roads (“accessible” in this case meaning “a continuous string of roads at least touches one corner of each building”). Ranches and mines are exceptions and neither build a house nor require roads. Most buildings earn cash depending on what other buildings or locations are around them; for example: mines prefer to be adjacent to mountains, ranches like having open space, and saloons appreciate houses — but only neutral buildings(/mountains) or ones you own count towards your income. The game uses a built-in “dial” on each double-sided tile to indicate how much a given building is worth, with the “pointer” being on the slightly larger plot tiles; it’s a neat little concept, but can be a little fiddly at times as you usually have to re-evaluate each building every time something changes around it. One final use for cowboys during worker placement is to put them on properties owned by opponents. If you succeed in this (either because they didn’t defend themselves or failed in doing so), you steal half of that building’s income that turn.

At the end of the turn each player must discard any cash in excess of his chosen role’s limit. Every $10 you shed this way can be turned into points, but that’s a very poor exchange rate, as there are spaces on the board that can earn you one point per $2, $3, $4, or $5 (these actions that get taken away as the game progresses, with the 2:1 conversion only available in round 1), with one final $6 per point “action” taking place at the very end of the game — after you’ve discarded down to your limit at 10:1. The game plays out over only four turns, but each turn is significantly longer than the one before it due to more cowboys, more buildings, and generally more options available to each player as the game progresses. The last round is especially tense as each player tries to wring out the most points without going (too far) over their cash limit for maximum payout. You ultimately earn two points for every occupied piece of land that you own; combined with the final 6:1 conversion and the incidental 10:1s along the way, these are the only points you can earn without using one of the available actions and I’m fairly certain you will not win relying on just those “freebies”.

Carson City offers a number of strategies that could lead you to victory, although it is incredibly easy to fall behind early thanks to an unlucky shoot-out roll and never be able to really recover. Fortunately, the game also comes with a number of variants. In addition to a different map (the other one features a river that affects values of property in various ways) and alternate powers for each role, there is a tile-based shoot-out variant in which each player is given seven one-use tiles, valued from 0-6, that replace the die roll and bring a bit more strategy to conflicts to those who are paying attention to whom has shot which “bullets” (if you manage to spend all seven you can “reload”). I prefer anything that eliminates randomness getting in the way of my strategy and highly recommend using the tiles, although the “standard” game should be experienced at least once as well.

Given its potential length and complexity, Carson City may take some getting used to before you really appreciate it. It’s certainly not a game I want to play every week, but it can make for a good “main event” at a game night once everyone is up to speed, especially with all of the variants available to keep things fresh.