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Colorado County borrows elements from Euphrat & Tigris, in gaining influence on a board, and Ra, in its peculiar scoring. However, it doesn't seem to share the excitement of either of those two games.
The mechanics of the game are simple enough. You place tokens onto the map grid based on patterns on cards, which the players bid for. How this relates to the supposed theme of cowboys settling a piece of virgin land I never could work out.
Players get points for having control of the edges of the map, for controlling lakes (moveable, so you can have a new layout each time) and for having blobs of contiguous tokens.
Although the game is very pretty to look at and the rules seem to hold together (with a few ambiguities), I always had the feeling that I wasn't at all in control of the game. My opinion of Colorado County is that it is eye candy, not brain candy.
Colorado County was a quiet 1998 release, especially considering that Staupe's Basari and David and Goliath were Spiel des Jahres nominees just before. The theme, prospecting for valuable land in Colorado, is a very thin veneer over a largely abstract contest. The game offers a nice selection of strategy, decision making, variable replay, and clever scoring so it's worth trying even if the abstract nature turns you off.
The board is a simple grid, and the game begins by placing several differently shaped (and valued) lakes on it to create the setting. Everyone gets a set of ``cowboy counters'', which are simply tiles with a number from 1 to 66 on them, a few ``for sale'' counters, and lots of wooden cubes in their color. The counters are placed behind screens, and this is a nice feature since tile management is one of the important strategies for success.
The idea is to take control of squares on the grid, with both the location and the connectivity playing roles in the scoring. This is accomplished as follows: in each of four rounds, play begins by placing twelve disks (three each in four colors) in spots on the board. These become the ``anchoring'' points for that round. They are used with a deck of cards, each of which shows one of the four colors of the disks and a spatial relationship between the disk and the location where you can place one of your marker cubes. For example, one card shows a star (representing the disk) and another star (representing where you are allowed to place your marker) in a ``two-up, one over'' relationship (like a knight's move in chess). If you play that card, you select one of the same-colored disks on the board, and place your marker in one of the right relative spots.
The game consists of four rounds, and in each round twelve cards corresponding to the twelve disks will be auctioned. Three at a time are laid out, and each player makes a closed-fist bid for the right to select one of them. The winning bidder is the player with the most counters, with the numbers being used for tie-breaking purposes, and this player selects their choice of the three cards, plays a marker accordingly, and removes the disk they used as their anchor. Second place then chooses, etc., and finally the last bidder, who receives no card, can draw two more cowboy counters for use in future auctions. Counters used in the bidding are lost. Players can choose to bid nothing and guarantee themselves the right to draw counters, and this a strategy that everyone will employ several times. After all twelve cards for the round are used (four auctions of three cards each) the round is scored. Four times through this and the game is over.
You score points in one of four ways:
Each round, however, the weighting of these factors is different. In the first round, border dominance is rewarded, while by the fourth scoring this is worth very little. Lake control increases in value through the four rounds, and in the final round the control of a lake is worth the value printed on the lake (2 to 8). Large fields don't score anything in the first round, which makes sense since it is hard to create a large field with only four markers to place, but are very valuable at the end.
The ``for sale'' counters given at the beginning can be used during any round as a way to obtain more cowboy counters. A player places a ``for sale'' counter on an already placed marker. If no one wants the space, they remove their marker but take two cowboy counters as their sale price. If one player wants it, they offer one of their counters plus the seller gets two from open stock. If multiple players want the marker position, a closed fist bid determines the winner with the seller taking the winning bid plus two counters from the open stock.
There are multiple strategies to consider as the game progresses. First is the positioning of the ``anchor disks'' at the beginning of each round. This is a non-random but non-precise exercise, since you don't know which corresponding cards will come up for auction in the round. Placing the disks creates a potential marker placement for all players, so there are both defensive and offensive positioning to be considered. The scoring mechanism produces interesting tension, as each marker placement becomes a tradeoff among the various scoring options. This balances the game nicely and doesn't make the early leader the impossible-to-catch winner.
Management of the cowboy counters is critical. You need enough counters to win the auction when the right card comes to help link several markers into a large field, seize control of a lake, or stop another player from getting too big an advantage. Recognizing when the opportunity to earn more counters by bidding nothing may have a higher marginal value than one of the possible counter placements is essential, as is selling a marker you've already placed at the right time.
It is common to be in a position where one of the three available cards helps you enormously, while the other two are essentially worthless to you. Identifying the value of the three auction cards to each of the players helps to bid efficiently and effectively, but creates a lot of second guess thinking as well. Lastly, the variable construction of the game board (by moving the lakes around) makes each game different enough to affect the auctions, scoring, and disk placement events.
Some people have criticized Colorado County for being overly dry and abstract. It is no more abstract than the famous Knizia trilogy (Euphrat and Tigris, Durch die Wüste, and Samurai) and requires better decision making with less luck and has better replay value than many games. Some of this criticism could have been helped by more creative production. If the board were a map of Colorado rather than a sterile grid, the anchor disks cowboy figures surveying the range, and the wooden cubes cattle or livestock pieces, then the game would play the same but have a better feel to it. Think about how much Durch die Wüste benefits from having pastel camels versus wooden cubes as the pieces! Strangely, some of the best artwork in the game is on the screens to hide the counters and on the backside of the game board.
Colorado County could have been considered as a 1999 Spiel des Jahres candidate. It is not a better game than the three finalists, but certainly is better designed and worthier of consideration than some of the nominees. Given the dryness comments made, I suggest you try to play the game before buying it, but it should appeal to more gamers than not. If I ever find a bag of little plastic cows to replace the cubes, though, I'm buying them.