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Businessmen take advantage of the Gold Rush to cut shady deals while appearing to be honorable citizens. (So what's new?) Each player begins by bidding with debt certificates for the services of the adventurers in town who have varying abilities in the arts of gold digging, colt drawing, shooting, cheating at cards. The debt certificates are deposited in one of the six banks. The top fate card is turned up and announces the sort of abilities in demand, e.g. gold digging or shooting. Card play follows. The game ends when one player has three bankruptcy tokens or when there have been so many shootouts that the undertaker notifies the cavalry, or when a player has reached the end of the Honors points scale.
I was surprised by how nice and clever this game was. It's an obvious distant cousin to Teuber's classic, [page scan/se=0144/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Adel Verpflichtet, but the meat of this one is in the bidding. Instead of bidding straight cash, you bid IOUs, which will then come due (or possibly not!) at some semi-random point in the future. So the game is about keeping yourself properly leveraged and skirting the edge of bankruptcy (or even going bankrupt when necessary). The 'payday' mechanism for calling in IOUs is very nice, tense, and exciting, as the die is rolled to see who is going to have to pay up.
This is a real gem which comes highly recommended. It's light-ish, significantly lighter than Adel Verpflichtet, I think, but has some nice strategy. It's easy to learn and teach, a lot of fun, just the right length, and even thematic! The only proviso is that it seems to work mainly with 4; I've played once with 3, and the balance seemed a bit off. Stick with 4 players, and you'll be in good shape.
The idea of a game where your goal is to accumulate gold from digging, win poker games in the saloon, and have a few showdowns out in the street is appealing to me. It covers many of the myths of that period. Add in characters rated in each of the three areas, and you've got some flavor.
But that's where the flavor ends. Each type of contest (gold digging, poker, and gunfights) are abstract activities. Each player reveals one character from their stable, and the highest-rated one (in the particular area being fought) gets a reward. In all but the gold-chase, the lowest-rated character's owner incurs a penalty. These rewards and penalties are usually manifested in movement around the board.
First to the end wins. Of course, there's some money management involved (gold is precious) and you have to pay your 'hired guns' with something (in this case IOUs). At various points in the game, the bank gets greedy and starts calling in lots of IOUs (via dice rolls, so it's pretty random) which must be paid out in gold.
All in all, it's a nice bidding/money-management game with a theme of the Old West, but very little actual flavor in that regard. I'll buy it, but it won't be a top-shelf game.
Go West, young man, loaded with promissory notes to hire Adventurers for your dirty work. Adventurers, won at auctions, have numbered skills in Poker, Pistols, and Prospecting. Event Cards determine Adventurers' conflicts each round. The winner's employer earns gold or Prestige Points; the luckiest losers return to their bosses. At intervals, some spent promissory notes are randomly chosen; owners unable to meet the payment lose considerable Prestige. You can buy Prestige with gold, but awaiting paydays encourages caution. Win by riding to the Prestige track's end, or by being ahead when the Undertaker has seen enough gunfights!
"Gnadenlos" means "merciless" and yes, of course you can pronounce it. Just pull yourself together and think back to the Flanders and Swann record that your parents used to play when you were a kid: "I'm a gnu, agnother gnu, the gnicest work of gnature in the zoo.". German doesn't actually get difficult until you have to tackle "Pflanze", the only word I know that requires you to wrinkle your nose like a hamster.
Gnadenlos, like Bali, which is reviewed earlier in this issue, is one of Kosmos's new line of "small" multi-player games, where "small" refers to the size of the box. The game itself is as substantial as many that come in the standard sized package and it is simply a combination of the absence of a full-sized board and the sacrifice of all that empty space which publishers normally like to give you that has made the format possible.
The idea behind the game is that the players are boss figures in a Wild West town. In their employ are characters who are prepared to turn their hands to gold prospecting, gambling and gun fighting, activities which will bring wealth and prestige to their employers. The local economy runs on tick, or more precisely, on a system of promissory notes, which you hand over whenever a character comes to work for you. When the number of IOUs in circulation reaches a certain level, some of them will get called in and at that point you need to have the money to cover your obligations. Failure to do so results in a loss of prestige (victory points).
Each player has 13 promissory notes with values in the range 0 to 4. (The '0' card is there to enable you to bid 'zero' in the auction phases.). Eleven of these cards are in your hand at this point and the other two are already "in circulation". The cards in circulation are arranged, face down and as evenly as possible, in rows of six along the edge of the board. Each position in the row corresponds to one of the numbers on the 6-sided die which will be used later to determine which IOUs have to be redeemed when "payday" comes round. The only other thing you are given at this point is 10 gold nuggets. You will have some adventurers working for you by the time the game gets properly under way, but these are people you will have to hire and that means you will be handing over more IOUs to add to the rows at the side of the board.
The rest of the game equipment consists of various markers, a board showing the prestige track, and two sets of cards: one for the adventurers and the other a collection of seven 'events'. The event cards are shuffled and placed face down in the appropriate place on the board. Then as many pairs of adventurer cards as there are players are dealt face up. Players will bid for these. Each player will get one of the pairs, but the high bidder will have first choice. Bidding is a once round affair and a bid consists of between 1 and 3 promissory notes, whose combined value constitutes your bid. You can't match an earlier player's bid and you can't pass, though you can (provided somebody else hasn't already done it) use your 0 card to bid zero.
A player turn has three phases. In the first, an event card is turned up and the event executed. Next, the player on turn has the option of paying gold to move forward on the prestige track. Finally, there is the possibility that more adventurer cards will be put up for auction.
The event deck has seven cards: three 'prospecting', two 'card games' and two 'gun fights'. The procedure is the same in all cases: each player plays one of their adventurer cards and the ratings of the adventurers for this particular type of event are compared. If the event card was 'prospecting', it will show two numbers, each of which represents gold nuggets. The player (or players) who played the adventurer card(s) with the highest 'prospecting' rating receives the higher number of nuggets; those who played cards with the second highest rating receive the lower number. Anyone below this gets nothing. With card games the player of the card with the top rating moves forward on the prestige track; the one who played the lowest moves back. How far forward or how far back depends on where you are on the track: the closer you are to the finishing post, the lower the reward for winning the card game and the higher the penalty for losing it. Gunfights are more brutal. Here the winner reclaims a couple of IOUs (which may or may not be their own, but which the player can reuse either way) from the side of the board; the loser's character is dealt with by the undertaker (card discarded). With all three types of event the card played by the winner of the event is also discarded, so you don't have the situation where the same few powerful cards dominate the entire game. Other players reclaim the cards (except for the loser of a gunfight).
Paying gold to move forward on the track is straightforward: one space per nugget paid, up to a maximum of 5. Deciding whether to take the option is less so. On the one hand victory goes to whoever is furthest round the track when the game ends and so any progress looks like a good idea, but on the other you have the higher penalties and poorer rewards that go with the gambling games when you are further forward, and also the fact that money is tight and the penalties for failure to redeem your IOUs on paydays are unpleasant.
To complete their turn the player counts the number of adventurer cards remaining in their hand. If this is less than three, some more are put up for auction. The number put up is one less than the number of players and the auction procedure is the same as the one described earlier, save that this time you are bidding for single cards rather than pairs and the lowest bidder is going to miss out. Any cards bid by successful bidders are added to the rows at the side of the board and as soon as the number of completed rows equals or exceeds the number of players, everyone gets nervous because it is now a payday and you, as the boss figures, are the ones who will be doing the paying.
When a payday occurs the active player rolls a die and turns over the first card in the corresponding column of the array. The player whose IOU this is must redeem it by paying the appropriate amount of gold to the bank and reclaiming the card. The die is then rolled again and the redeeming process repeated. This continues until either all the cards in one column have been redeemed or until one player finds themself with insufficient money to pay off the latest demand. If the second of these occurs, the player concerned receives a 'vulture' marker and moves back five spaces on the prestige track. In either case the remaining face-down IOU cards are shuffled up to fill the gaps that have been created and the game then continues.
The game ends when one of three situations occurs:
1. A player receives their third vulture marker.
2. The seventh gunfight card is turned up.
3. A player reaches the finishing space on the prestige track.
With the first of these the game ends immediately; with the other two there is a final payday. A player who has picked up three vulture markers automatically loses. The others then have a final opportunity to pay gold in order to move forward (a maximum of 3 spaces this time) and the one who is furthest forward after this wins.
When I saw the components (more nice work from Franz Vohwinkel) and read the rules I was quite excited. The theme is attractive; there are some original ideas; the mechanics mesh logically with the story line and the alternative endings carry the promise of varying strategies. The event was more disappointing. Some games play better than they read; this one read better than it plays. The system turns out to be one that kicks you when you're down, where survival seems to be your primary aim and where strategy often consists of keeping your fingers crossed and hoping that someone else will collect the kick in the crotch. Whether winning or losing -- and I have experienced both with this game -- I don't find that sort of experience very entertaining.
It is not the tightness of the money side that I find dispiriting. Indeed, that part of the design is essential to the whole game and the problems that it presents to the players are quite interesting. You have to have the vulture tokens and you have to have the fact that receipt of one of them is a likely end to a payday or the game becomes yet another gentle trundle along a victory point track. I also don't mind the inevitable elements of good and bad fortune that go with the dice rolling. What gets to me is the way that the card supply tends to work. You lose a card every time you win an action or lose a gunfight. It is clear that you need to replace them and equally clear that you are better off with a few cards than with just one or two. This is the reason why there is a phase three in a player turn, which enables you to bring extra cards into the game if you are short-handed. But note how the auction works: it is a 'once round' system and the active player has to bid first. Let us suppose that this is a 3-player game and that the two cards turned up are Gamblin Jay, whose ratings are 4-5-6, and Joke Greenhorn, ratings 2-1-2. The first of these is a very good card; the second a very bad. The high bidder will get Jay; the second highest bidder will get Joke. The active player, the one who needs to replenish their hand, has no good course of action open. Bid low and you are giving up on the good card; bid high and one of the later bidders will top your bid, leaving you having paid a high price for rubbish. Games of this type work best if they have an ebb and flow: you build up resources, use them to make a play and then rebuild. With Gnadenlos that doesn't happen. Once you find yourself in a hole the system tends to keep you there. And it is not just because of the auction; the game has other ways of kicking you when you are down. Remember the gunfights? Suppose that you have been reduced to a single card and that it is John Digger. He is excellent as a prospector, average as a card player and hopeless as a gunfighter. If the next event card turned up is a gunfight, he dies, because the rules say that you must participate in each event and he is the only card you can play. A better device for souring the way someone feels about a game would be hard to devise.
The game therefore is a disappointment as it stands, but if you either already have the game or fancy it anyway, I would suggest the following rule changes as a possible fix:
1. Gunfights: If a player is down to one card, they can opt out of a gunfight. If they do this, they move back one space on the prestige track. Option: if one or more players has opted out of a gunfight, the penalty for the loser is one space on the prestige track, rather than loss of the card.
2. Auctions: The active player turns up the cards as usual, but they will be auctioned one at a time. The auction is still once round in a clockwise direction, but the active player may choose whether to bid first or last. Option: Decide before the game starts whether a player can buy more than one card in a round. Option: Decide before the game starts whether these auctions are conducted on a 'first card first' or a 'best card first' basis. If the latter, you will need a method of valuing the cards. My suggestion would be that you add twice an adventurer's best rating to the sum of their other two. So, for example, Gamblin Jay on 4-5-6 would be rated at 21, John Digger on 6-1-3 would be a 16 and Joke Greenhorn on 2-1-2 would be a 7. The active player would decide in the event of ties.