Bison: Thunder on the Prairie
List Price: $30.00
Your Price: $24.00
(Worth 2,400 Funagain Points!)
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In Bison every player is representing a native American Indian tribe. Their aim is to settle in an area rich of bison, fish and turkeys. The tribe need bison as food and clothes (leather), they need fish for food and the turkeys and their feathers for rituals and adornment. The players catch bison, fish and eagles and keep the score as markers on their own overview board. The animal markers are used to survive, to explore new land and to buy canoes and tents at the market. The player who has the most animals wins the game.
I'm a big person for theme in my games, even if I know that it's merely placed on top of the game to better accentuate the mechanics. Games like Through the Desert could have been produced as a simple abstract, but there is something comforting about even the thinnest theme. Bison: Thunder on the Prairie (Phalanx and Mayfair Games, 2006 - Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling) is one such game, with an extremely thin theme of hunting on the prairie pasted on what is yet another variant of area control.
The theme is one of the thinnest I've ever played, and the game itself became sheer drudgery for me to play. I have the greatest respect for the Kramer and Kiesling duo, and they have produced some of the most thought provoking games; but Bison was non-intuitive, and I couldn't get over how the theme just didn't add anything to the game. It's entirely too long for what it is; and while I do feel that there are folks who will enjoy a game this dry, Bison was certainly not for my tastes.
Three marked hexagonal tiles (curved) are placed in the middle of the table to form a board that is made up of various terrain regions (mountains, prairies, and rivers). Each player is given a player board, which has three tracks on it, marking the amounts of food of three types: wildfowl, salmon, and bison. Each player places a marker on the "10" spot and takes three other cubes of their color, as "hunters". Players also receive four white action cubes, a value "1" and "2" tepee, and a value "1" and "2" canoe. The remainder of a player's pieces (four more cubes, four more tepees (values "1" through "4"), and four more canoes (values "1" through "4") are placed in a "market" area. The rest of the land tiles are placed in a face down pile (number determined by the amount of players), and the youngest player gets the totem pole to show that they go first. The first round then begins (there are four to six rounds, depending on the number of players).
At the beginning of each round, each player draws one tile that they examine secretly. During the round, players will take four different actions, out of six. On a player's turn, they place one of their action cubes on one of the six spots on their board to show which action they are taking. The next player then takes their turn, and play continues until all actions are used. During all the actions, players will use a certain number of hunters. Depending on the hunters used in the action, players must pay a certain amount of food. If a player uses no hunters, they gain one food, one hunter costs zero food, two hunters cost two food, three hunters cost four food, four hunters cost five food, and five hunters (max) cost ten food. Food is paid by moving the food markers accordingly and can be reduced in any combination.
The actions that can be taken are:
- Place a land tile. Land tiles are placed adjacent to any tile on the board but must be kept with three spaces of one of the starting three tiles. When placed, players may place up to five of their hunters on any one region of the tile. Tiles show three animals on them: bison, fish, and/or wildfowl.
- Build or enlarge a Tepee: A player may remove hunters from a specific area and place a tepee of equal value in the same spot. A player may upgrade a tepee the same way, by removing hunters equal to the difference.
- Build or enlarge a Canoe: This is the same as the previous action, except it can only be done in water.
- Gather hunters: A player may bring up to five of their hunters to any single space that already contains one of their hunters.
- Move hunters one space: A player may move up to five of their hunters one space each. Hunters can be moved one area space each but cannot move into a space that has a piece of another player in it.
- Move hunters up to three spaces: The same as the previous action, but players can move hunters through the spaces of opposing pieces.
At any point on their turn, players may buy any of their pieces from the market. Hunters can be bought for one of each animal, and tepees and canoes can be bought for one of each animal per value of the item (i.e. a "4" tepee costs four of each animal). Things bought from the market are immediately added to a player's stock and can be used.
At the end of each round, scoring occurs. Each region (group of connected areas of the same type) is scored, and the player with the most influence there adds food to their total equal to the number of animals in that region. Influence is determined by whoever has the highest valued tepee/canoe in that region. In case of a tie, the next highest valued tepee/canoe is checked, until finally the number of hunters is checked. The player with the second most influence gains half the animals in that region. If a player ever gains more than fifteen of one type of animal (the highest number), then the extra may be traded in (at a three for one ratio) for either of the other two types of animals. Players then take back their action cubes, and a new round begins, with the next player clockwise receiving the totem token.
At the end of the final round, scoring occurs in the same way, except that all food counters are reset to zero first. The player with the most total food is the winner!
Some comments about the game…
1.) Components: The tiles, which have wonderful artwork on them, first caught my eye due to their odd shape, which is that of a hexagon, with three of the sides in a concave curve, and the other three convex. This causes some limitations as to how tiles can be placed, and in fact was a bit non-intuitive for players throughout the game. The player boards were interesting and had all the necessary information on them, including costs for using certain amounts of hunters and costs for new units. The hunters are wooden cubes of green, red, yellow and blue, with white cubes used as the action markers. The canoes and tepees are small cardboard counters, with a number of diamonds on them of a player's color to delineate their value. Everything fits easily in a small box with some nice artwork of buffaloes on it.
2.) Rules: I can't say anything against the twelve pages of rules, as they explain in many, many, many examples how everything works together. This was very helpful, until I realized that I needed to show all of these examples to players each time I taught the game. Movement rules are not intuitive; and while area control games are played often in my groups, this one still needed to be explained in more detail.
3.) Food and Theme: Maybe it's just me; but if a player is having three different kinds of food that they are tracking, I want that to mean something! The only time this really matters is when buying new items, which cost a certain amount of each resource - other than that, you can't tell the difference between buffalo and fish. Again, this might not bother some players, but I wanted to have the theme mean something, and it doesn't. I don't feel like someone controlling hunters on the North American prairies, I feel like a guy moving cubes around and trying to maximize points. Bleah.
4.) Actions: A player gets to choose four actions each turn, out of six. Oh, and one of those actions is required, and three of the actions are variants of the same thing - moving. I found this to be rather uninspired, as the variety from picking different actions - something that I love about games, simply isn't here. The biggest variety comes from picking the order of the actions, and then griping about how you can't pick the same action (placing a tepee) twice.
5.) Area control and Fun Factor: I love area control games, with El Grande (by the same designer!) being at the top of the list. This one, however, simply doesn't work for me. It's hard to keep track of who is in control of each area, thanks to the wonky board, and the theme is almost counter-intuitive (although not as bad as Wongar). The game feels like Carcassonne in a small way, as players connect tiles to make areas larger, but in the end just gives a very unsatisfactory feel.
I can see, looking over this review, that I haven't given too many real reasons as to my dislike of Bison. It's not that it's a badly designed game, as the mechanics seem to be well balanced and fair. And I don't want it to be unfairly compared to other area control games, but it must be - unless it offers something new. There's really nothing new here, and the three resources are almost one and the same, the actions are dry and uninteresting, and the theme is non-existent. Combine all that together, and you have a very forgettable game - even a drudgery to play. Folks who like dry gaming experiences may enjoy this one, but I'm going to pass in the future and play games that are more intuitive and exciting.
"Real men play board games"