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Board Game Review: Old West Empresario

T he kind folks at Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG) recently sent me a preview copy of Old West Empresario, which will debut at GenCon 2019 today. We already have about ten TMG games in our collection that we thoroughly enjoy (with Crusaders and Gentes being the most recent additions) and so my husband Chris and I were both feeling pretty good about the chances of this new release being a good fit for us as well.

Old West Empresario  picks up its narrative where its prequel, Pioneer Days (also from TMG) left off. Players take on the role of Empresarios, settling the old west. They are charged with building new towns so prosperous and populated that one will be chosen as the state capital, winning the game for its Empresario.

As with Pioneer Days, the  artwork from Sergi Marcet reinforces the Western theme and uses bright, appealing colors. I appreciated the racial diversity depicted in the illustrations.

Components include double sided building cards, currency tokens, victory point (i.e. population) tokens, and die number tiles (all constructed from heavy cardboard); as well as a set of eight brown dice, a wooden first player token, thin cards for the wanted and character cards, a scoring pad, and the rulebook.  Most of the components should last a long time under regular use but the character cards and wanted cards should possibly be sleeved to prevent bending or tearing.

The gameplay here is a bit reminiscent of Suburbia in that victory points (VP) are partially earned based on the placement of constructed buildings in a player’s town relative to other constructed buildings in the town. For example, the Mine scores 2 VP at the end of the game if adjacent to at least 1 Inn and 1 VP per adjacent Distillery. In addition to victory points earned based on the adjacency rules, a number of constructed civic buildings award end game points to the owning player based on meeting certain qualifications such as owning x amount of cash, y amount of victory tokens, or z amount of native settlement buildings. There are also four other ways to earn victory points in Old West Empresario :

  • owning the largest contiguous block of native settlement buildings
  • construction of buildings tied to the railroad, stock, or oil industries
  • accumulation of wanted cards (awarded for being the first or second player to accomplish the objective listed on the card)
  • accumulation of wealth (1VP for every 3 coins)

So how do we construct buildings in our towns and what else can they do for us besides award end game VP? Well, each round, the starting player rolls the set of dice (2 for each player + 1 extra) and then places each die on top of the corresponding die number tile. Each die number tile has two buildings positioned underneath it selected from the pool of unconstructed buildings and native settlements.  Unconstructed buildings can be activated later in the game once added and constructed in a player’s town.  Native settlements do not require construction and have a one time activation effect when added to a player’s town.

Taking turns beginning with the start player, each player selects a die from a die number tile and then either (1) collects one of the buildings underneath the die number tile to add to their town (2) activates all the buildings in their town that have the same number on their die icon as the die selected, or (3) discards one of the buildings underneath the die number tile to the game discard pile and collects $3.

Each player begins the game with only one constructed building in their town – the town hall – which has, as one of its activation effects, the ability to construct another building in the town for the resource cost of $1. In addition to the town hall, each player selects a native settlement or unconstructed building to add to their town at the start of the game. Note that the town hall can be activated by any die number. This means that on any player’s first turn, they are able to activate their town hall to construct an unconstructed building already in their town. If the first building they construct is the Carpenter building, they now have two constructed buildings capable of constructing new buildings when activated.

Aside from construction as an activation effect, the accumulation of VP tokens, cash, or additional building tiles are also possible, depending on the specific building under activation. One building (the Church) allows a player to activate another building from their town that otherwise would not be activated that turn for a small fee. And the Undertaker building forces opponents to discard cash (Aha! Take that!).

The game ends and victory points are tallied after the round in which one or more players host at least 15 buildings in their town, or the building supply deck or VP token supply runs out.

In my first game of Old West Empresario, I played against my husband. His strategy was to turn the game into some kind of massive engine builder. He worked hard to construct buildings in his town that ALL had the same activation number. I took the opposite approach and tried to cover all the dice outcomes so that I knew I always had at least one building other than my Town Hall to activate if desired. I focused on earning VP tokens through building activation effects and the wanted cards while he focused on earning VP through adjacency rules. I beat him by one point.

In another game with friends, I took the same approach and won again even though my friends also tried to focus on these items. Rinse repeat across a few more games. But when I played against my husband a second time and he focused less this time on adjacency rules and more on building activation effects to collect VP tokens, he was able to beat me. This is where his ploy to have several buildings with the same activation number gave him the edge – I might activate one building on a turn that gave VP tokens as an activation effect while he activated four on a turn that did so. I’ll need to match his strategy in grouping activation numbers if I am going to have a chance to beat him.

I have now played the game several times since receiving it, across all players counts. A few summary takeaways from these plays of Old West Empresario:

1. The game is easy to learn but it takes awhile for players to memorize the activation effects of each building. It can be helpful to photocopy the back cover of the rulebook that documents this information and give one sheet to each player for reference.

2. Game time consistently hovers around an hour, regardless of player count or number of previous plays under the players’ belts.

3. There are multiple paths to victory and winning strategies to explore due to a myriad of ways to earn victory points.

4. Huge spreads across the final player scores are unlikely. They never occurred in our games. It’s very much a neck and neck competition till the end and no one is certain of the winner until the final scores are tallied.

5. The iconography can be confusing for new players. The designer overlays a circle with a a slash through it on top of a picture of a resource to indicate the cost of an action. However, almost every new player interpreted the image at first glance to mean none of the resource was required to perform the action (perhaps thinking normally one  or more units of the resource is required by default).

Overall, Old West Empresario  is an engaging, lightweight to medium strategy game that can work with many different play groups. It’s a good game for drawing non-gamer friends into tabletop gaming and to give hardcore gamers a more relaxing hour of gameplay. I am going to keep the game and I’m thinking of picking up Pioneer Days  to set up a back to back gaming event where we begin with PD and move onto OWE, perhaps with a viewing of a film like Rio Bravo wedged in the middle. The $60 retail price point is a bit steep but strategy gaming market pricing continues to trend upward with the rising demand for new games so it would be a mischaracterization to imply TMG isn’t pricing games competitively; they are on par with other large publishers. 

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Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG)
Players: 2-4
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 60 minutes
Game type: tile placement, tableau building

Rating:

Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me

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