Board Game Review: Carson City

Two words: Cowboy. Meeples.
Designed by Xavier Georges and published by Eagle Games, Carson City is a really fun board game all about settling a brand new town in the old west.  Based around the budding city of Carson City, Nevada, you are one of the wealthy entreprenuer cowboys out to make a buck.  Taking on various roles each round, you do this by claiming land, building buildings, expanding your assets, and scoring victory points.  Carson City employs a few familiar mechanics - role selection, worker placement, tile placement - but mixes in some really cool dynamics to create a very unique experience.

The game is played in a total of four rounds - this game has a round counter, so you have to get going and keep an eye on the "clock."  Each round is played in essentially 3 phases, although the action phase is really the meat and potatoes of the game.  The board is made up of an action track, which has nothing to do with the physical map.  The rest of the board is a grid of squares, which makes up Carson City.  You randomly roll on the grid and place mountains and the starting building of the city (a simple house) to set the game up.

The first phase is character selection.  There are seven characters that each player will have the choice of playing the round as.  Each character grants some sort of ability or bonus.  Also, each character is numbered from 1 to 7, which will dictate the turn order in the next phase, which is the action phase.  So the choice really has to do with, "Which ability will most benefit me this round and when do I want to act?"  Coming from memory, the characters are:
The box.
  1. Sherriff - he grants you an additional worker to place, and that worker cannot be dueled (challenged for a space)
  2. Banker - he immediately nets you $9
  3. Grocer - she either gives you $8 or you can save her and use her to make any one building you gain income from during the income phase this round net you twice as much
  4. Chinese Worker - all buildings purchased cost you half as much, and you get three roads
  5. Setller - You can immediately place one free parcel on the board anywhere you'd like
  6. General - You can conscript, for a price, more cowboys to utilize during this round
  7. Mercenary (I think) - For the entire round, you are treated as having three more revolvers (or, dueling strength)
The character that you select is very important, as it really sets the tone for your turn.  Am I going to buy and place a lot of buildings?  I could use the Chinese Worker and save a bunch of cash.  Do I plan on dueling a lot?  Then I'll pick the Mercenary.  Your choice immediately resets turn order.  So if the first player selects the sherriff, he'll slide into position 1 and remain first player.  Turn order is reset again at the end of the action phase - as each person passes (either due to lack of cowboys to place or not wanting to place them), they will fill the turn order track from 1 to 5.

After selecting characters, it's time to place cowboys!  At the start of each round, you are given a set amount of cowboys to place (three in round 1, four in round 2, and five in rounds 3 and 4).  Players place thier cowboys in turn order on various squares on the board.  Each square in the action tracks will allow you to perform an action to gain a result.  For example, the first square allows your cowboy to "earn a wage" of $4 that turn.  The actions range from gaining money, to buying buildings, to earning victory points - and actually, there are very few "sluff-off" actions.  Your cowboys always have something to do.  You can also place them on parcels, which are the squares that make up Carson City.  You must own a parcel of land to build on it, so claiming parcels is key.  You can also place them on buildings owned by your opponent, to rob them, which we'll get too in a minute.

The action track.
After all of the cowboys have been played out, you perform the actions.  The game has a neat liltte built in way of doing this - follow the action track!  From left to right, the game will walk you through the resolution of each action.  If you have a cowboy on that square and can meet the requirement on each spot, you perform the action.  The cowboy is then removed from the board and returned to the supply.  Here's the thing - multiple cowboys can be on the same square.  With the exception of two "free" squares, if there are multiple cowboys, then we have oursleves a little problem.  "See, this town isn't big enough for the both of us..."  If this happens, a DUEL occurs!  This one of the highlights of the game.  Unlike most Euros, you can intentionally try to trip your opponents up and duel them off of a space, effectively denying the action to them and claiming it for your own.  Risky, but worth it, in a game with 50-ish victory points at stake.

Duels are resolved simply, but they hold a ton of tension.  Each dueling opponent takes a six-sided die in hand and rolls it.  They take the value of the roll and add their total number of revolvers (tracking their strength) and any cowboys they held back from placement to get their dueling value.  Highest value wins.  In the case of a tie, the player who is closest to going first wins.  Here's the kicker: the defeated cowboy goes back to the player's side of the board, not the supply.  You will deny the action, but you will have given him a bit more strength for the next duel or the next turn.  He gets to keep this cowboy until he uses him up.

Carson City is growing!

The final phase is upkeep, where are the tokens are put bak onto the board and the round is resent for the next one.  Each character that is selected also has a maximum cash value allowed.  For example, the Banker can keep $120 in his pocket.  For every dollar you have beyond that, you are forced to purchase victory points and/or discard money. So you try to keep an eye on your budget so that you're not getting rid of money.  At the end of four rounds, the player with the most victory points wins.  In most of the games I've played, that margin is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 - 8 points, so each game can be pretty close.

So what do I not like about this game?  Only a couple of things, really.  This is one of those games that loses a lot of its tension and edge when played with 3 or less players.  It's still a fun game, it is - it's just that this game lives on difficult decisions and the chance that you might be dueled.  I've played several 2-player games and, more often than not, at most we see one duel the whole match, usually towards the end.  Also, I like abstract games - I really, really do.  But the game has trouble convincing you of the theme.  Outside of cowboy meeples and saloons, you spend more time as a mathematician and contractor than you do a real cowboy.  You still might quote True Grit when you play, though.

Component wise, all of the game peices are done nicely, most all of them cardboard or cardstock or wood.  What's strange is, the game provides you with two player aid cards...for a five player game.  Really?  Why not give us five of them, one per player?  That move made very little sense to me.  Otherwise the box packs a really good punch and the game is a good buy for the fairly high price tag.

Carson City components.
Where Carson City shines:
  • A very challenging game with deep, deep strategy
  • Familiar mechanics mixed up in a new way to give it a fresh feel
  • Ability to duel turns "boring worker placement" into something with some real tension

Where Carson City is a bit muddy:
  • Does not translate well with 3 or less players - best to play with 4 or 5
  • Awfully abstract and feels a bit disconnected from its theme
  • Come on, Xavier, why didn't we get 5 player aids??
Final Thoughts: Carson City is a really good stepping stone between people who like confrontational games but shy away from Euro-styled ones.  It's got enough strategy and tension to keep new plays fresh for awhile.