PLAYlist 27: Pioneer Days | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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PLAYlist 27: Pioneer Days

Jun 04, 2018 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share

If you were born in the 1980s, you’re no doubt familiar with the computer game Oregon Trail. Played it? Raise your hand. (Go ahead, don’t be shy.) I’m betting you have very fond memories of middle school typing classes spent gunning down buffalo, dozens at a time, with your trusty rifle and then leaving hundreds of pounds of meat for the prairie’s vultures because you could only carry 100 pounds back to your wagon. The game was a staple in school computer labs from the late ‘80s through the mid-90s. Now a member of the Video Game Hall of Fame, Oregon Trail somehow managed to trick teachers into believing it was educational, even though the only thing we ever learned from it was that every single pioneer who died on their way to the American West did so from dysentery or while fording a river.

If you’re anything like me, just thinking about those quaint, green-on-black graphics tickles a nostalgic nerve deep inside your heart. If you long to relive that old thrill of repairing a wagon axle or having your trail mates die of old-timey diseases, then Pioneer Days from Tasty Minstrel Games is for you. It’s like Oregon Trail Unplugged.

Up to four players will take on the role of an intrepid pioneer with either the same abilities as their opponents or unique ones, depending on which side of the character boards you choose to play. You’ll start with one wagon and an amount of medicine, wood, coins, and cattle. Once all your chits are in place, it’s time to hit the trails.

Gameplay commences as successive rounds of dice drafting. Players will take turns reaching into a bag and pulling out dice – one for each person at the table, plus an extra. She’ll roll those dice and pick one, and the player to her left will choose one of the remaining, and so forth, until there’s only one left. Pioneer Days’ dice are handsome, colorful little things, with custom faces depicting steer, saloon signs, snake oil bottles, and other Western-y things. Each face can be redeemed for one of three actions; choosing your die is only the first step, and choosing what you’ll do with it can be even trickier.

Let’s go through those, in order of complexity. (Though, really, nothing in Pioneer Days is overly complex – for all of its dice, tokens, and wooden bits, it has one of the more accessible rule books we’ve encountered in a while.) Dice can be exchanged for their depicted resource, such as medicine, wooden planks, or cattle, or used for their indicated action, such as buying a prospector’s kit, spare wheel, or six-shooter. (These items bestow a game-bending perk that lasts for as long as you possess them.) Dice can be sold for silver coins according to a value chart. Finally, you can use it to recruit a townsperson, ranging from a no-good train robber to a wandering nun, to join your wagon train. Townies grant a special bonus when you bring ‘em aboard, and also offer the game’s most pivotal endgame scoring opportunities. (Each one gives its owner points for possessing a specified resource, or for fulfilling another condition.) You’ll want lots of these guys – that is, provided you’re equipped to keep them alive.

Remember those lonely dice you’ve been leaving behind each draft round? Their colors correspond to one of four disaster tracks on the main board. When a die goes undrafted, you move the token on its corresponding disaster track one step closer to calamity. When it gets to the end, all players have to fend through a Wild Western misfortune like disease, getting raided, or hit by a storm. If you’re not prepared, you’re in trouble. Not enough medicine to go around among all of your townsfolk? Well, they start dyin’. No wood to patch up your wagon? Well, your possessions start falling out through the floorboards, AND you get a scoring penalty at the end of the game. You may also lose half your coins, or watch your cattle herd drop like flies.

These disasters are bad news when you’re caught unawares, but they’re also what makes the game interesting. This isn’t one of those engine builders where each turn brings you closer to running a massive, unstoppable, highly-profitable wagon train. You’re going to spend more time worrying about the next disaster over the horizon, scrambling to keep your rickety little empire intact in whatever way you can.

While disasters are scary, sure, you can also approach them in a devious manner, if you so choose. Have you stocked up on medicine, leaving not enough to go around among your opponents? Well, you might want to do what you can to make sure the disease dice are left behind, and keep that token advancing along its tracker. You can laugh and make it rain medicine like champagne in a Snoop Dogg video while all of your opponents wagon-ers drop dead around you, you evil bastard.

Of course, it’s not all-day disaster mitigation. There will be quiet periods, and during those you’ll have the opportunity to get ahead, improving and expanding your wagon train or stocking up on goods to sell off at the end of the week. The game is divided into four weeks, each beginning with a restock of the available townsfolk and goods for sale, and ending with the opportunity to score bonuses based on your wagons’ contents and earn points for the cattle in your train.

That’s Pioneer Days, grossly simplified, but enough to give you the gist of things. Gameplay is refreshingly breezy for a Euro-style design, as the limited options provided by the dice each round helps deter players from overthinking their turns. The manual itself is only a few pages long, and one of the few that we were able to mostly grasp after a single read-though. Games tend to run about 15-20 minutes per player.

Pioneer Days has an MSRP of $59.99, and we’ll argue there’s pretty good value here. The components are quite nice indeed: not only do you get tiny wooden cows and a starting player horseshoe, but all of the cardboard bits are on the thicker side, meaning they’ll hold up better over time than many other games’ pieces. The game also come with a ton of variety in the box, from its many asymmetrical character cards to the multiple decks of townsfolk, of which you’ll only use two in any given game. It will be a long time before Pioneer Days feels stale, as your setups will vary so much. It feels like the game came with a free expansion.

Pioneer Days gets our hearty recommendation – whether you’re a member of the Oregon Trail Generation or not.

If we paired this game with anything but a playlist of classic cowboy tunes, we’d have failed. The hour of music we’ve prepared for you includes a number of tracks from the “King of Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, and his old singing group, Sons of the Pioneers, as well as other, classic cowpokes like Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, and Hank Locklin. Giddyup, y’all!


Previous PLAYlist columns: Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, Photosynthesis, Ice Cool, Food Truck Champion, Ars Alchimia & Lemuria, A Game of Thrones Catan, Troyes, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Flip Ships, NMBR 9, Unearth, Escape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue), Whistle Stop, Caverna: Cave vs Cave, Twilight Struggle, Honshu, Bärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the Dragon, Yokohama, Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure, Villages of Valeria, New York Slice, Watson & Holmes, Hanamikoji.


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