Sierra West and Hastings’ Shortcut to Solo Play

Sierra West is an innovative, ambitious game that tries to do many things at once. It comes with an abstracted, card-driven opponent for solitaire play. Me and the cats have had a look.

I heard of American pioneer themed Eurogame Sierra West (2019) for the first time through a review by Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower. The game looked great. The shape of the player boards and the tucking away of cards reminded me of La Granja, a game I quite enjoyed competitively back in my eurogaming days. But this one had color! Garcia called the solo mode “really, really good” so I kept my eyes open.

Then reviewer Rahdo got enthusiastically worked up about the game:

This puzzle does not get old . . . [t]his is probably the most clever action selection system I’ve seen, really new and different.

Quite an accolade, but a little confusing since Garcia actually had called the game “familiar” and the thematic implementation “nothing necessarily innovative.” They agreed that the solo variant was excellent, though, and that’s all that counts, isn’t it?

I expected to hear more about this game, especially considering that the designer, Jonny Pac Cantin, got two other games out in the same year, Coloma and A fistful of Meeples, but since the first reviews showed up in June 2019 there hasn’t been much buzz. I can’t help but thinking that had Sierra West been kickstarted, it would have caused more of a stir. That seems to be how it works – backers get invested and contribute to up the hype before they even get to play the game.

Anyway! Now the game is out and I have a copy. Let’s see what it’s about.

Designer:Jonathan Pac Cantin
Publisher:Board & Dice
Artist(s):Michał Długaj, Jakub Fajtanowski
Rules:Read the rules here.
Watch a tutorial video here (competitive mode only).
Solo facilitation:Bot/automa-like opponent called Hastings designed by Dávid Turczi and Jonathan Pac Cantin.
How I obtained my copy of the game:Review copy provided by Board & Dice.

Conceptual Overview

In Sierra West, you plan your pioneers’ way through the wilderness of the American west. Depending on how you lay out their paths, different resources and actions will be available in different order. By trapping, building cabins, gathering food, exploring the mountains, mining and moving your wagon along its trail, you try to make your expedition as prosperous as possible.

In more technical terms, this is a game of action programming, card drafting, resource conversion, worker placement, and deck-building. Sierra West is a Eurogame through and through, a Eurogame of the contemporary variety with quite a few moving pieces and rules that are more complex than elegant.

Sierra West can be thought of as a system of interlocking puzzles or sub-games with the action programming of the path mechanism at the center. Each turn starts with you arranging your hand of three cards in such a way that the icons form two paths, one for each of your pioneers, and stick them under the top of your player board. The revealed icons will be the actions available to you that turn, and they will be performed in order, from left to right.

The game comes with four variants of play. These variants introduce other mechanisms than the ones already mentioned, like set collection, pick-up and delivery, and shared resources – you even get to roll a die and push your luck a little.

While doing all these things, you move your discs along several different scoring tracks; the game ends with a tally where points are added up, multiplied and compared.

The Physical

There are well over 300 bits and pieces in the beautifully illustrated Ticket to Ride-size box. It’s cardboard, for the most part, as well as some cards and wooden cubes and discs. There’s no text on the components, just symbols and numbers.

Since the game comes with four variants of play, each with its own set of counters, cards and boards, not all pieces are used at the same time. Figuring out what is what and getting it all sorted is something of a challenge.

The high quality components look great; nicely illustrated and colorful, but I can’t help but notice that nowhere on the boards, the box, in the rule book or on any other component is there a single female figure.

A player aid is included, but I seldom find the information I’m looking for on it. Usually I have to resort to the disorganized rule book.

Due to the modular nature of the game, set-up up as well as gameplay is very fiddly business. Cards are ordered in semi-overlapping rows, flipped and moved. Other cards are tucked in specific ways underneath the player boards. Every game element, not only the parts of the four modules but also the parts that are used in every game, has its own little board. A central board for the central game elements would have made more sense. As it is, you have to deal with several small boards, and if they (or the playing surface) are just a tiny bit uneven, sliding counters back and forth makes them spin on the table, and picking up one card sets the other ones askew. During set-up and while playing, I constantly have to move things back in place; the smallest movement easily sets things out of alignment. I recommend playing on a gaming mat or table cloth.

The mountain-base and wagon-trail board could have been expanded to include point tracks, the little cabin board and spaces for resources. This would have made set-up easier, there would have been fewer components to knock around and a bigger board would have stayed in place on the table.

Learning

The 30 page rule book is problematic to say the least. There are minor errors here and there, symbols and terms are mixed up occasionally, some concepts are explained the second time they’re referred to rather than the first, the component overview is confusing and the overall impression is messy. The set-up instructions are only partially illustrated; an image of the entire board and player areas after set-up would have been very helpful. Another thing that’s missing is an alphabetical index, a rather strange omission in a game of this complexity. I need to do an inordinate amount of flipping back and forth during my first games.

The inclusion of four variants of play in a game that’s already somewhat complex is partially to be blamed for both the problems with the rule book and the ones pertaining to the physical aspect of gameplay. However, some thorough proofreading and better editing would certainly have paid off.

There are also uncertainties that arise from very strange design and development decisions. Why are the cabins that can be used only by the tan path pioneer green, while the cabin for the green path pioneer is tan-colored? Why is there an outline for a cabin tile on the cabin that you’re not allowed to place a tile on? And why are the tracks and slots that are used in all of the modes spread out over several different, tiny boards? All these things contribute to make learning the game unnecessarily challenging.

This game isn’t particularly intuitive, and the rule book is badly written and poorly edited. If the publisher hadn’t been kind enough to give me a copy and I hadn’t set my mind on reviewing the game, I might have given up on it after my first learning session. As it turns out, learning the game from the rule book is possible, albeit not an experience I’d recommend.

On the good side, the symbols on the cards, boards and tiles are caoherent and easy to learn.

If you want more details, the rule book is available online, and there are a few tutorial videos to be found as well.

Hastings

The Automa-style opponent is a simple design. Just like the rules in general, the rules for solitaire play are not intuitive, but once you’ve figured it out, the small deck of cards is easy to use. Although there’s some component manipulation, after a game or two, Hastings’ turns definitely take less than half a minute.

The top card of Hastings’ discard pile shows the four actions that will be available to him during his next turn. On his turn, you flip over the top card of his deck and place it next to the discard pile, and three arrows will show which of the four actions he’ll do. At the end of Hastings’ turn, the latest drawn card is discarded and you can look at it to see which actions will be available to him next.

Hastings’ upkeep requires little thinking. Unfortunately, that’s also true for beating him. After a few games, the automated opponent offers no surprises. How to play optimally soon becomes evident.

Hastings offers a tad bit more than trying to achieve a predetermined number of points or playing against your previous high score, however. He interferes a little with the card and tile drafting, and gives you opportunities to take off-turn actions. He neither offers tension nor excitement, though, and in the end, Hastings’ saving grace is that he requires very little maintenance.

Playing

There are two aspects of this game that I want to both point out and tone down, if that makes any sense. First of all, the four modules offer variety and gives the game some staying power, but at the same time, the four variants are not dramatically different. Gold Rush sticks out, though, being the most challenging module by far. Secondly, this game offers you lots of tactical choices and feels rather open, but in the end, when playing solitaire it’s actually not particularly difficult to figure out what to do. The number of options is somewhat deceiving, and after having struggled with the rule book and its many ifs and whens, you’ll probably find gameplay to be surprisingly easy, and the game to be rather lightweight for being as rules-heavy as it is.

One aspect of gameplay is particularly problematic: building cabins and hunting are seemingly optional actions that in reality are more or less mandatory, since they are rather easy to do and always pay off. For each empty cabin slot on your board, you’ll score -3 points, and the same is true for each kind of animal that you haven’t trapped.

Especially hunting is a no-brainer activity that you simply do when offered the opportunity and if not you simply don’t. At first I thought that building cabins involved some more planning and strategy since they give you extra abilities, but after a few plays I realized that just building any four cabins to make sure not to lose points, and then using them whenever the opportunity arises, is good enough in almost all cases.

Laying out your pioneers’ paths is a little more challenging, and when you manage to do it well you’ll feel clever. This is the central part of the game, an innovative and intriguing mechanism and definitely where the game shines. Still, when playing against Hastings, figuring out what best suits you and what’s the least beneficial for him is not as much of a challenge as I’d hoped it would be.

When your pioneers have walked their respective paths, it’s time for Summit Actions, also known as worker placement. Three slots will be available, one on top of each card you’ve played that turn. The available Summit Actions will have to be taken into account when planning the paths in the previous step.

Another thing I quite enjoy is the clever drafting and deck-building mechanism, and how it incorporates the different modules in different ways. The mountain of cards is scaled by your frontiersman. Once he reaches a face-up card you can use an action to incorporate that card into your deck. The cards from the mountain score you points at the end of the game, and make mode-specific actions available to you. And you have to reach them and get them before your opponent does.

While cards are removed from the mountain new ones are turned face up, and some are added along your trail at the base of the board. The end of the game is triggered at the end of the round where a sixth module-specific card has been added underneath your wagon trail. Scores are tallied and multiplied a number of times depending on how far your wagon has gotten on its trail.

The four modes of play all add a few unique mechanisms, and they all have their scoring quirks. While Apple Hill, which uses a resource that you always want to exhaust since it’s in a common pool and available to all players, is suggested for the introductory game, I found Boats & Banjos to be even easier to win. Boats & Banjos adds some set collection and pick-up and delivery. Outlaws & Outposts adds some risk/reward management and die-rolling, and adds bounties to the scoring. The most challenging module, at least to this geek, is Gold Rush. It makes long-term planning more important since you have to take a few more steps to collect points, by mining, getting carts and finally loading them up.

There is more to it, of course, but this should be sufficient to give an impression of what the game’s about and my experience of it.

Summary

Sierra West is an American pioneering-themed Euro style game of resource management and conversion, action programming, card drafting, deck-building, worker placement and set collection. It tries to do a lot, and it does most of it fine.

Playing the game is a pleasant pastime. At the heart of the game is a very innovative action programming mechanism and a clever card drafting variant. There are three major problems, though. First of all, learning how to play is a drag and the rule book is subpar. Secondly, once through the hassle of learning, it turns out that despite its moving parts, its many rules and the abundance of choices, Sierra West is not as challenging as I’d like it to be. Winning all modes except for Gold Rush is trivial. Even if you raise the difficulty there is no tension to speak of. Playing optimally against Mr. Hastings is easy once you know the basics. Going through the motions and making the decisions, however, is enjoyable, and if it weren’t for my third gripe with the game – the fiddly set-up and gameplay – it could have been a soothing experience, a great way of zoning out after a day of work.

Although there’s a decent solo game hiding in there, getting to the point where you can enjoy it might not be worth the effort. I believe that the Hastings solo mode is largely to blame for the second issue I mention above (the lack of a challenge). Hastings feels like a substitute or a tool to learn how the game works.

It seems that I disagree with Rahdo and Garcia about the merits of the solo variant. I cannot recommend getting this game for solitaire gaming alone. I am, however, curious to see how it plays with two.

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