10 September 2018
Hitch your wagon to this clever dice-drafter
It is hard to be a pioneer in the Wild West. The path along the Oregon Trail is perilous: the storms damage your wagons, the famine kills your cattle and raiders steal all your money. Yet, with careful planning and bit of luck, you make it to the next town, sell your goods, gain favours – and the next day set off on the dusty road once more.
In Pioneer Days, players draft dice to perform actions, such as purchasing resources – medicine, wood, gold – hiring townsfolk – all with unique abilities and end-game scoring bonuses – or getting equipment. Every single item has a potential to earn victory points at the end of the game, and it is up to the player to pick a strategy that will best suit their play style. Pioneer Days in an incredibly flexible game and, despite what it may look like initially, not at all based on luck.
While players will roll dice before picking one up, there isn’t a binary choice of action that follows drafting. Each dice space has three options: gain money, get a resource or recruit townsfolk. Furthermore, players can spend coins to change the value of the dice to something else they would prefer to do that round. Therefore, the act of rolling acts more as a restriction than a hard ‘no’ to the action you want to take.
While the choices are in abundance, and figuring out what to take and which dice to leave for your opponents is all part of mastering Pioneer Days’ gameplay, there is another twist. There is always one extra dice left on the board and it determines which disaster track will progress one step further before, eventually, triggering.
In a really clever way, the game connects disasters to resource management and, by extension, to its point-gaining engine. A player may need to sell wood in town to gain victory points; however, they know that on the next round, if no-one picks up the blue dice, storms will trigger and damage their wagons. The only way to avoid damage from the storm is to spend wood. So, do they risk it and sell the wood? Or do they save it instead for a very rainy day? To make this decision even tougher, a player might have townsfolk that give them one victory point for each wood at the end of the game. Suddenly, collecting wood could become more profitable than selling it. Add the fact that storage space in wagons can run out and that other players might trigger disasters because it will damage you more than them, and there is a lot to think about!
While this might seem overwhelming initially, Pioneer Days does a really good job of giving players enough time to prepare. Every town favour condition is available at the beginning of the game’s week, meaning that players have five rounds to collect relevant resources. The progress of various disasters is available for everyone to see. Dice that have previously been used are displayed, making it easier to predict which colours will come out of the bag next and, consequently, which disaster is likely to trigger first. The game never throws you a curve ball, always providing an advance warning of things to come – whether you are prepared or not is down to you.
There is really only one nit-picky complaint that can be thrown at Pioneer Days: its scoring board. While it is designed to fit a Wild West theme, its snaking route with dashes and missing numbers is hard to follow. The wagon-shaped tokens don’t fit very well on the score track and come in different shades of brown, making it hard to remember which player they belong to.
In Pioneer Days, the die you leave behind is just as important as the one you take. This is a game of many decisions and, sometimes, tough choices, but it also allows players to plan ahead and be prepared for any disaster that comes their way.
Pioneer Days is a thoughtful and charming dice-drafter that values players’ decisions and strategies above the thrill of the unexpected.
Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Chris Marling
Artist: Sergi Marcet
Time: 45-75 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.