(image by UnknownParkerBrother @ BGG)
Lurking behind most boards games is mathematics. Card and dice games are build around probability, the foundation of many games; others rely on geometry, pattern recognition and complex formulas. Any discussion of balance is really a discussion about the math behind the game.
Some games certainly do a better job than others at hiding its math from players. Reiner Knizia’s Kingdoms is all about addition, subtraction and multiplication while players likely never consider the balance of features on the tiles while playing Carcassonne. I don’t think it is always necessary to disguise math in a game – Kingdoms is a personal favorite. However, math can be problematic when it surfaces as analysis paralysis – a player’s inability to make a decision as they attempt to work out the ideal move. Some players and games are far more prone to analysis paralysis and will often lead to frustration at the table due to downtime for other players and increased game length.
Players in Homesteaders are settling the Western frontier, helping build a new city. A Vegas Showdown/Amun-Re style auction for land grants drives the game and players need to build their economic engine to make bids and gather the resources to construct new buildings. The theme is not exactly pasted on; in fact, auctioning off the land grants zoned for different types of buildings really works well and the different buildings certainly evoke images of the wild west. There’s just little covering up all the math you’ll be doing over the course of your ten turns.
Here’s a quick look at exactly what makes Homesteaders tick:
Specialization – I’ve found I am not a fan of games where you need to be a jack-of-all-trades; I much prefer choosing a specialized strategy and making it work (adjusting as need be). Homesteaders has a lot of different buildings that work together in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s not only satisfying to see your buildings work together but to also look around the table and see how your opponents’ strategies and buildings differ. There’s something extremely gratifying about getting money and resources from your buildings, exchanging them at the market and using it all to outbid your opponent and get the building you need when you need it.
Trade chits – There is one resource that everyone needs: trade chits. You may buy and sell goods at the marketplace but each exchange requires you spend one trade chit. They aren’t particularly difficult to acquire but you rarely have quite as many as you’d like. They put a practical limit on how much you can do each turn and also require you really plan out your resources appropriately. Some strategies will rely on these more heavily than others but everyone will find a use for them, especially at the end to make your less valuable goods worth something. It’s a nice implementation of the market concept that I haven’t seen used before.
Components – I love the wooden resources. Steel I-beams, apples for food, wooden planks and the cows are even painted with spots and eyes! The cardboard quality is not as impressive though, especially the auction mat. Everything is cleanly designed, easy to understand and functional if not a bit dull in appearance, especially when compared to the wooden bits. I certainly appreciate the clean design but I’m not sure I would have paid the game much attention had I not played it first.
(image by absurdjohnny @ BGG)
Money is tight – Rarely will you find yourself with too much money; bids are often lost by a single dollar raise. It adds some delicious tension to the bidding portion of the game as you need to heavily weigh how much you can afford to spend just to get a building. Passing is always an option and will net you a small something. Sometimes you are better off passing and setting yourself up for the next turn. Unfortunately this decision making can lead to…
Analysis paralysis – It is very easy to get stuck over-analyzing every choice in Homesteaders. Money and resources are tight and trade chits are limited so you naturally want to maximize each turn. Often you’ll find yourself running through all your options, calculating exactly how much you need to get the building you want and then how much you have leftover to bid with. There’s no limit on how much debt you may take so you also must consider taking debt and then figuring out how or if you can pay it off before the game is over. It’s amazing how often a single dollar raise causes someone to have to sit and reevaluate their turn.
Even though the game can get exceedingly mathy towards the end I’ve really enjoyed Homesteaders. The auction mechanic works well and really forces you to carefully manage your money, especially with debt always an option. Watching your buildings activate every turn and form a strategy is very satisfying but you’ll also look at your opponents and become jealous of how their buildings are working together; before the game is over you will already be thinking about new building combos for the next game. It’s easy to over-analyze the game and get bogged down with analysis paralysis but even then the game will last at maximum a couple of hours, probably less. There’s a lot of great decision making to be made in a relatively short amount of time. I’m especially impressed at how satisfying the economic engine you build is given how few turns there are in the game.
It may look a little unassuming at first glance but Alex Rockwell and Tasty Minstrel Games have crafted one of the most enjoyable Euro-style games I’ve played recently. It packs the depth and decision making of other more complex games into a fast, fun, easy to learn package. Given enough plays I suppose certain building combos may reveal themselves to be more powerful than others, but I think the small amount of randomness combined with the auction mechanic should be more than enough to give the game some serious legs.