Ben McJunkin: Review of Wildcatters

Wildcatters
Designers: Rolf Sagel & André Spil
Publisher: RASS / Vendetta
Players: 3-4 | Ages: 12+ | Time: 120 mins.

Wildcatters is a criminally under-the-radar title from a pair of first-time designers, Rolf Sagel and André Spil.  The game pits players as the heads of competing multinational oil companies, drilling, transporting, and refining oil around the world.  The key to the game is that players’ self-interested actions also tend to aid individual competitors.  Players thus must position themselves to ride their opponents’ coattails (while being ever mindful of who is riding theirs).

Published by newcomer RASS Games, in partnership with Vendetta Games (probably best known for Steam Over Holland), Wildcatters brings above-average artwork and production values to pair with the highly interactive and relatively complex game in the box.  This is no spartan small-publisher affair (thankfully so, given the expense to obtain a copy).  Indeed, between the artwork and the gameplay, Wildcatters reminds me of several terrific titles from established publishers like Treefrog/Warfrog and Spotter Spellen (this is very high praise in my world).

In a year that featured numerous bland, middleweight deckbuilding Eurogames, Wildcatters offers a fresh game experience to those seeking a heavier, richer title.  Though the scoring system is not without some flaws, Wildcatters’ spatial board play and player interaction are simply fascinating and justify the 2-3 hour table time all by themselves.  Wildcatters is likely my second-favorite full-length strategy game of 2013, and I heartily recommend it for players who, like me, seek to engage with their opponents’ decisionmaking in every facet of a competitive game.

The goal in all my reviews is to emphasize how and why a game’s particular mechanisms produce a worthwhile gameplay experience.  In discussing Wildcatters, exploring that link is even more important because (1) most of you have never heard of this game, and (2) many first-time players seem completely bewildered by the game’s fundamental strategies.  This is not a rules rehash (you will not learn how to play), but I hope you’ll bear with me in some of the detail to come, as this is a game worth exploring.

Overview

At some level, Wildcatters consists of little more than 12 majority games.  Players will score points for their share holdings in each of four oil companies, they will score points for their relative oil contributions to each of seven continents, and they will score points for the money they can generate (and, of course, hold on to) in the process.  Like most pure majority-scoring games, the strategy space of Wildcatters is rather wide open because nearly every task is valuable only in relation to what your opponents do.  A single barrel of oil can be worth many points or none; a single share can swing the fortunes of several players, sometimes drastically.

The beauty of Wildcatters, in my eyes at least, is that it combines this wide-open strategy space with several highly-limiting turn-by-turn constraints.  Each turn, players may perform their actions only in certain regions, often with extremely limited funds, and usually with substantial collateral consequences.  The result is a tenuous straddling of two well-known archetypes: the sandbox game and the obstacle course.  Few games manage this balancing act so skillfully.  Those that do rank among my favorite games of all time, and Wildcatters is as good of example as I have seen in recent years.

A New Map of the World

The game board.

One of Wildcatters’ fundamental constraints is the use of regions to limit player opportunities.   The game board is divided into 8 oil-producing regions – 2 regions in each of 4 primary “continents” – North America, South America, Asia and Russia (I know Russia is not a continent, but that’s the game’s nomenclature and it works well enough).  It also contains 3 secondary continents – Europe, Africa, and Australia – that can consume oil, but do not produce it.

In each of the game’s seven rounds, the players begin their turns by selecting a region card from a randomly populated card display.  Nearly all of the actions for a player’s turn may be performed only in the region depicted on the chosen card, meaning that players must react tactically to the options available while being mindful of what cards are left for other players to take.  The region card display is sufficiently large that most of the regions are available most of the time.  But, of course, taking a region’s card on your turn makes it that much less likely that other players can perform any actions in that same region on their own turns.  And since player actions tend to peripherally benefit other players, over-investing in a single region means not only leaving yourself at the mercy of the cards, but also isolating yourself from any rewards that may be conferred upon you by your opponents.

Examples of region cards.

A few new players have scoffed at the region card limitation.  Admittedly, the wait for your preferred region to appear can feel like an eternity (and the price to flush the region card display seems exorbitantly high – 4VP in a game with winning scores around 100).  But I view the restrictions provided by the region as akin to the card-driven play of, say, Martin Wallace’s Brass.  If you don’t have get the cards you want, you find ways to benefit from the cards you have.  Players who find those kinds of tactical limitations too restricting would be advised to steer clear of Wildcatters as well.  Players who enjoy strong tactical obstacles in a strategy game should read on.

Money Management

Once a player has chosen a region card, his or her turn typically consists of erecting drilling rigs, drilling for oil, and transporting oil to refineries via trains and tankers.  All of these activities cost money, which is an incredibly scarce resource in Wildcatters.  This may be viewed as the game’s second primary tactical constraint.

Gratuitous image of money.

With few exceptions, players receive a steady income of $10 per turn.  By itself, that is not even enough dough to both drill for oil and transport the newly discovered oil to a refinery.  So players must set up their grand plans over a series of turns that build upon one another – construction now, drilling later, transport somewhere down the line.  For me, this is great: it gives other players a chance to read their opponents’ intentions, to intervene or interfere, and to potentially deny opponents access to the region cards needed to complete the strategic loop.  Since the game is only 7 rounds long (8 with 3 players), managing your money so as to make the most of each opportunity that arises can be critical to winning the game.

Building Infrastructure

Early on, building infrastructure is the name of the game.  Players need costly drilling rigs to eventually produce crude oil.  They need trains and tankers to transport that oil to refineries.  And they need (supremely expensive) refineries before any of this oil production becomes profitable.

Drilling rigs, pumpjacks, and trains.

But players should not merely be thinking of their own needs.  Most of the infrastructure that players purchase can be used by other players (for a price, naturally).   This means that players need to consider whether to build infrastructure in a way that will be useful on their own subsequent turns, or in ways that help them profit on other players’ turns.

This aspect of the game is probably most comparable to the network building in Kramer & Keising’s under appreciated (but superb) Maharaja.  Without any trains, certain routes are impassable.  The players who smartly lay the foundations for travel can earn a tidy profit.  However, both the pieces and the opportunities to build them are limited, so having players use your infrastructure in one location may require you to return the favor elsewhere.

Texas Tea

As fun as it may be to develop networks and build infrastructure, the heart of the game is oil – producing it, transporting it, and refining it.  Once a region has at least four total drilling rigs (from all players), it has reached critical mass and players can begin turning those rigs into sweet, sweet texas tea.  The first time a player decides to drill in a region, that player must pay a whopping $8 (recall that each turn’s income is a paltry $10).  This allows the active player to convert exactly one drilling rig into a pumpjack containing 3 barrels of oil.  Each other player can parasitically benefit from this action by paying 3 shares in their company to the actively player, and likewise converting a single drilling rig into a pumpjack.

Argentina is loaded with oil-producing pumpjacks while Brazil waits for the (expensive) green light.

A quick note on shares: Each player begins the game with 20 “shares” in his or her own company.  Players pay each other these shares to benefit from particular actions (such as when a player drills for oil), and the only way to get new shares is to refine oil in one of your own refineries.  Despite the nomenclature, “shares” do not alter control of the companies (you can think of them as non-voting stock). Indeed, it is not uncommon for each player to end the game with the fewest shares in his or her own color.  Rather, shares largely stand as a measure of how much (and which) other players have utilized a given player’s infrastructure.  If one player has a strong lead in the shares of your color, you have been benefitting that player (hopefully intentionally) to the exclusion of others. When new players fail to consider the impacts of the benefits they are conferring, it is possible for one player to run away with the share majorities – and often the game – in a way that initally seems random to the inexperienced.

Immediately after a region is first drilled, all players who have some oil in the region can also participate in a “wildcatter” auction.  Wildcatters – the game’s namesakes – are individual oil prospectors who buy small parcels of land in the hopes of finding oil.  When they do hit oil, they then sell the land to large oil companies for tidy profits.  In game terms, the players (oil companies) bid against each other for the rights to one or two single barrels of oil in the region (and an accompanying wildcatter token – depicted in the above image – which scores points at the end of the game).

Transport and Refining

Once a region has been drilled, the active player (on the same or a subsequent turn) can pay to convert further drilling rigs to pumpjacks.  The active player can also pay to transport oil, moving one barrel from each pumpjack or wildcatter to the harbor, for eventual transport to refineries.  You read that right – the active player pays, but the oil of every player can be transported.  Once in the harbor, each player decides for themselves where to send the oil.  Players can use rail lines and tankers (either their own or, by paying one share each, other players’) to eventually take the oil to a refinery of their choice.

Refineries pay to purchase players’ oil – for each barrel of oil players receive 2 shares from the refineries’ owner.   Once a refinery is full (5 barrels of oil), it delivers its oil to the scoring box associated with the continent.  For each barrel of oil belonging to an opponent, the refinery’s owner receives 4 shares in any color(s) from the bank in exchange for delivering the oil to the scoring box.  For each barrel of his or her own oil, the refinery’s owner must choose whether to deliver the barrel of oil (for majority scoring purposes) or to discard the barrel to take 4 shares in any color(s) from the bank.

A game in progress. Judging from the largely-empty region boxes, these players have primarily been refining their own oil.

The choice of refineries produces subtle incentives that vary from game to game, and dictate much of each game’s unique narrative arc.  Some players like to deliver oil to their own refineries, ensuring that they are able to acquire shares when they need them (i.e., without relying on other players).  Other players prefer to deliver oil to opponents’ refineries.  Doing so benefits the opponent (the refinery’s owner pays out 2 shares per oil barrel, but receives 4 from the bank), but it also benefits the player selling the oil relative to the other players at the table.  It is a delicate balancing act, to be sure, and one that is often determined based on refinery location, refinery (and thus share) color, and by the existing competition in the scoring boxes.

Scoring

For all the complexity and subtlety in the game’s board play, the majority of points will come in two big waves – a small scoring at the end of the 5th round, and a larger scoring at the end of the game.   During these scorings, players compare their share holdings in each company, their held money, and the oil barrels of their color in each continent.  For each category, there are points for first, second, and (in the second scoring) third place.   It is a fairly straightforward scoring system, and one that feels a little underdeveloped when compared to all the neat options available during the players’ turns.  These points can also be quite chunky – a single barrel or share can cause dramatic swings, meaning that some player’s seemingly trivial decision during the game can often have quite serious and unintended consequences on the outcome.

Along these lines, players often debate whether to play with money and shares open or closed.  The designers have clarified that they intended for them to be hidden trackable information.  Some players dislike this.  My preference is to have money open and shares in stacks by color (thus, you can get a rough sense of each player’s holding in each color, but not a precise count).  Others have suggested keeping everything hidden until the first scoring and to have everything open thereafter (since the two scorings occur so close together, tracking the information is possible, though not an easy task).  The primary downside to open shares is that the last player in the last round can optimize his or her final scoring with a precision not available to anyone else. That said, I’ve played a variety of ways, and I find that the game functions just fine in any configuration.  It’s just a conversation you will need to have with your group before you begin.

A pair of proud designers.

Parting Thoughts

Like most of the games I love, Wildcatters often provides players with converging or overlapping incentives, frequently leading to very interactive play.  It then supplements these incentives with several game elements that allow players to directly benefit from the actions of their opponents.  The downside to this interaction is that the balance of the game is in the hands of the players – it is not uncommon to see inexperienced players handing victory over to an opponent without realizing the magnitude of the benefits they are conferring.  With experienced players, however, that level of player interdependence can be a thing of beauty.

I strongly prefer interesting games with a few flaws to the polished-but-dull titles that seemed to dominate the prominent publishers’ booths at this year’s Essen fair.  Wildcatters is not a perfect game, but that is true of many of my personal favorites.  What it is: rich, interesting, and player-driven in all the right ways.  I love playing it, and I can’t think of any easy substitute for it.  I therefore heartily recommend the game to any readers with tastes like my own.  In the sea of 2013’s middling middle-weight Euros,  Wildcatters is what you’ve been missing.

Opinions of other Opinionated Gamers

Larry (1 play):  Wildcatters has all the elements of a game I should like a lot and I’d be quite willing to play it again.  But I had some issues with my first play.  The essence of the game is juggling two types of majorities.  But while there’s a great deal of openness and control with the board majorities, there’s considerably less control with the shares majorities (and they’re hidden trackable information, with enough transactions going on that I found it difficult to track them).  That opaqueness and lack of control didn’t sit that well with me, even though I won the game.  It’s also not all that clear to me what the impact of the actions are on the game state and that’s not something I care for.  Finally, as Ben says, the scoring is quite chunky and that exacerbates the problem of seemingly insignificant actions having major effects.  With more experience, these problems may be lessened considerably, so I’d like to give this another try.  But I’m not as forgiving of flawed games as Ben is, so right now my rating is only Neutral.

Jonathan Franklin (1 play): I’m in the Larry camp, as it felt like an area majority/stock game where half the scoring was closed and very important.  Going it alone did not appear to be an option, so if you like the whole emergent cooperation to pip someone else at the final counting, this might be your sort of game.

Liga (1 play):  Still to explore. I think 1 play is not enough for a game like that to have an opinion. It looks well designed with a nice majority mechanic that seems to promote collaboration.

Ratings summary of the Opinionated Gamers:
I Love it!  Ben McJunkin
I like it.  Lorna, Jennifer Geske, Patrick Korner, Liga
Neutral.  Tom Rosen, Larry Levy, Ted Alspach, Jonathan Franklin
Not for me.

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7 Responses to Ben McJunkin: Review of Wildcatters

  1. LJR says:

    Continue to find this game very fascinating particularly as players become more experienced and understand the nuances of the game. This is definitely among my top 2 for 2013 competing only with Patchistory. Thankfully, people here seem very intrigued by the game as well and since I have the only copy in the area, I expect to get in continued plays! :-)

    • Ben (chally) says:

      It sounds like you and I have similar tastes this year, Larry. Patchistory and Wildcatters are head-and-shoulders above the other full-length strategy games. I’ve enjoyed a couple of terrific fillers – One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Machi Koro – but otherwise this year’s crop of games can’t hold a candle to last year’s terrific output.

      • LJR says:

        As far as top two, we do have quite similar tastes. I have noticed that our tastes diverge quite a bit after those two however…:-) I really have no desire to play ONUW and don’t feel a need to revisit Machi Koro although I might if the expansion was involved just to see if that would change things much.

  2. Costas says:

    I bought the game at Essen this year after Andre Spil provided us with an overview of the rules but i have not managed to play it yet. Your review only makes me more eager to finally play it.

    Ben, i just wanted to also say that your reviews are excellent and explain why written reviews are still my favourite format for a board game review. It’s so much more than a review. Keep them coming please and know that they are appreciated even though i don’t post/comment often, either here or on BGG .

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Thank you so much for the support, Costas. I enjoy writing reviews about games that I love, but they are certainly a time-intensive project for me (which is why I usually only manage to produce 2-3 per year). I’m honored to know that other people find them valuable and/or enjoyable.

  3. George says:

    I love you’re reviews since I discovered “What you’re missing” on BGG. Thanks a lot for your work. They definitley made me go out and buy games I otherwise might have missed. Is Wildcatters a second Cavum? Also I would love to read your opinion on Terra Mystica since it is in your top 10!

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Thanks, George! I don’t love Wildcatters the same way that I love Cavum (though the early ratings suggest that Wildcatters appeals more readily to the BGG masses than does Cavum). Although there is a lot of player interaction in Wildcatters, it is mostly mutually beneficial (there are few ways to hurt opponents). In addition, Wildcatters has slightly less room for player creativity – the paths to scoring points are largely clear. That said, if you are the sort of person who likes Wallace’s classics (e.g., Brass and Steam) or who likes Splotter’s offerings (particularly Indonesia and Great Zimbabwe), I think you’re likely to find Wildcatters enjoyable.

      As for Terra Mystica, I’m unlikely to write a full review of it since it is such a well-known game (I like to spend my energy highlighting lesser-known titles whenever possible). But I have some thoughts on the game in my BGG comments (though they were mostly first impressions). Needless to say, the game was my favorite offering from last year, and it has held up to extensive replay (I have nearly 40 face-to-face sessions under my belt). It is very much a Euro game, despite the fantasy veneer, and should appeal to most fans of the heavier titles in the BGG Top 100.

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