DESIGNER: Alexander Pfister
PUBLISHER: Capstone Games
PLAYERS: 1 – 4 players
TIME: 80 – 160 minutes
TIMES PLAYED: 4, with a copy I purchased
When new games come out, I generally do not decide to buy them immediately based on the designer. Ideally I will play them first, but these days that is harder to do, so I will usually read the press, check out the Geek, and see what friends think before I move forward. However, there are a couple of exceptions to that for me, and Alexander Pfister is one of them. I have yet to play a Pfister game that I haven’t enjoyed, and I’ve played many. When I saw that Capstone had this available for pre-order I jumped on it.
In Boonlake, players are pioneers, building a new settlement along the shores of Boonlake, striving to make the best town possible while also benefiting the other settlers – but not too much.
There is a fair amount of punching of bits and some assembly of boards that needs to happen. Be careful to not recycle any sprues until you have fully assembled everything, since some of them are part of that assembly process.
There is a main map board and a smaller action tile board that are used by all players. Each player also has a personal board.
It is a card-driven, tile laying, area control resource management game, so there are all kinds of bits related to that – a big deck of cards that are the basis for the game play, some starter tiles that vary based on the number of players, a bunch of land and pasture tiles, some currency, vases, and some lever tiles.
Each player also has a personal board with a supply of ranch hands, cattle, houses and settlements, and canoes and a ship to sail through the region.
The game gets played over two rounds. Each turn players move a varying number of spaces along the river; the end of round one is triggered when the first player gets to the river and round two is triggered in the same way.
Everyone starts the game with a hand of six cards and production of one resource of their choice; resources are important for building you cards (more on that in a minute).
On your turn, you decide which action you want to take from the action board. There are seven action strips. Six of them have an icon that corresponds to the cards – day, sunset or night – and one is “wild”. You can take any action you want. If you have a card that matches the icon of the action you want to take you can either play it or discard it for two dollars.
To play a card, you take it from your hand and pay the associated costs – this can include money, vases and resources. You started the game with one “+1 resource” token on a resource of your choice, so now you have a permanent one of that resource. You also started with two canoes at the top of the river on your player board on the wood resource space. Each kayak gives you one of the resources they are currently on. You can move them for free to any space down river from their current spot; you must pay $2 to move it upstream.
Cards may give you an immediate benefit, a permanent benefit and/or score you points at the end of the game.
You also can, instead of playing a card, play on one of the four scoring cards in play. Every player color has a spot for a scoring card at the bottom of the board. Each player is dealt two scoring cards during setup; they choose one to put on their spot and discard the other; if there are fewer than four players those spots are filled randomly. By paying the costs on the top of the card, you can gain the benefit at the top of that scoring card (more on the bottom part during interim scoring)
If you don’t have a card you can play or discard, that’s okay; you can forgo the card action and still select an action tile.
So what are these actions? Well, I am not going to go tile by tile because we could be here a while. I’m going to give you a general gist of what all of the possible actions are; these are the actions available on those tiles in various combinations.
All of the action tiles are twofold – there is an action that only you get to do, and then there is an action that either all players (including you) or all other players (but not you). get to do.
Exploring lets you put one or more tiles on the board. You draw a face down tile from the stack, flip it up, and place it on any hex that is adjacent to an already-placed hex (the board is seeded with a few to start). Take the bonus printed on the space that you placed it on.
Developing lets you place a ranch hand on one of these tiles. Take a ranch hand from your supply (while you have a whole pile of them next to your board, you have to actually earn/gain them before they are available to you). Place them on your board, on a spot of your choosing. If there is a cost you pay it, or if there is a bonus you earn it.
Upgrading lets you turn that ranch hand into a house, or turn that house into a settlement. Pay the associated costs and take that house and replace one of your ranch hands with it (they go back to the general supply), or replace the house with a settlement.
Cattle Breeding lets you place a pasture tile anywhere on the board next to an already-existing tile. Take the bonus from that spot, and place a cow on that space or another pasture, paying the relevant cost in ranchhands.
Region Scoring lets you score for wooden bits on the board. The board is divided into four regions; choose one and take the reward associated with that region – coins, victory points or cards. After that all players get one dollar for each of their wooden bits in every other region.
Hiring lets you take a ranch hand from the supply onto the board, and also lets you take an explore action.
Progress lets you add a lever to your player board; that lever can be activated at any time to get some sort of benefit – a boon, if you will – that can be used once per round.
Once you take your action, all indicated players take the additional action, The active player then moves forward up to the number of spaces on the slot the action tile is in; you do not count the space(s) other players are on, and you don’t have to use your full movement. Once you stop you take the indicated bonus.
There are four interim scoring spaces on the board, marked by a blue overpass. Once the first player crosses a spot there is an interim scoring for all players/
First, all players have the chance to play a card and/or upgrade something on the board twice, paying the usual costs.
Next, all players select a scoring card to score Remember that alternate card action? Well, here is where we use the bottom half of that card. There are four scoring cards and four interim scorings, so you are going to score each of these once. If you meet the minimum for the round you are in, you score points equal to the round you are in. If you don’t, you lose that same number of points. If the card was in your color spot, you double the reward/loss.
Next up you get income. There are two income tracks – money and cards – and you earn based on your position on those, as well as from any spaces cleared on your personal board. You also score victory points for your settlements on the board that are next to cattle. If you have any levers you didn’t use, you earn a victory point for each of those as well.
You then reset the levers and the scoring markers and continue. If it was the first interim scoring play continues. If it was the second interim scoring, that signals the end for the first round; all players move their ships back to the start of the river to begin the second round of the game, and play continues as normal. If it was the third interim scoring play continues, and if it was the fourth, final scoring happens immediately thereafter.
Final scoring includes scoring for the number of levers you have, points on the cards you played, and for pieces removed from the 3rd, 4th and 5th tiers of your board. Most points win, and there is no tie breaker.
My Thoughts on the Game
The components are of good quality; I hate having to assemble boards and bits in games (and don’t even get me started on stickers. . . . ), but this turned out to be pretty easy to do.
The rules are pretty good, but not great. There are a couple of typos. You can figure out what they mean, but I find that frustrating, since they are big ones and it seems they should have been easy for a proofreader to catch. There are also a lot of icons in this game. A LOT. You have to keep referring to the rules for some of them. It would have been great to have a separate one pager with this information that could more easily be shared between players, or some type of player aid. The icons for upgrades are also confusing, even though it is printed on your player board. We repeatedly had to check to be sure we were doing it right, even after the first play.
Ok, onto the game play. I like it. It feels like a Pfister game, meaning that if you’ve played other Pfister games a lot of this is going to feel familiar to you. That’s not a complaint, because even if the sort of action you are doing feels familiar, the implementation and interaction of them in Boonlake is different and is very well done; what you are doing makes sense.
I really like the action system; you have to balance your choices and your plans with the cards you have and how far you may want or need to move on the river. It also has lots of engagement, since you are doing something on everyone’s turn, so there is not a lot of downtime.
There are also a lot of tough choices. It’s hard to have enough ranch hands or enough money to do everything you want to do. You also need to have a steady supply of cards, since you may need particular symbols, and you may need the bonus income or immediate benefits cards provide (like those hard-to-find ranch hands. . .). Another player may take the action you wanted, forcing you to adjust your plan, or they may take one that helps you, but then you have to decide whether you can afford to take that extra action and still have options for your own turn. You also have to keep those interim scoring goals in mind, because you don’t want to whiff one of those. There are just enough bonuses sprinkled throughout the game to ensure you always have something to do, but sometimes you have to pivot.
I can’t always do what I want to do, but I can find a way to do something that will at least help me get there or at least do something that will score points or help me in some way. I enjoy the tension of all these things, and the way the game is put together works well for me. The combination of a large deck of randomly-distributed cards and the ever-moving action tiles ensures you can’t always use the same strategy, and I’ve seen several different paths to victory. All of our games have been fairly close, making some of those agonizing decisions earlier in the game even more agonizing in retrospect.
I have only played this two-player, and our play time has been right around 2 hours, first game excluded. I think familiarity with the icons and scoring cards will go a long way towards decreasing playing time, as will enough familiarity with the game that players can do things simultaneously when possible. I keep saying I am going to make a player aid, but I haven’t done it yet; I do think that will help.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers
Larry (6 games): Like Tery, I’m a big fan of Pfister’s. And I enjoyed playing Boonlake. But for me, it doesn’t quite stack up to his earlier heavier games. I definitely rank it behind Mombasa, Blackout: Hong Kong, Great Western Trail, and Maracaibo. I don’t think there’s any one reason for this. Despite all the variety baked into the different levers and the huge number of cards, I find that I tend to approach most of my games in a similar fashion. That’s a little disappointing, because it seems as if there’s room for a lot of varied approaches here. There’s also the potential for some left-right binding with the action tiles; if the player on your right tends to take one or two of the tiles more often (either because it fits their strategy or because they just like them), you might find that you either have to live without those tiles or take them and accept moving more slowly down the river. Finally, even though there’s a great deal to think about and getting the timing of everything right is a nice challenge, the problems posed by the game don’t seem quite as difficult, or quite as much fun to solve, as his earlier titles.
These aren’t huge problems and I found the game to be consistently enjoyable. But Pfister has set a high standard for himself with his great earlier work and even though Boonlake seems to have all the elements to comfortably sit side by side with them, it doesn’t quite match up. It’s a good game that I’ll happily play anytime, but I have to admit, I was hoping for a bit more.
Lorna (3 games): I like Boonlake, almost makes it to the I love it category. For me I like the way the game flows and not just the river on the board. It replaced Maracaibo for me. I didn’t like the boat race controlling the end game in Maracaibo but In Boonlake I find it much more tolerable as you can easily assess the possibility of the game end.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Steph H.
- I like it. Tery, Larry, Lorna
- Neutral. Chris Wray
- Not for me…