Review: Deadwood

Nothing gets a young American man’s blood pumping like the sights and sounds of the Wild West. Cowboys of old, rough riders, lawless outlaws, and saloon girls serving whiskey to men who haven’t bathed in months all invoke the nostalgia of our childhoods. All of this makes me want to hike up my chaps, place my hands on my ivory-handled pistols, and say “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”

-or is it? This is my review of Deadwood.

Property of Board Game Geek and Fantasy Flight Games
Property of Board Game Geek and Fantasy Flight Games

Game: Deadwood
Designed: Loic Lamy
Published: Fantasy Flight Games
Players: 2-5 (Best with 4+)
Time: 45 minutes

Deadwood is a wild west-themed worker management game where players control their cowboys, moving them between their ranch (hand) and the town in order to collect money, help the town expand, and eliminate rival gangs. The game mechanics are very simple with only two different maneuvers that can be performed: move a cowboy to a single building from the ranch, or remove any or all of their cowboys back to their ranch. That’s it. The rest of the game is fully dependent upon the specific buildings present within the town of Deadwood to determine what else happens on a turn. This is one of the few games where I keep the rules open nearby to remind myself exactly what each building does (even though I’ve played this game dozens of times). It can get that complex at times.

Deadwood comes with a lot of different tokens and pieces. At the start of each game, players choose a gang color and place one cowboy of each strength (1-3) in their ranch and place the rest to the side of the board. They then receive $5, two cartridges (for combat, more on that later), and one pony (again, more on this later). Set aside enough Wanted Posters such that there would be five posters per player and place the rest in the game box. On the game board, place the Sheriff’s Office, Town Hall, and Church on their appropriate spots. Then find the Saloon with a star on the back, and shuffle it with four Level 1 buildings and randomly place them into the red boxes in the town. Place the Sheriff on the Sheriff’s Office such that he touches it and the two buildings below it. Set the railroads aside and pile all buildings into shuffled groups according to their Level (1, 2, or 3).

Deadwood board
The game board after setup. Property of Fantasy Flight Games

Play progresses clockwise after randomly choosing a first player. Play continues clockwise until one of three things happens:

  • The Train Station is built (Town Hall is activated five times)
  • One player loses all of their cowboys in play and is unable to take their next turn
  • The pile of Wanted Posters runs out (the Army arrives to restore order).

Once play has stopped, the winner is the player with the most money after fees from Wanted Posters are paid out.

As mentioned earlier, players may either place a single cowboy from their ranch into the town or remove any or all of their cowboys from the board into their ranch. Each building performs a different action when activated by a cowboy, including paying money to the player, hiring more cowboys, robbing banks (and gaining Wanted Posters), gaining more ponies or cartridges, giving other players a Wanted Poster, pray away your sins (at the church), and many, many more. This is where the strategy of the game comes in, balancing income streams vs number of cowboys work for you, etc. The challenge comes in the fact that other players are competing for the same buildings, so you can’t really plan too far in advance.

There is combat in the game. Whenever two different cowboys enter the same building (and the Sheriff is NOT present), a Shoot Out begins. The attacker gains a Wanted Poster, and the defender chooses whether or not he wants to skedaddle (run away using one of their ponies). If the defender does not have a pony, they cannot skedaddle from the fight. Each player (starting with the attacker) announces whether or not they will use a cartridge to boost the attack. Each player gathers the number of dice equal to the rank of their cowboy (1-3) plus a cartridge if used. This is where things get confusing (at least until you see it in action), so hold tight.

The player who has more dice gets to roll all EXTRA dice first.

[For example, if I have four dice and you have two, I roll two dice first].

If you roll a four or five, you score a wound (with two wounds to kill), and a six is instant death. If both cowboys survive the initial attack, both players roll their remaining dice one at a time until either they run out of dice or one (or both) cowboy(s) is/are dead. Dead cowboys go to the cemetery (Boot Hill). If the defender remains alive, they win and the attacker runs away to the Abandoned Mines. If the defender dies, the attacker wins and activates the building.

Got all that?

I alluded to this in the intro, but combat has the tendency to not happen very often in Deadwood. I found that games with two or three players produce towns that are large enough that both gangs can move about without bothering each other. In fact, I’ve played through a few games without a single shootout, which tends to feel quite boring and counter to the feeling of the game. The other thing that happened in a few games, even those with five players, is that everyone remains peaceful and non-confrontational until one person gets mad and attacks, at which point the game devolved into revenge killings like the Bloods and Crips in Compton. I really like the combat system in the game, but the board is just not quite the right size to produce the number or difficulty of shootouts one would expect in a Wild West town.

Overall, I like Deadwood, even though it has its flaws. The game mechanic is simple, sometimes even TOO simple. While the buildings and their mechanics add a high level of strategy and complexity to an otherwise boring turn, there always seems to be one player who takes the “left over” buildings and never seems able to break out of their luck. One might think that the Shootouts would help balance this out, but that same poor lackey also tends to be the one without Rank 3 cowboys or extra Cartridges to throw around like candy. Even if they possess these resources, they have collected enough Wanted Posters to negate any earnings they gain as a result of the Shootout.

My other complaint with the game is that there are tons of small tokens and pieces and no good way to store them within the box. I have six sandwich baggies that I use to keep tokens together and things fit, but not well enough that the box lid closes fully. There may be third-party packaging products out there, but I haven’t taken the time to look for them.

If you have a friend or neighbor who has the game, give it a try on their copy first before you go out and buy this game. While I do not regret my purchase, and occasionally enjoy pulling out the box, Deadwood definitely spends a lot of time gathering dust on my shelf.

Kyle Blomgren is the founder of Flat Top Gaming. He loves tabletop gaming, watching others play tabletop games, singing, and spending time with his wife and daughter.

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