A version of this review first appeared at Love Thy Nerd. Check it out!
The cover of Pioneer Days depicts a colorful cast of eclectic characters smiling in the sun and looking like they’re having a splendid time in the great outdoors. I had the pleasure of learning quite a bit about the migration west on the Oregon Trail in my mandatory 8th grade California history class, and I can tell you that it was definitely not all sunshine and roses. The journey was rife with starvation, disease, and death. I’ve visited parts of the Donner Trail, named after a party famous for resorting to cannibalism.
I mean, it was certainly profitable for some people who traveled West in search of gold or a better life, but most failed to find riches. It’s a cliche now, but there’s certainly some truth to the idea that the people who really “made it” during the Gold Rush were those selling shovels. Still, there’s a certain amount of romanticism people give it, and Pioneer Days latches onto that with enthusiasm.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any danger in Matthew Dunstan and Chris Marling’s take on Oregon Trail migration. As you go along meeting townsfolk, acquiring supplies, and raising cattle, four progression bars will slowly advance. When they trigger they will cause a negative effect to everyone—maybe disease will plague the travellers and everyone will need to spend medicine to try to keep the townsfolk accompanying them alive. Or maybe you’ll be raided and lose half of your money.
These disasters are less catastrophic portents of doom and more bumps in the road to keep an eye on. The kind of existential dread you’d find in a game like Agricola is completely absent. I suspect that will be a positive attribute for many people, but I’m a bit disappointed. The best part of the disaster system is that its progression is determined pseudo-collectively.
See, Pioneer Days is a dice drafting game where the number of dice available at the beginning of any given round is equal to the number of players plus one. The color of the one die left at the end determines which disaster track progresses. If a dreaded black die remains, all four of the disaster tracks advance. Avoiding that fate would be simple, except that what the dice actually give you on your turn depends on the symbol displayed, not the color.
Each time you draft a die you get a choice: use it to acquire the good indicated on the die, get some money (again dependent on which symbol you take), or take one of the townspeople. The decision space is cleanly presented and frequently all 3 choices will be compelling in different ways.
Money and resources do the kind of money and resource-y things you’d expect in a eurogame. Equipment tiles, which give you a passive bonus, are particularly interesting. The most significant pieces of equipment give you free resources when you take dice showing particular symbols. I’ve found this type of equipment to be incredibly powerful because it can double or triple the efficiency of a single action, and I’ve ridden it to fairly easy victories the last two times I’ve played.
I fear that this provides somewhat of a first player advantage (or, more precisely, a “first player who has access to an equipment die advantage”) without much of a mitigating counterplay. Sure, people can deliberately try to keep whatever kind of die a player benefits from away from them, but that means that someone is probably taking a less efficient play for the sake of everyone else. The other players can similarly dart towards trying to collect equipment, but that’s dependent on dice rolls and what kind of equipment appears each round. I don’t think it harms the game too much, but it can certainly give an early edge to an experienced and/or lucky player. After a couple of games I could see my opponents take on a slight air of resignation when I was able to again snatch up a key piece of equipment in round 1.
Townsfolk also provide passive benefits which tend to be geared towards aiding long-term strategies. The game sort of pushes you to do everything a little bit, but townsfolk can mitigate the problems associated with more specialized strategies. In one game I was able to stockpile a large amount of gold, for instance, because I had townsfolk to help me maintain the wagons necessary to carry all of that wealth, and other folk that made the gold more VP-lucrative.
To add more spice to the game, you choose two townsfolk decks out of the five you’re given in the box for any given game. Each deck has its own subtle theme, so depending on what you mix together you can alter the tenor of the game a bit.
Townsfolk also provide some of the biggest frustrations I’ve faced in Pioneer Days. The cards frequently reference key terms that are never defined in the rulebook. I don’t remember the last time I’ve had to make so many ad hoc rules decisions while playing a game. It’s like a page of the rulebook defining key ideas is missing. I think all of the rules decisions I made were correct because they made the most sense, but people who have to know that they’re playing the game 100% correctly will be beating their heads against the wall.
So you go round and round, drafting dice, protecting against looming disasters, and trying to efficiently acquire victory points. There are a few VP-acquisition routes, and while all of them have different subtleties, they seem more or less equally viable. Cattle score at the end of each of the game’s five weeks but are costly to maintain. Gold scores at the end of the game but only takes up a bit of space in your wagons. Townsfolk also require maintenance and provide points based on how many resources you have of various kinds. Each week your party encounters some towns and can spend various resources to get more points. It’s all a bit point salad-y, rewarding both long term planning and opportunistic tactical plays at different times.
This is the part of the review I always get to with games like this where I realize that I’ve been droning on about this and that mechanism and making the game sound very dull. The reality is that Pioneer Days isn’t dull, just safe. It’s a fine design with pleasant (though occasionally weirdly inconsistent) artwork. As you play you’ll be muttering to yourself, “yes, yes, I see what they did there. That’s nice”. And it is nice. The problem is, while that’s its greatest strength, it’s also its biggest weakness. Sure, in a two-player game there might be more opportunities to set up the disaster track to severely cripple your opponent. But resources are plentiful enough that it won’t be too punishing most of the time. Maybe you’ll stumble upon a really slick combo that surges you ahead of the pack, but a lot of that is luck of the townsfolk draw.
Pioneer Days gives you exactly what’s displayed on the cover—a pleasant stroll through the 19th century countryside. The cast of characters provide some fun, varied play. The TMG logo promises player-specific powers, because that seems to be baked into every publishing agreement they touch. The clouds on the horizon signal some push your luck disaster-swerving. The game feels like sitting down to watch a familiar sitcom. You’ve seen all of the broad strokes before, but they’re comfortable, and the details will frequently bring a smile to your face.
Review copy provided by publisher
+Pseudo cooperation with the disaster track is novel
+Decent variability with townsfolk decks
-Some powers seem uneven
-A bit too soft
Length: 1 Hour
Learning Curve: 3/5
Brain Burn: 3/5