Review: Dark Horse – building civilization in Wild West
In America, there was a time, when the whole continent was ruled by the breathless dark horses. They were all made of metal with big wheels on both sides, transporting new residents into their brand new towns and houses. America in the nineteenth century simply flourished, everybody enjoyed developing of a new civilization and spreading its wings to a new continent from the old homes.
And you are one such colonizers, who founded the city and creating homes for the newcomers, who lost happiness in Europe and are looking for it overseas. You are also a dark horse. But dark horse of business. The long voyage has exhausted you fellow citizens and the only thing they dream of now, is a quiet calm home, where they can start a whole new life. And they need you – sheriff, mayor or anything you want to be – to do that. Welcome to world of unlimited possibilities.
The story of these city builders and creating connections between towns is written in a new board game Dark Horse, which came on the market thanks to the willingness of fans. This game second after Sentinels of the Multiverse (review), which we review and was financed through project Kickstarter, where people donate money to developers and get rewards for it.
Its author is Don Lloyd and he released the game under his own label called Knight Works, LLC. But also many other people contributed to its development: Justin Guillory, Gary Olson, Dave Koster and Paul Inca. Environment and the whole Wild West graphics was prepared by Carlos de Anda Lopez.
The game Dark Horse is hidden in a brown box made from really hard cardboard and the lid is beautifully illustrated by the old romantic locomotive design. But Dark Horse does not refer to itself as a dark-horse train, but the black horse man, who surprised all by his success. You are such a stranger to the Wild West and you must now expand your influence.
In the box you’ll find luxury game plan of hard cardboard, which contains 76 hexagonal positions, where players would build their empires. Around the world of the game, there are two paths winding: to the the left and bottom lies the scale of influence, and on the top and to the right are action boxes. Their number is also remarkable – fifteen different actions for really wide choice.
In addition to the board, of course, inside you will find a decent pile of cardboard components arranged in sheets. You will find raw materials (food, wood, ore and gold) and more than twenty hexagonal chip resources, whose place is on the board. There are also plenty of other chips in small numbers to indicate the loan, shops, and more.
Packs of cards are smaller and thinner this time, because they contain seven characters, dark horses that you can take role of and use their special abilities during the match. There are also a little package of 27 more action cards for you to tease. The last card is a reference card and a recapitulation of the basic rules of the game and their stages.
Everything else is made of wood. Town and village chips, as well as elongated rods marking the railroad. Round wooden tokens are in the colors of the players, as well as dice – each player gets three of them in their color. They are essential for the whole game. But players should break down also towns and villages, which come also in different colors corresponding to those of players.
And when we know, what players get, we can start preparing the game itself. You will now spread random resources chips on the game board, that will be available to all players. Only eight of them in the middle of the board will be visible exposed, the remaining twelve starts the game secretly and the players have yet to discover, what treasures lie there.
Individual players start the game on the place of their choice. Mostly they try to keep distance between themselves at the beginning, so they often start in the corners of the board. This allows them to have neighbor on one side of the plan two fields closer, than the opponent across the playing area. Thus you are guaranteed, that right from the start you have to face the opponent’s expanding empire, but not all of them. For now.
In the game there are two kinds of resources – common and rugged. While the former are easy to obtain, the latter will cost you something extra. They are usually located in the middle of the board and we will not address them detailly here.
Players start the game in a randomly determined order. Each of them must put some tokens on the game board to set it to the initial state. Player is entitled to start with one city and two villages. Now we will stop for a quick moment at terminology in the original rules of the game, which can be confusing. Author in the rules use words town and city, which are not easily distinguishable for a non-english speaker. It could be a city and village. Therefore, in the following text we will use the division of the city and village, although that is against terminology of Dark Horse.
The basic disposition rule says, that cities must be spaced at least two hexes apart. In the course of the game, this number is reduced only to a distance of one blank space. The higher number is used only for the preparation of the match. Once deployed, all players can put two villages around their city. They must lie directly adjacent to the city, so its residents are close to civilization and to sell their gathered materials. Players obviously use these villages to get resources for themselves.
Preparing the game ends, when everyone puts their token on the influence counter. A chip labelled „Game End“ will determine, how many influence is needed for the game to end. So it is easy to set the length and intensity of the game. In the basic version of the rules, you will find recommendation for number 11 on a scale rising up to the highest fourteen, which provides a long game.
The actual gameplay is very simple. At the beginning of each turn, player throws his two dice (the third can be obtained only under specific conditions). Their numbers clearly determine, which actions can they pick in this round. This game certainly will remind you of Alien Frontiers (review) or Castles of Burgundy (Czech review only).
There is really a lot of actions and we will not deal with them all, but we rather look at general principles, they provide. Action box are divided by the number of players, who can use them in a single round. Some reward first, who will use it more. Some other need the exact number on your dice, different ones can equip you with chips with special skills. The exact thrown number is called the natural and is needed for some places, because you can modify your rolls with some actions.
Generally, players can do a lot of things with their dice, that all can lead to winning the game. The most important is certainly the production of materials from the village, which lies on the plan. It is these materials, which help you to build other cities, villages and railways. To develop new city and expand their empire, players must bring the rail to this place first. Then player can use the Builder event, enabling him to build new city. In the next round, he may also populate some of those villages around, which will bring him profit in the form of materials, as long as he chooses production action with his dice.
Some actions allow players to modify the result of next dice throw, or even change result of the cube itself and move it somewhere else. In other places players will gain valuable influence, third bonus dice for the next round, the role of the sheriff or the mayor. They, together with the corresponding star chips or keys to the city, also brings certain advantages. One is source for one more political action, the second one will get you a deputy die, which you can use as conventional dice during your future turns, until someone else slips into sheriff spot. Both positions are in the game only once and the players can (and will) steal it from each other.
From the previous text, you could get the impression, that the influence is equal to victory points. It is not true. Influence only determines the end of the game and you will also get one victory point for each influence acquired. But you will get victory points, also for chips of gold or for the role of the sheriff / mayor at the end of the game. But the most important bunch of points will be brought to you in form of your villages connected to the city. Each city has such a value as is the number of villages, that are connected to it with the railroad! So you can collect a lot of points like this. And the one player, who has the most victory points has won the game.
Dark Horse board game takes the known principle for dice numbers used to select events. But this time, in addition to dice existence, there are still lot of other things going on (like building of empire), that really make the game great and worthy of remembering. It does not matter, whether you the wild west theme, because in addition to the role of sheriff and illustrations on the cards, there is no significant indication of it. The cities might be build somewhere entirely else.
At each turn you have tremendous number of opportunities, which will be narrowed down only by the dice results. But you still are able to get maximum from your throws, with combining them into another numbers or dividing them into several actions. So if you think hard, you can pull out the true maximum of the dice chance. Stronger actions require positioning of the two dice, while sometimes they simply ask for any cube to be layed t here. This makes interesting decision, whether you choose only one stronger action or you try your chances with several less powerful. The decision depends only on you.
For the whole course of the game you have to remember one thing – everything revolves around the construction of towns, villages and their interconnection. This condition should allways be obeyed. Although you can earn victory points otherwise, but in the end, number of connected villages will decide the winner.
But there is large number of ways to victory, because every point counts. The vast breadth of options is the greatest charm of Dark Horse. The starting distribution of materials will force you to come up with different tactics every time. A different course is then in hands of players interaction and the results of throwing dice, to which they must adapt their decisions.
During the game, you have to constantly think about your strategy. Number of villages connected by railways are constantly changing and they do not belong to anyone in particular. They are public property. Also players rankings are evershifting. Fighting is very exciting until the end and you’ll have a great experience.
Every turn is like a lightning. Players have only limited dice, so they won’t think forever as in Alien Frontiers. Even then, they are able to do most things, which can bring them closer to victory and you will not experience round, where you have nothing to play.
Dark Horse is also relatively heavy and long game. If we look at the principles, that are hiding behind her, after a careful explanation even beginners can understand them. But gameplay must be explained to them by someone experienced, with some sample turns. If beginners should learn everything on they own, they will most likely be discouraged by respectable twenty page rulebook, which contains very large amounts of text. It’s all really simple, but the authors used a lot of words to describe, how it works. You can easily return to rules later in the game, because you can find everything neatly in place.
Dark Horse is an excellent game with a little Wild West theme, revolving around building towns and using the results of dice throws strategically. The only random element are our beloved dice, but the influence is not so big, because can operate with them, add them or use them separately. It makes every game unique. The game Dark Horse is definitely a great strategic experience, which is still supported by the excellent workmanship. So if you love building towns and worlds, then this is definitely good choice for you.
Review: Dark Horse – building civilization in Wild West
Dark Horse is well-thought out strategic game with Wild West theme. But the whole atmosphere is here more in background and everything evolves around city and town building. You will need two dice to build them and expand your influence. These two dice will open you incredible fifteen different action possibilities. There is really a lot of ways, how to get influence and victory points, in this game. And that is what makes Dark Horse really interesting game with different course every time you play. Players must maintain connection between their cities with rails, because that is the main thing leading to flood of victory points. But they can still fight with others for sheriff or mayor chair. All of that with one random character with unique skills. You only have to read rather long rules once and then play. Do you like trains? Do you like Wild West? Do you like building and connecting? Do you like broad tactic options? Do you like dice? Only one yes. That is all it takes. Go get Dark Horse!
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tactical dice usage
adjustable game length
actions lead to towns and cities building
there are railroads
quick turns – two dice >= two actions
victory points are constantly changing as well as game situation