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Subject: Homesteaders: A Surprisingly Tight Auction Game rss

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Seth Brown
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THE TOP LINE

Potential purchasers of Homesteaders should be warned that old first-edition copies (if any are still out there) may have mold issues. I traded for one, and was crestfallen when I opened the shrink-wrap to find a moldy unusable game. But I was delighted that the company stood by their product, and when my second-edition replacement came, I was eager to finally get to try this game which I had been meaning to play for years.



COMPONENTS

The second edition apparently has improved components over the first. I can't speak for the first edition having never played it, but the components for 2e are solid. Thick cardboard auction and building tiles and money/debt/trade chits of the usual quality. There are little shaped wooden pieces for resources, ranging from wood and steel to apples and adorable cow-meeples. A central board tracks auctions with wooden player cubes.

WHAT IS IT?

An auction and resource management game. Some have also described this as a worker placement game, but even if you technically place workers, this has little in common with games of that genre. This is a game about auctions and managing resources in the old west, as you build up your homestead into a modest little city.

GAMEPLAY IN BRIEF

Players start with a homestead, a few dollars, and a worker which can be placed to give you income each round of either a wood or a VP.

Each round, permits will be turned up for auction, one fewer than the number of players. On your turn, you either place your bid cube on the bid track for one of the permits above all other cubes on that track, or you fold and place your cube on the railroad. If you're outbid, you get another chance to bid higher on an auction or play to the railroad. Once nobody is outbid (generally happens once a player plays to the railroad), winners take permits.

Permits, in turn, allow you to instantly build a single building of certain types from the supply. These buildings have their own resource cost, and provide benefits that may or may not require workers to activate. Once buildings are bought, players may use trade chits to trade resources with the bank and buy workers, and then re-arrange their workers to get their preferred income for the next round.

After ten rounds, most points wins.



GOOD POINTS

*The auction mechanic of bids on a track keeps things moving along and makes auctions faster and fiestier than interminable endless bidding. It's not the first appearance of this mechanic, which is in Vegas Showdown among other games, but it's well-executed here and means even non-auction-lovers might enjoy this game.

*Partially because of this, Homesteaders is the rare auction game that actually works pretty well with two players. The 2p variant uses a neutral bidder whose opening bid fluctuates in response to neutral bid victories, and while not as satisfying as the 3p or 4p game, it definitely works well.

*Homesteaders is a very "tight" feeling game. There are only ten rounds, which go by pretty fast because as soon as one person drops, that's basically the round. Everyone buys one building, and that's it. You can't do nearly everything you want, because you need more money than you have and more resources than you can possibly get.

*Tons of replay value. A huge variety of buildings, in a pool that updates twice over the course of the game, means that it will be many games before you've tried all the buildings, and even then you won't have tried all the combinations. Couple this with the various endgame strategies -- buildings with endgame bonus points, victory point income, or valuable resources -- and you've got a game with some legs.

*A clever way to manage debt. You can take debt at any time, which in an auction game means that the situation is avoided where another player gets something for a stupidly low price simply because you're out of cash. Each debt token gains you $2, and costs $5 to pay back. And here's the brilliant part: at the end of the game, you lose increasing amounts of VP for each debt. 1 costs you 1 point, 2 is 3 points, 3 is 6 points, 4 is 10 points, etc. This makes money somewhat fluid until the end, but it's easy to get in over your head.

*Trade tokens are cool. As long as you have trade tokens, you can trade money for resources, or resources for better resources, and basically work your way up to whatever you need, even if you can't produce it. Trade tokens themselves are a resource to be carefully managed, as much as any other.

*Railroad track means even if you have to drop out of the auctions, you at least get something for free, a consolation prize which at least softens the blow of not getting to build anything.

*Cow meeples!

*Good summaries. The resource screens cover most everything you'll need during the game, and the Player Aid cards have all the trade token exchange rates listed so you don't have to remember any of it, which is very helpful.


image credit: meskue

BAD POINTS

*Visually speaking, Homesteaders has a somewhat austere aesthetic that may not appeal to some people. It does not feel "exciting", for whatever that's worth.

*Trade tokens are frustrating. If you don't get a building that lets you acquire some early, you'll be very limited in what you can do -- including getting any more workers. Conversely, when your slow-playing opponents have a bucket of trade tokens, you may have to wait a while as they figure out their wide range of options.

*Workers themselves aren't as fun as they could be. At the beginning you're choosing between a wood (yes) or a VP (no), the 1 coin upkeep means some workers have negligible benefit, and eventually you'll likely buy enough workers to produce whatever you need.

*Setup can take a little while to sort out all the buildings.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Homesteaders combines auctions with resource management to create a tight game that plays in 10 quick turns. Visually it's no powerhouse, cow meeples notwithstanding, but that shouldn't distract from the fact this game offers a lot of development and cascading effects from decisions in a small gamespace. Little mechanics like debt and the railroad track add a welcome new dimension to the auctions.

I'm not always in the mood for Homesteaders, as there are other auction/resource games I prefer, but it's a solid auction game that works well with 2 players -- even though it's more satisfying with 3 or 4 -- and I imagine I'll continue to play it every once in a while, especially when I don't feel like I have the time for longer auction games.

IS FOR YOU?

If you generally like auction games, Homesteaders is a satisfying one, and manages to eliminate some of the usual unpleasant auction issues. For this reason, it might even appeal to people who don't normally enjoy auction games, which is pretty neat. While there's plenty of strategic depth here, I'd even be tempted to recommend it as a good fit for gateway gaming, if it weren't for the trade tokens which may be just on the edge of newbie-friendly (not from difficulty, but just from so many options).

People who demand visual excitement from games may, in spite of the various cool resource meeples, be unimpressed with the overall aesthetic. This is not the exciting game to wow you. But Homesteaders is a solid game that's easy to pick up, moves pretty fast, and has enough options that it's certainly worth giving a try.
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Andy Andersen
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Great review. I think the art matches the theme.
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Seth Brown
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Orangemoose wrote:
Great review. I think the art matches the theme.


It really does - there's a lot of brown, because it's the rustic west, which was a vast landscape of dirt, if you've ever seen any westerns.
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David
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Thanks for writing and posting your review, I enjoyed reading it.

FWIW, I just wanted to mention that twice now (in a row) I have avoided the 'trade chit providing' buildings until my third purchase, and won. I went into reasonable debt to win the auctions I wanted, but ensured I built the foundry and gold mine. With one game I did then get the Trading Post (+2 trade chits per turn) but in another I didn't.
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Loren Cadelinia
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I agree with all of your points. The "wow" factor was definitely missing for me, possibly because I wanted the game to feel more like I was actually building a town, gathering resources and placing workers. It does all these things at a level below my expectations for the game. It is solid, as you say, but I hoped it to be more exciting.
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Geoffrey Ulman
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Great review. I also agree with all of your points. This is a game I really love. It just really clicks for me.
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Seth Brown
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dyepbr wrote:
I agree with all of your points. The "wow" factor was definitely missing for me, I hoped it to be more exciting.


ulmangt wrote:
Great review. I also agree with all of your points. This is a game I really love. It just really clicks for me.


Yay, thank you two! Together, you make me feel like my review has accomplished exactly what I want. :)
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Doug Adams
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Great review. I played a first edition when it was first released, and loved the game but hated the production. The second edition is fantastic. Homesteaders deserves a higher rating.
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Seth Brown
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littleboy wrote:
How did you feel about the trade tokens? It somewhat spoiled it for me, felt out of place and very artificial, I guess it was necessary to moderate the resource conversion chains but I didn't care for it at all


As you might glean from the fact that I listen them in both good and bad points, I am ambivalent about the trade tokens. They definitely play a large role in the game, which has benefits and drawbacks. Overall though, I think I'm glad they're there, as it's yet another interesting little mechanic that makes Homesteaders different from other auction games.
 
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Alex P
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littleboy wrote:
How did you feel about the trade tokens? It somewhat spoiled it for me, felt out of place and very artificial, I guess it was necessary to moderate the resource conversion chains but I didn't care for it at all


I consider them favors and/or time, in a world where you can find extreme price variants and little extra time to shop around. The "T" token you earned is a measure of how many connections you have created and maintained all while running a 16-hours a day business.
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Damien Seb. ●leoskyangel●
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I play games not to win, it's the gathering that's important - Thanks for the tip Cate108!
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If you like how the debt works in the game, wait till you check out the one in Walnut Grove. I'm speaking of how the penalty is done, of how unforgiving it is.

The player screen in the 2nd Ed is too thick (which is excellent), in fact too gorgeous for me to fold it as player screens I've decided to use it as player aid instead (since there's handful of summary/info on it). I'm replacing it with a normal player screen that I'm going to make.

I agree on the tight/tense feeling of the game. I also like the fact that it doesn't matter how many players are playing, there will always be at least one player that needs/have to pass.

Cheers
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Michael Mindes
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littleboy wrote:
@Alex P
yeah I've read similar ideas, I just don´t really care for them being in the game at all, even after putting some kind of thematic idea on there, I still feel it's clumsy and artificial


The game originally did not have trade chits, but I never played this version. My understanding is that without them, people get stuck going down a specific building path without much deviation from their first handful of buildings.

In other words, the game was not nearly as good.
 
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Davido
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DrMayhem wrote:
littleboy wrote:
@Alex P
yeah I've read similar ideas, I just don´t really care for them being in the game at all, even after putting some kind of thematic idea on there, I still feel it's clumsy and artificial


The game originally did not have trade chits, but I never played this version. My understanding is that without them, people get stuck going down a specific building path without much deviation from their first handful of buildings.

In other words, the game was not nearly as good.


As noted, Trade tokens mean you can almost always do SOMETHING productive, but less efficiently than w/o them. Thus, a few trade token exchanges can get you out of a rut, but too many swaps means you're losing big time to those who have their economy and resources humming along.

memo to self: Must persuade more people to play this w/ me
And yes, my 1rst edition is holding up just fine.
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Alex P
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davido wrote:


memo to self: Must persuade more people to play this w/ me :D
And yes, my 1rst edition is holding up just fine.


I've introduced the game to eight people so far - not one has been lukewarm about it - they all liked or really liked the game. I.e. keeping players shouldn't be a problem for you so just get them to sit down with you once. :)
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Seth Jaffee
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DrMayhem wrote:
littleboy wrote:
@Alex P
yeah I've read similar ideas, I just don´t really care for them being in the game at all, even after putting some kind of thematic idea on there, I still feel it's clumsy and artificial


The game originally did not have trade chits, but I never played this version. My understanding is that without them, people get stuck going down a specific building path without much deviation from their first handful of buildings.

In other words, the game was not nearly as good.

I don't believe this is accurate.

Early versions of the game featured a supplemental auction, where players could auction off their resources to other players. I believe there were still "Actions" (Trade Chits used to be called Actions), but the system was less open.

I did not care for the supplemental auctions, mostly because they took a long time, and much of the time people didn't want to put their goods up for auction anyway. It seemed to make more sense (to me) that if the purpose of the Action was to translate your goods into cash and your cash into goods, then that should work even if your opponents didn't cooperate - otherwise, much of he time there was no point.

Removing the supplemental auctions and replacing them with the universal marketplace made the game flow a lot better, and it sped the game up a lot. yes, you can now trade for all the goods that you want, but that is less efficient than producing the right goods, so while Trade Chits give you flexibility, they do come with a cost.
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Alex Rockwell
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About trade tokens:

Initially, there was a player created resource auction phase, in which you could sell things to each other.

This turned out to be:

1) A waste of time.
2) Often strategically bad, since if people were counting on being able to get the thing you mad,e and you never sold it to them, it tended to help you.


If you have to produce each individual resource that you want to use during the game. It didnt work.

Then I added various buildings that gave a choice of multiple resource types. Certain AP prone players would sit there for 5 minutes every single income phase trying to choose.

So then I changed it to the trade token you get, that you can then use 'at will', and it worked extremely well.


Trade tokens are one of the top 'fun' things for many players, specifically anyone who likes resource manipulation 'puzzles' (which I personally like).
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Seth Brown
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Just played another 3er of this tonight -- a friend of mine had seen my review above and demanded to give it a try! He was pretty impressed, and said he'd look forward to playing again. The game still definitely produces nice tense decisions in a small space, and I continue to enjoy it.

In this case, I certainly had more trade tokens than anyone else, having bought the market at least a few turns before anyone else got a trade-token-giving building. The token abundance I had this game felt abnormal; usually my lack of trade tokens is a definite constraint. Regardless, while having none can be frustrating, overall I think the trade tokens do work well in the game as it stands. (I know someone upthread had a thematic complaint about trade tokens, but perhaps because Homesteaders gains its power from gameplay instead of theme for me, this did not bother me at all.)
 
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