I actually had the opportunity to play test this Martin Wallace (Der Weisse Lotus, Empires of the Ancient World, Und Tschuss, Lancashire Rails) about a year or so ago while it was in its developmental stages. At the time, the game still had a ways to go and, since then, several modifications and improvements have been made to the system for its final stage.
The game is essentially a tile placement game, with player placing cattle, cowboys, buildings, stage coaches, trains, etc. onto various cities of the old West. The ultimate objective is to score the most victory points, which is earned in a variety of fashions. Most of these points are based on the items you control on the board, as well as overall control of the towns.
Each turn, players have two actions. Each player performs one action, then each follows with their second action. The board has a chart which depicts the various actions which can be taken by the players, many of which are limited. Thus, not every player will be able to perform the actions they desire if these actions have already been performed by their opponents. This forces players to carefully watch the charts and observe which actions will likely be performed by their opponents, usurping these actions when desirable. It also forces players to adjust their plans when the desired actions are no longer available.
To get a jump on these actions, players bid money for the right to move first. The system used is not unlike that utilized in For Sale and other games. Beginning with the start player from the previous round, each player makes a bid or passes. If a player passes, he takes the next available lowest spot in the turn order sequence. Any money bid must be paid to the bank. The last player to withdraw from the bidding will move first on that turn. This actually sounds more exciting than it is as most players seemed satisfied to abstain from bidding and settle for a rear slot in the turn order. However, there were occasions where turn order was important to a player or two, thereby eliciting higher bids from these players.
Most of the actions involve placing a tile to the board or instigating a gunfight. There are placement restrictions: cattle can only be placed in the limited corral spaces, and cannot be placed in towns located higher on the board until the town below it has its corral more than half filled with cattle. This is an important consideration when planning one's placement as cattle tend to reap consistent income throughout the game and help contribute to the overall control of a town.
Players can place buildings in any town, but can only place two buildings per town. In order to secure additional buildings, they must be captured via gunfights. Buildings convey special benefits to their owners, usually in the form of additional income. For instance, the owner of the hotel in a town gains $1 for each cowboy opponents have in that town. Banks generate $2 per building in the town, but only those buildings which are owned by opponents. Stores generate income based on the number of cattle in the town (opponents only), as well as from the farmer, if any. Finally, jails earn no income, but do provide a sheriff which can be 'loaned' out ... usually for a price ... to your fellow players if they are attacked. Further, this sheriff can also be used to assist you in an attack. Hey, nobody said the sheriff was honest!
Transportation also plays a role in the game. Stagecoaches earn the owner $1 for each cowboy placed into the town, or moved from the town. Trains do not earn current income, but do double the value of cattle located in that town at the end of the game. Trains, however, are prohibitively expensive and did not appear at all during our game.
The heart of the game involves the cowboys and the resulting gunfights they usually cause. Each town can hold an unlimited number of cowboys, and none of these towns seemed to have a 'no guns allowed' policy so prevalent in many old western movies. When a player begins amassing cowboys in a town, you can be assured he is up to no good.
Cowboys are used to rustle cattle, rob banks, confiscate buildings, trains and stagecoaches ... or just simply kill other cowboys. Usually, however, this latter use is not wise. It is much more profitable to target something which will ultimately earn income and/or victory points.
Gunfights are resolved using a very simple combat system. A die is rolled for each cowboy, with a 5 or 6 result killing an opposing cowboy. A few buildings, including the jail and bank, add one cowboy to defense (or attack, in the case of the jail). If a player has no cowboys in the town and one of his possessions is attacked, he automatically gets to roll one die in defense. This is a GLARING misprint in the rules, as the word 'no' was missing from this critical rule. We, of course, played with the rule as written, but this was later clarified by the designer.
The tricky part of the combat system is that the player with the fewest cowboys rolls first, inflicting damage before the other player gets to roll. Those gamers familiar with this system as used in several wargames will quickly realize how devastating this procedure can be. If you cannot amass overwhelming numbers in an assault, it is often wiser to enter an attack with one less cowboy than your opponent. If I have 4 cowboys and my opponent has 5, I will roll first and have a decent chance of eliminating one or two cowboys before he rolls. I also tried to keep the number of cowboys I possessed in a town at one less than the opponent who I feared might be considering an assault. If both players have an equal number of cowboys, then the resulting dice rolls and casualties are simultaneous.
If an attacker wins a gunfight, he usually gains control of the possession being coveted. In the case of a building or transportation counter (stagecoach or train), he simply replaces the opponents token with one of his own. If the object was cattle, he replaces one or two cattle tokens with his own. A jail or farmer is simply eliminated.
Banks are a different matter and can be quite deadly. If a player successfully attacks a bank, he robs the owner of cash. Three dice are rolled and that amount of money is taken from the owner of the bank. If the owner cannot pay this amount, he surrenders the amount of money he possesses and the bank is removed from the board. This can be devastating and usually results in the owner of the bank amassing large numbers of cowboys in the town for defensive purposes.
In any case, the winner of a gunfight earns a 'wanted poster'. Ultimately, the player with the most wanted posters at the end of the game receives 4 extra victory points. Being quick on the draw ... and lucky with the dice ... pays off!
At the end of each third round, players earn income based on the cattle they have in each town and the income derived from earning various buildings. Other than robbing a bank, this is the only source of income derived during a turn. Since most actions (other than gunfights and farmers) usually cost money to execute, players must constantly keep a wary eye on their treasury. Several players were prohibited from performing desired actions during the course of the game due to lack of funds.
The game ends following round 12 (or round 9 in a 5 player game). After receiving income, players earn victory points for achieving various conditions. These include victory points earned for cattle (which can be enhanced by the presence of a train, but decreased if that pesky farmer is present), buildings, money, the most wanted posters and bonuses for controlling a town.
The cattle and buildings seem to provide the largest chunks of this victory point puzzle. Building points can be huge, as each building earns points based on the ultimate size of the town. The size of the town is determined by the number of buildings located there. So, if a town has four buildings, each building earns four victory points for its owner. This can be strong and is the method I used to achieve my victory.
The game plods along at a fairly dull pace, but it is punctuated by a few action-packed turns, usually characterized by gunfights. No doubt, there is quite a bit to consider when performing your actions, but this careful planning can easily be erased by the devastating gunfights, the outcome of which is determined by die rolls. Sure, this method is used in most conflict oriented games, but the results in Way Out West seem to sway the momentum of the game ... and the fate of the gunfight losers ... a bit too dramatically.
For instance, in our game, Lenny Leo was doing quite well. In addition to other holdings, he was in possession of two buildings in Abilene, as well as four cattle. He had this all protected by four cowboys. Mark launched an assault against Lenny with four cowboys and, due to lucky rolling, succeeded in eliminating Lenny's cowboys and confiscating the store ... only losing one cowboy in the duel. Jim followed, and grabbed Lenny's now undefended Hotel. John came next in the turn order, so he promptly rustled two of Lenny's undefended cattle. I was next, and stole the other two cattle. In less than one full turn, Lenny was completely wiped out of Abilene and, for all practical purposes, the game. He was never able to recover as his income source had dried-up. Thus, he never did have the money to replace what was lost.
Could other steps have been taken to prevent this disaster? Probably, but it sure seemed well defended to the rest of us. It seems a bit disconcerting that, in less than one turn, someone can pretty much be knocked from a game which seems to require players to plan, think and act carefully.
In fairness, I did play the game again recently and this problem did not surface. With the experience of my prior game, I did feel a bit more in control of my fate in the second game, but could still recognize the significant chance of one or two early gunfights ruining a player's chance at victory.
Way out West can be fun, but it can also drag a bit. The rules aren't as clear or descriptive as I'd like. I wish more illustrations and examples would have been provided. It would also have proven useful if player aid charts were provided outlining the income and victory point sources. I had to make photocopies of the chart on the back of the rulebook and laminate these for each player. Sure, this would have cost Warfrog a bit more, but in today's age of top quality games, it is an expected feature.
As mentioned, after striking out to an early lead, Lenny was dealt a devastating blow in Turn 3. Since this was an income turn, he acquired very little income at the end of the turn, so was unable to do much of anything over the next three turns. Other than playing the role of the spoiler, he was essentially out of the game.
An abundance of gunfights ensued during the latter stages of the game, including a final attempt by Lenny to oust me from my front-runner position. Fortunately for me, this attempt failed and I held on for the victory.
Finals: Greg 44, John 37, Jim 30, Mark 17, Lenny 5
Ratings: Greg 5.5, John 5, Jim 5, Mark 4, Lenny 3
(Note: My rating did go up a bit to a '6' following a subsequent playing)