Lawless, a card game designed by Bruno Cathalla, is the latest in the Euro Games “Blue Box” series of games. It is also, in my opinion, quite likely the best. Although several other titles in the series have been enjoyable (Dragon’s Gold and Castle, in particular), Lawless seems to offer constant player interaction and numerous strategic options and decisions.
In Lawless, each player represents a wealthy rancher, attempting to acquire land, graze and sell cattle and possibly even strike it rich by finding gold on his land. The object is to grow wealthy and accumulate the most money and cards in several categories. Of course, this is the “wild west”, so there is an abundance of unscrupulous characters attempting to foil your plans and steal your cattle and land. This requires players to hire cowboys and ranch hands in an effort to protect their holdings and possessions.
The game uses mechanisms found in several other games, including a card drafting mechanism lifted directly from Show Manager. All of the parts seem to blend together nicely, however, so there isn’t a “disjointed” feel to the game.
Each player has six action points to spend per turn. Six cards are available to “draft” each turn, with the cost in action points varying from 1 – 6 depending upon the card’s location on the board. The cost to play a card is listed on the card and varies from 1 (the most common cost) to 6 (which is the rarest) and is in addition to the cost to acquire it.
There is a wide variety of cards in the game, the most common being land, cattle and cowboys. There are also three “qualities” of these types of cards. For example, cattle can either be poor (which depicts a pathetically malnourished beast), good or prize-winning, while land can be either scrub, good or excellent. The better the quality, the more benefits that are derived. The better the land, for example, the more cattle that can be put to pasture on it.
The basic idea is to acquire land, graze cattle on the land and protect your holdings with a stable of cowboys. There is an abundance of cards, however, which can be used to interfere with the plans of your opponents and cause them all sorts of trouble. The “Take that!” factor in the game is very high. Most of the really nasty cards, however, do require the player to expend a large amount of action points to play them, so this does prevent the player from taking other actions during his turn. Deciding on which cards to play and whether to further your own objectives or interfere with your opponents’ plans is always a tough choice.
The sequence of play is fairly straight-forward:
1. Manage Livestock. Each turn, there is a chance that some tragedy will befall a player, causing the loss of some of his cattle. The more cowboys a player has under contract protecting his ranches, the less likely this is to occur.
An opponent rolls a die and adds the number of cattle the player possesses to the die roll. The player likewise rolls a die and adds the value of the cowboys he employs and any fences he has erected to his roll. If the opponent’s total is greater, then the highest valued cattle card of the player is discarded. This comparison is called the “Livestock Surveillance Test” in game parlance.
After this test, players may either improve the value of their livestock (which is indicated by rotating the cattle card 90 degrees) or sell them. Each turn spent improving the value of livestock increases their value exponentially. For example, a good herd begins with a value of $2 and increases by $2 on each turn it is not sold.
The temptation is to not sell livestock and instead spend several turns improving their value. However, there are numerous cards that can be used to cause cattle to roam away or cause the land to be worthless. So, waiting too long to sell cattle can prove to be disastrous.
2. Collect Other Income. If a player has a working goldmine on a ranch, he rolls two dice and collects the corresponding amount of income. A roll of a 10 – 12, however, depletes the mine and renders the land worthless, causing the range to be discarded.
3. Perform Actions. As mentioned, each player has 6 action points to spend on a turn. These points are usually used in drawing and/or playing cards. If a player does not like the selection of cards available on the board, he may spend 3 action points and draw the top card from the deck.
Players may also execute additional actions for each 2 gold spent. This can prove quite useful, but since money also contributes to victory points at game’s end, players must be judicious in its use during the game.
4. Finishing A Turn. If a player has more than ten cards, he must discard the excess. This doesn’t happen often, as players are usually anxious to get cards into play.
The cards remaining on the board are then slid down to the lower costs slots and new cards are drawn from the deck to re-fill the board.
The game ends when either the supply of money or cards expires. Victory points are then awarded for the following categories: Ranches, cattle, cowboys and money. Points are earned for 1st through 4th place in each of these categories -- 5, 3, 2 and 1 point respectively. The player with the most points wins.
The heart of the game certainly lies in the card play, which is reminiscent of such games as Family Business and Bang. Build-up your own holdings, but also attack your opponents and hinder their efforts whenever possible and feasible. It certainly isn’t a game for the faint of heart or those who might take offense at attack-oriented games. Even though it has a significant level of nastiness, the system also provides ways in which to protect yourself from most assaults. So, there are steps you can take to mitigate the inevitable assaults.