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Subject: Fool's Gold - Review rss

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Greg Schloesser
United States
Jefferson City
TN
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Design by Joshua Balvin
Published by Passport Studios / Rock Paper Scissors Games
3 - 5 Players, 1 - 1 1/2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser


There's gold in 'dem 'der hills!  Yes, there is gold...and quartz, topaz and benitoite, too!  Folks can get rich staking a claim and digging in those mountains and waters.  Of course, they are much more likely to go bust.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, gold fever caused a massive migration westward by folks seeking to strike it rich by discovering gold and other precious gems and minerals.  Some did, indeed, make a tidy fortune, but most merely subsisted or went broke.  Fool's Gold by designer Joshua Balvin recreates--at least in part--the frenzy to discover gold and minerals in the great western regions.

The square game board rather blandly depicts a section of the west, with tracks leading from the central mining town to the hills, forest, mountains, river and lake.  Each of these locations has its own unique deck of cards with a mixture of gold, gems, hazards, false alarms and, of course, worthless silt.  There is a specific number and type in each deck, which is listed on the player aid screens.  This is important information as astute players can somewhat calculate the odds of finding gold or gems as opposed to silt.  Of course, dice and the luck-of-the-draw are involved, so luck plays a heavy role.

Depending upon the number of players, each player begins the game with 2-4 miners, but will acquire more as the game progresses.  This represents an influx of immigrants from the east, all seeking their fortune.  Players have an initial personal fortune of six gold coins, but as with new miners, will earn more as the years roll by.

Each of the five game turns is divided into two phases:  Prospecting and Mining.

Prospecting.  During the prospecting phase, all ten dice are rolled, sorted by value, and placed on the corresponding paths leading to the mines.  For example, all ones will be placed on the path leading to the hills, while fives will be placed on the path leading to the lake.  Sixes, however, are wild and remain in the mining camp.  If more than four of a particular value is rolled, the excess are converted to sixes and placed in the mining camp.  Thus, each path can hold at most four dice.

The number of dice and miners (I like to call them "prospectors") on a mine track determine the number of cards that will be revealed.  This is a multiplication factor (3 miners x 4 dice = 12 cards revealed), so the more miners and dice present, the more cards that will be revealed.

After rolling and placing dice, players alternate choosing one of four possible actions.

Place a Miner.  The player may either place a prospector at a mine on any empty space (no miners, no dice), paying the indicated cost, which varies from 0-6 coins.  The closer to the mine, the higher the cost.  A player may not place a prospector on a path that does not contain dice.

Note that coins spent are placed in front of a player's screen and may be retrieved with a subsequent action.

Add One Wild Dice to any Mine.  The player may take one of the 6-value dice from the mining camp and place it on the lowest empty space on a mine track.  There is a cost for this, though:  one coin per die already located on that mine track.  However, this is a way to increase the multiplier, which determines how many cards are revealed.

Place a Miner in front of your Screen.  Doing this allows the player to retrieve three coins.  Note that this does not give the player three new coins; it simply allows the player to take back three previously used coins.  This, however, can be extremely useful.

Pass.  When passing, the player retrieves his spent coins and places all of his unused miners (not those in front of his screen) beside as many mines as he desires.  These are used to increase a player's priority when selecting cards.  More on this in a bit.

Mining.  This is where the fun begins and players either strike it rich or go bust...or somewhere in between.  Each mine is examined in order and a number of cards revealed as described above.  For each "Foul Weather" card revealed, the total number of cards revealed is reduced by one.  If any "False Alarm" cards are revealed, this may cause one or more valuable gems or gold to be randomly removed.  These are nasty little cards that usually reduce the number of valuable cards available.

Priority is then determined, which is based on the total number of miners (including those set beside the mine in reserve) players have at a location.  The player with the most miners goes first and either (a) takes one of the gold or gem cards, (b) two gold coins, or (c) places his miner on its side for winter (described in a bit).  The most common action is to take one of the valuable gold or gem cards, but sometimes a player desires more cash or doesn't want to do either, so will wait for winter and the possibility of a more valuable find.  When a player takes an action, he removes his miner from the top position on the track (unless he waits for winter, in which case the miner is laid on its side). In order of priority, each player takes an action as described above until all miners have been removed or laid on their side for winter.

Once all five mines have been handled in this fashion, winter arrives.  Each mine is again examined and a number of cards are revealed equal to any miners (if any) present there who were set on their side for winter.  In priority order, these miners get to select one of the newly revealed gold or gem cards...again, if any.  Oftentimes, however, miners trudge back to camp empty-handed.

After each turn, each deck is reshuffled and a new year resumes.  The game concludes after five turns, after which a final scoring is conducted.  Players will lose five points if they do not possess at least one gold card from each of the five mines.  Players then discard all of the gold cards from the mine from which they collected the most gold, as it turns out to be "Fool's Gold!"  Ugh.  After these deductions, players tally the value of their gold.

Gems are then examined, with points earned (1 - 15) for sets of different types of gems collected.  These two amounts are totaled to determine the player who has struck it rich and wins the game.

In some ways, Fool's Gold in reminiscent of Thebes, the archaeological game published by Queen several years ago.  In Thebes, as in Fool's Gold, players know the contents of a deck, but must dig through in order to find the valuable items.  One can play the odds, but finding the good items versus worthless silt is still a matter of luck.  In Fool's Gold, there is a quasi-area control competition at the mines.  If a player will be third of fourth in the picking order, this may significantly reduce his chances of coming away with something of value.

The game does strongly encourage players to diversity their mining at all of the different mines lest they suffer penalties and reduced points.  Not only does this not fit thematically, but it can also be very difficult to do as the vagaries of the dice may make some mines less desirable or even impossible to visit.  While this may not work thematically, as a game mechanism it does make for a more interesting contest, forcing players to diversify their efforts.

The placement choices can be interesting.  One wants to visit mines that have a lot of dice present, as that increases the multiplier and, thus, the number of cards to be revealed.  Placing closer to the mine costs more, but priority ties are broken in favor of the player(s) whose prospector is closer to the mine.  So, sometimes it is worth paying those extra coins to have first choice of the revealed goodies.

Sometimes one has to gamble, particularly when it comes to the option of "wintering" a prospector.  If the remaining choices of gold and gems are deficient--or outright absent--it may well be worth wintering, hoping to have a more desirable card(s) revealed during winter.  Don't get your hopes up too high, though, as more often than not it seems players are left wanting.  As the game progresses and more valuable items have been scooped, the chance of finding particularly valuable items can decrease dramatically.

The game is fairly heavily laden with luck, with both dice rolling and cards, all of which can have the effect of rewarding the rich and hindering the poor.  This can be especially troublesome when trying to collect the different types of gems.  I've seen many a player searching for a particular gem at a mine, only to come away empty handed as none are revealed.  Lady luck is a fickle mistress. Another potential issue for some is that the card decks do have to be shuffled regularly, often several times during a turn.  I don't mind, but some folks have commented that this can be tedious.

Fool's Gold is a solid family-style game, especially for those without younger children.  The placement choices are fun, and I've found that children don't mind the dice rolling and luck elements present that sometimes pose an issue for adult gamers.  If you have folks in your gaming circles who are more strategy-oriented and tend to dislike games with a decent amount of luck, then this game may not be for them.  However, Thebes proved to be a very popular design in gaming circles, so perhaps Fool's Gold can also be accepted.  Whether you will strike it rich, however, is certainly left to chance!
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