Two of my gaming buddies both have Carson City in their top 5 or so games of all time. Their eyes light up every time it hits the table, or even when it might hit the table. They will often pick a game of Carson City over the latest hotness they are both also quite good at the game so every game with either or even better both of them can be a really enjoyable challenge.
Both have big box editions with all the expansions more or less thrown in so I am not always entirely sure which cards come from where. I really like the game although not as much as they do and thought I would put my thoughts together on the game.
This is a broadly realistic Western Setting so whilst there is gun fights and such it is much more about building out from a new village centre. Each round players take on a persona (gunfighter, banker whatever) and each give an ability.
Overall this is a pretty thematic game - there are quite a few times when action spaces feel a little too much go here for x money, go here to buy x victory points for x money, go here for 1 victory point for every building you have. All these feel a little dry and whilst they do not create thematic disconnect they neither help the theming and narrative nor do they make the game as interesting as it could be.
I really think Carson City is best with 4-5 players. There are adjustments for playing at lower player counts and I am happy to play this with 3+ but really its at 4 and 5 where it shines brightest. Also it plays really quickly at these counts given the amount of decisions and interaction that exists in the game.
This is a fairly straight forward worker placement game at its heart. There are two elements that make it a touch more complex, firstly you do not get the benefit for your action when you place a meeple, instead once everyone has finished for the round actions are resolved following a path (like Caylus). If there are several meeples on the same square then there is a duel and gun strength (and meeple reserves) are compared. The loser gets the meeple back and the winner gains the action.
What makes the game a touch more complex is just the way different buildings get points - there are player aids but I am never a fan of needing to look at player aids to see what buildings do - I would prefer text on the tiles, even if it made the game a touch uglier. It does make this a bit less easy for beginners but ultimately its not too big an issue. It does bring a bit of fiddle as buildings need to be rotated as a building grows or shrinks in value and its easy to over or under rotate a building.
The mechanics do all come together to make a compelling game with a good "arc" to it in terms of growing the town together, fighting over victory points, influence over the right personas at the right times etc.
Even without the big box there is a huge amount of variety in the game. There are lots of different strategies players can go for and the order buildings come up in and which personas (and which sides) are used can make a great difference but with the expansions the variability really increases a lot. There is an expansion where you get to customise your start position in terms of workers, guns, parcels of land, start money etc. I really like this although you do often see people more or less go for the standard start options with this. Then there are a lot of extra personas to mix the game up and facilitate different scoring strategies and extra buildings too. In short they give a game a sort of Dominionesque freshness so each game can feel fairly different, albeit in still a fairly dry do x to build a money engine, do x to get vp's etc.
The game is not as interactive as I often enjoy but there is a decent amount of interaction here and more than normal in a worker placement. You can duel over action spaces, you can extort a player for half of the income on a given building, you can race to get the juicy spaces on the board and you can build houses in ways that hurts and helps each other. Then sometimes you will finish a turn earlier than you want to because you want to be ahead for any duels that take place or to get first pick of persona for the next round. Sometimes you will not fight for the action space you really want because a duel is a risky proposition and take a slightly less appealing option.
When Carson City came out there was a real gap for euro games with interesting themes and decent thematic intergration. In that gap Carson City really stood out. It is still a great game, although one in which first time players sometimes struggle to compete, but it is not a game I would reach for first from the gaming pile.
My friends who love the game do not really find the elements in it dry that I do and the great components help to mask the mathiness at elements of its core but it is the one element that holds this a touch back for me. Overall though for how quick it plays, for the variety between games, from the entertainment from duels and other interactive elements this game is definitely a winner.
It is not as thematic as say Dungeon Petz - but it plays so quick and does better at interaction and non-wonky scoring and remains an entertaining and thematic worker placement game with a bit of money management and engine building.
I do recommend it for people who want a quick playing interactive worker placement game with a good amount of theme but not wanting too romantisised a Western setting.