Review: The Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch by DogTown Games (Scott Starkey, designer)
Reviewer: Michael A. Daugherty, Founder of the Board Game Designers Forum (http://www.bgdf.com)
I purchased DogTown Games’ Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch a few months back and finally got around to playing it. ‘Sticky Gulch’ was designed and illustrated by Scott Starkey, who may be better known by some as the artist behind Eight Foot Llama’s Monkeys on the Moon and Penguin Ultimatum.
‘Sticky Gulch’ comes in a delightfully illustrated tuckbox. The components of the game consist simply of the card deck and the instructions. Players will need to provide their own game tokens, a method for keeping score, and a single sided die. However, you can download play money and tokens from the author’s website (if you go this route, I recommend enlarging the play money and printing it out on card stock, and print the tokens on labels and adhere them to tiddly winks).
In ‘Sticky Gulch’, each player plays a gold prospector. The winner is decided by who has most money after a set number of locations have been closed down. Depending upon whether you choose a short, medium, or long game; you have to close down 3,5 or 7 locations respectively. Each location has a certain number of payouts, and up to 6 campsites where players can place their camps.
On each turn a player has 3 action points with which to perform actions. Actions consist of drawing locations and placing a free camp, drawing drifter cards, placing camps, and making a prospector roll on a location.
In addition, a player also gets one free prospector roll each turn. For each prospector roll, the player chooses a location and then rolls the die. If there is a player camp on that number on the location card, then the player who owns that camp gets the next payout for that location. A claim token is placed on the payout to denote it has been claimed. If all the payouts for a particular location have been claimed, then that location is closed. All camp tokens are returned to their respective players and the location is removed from play. If this was the last location, then the game ends and money is tallied with the player with the most money being the winner.
Placing camps on a location is simple. A player simply takes one of his camp tokens and places it on any open number on a location in play. Players are limited to 8 camp tokens, so they must place them wisely. Only when a location is closed can they get back camp tokens that have already been placed.
Drifters are obtained through the drifter deck. Each time you pay an action point to buy a drifter, you actually get to look at the top two drifter cards and put one back. Our group found this to be a rather amusing mechanic because we had the same poor fellow sitting on the top of the deck for most of the game. Each drifter has a special ability that you may use on your turn at any time (without an action point cost) by paying the hiring cost (from your stash of money) on the card. Each drifter’s special ability modifies the game rules in some way, and the hiring cost reflects the severity of the modification. For example, I was able to use Billy Vasquez to steal another player’s payout that cost me a measly $6 (I netted $8 on the deal). The drifter cards are where Scott’s artistic talents really shine in the game. The combination of his unique graphics and witty flavor text really take the game to the next level theme wise. In this respect, it rivals the filler classic Guillotine.
The action point system is rather unique. Each action normally costs 1 action point, but if you perform that action again, it costs 2 action points. So basically it boils down to you may perform three of the four available actions once, or you may perform one of the four actions twice. I found this system to very simple and flexible at the same time. The system rewards planning (but more on the tactical level) and yet is still flexible enough to let you respond to new situations rather easily.
All in all, I found ‘Sticky Gulch’ to be a very enjoyable game. Due to time constraints, we were only able to play the short game (closing 3 locations), which left it feeling like a filler game. However at the end of the game, I wanted to play it longer, which to me was a very good sign. I believe that the game has a good blend of theme, strategy, and luck to make it a good addition into your active rotation. If you like Cheap Ass games, you will LOVE this game (I found it to be above and beyond any Cheap Ass game I’ve ever played). If you like filler games like Guillotine, you will like this game. If your looking for a break from the mental drain imposed by games like Puerto Rico and the like, you will like this game.
As an ‘online acquaintance’ of Scott Starkey, I talked him into giving me a brief E-Interview. The interview is as follows:
Michael: The game has a Cheap Ass feel in that you need to provide common components (play money, a die, player markers) in order to play the game. Knowing what you know now, would you have gone back and added these components in to make the game more 'stand alone'?
Scott: Yeah, hindsight is always 20/20. There are certainly things I would have done differently or better. Since this was my first game, shortly before it was published, I was standing on the brink of the "game designer abyss" wondering how I was going to get this thing accomplished. At first I was planning on making it more "cheapassy" than it is now. I was planning on publishing it in a white envelope, but my family (the ones fitting the bill, I guess) suggested that I "do it right" and have a real box, which ended up doubling the cost of the project! So, here I was, ready to invest several thousand dollars of my own money into this game that I wasn't sure if anyone would buy. Sure, I did blind testing, but I had no idea if other people would really like it. I'm certainly not a rich man by any means, and a few thousand dollars is quite significant! So, adding tokens -- or so I felt at the time -- would have pushed my finances farther than I was willing to risk. Besides, I was marketing the game mostly to gamers, who I figured had that stuff laying around, and are somewhat used to it from other games. Heck, even Magic: the Gathering even needs tokens or some sort of scorekeeper, so I figured I was in pretty good company. However, if I were to do it again, I'd make the box a little bigger and stick tokens in there. It's just nice to have a complete game. And some jingly stuff in the box makes the game more attractive, right? :-)
Michael: As a hobbyist game designer, I pay attention to the details when playing other peoples' games. More specifically, I like to study the ways in which designers balance out their games mathematically. Did you use any sort of formulas to balance out the location cards in 'Sticky Gulch'?
Scott: Yes, I did so for the Lodes on the Locations. You might be able to find some patterns if you look closely enough. Most of the Locations (having the same number of Lodes) should add up to be approximately the same value. Locations with more Lodes were worth a little more. After setting the Locations, however, I tweaked a few of them that didn't look right, or switched a couple of numbers around for variety. I'm no Knizia, but it seems to work OK.
Michael: The different abilities of the drifters were very interesting. How did you come up with the hiring cost for each drifter?
Scott:Gut feelings, player feedback, and painful trial and error. :-) First, I came up with most of the abilities, and said, "Oh, that sounds about like a $4 ability." And then after a few games, I realized that I had overpriced the Drifters, so they weren't being used. (After all, money equals end-game points!) So, I priced down some of the Drifters. Some of the powers were then too powerful or too weak, and were adjusted accordingly.
Michael: Because 'Sticky Gulch' was self published, did you find that you had to make a lot of drastic changes to make the game more practical to publish? If you had gotten the game published by a publishing company, how do you envision the game might have been changed (pure speculation is fine)? If money had been no object, how would have changed the game?
Scott: Other than the dropping of the tokens (for which I hope gamers will forgive me!) Sticky Gulch is almost exactly like I envisioned it. I designed it with the intention of myself being able to publish it, so I tried to keep the components simple: cards are probably the cheapest thing to produce. If I were to do it again, I'd publish it in a slightly bigger box, including tokens. I'd also have put a UPC mark on there, to make it into some of the stores that require that sort of thing.
Michael: As it stands, the game seems to fit nicely into the lite strategy/ beer & pretzel category. Did you ever consider making the game more strategy based?
Scott: Oh, I don't think I ever did for *this* game. However, I did feel the need to publish this game first because I've already prototyped two sequels taking place in the world of Sticky Gulch. The first is "Boot Hill of Sticky Gulch," which is perhaps a bit more Beer & Pretzel-y and goofy than Mother Lode. (But in some ways more fun! I like it better! It's chock full of dark humor.) I'm hoping to come out with some version of it for GenCon this year, although I don't have the dough for a slickly produced game right now. The second sequel swings the strategy/pretzel pendulum the other way, and is a somewhat more strategic game, called "The Golden Spike of Sticky Gulch". It's a strategic train game which should appeal to fans of that genre. As yet, it is just a prototype, and includes a game board and some special tokens, but it seemed to work on many levels during the one play test session it had. Much more work is necessary on this one, though. Of course, I've got other non-Sticky Gulch games in the game-design queue, too. But I'm not able to talk about them publicly right now.
Michael: On your website (http://www.dogtowngames.com), you announce that you are planning on doing expansions for 'Sticky Gulch'. What would such expansions entail? Would it be more location and drifter cards? Would it mean changing the core mechanics of the game at all?
Scott:I have considered spicing up the Location cards a bit. Some Locations might have tougher sites to populate, or have special effects (good and bad) up in the Lodes. Of course, additions and tweaks in the rules lead to new Drifter effects. If I were to produce a expansion set or second printing, I would endeavor to make it completely compatible with the previous set -- so you could combine the games to get one gigantic-huge Drifter deck.
Scott Starkey’s Bio:
Scott Starkey decided to get into the game industry as part of a year 2001 resolution, and has since been honored by the Games 100. He has also produced artwork for two other Games 100-winning games, as well as a regular cartoon for Boulder Games. His day job occupies him as a full-time computer technician and occasional student at Purdue University.
tim Tim TIm TIM TIMMY!!
Awesome review, thanks so much, and an interview - just way way cool