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Subject: Sutter's Mill Preview at CharCon Hobby News & Reviews rss

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Dave Gilligan
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This preview of Sutter's Mill originally appeared on the CharCon Hobby News & Reviews site, http://charcon.org/index.php?pageid=hobbynews.

What is CharCon?

CharCon is THE West Virginia Gaming Convention. Taking place at the Charleston Civic Center in the heart of downtown Charleston WV, CharCon will be going into its fourth year. Once again we will be bringing you the best in Board, Miniature, Role Playing and Collectible Games and more all weekend long! Whatever game you like to play, you can find it at CharCon. Don't miss out, make plans to come to CharCon today!

Dates: 2009 dates TBD
_______________________________________________

Sutter's Mill - Preview

Designer: Marco Teubner. Publisher: Mayfair Games. Players: 2-5. Playing Time: 1 Hour. Availability: TBD.

Each year around New Year's Day I get together with several of my friends for a day of gaming and camaraderie. We also have a gift exchange of board games. I was looking for an appropriate gift for this year's exchange and was reviewing some Mayfair games (the makers of Settlers of Catan) when I came across a new game, Sutter's Mill. What really caught my attention was that there were rules for the game posted on Board Game Geek. I was surprised because Mayfair generally doesn't post the rules to its game anywhere, let alone on BGG. There was only one problem. The rules were in German!

Fortunately, I have some experience with the language having studied it in college and also having lived in Germany for a year. Unfortunately, that was almost 20 years ago! In any case, I downloaded the file and found I was able to understand the introductory paragraph as well as some of the rules so I decided to make the attempt to translate the entire rule book. It took several hours but with the assistance of the Google translation tool (which gives some help but usually requires translation itself) I completed the task. For anyone interested, you can view the full text in the file section of Sutter's Mill at BGG.

Theme:

In Sutter's Mill the players experience the rise and fall of the gold rush town of Coloma in California. The players prospect for gold and exert influence on the businesses in town. At some point, however, it becomes apparent that the good times in Coloma are coming to an end as the gold vein begins to run out. The players have to decide when its time to stop building up the town and time to start gathering together their possessions and get out before the final collapse.

Game Components:

1 Game board
20 Prospectors (5 of each color)
52 Influence Cards (13 cards in 5 colors)
8 Deed cards
1 Lucky Strike card
84 Gold Markers(24 blue, 24 brown, 24 gray, 12 red)
4 Rules Summaries
1 Rule Book

Mayfair generally does a nice job with components so I expect this game to be of similar quality. The game board is divided into several areas. Three camps in the corners of the board and the town of Coloma with its 8 buildings in the center. There is a gold vein that runs around the board and past the camps which is broken into three sections: the river, the cliffs and the mines. The gold vein is denoted by circles where the gold markers are placed (84 in all. 24 blue - river, 24 brown - cliffs, 24 gray - mine.) There is some artwork on the boards that adds a nice thematic touch.

How to Play:

Lay out the game board and put the gold markers, one in each circle, face down on the board in their respective sections (blue in the river, etc...) Each gold marker has 1-4 gold nuggets on the face down. Each player chooses a color and takes their five pawns (prospectors) and their 13 influence cards (valued 1-9, Jack (10), Queen (10), King (10), Ace (11).) Each player places one of their prospectors in the river camp to start the game. A start player is chosen at random and play begins. From this point, each player takes their entire turn then play passes to the left. The game ends immediately when the last gold marker has been removed from the gold vein at which point the players tally up their victory points to determine the winner.

A player's turn is conducted as follows:

At the beginning of his turn a player determines whether he is going to engage in building up the town or tearing down the town. The decision to begin tearing down the town generally will not occur until about half the gold markers have been removed from the board. Once a player makes the decision to begin the tear down phase they cannot go back to building up. Each player makes this decision independently so one or several players may be tearing down while other players are still in the build up phase.

In either the build up or the tear down phase a player may, on his turn, choose to prospect and conduct business in town. He does this by moving one of his prospectors from the active camp (the active camp is the camp that has the next available gold marker in its area) to any building in town. When he does this he takes a gold marker. The player may move several prospectors from the active camp to the same or different building during a single turn and receive a gold marker for each prospector thus moved. If the player owns any deeds (gained by playing influence in town...more on that later) the player then receives an extra gold marker for each deed owned. The player with the least number of deeds gets the lucky strike card which acts like a deed for getting these additional markers.

Rather than prospecting and conducting business a player may choose to perform actions in town. These actions are different depending on whether the player is in the build up phase or the tear down phase. They may take up to five actions total and perform them in any order they like. Taking actions costs money/nuggets which the player must pay to the bank. 1 action = 0 nuggets. 2 actions = 1 nugget. 3 actions = 3 nuggets. 4 actions = 8 nuggets. 5 actions = 15 nuggets. They may make change using the red markers (these aren't placed in the gold vein but rather form the bank.) Possible actions during build up are:

Bring a prospector onto the board. Remember, you only start with one so this is how you get the other four into play.

Move a prospector from one location on the board to another. This is different than prospecting as you can move from one building to another, one camp to another, or from a building to a camp.

Play an influence card on a building. In order to play an influence card a player must have one of their prospectors on the building to play their first card. If they want to play a second card they must have two prospectors. To play a third, three prospectors and so on. Thus, a player can play at most five influence cards on a particular building (each player only has five prospectors.)

Playing influence cards is how players gain the ownership deeds. The player with the most influence on a building takes the deed for that building and places it in front of them. In case of a tie, the player with the highest card wins. In case of a further tie, the player who played their influence to the building first owns the deed. The deeds not only give extra gold markers when prospecting but also provide additional special powers throughout the game to the owning player.

During tear down a player can choose from the following when performing actions in town:

Remove a prospector from the board.

Move a prospector from one location to another.

Remove an influence card from the board. The cards are removed in reverse order of the way they were played (i.e. top card first.) Players can remove their own or other player's cards. Removing cards is important in determining victory points so removing your opponent's cards does earn them points but may be necessary in order to get to your own cards lower down in the stack. In order to remove a card a player must have a prospector on the building but a prospector can remove only one card from a particular building per turn (the prospector could, however, be moved to another building and remove a card from it, provided the player has paid for the appropriate number of actions.)

A quick note about the special powers of the buildings. Some allow players to get extra gold markers when prospecting while others allow the players to take additional actions when performing actions in town for free or break the rules in some other way. See the rules for more details.

As mentioned above, the game ends immediately when the last gold marker is removed from the board and final scoring takes place. A player scores 1 point for each gold nugget they have left at the end of the game (each gold marker is worth 1-4 gold nuggets.) Players also score points for each influence card they actually played to the board and later removed equal to the value of the card. Influence cards left on the board at game's end score negative points equal to the value of the card. In addition, prospectors left in Coloma at the end of the game score negative points. One prospector is minus 1, two are minus 3, three are minus 6, four are minus 10 and if all five are left in Coloma the player loses 15 points. The player with the highest score wins. In case of a tie, the player with the least negative points is the victor.

My thoughts on the Sutter's Mill:

When I read the description of Sutter's Mill the first game that came to mind was another Mayfair title, Pompeii. In that game, players build up the town by moving in citizens but once the volcano blows everyone scrambles to get out of town (many unsuccessfully.) Building up a town/city and then tearing it down/fleeing with all your worldly possessions is where the similarities between the two games end. Pompeii is a rather light affair whereas Sutter's Mill seems to me to be a weightier game. The description says it should play in an hour, which is about the same time it would take to play through Pompeii but there are several more decisions to be made in Sutter's Mill than in Pompeii. My impression after reading the rules is that Sutter's Mill is more of a gamers' game than Pompeii but not overly heavy.

One of the things that impressed me most about the game was the incorporation of the theme, specifically the theme of mining and prospecting. Several gold rushes have occurred in the United States and the general pattern was that the first type of prospecting that took place involved getting the alluvial deposits...panning for gold. Then, as the alluvial deposits started to dry up, mining moved to shallow pit mining or reaching deposits by using high pressure water to erode surrounding hillsides. Once that was depleted, the deep mining started. In Sutter's Mill this is represented by the gold vein that changes from the river section, to the cliff section and finally to the mine section of the board. Once an area has been tapped out, prospectors must move to the next area to be productive. I found this to be a very nice touch.

Another aspect of the game I find interesting is the unique mechanism whereby each player independently decides when to switch phases of the game (from building up to tearing down.) There are many games where a player must decide when to switch from earning income or resources to earning victory points but the underlying mechanisms do not change. There are also many games where once a certain point is reached the game changes phases automatically. I cannot, however, think of a game with the exact mechanism used in Sutter's Mill (they may be out there but I'm not aware of them at the moment.) New mechanisms in euro-games are increasingly rare, so kudos to the designer.

All said, I'm glad I took the time to translate the rules. The game looks like one I could play with both my gamer friends and those who are not quite so into board games but like to play occasionally. Because of the incorporation of theme into the game I also think it would be easy for new players to learn but at the same time there should be enough decisions and competition to keep more experienced players engaged. Hopefully it won't be too long before the game hits the U.S. market. I expect someone in our game group will add this game to their collection, quite possibly me.
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