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Subject: Sutter's Mill -- Session Report and FIRST impressions rss

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Greg Schloesser
United States
Jefferson City
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NOTE: This is a report of my FIRST playing of Sutter's Mill. Repeated playings will likely give me more insight.

I’ve always had a fascination with the history behind Old West "ghost towns", so Sutter’s Mill certainly has a theme that entices me. The theme is based on the actual town of Coloma in California, which thrived for a brief period during the California gold rush, only to be largely abandoned once the gold veins were depleted. While today the town is not a true ghost town, it only has about three-hundred residents. In a nice touch, there is a brief history of the town included in the rules.

Players assume the roles of wealthy entrepreneurs determined to extract huge profits from the mountains, then close shop before the veins run dry and their businesses collapse. Players must recruit miners, build the town, and extract gold, utilizing the special powers of the town’s buildings to extract the most gold and earn the greatest profits. All of this must be done before the veins are depleted, so players must properly time their departure before everything is abandoned.

The game is played in two distinct phases, and each player decides when he will personally enter the second phase. During the first phase -- the "Build-Up" -- players have two main options:

Gold Digging & Business. This action allows a player to collect gold tokens by moving prospectors from the camp of the active vein to the town buildings. For each prospector moved into town, the player collects the next token on the active vein.

Control of buildings allows a player to claim the corresponding certificates, which not only allows the player to take an extra gold counter for each certificate controlled, but also grants the player special powers, unique to each building.

Operating in the Town. If a player chooses this option, he can perform numerous actions as often as he desires. However, there is an increasing cost in gold for each additional action performed. Possible actions include placing or moving prospectors, placing influence cards in an attempt to gain control of a building, and removing prospectors or influence cards during the "tear-down" phase.

Why remove prospectors and influence cards from the game? Simple: Any of these left on the board at game’s end cost the player victory points. So, there is pressure to remove these items before the game is over.

Controlling certificates give players greater flexibility when performing their actions. These include taking an extra gold token from the specified vein, placing or removing an additional prospector or influence card, or switching the position of influence cards on a building site. One of the challenges is to cleverly combine these powers with the actions to optimize one’s turn. Control of these certificates tends to change hands frequently, so use the powers while you possess the certificates!

At some point, each player will make the decision to enter the "tear down" phase of the game. This is an individual decision that will be made at different times. When entering this phase, a player may still mine gold and operate in the town, but he will no longer place new prospectors or influence cards. Rather, the objective is to remove prospectors and influence cards before the game ends in order to prevent the loss of points. Further, every influence card removed earns victory points. This is certainly a matter of proper timing, as a player should try to reap all of the benefits of the build-up phase before entering the tear-down phase. Enter it too late, however, and you risk having the game end before all prospectors and influence cards are removed.

The game ends when the final gold token is removed from the final vein. This is sped-up a bit when players enter the tear-down phase, as each time all influence cards are removed from a building, one gold token is removed from the end of the final vein. Thus, the proverbial clock begins ticking a bit faster. Players earn victory points for influence cards they have removed and gold counters, while losing points for prospectors and influence cards remaining on the board.

While the theme is intriguing, the game play left all four players very disappointed. The game appears to be highly dependent upon the style of play of the participants. Played as the designers and developers intend, the game may well work well and have the requisite tension and excitement. However, if players stray from this path, the game crashes and burns. As such, it is quite fragile. Here is the problem as we experienced it:

As mentioned, the game is scheduled to end when the last gold token is removed from the board. At that point, players score positive points for the influence cards they have removed from the board, as well as points equal to the value of the gold nuggets they possess. Players score NEGATIVE points for influence cards still in play on the board, as well as any of their prospectors still on the board.

Herein lays the problem: it is entirely possible for all players to enter the tear-down phase and actively play so as the last gold counter will not be removed from the gold vein. This gives all players ample time to take turns calmly and systematically removing their influence cards and prospector cards from the board. Thus, no player will receive negative points.

The mechanism wherein a gold counter is removed each time a building becomes emptied of influence cards is designed to add a time pressure to the proceedings, but if enough gold counters are left on the board (at least nine, as there are only eight buildings), then even this mechanism will result in one gold counter remaining on the board. Thus, the game would not end, and all players would have time to remove their cards and prospectors from the board. The tension is removed.

Further, unless a player is clearly ahead, there is no incentive for the player to rush to the camp and mine the final pieces of gold. Why? In order to do this, the player must have one or more prospectors on the camp in order to successfully mine those gold pieces. These prospectors are sent to the buildings after mining the gold, which means they will remain on the board when the game ends, thereby costing the player victory points. So, unless one player is clearly ahead and has a victory point cushion -- which cannot be determined with one-hundred percent certainty since the value of gold counters are hidden until the end of the game -- there is a disincentive to mine the final few gold counters that will trigger the game to end.

One of the major elements of tension in the game is the decision as to when to enter the "tear-down" phase of the game and begin removing cards and prospectors from the town. If this tension is removed, the game is sapped of most of its fun.

I have spoken with one of the developers, and he assures me that when players gather experience, this style of play will not be successful. I’m certainly going to give the game another chance, but I am always disappointed when the success of a game requires participants to play in a prescribed manner. I value games that give players wider latitude.

In our game, as you can guess, we experienced the problem described above. This removed any time pressure, and we all casually took turns removing our prospectors and influence cards from the game. It was a big "yawner". I’m hopeful that future playing will show us the folly of our actions, and give us insight into smarter play. If not, Sutter’s Mill is doomed to suffer the same fate as the actual town upon which it is based.

Finals:

Astra: 45 cards, 23 gold = 68
Ryan: 64 cards, 4 gold = 68
Greg: 43 cards, 8 gold = 51
Nathan: 26 cards, 21 gold = 47

Ratings: Ryan 4, Nathan 3.5, Astra 3, Greg 3

 
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Steve K
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Greg, thanks for the review.

We've played Sutter's Mill three times now, and we hadn't spotted the rule about removing a gold token whenever a building had its last card removed.

Even without spotting this rule, we enjoyed our games, and had no problem finishing. Each game, one or more players positioned themselves to be able to finish the game if they wanted. During those final turns, we were assessing the negative points remaining on the board to determine if we should end it, or take another turn. As you say, we don't have 100% info because of the face-down tokens, but at that point the gold tokens are a done deal. The best a player can do is to end it when they're in the best relative position possible with regards to the negative points coming from the face up cards.
 
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Matthew Wozenilek
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Blue Ash
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I have not played, but couldn't you add the rule so that upon the first exit move, coins are adjusted to "buildings less one". In your case, with eight buildings, the coins would be adjusted to seven.

-Matthew


gschloesser wrote:

The mechanism wherein a gold counter is removed each time a building becomes emptied of influence cards is designed to add a time pressure to the proceedings, but if enough gold counters are left on the board (at least nine, as there are only eight buildings), then even this mechanism will result in one gold counter remaining on the board. Thus, the game would not end, and all players would have time to remove their cards and prospectors from the board. The tension is removed.
 
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Greg Schloesser
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wozenilek wrote:
I have not played, but couldn't you add the rule so that upon the first exit move, coins are adjusted to "buildings less one". In your case, with eight buildings, the coins would be adjusted to seven.

-Matthew


This sounds like a reasonable solution. Thanks for the idea!


 
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Steve K
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gschloesser wrote:
wozenilek wrote:
I have not played, but couldn't you add the rule so that upon the first exit move, coins are adjusted to "buildings less one". In your case, with eight buildings, the coins would be adjusted to seven.

-Matthew


This sounds like a reasonable solution. Thanks for the idea!




I don't understand. What do you mean by "the first exit move"?

Are you saying that as soon as the first player to switch from build-up to tear-down mode then all except 7 gold tokens are removed from the board?

Taking what might be a large number of gold tokens off the board might well leave players without enough currency to pay for actions. The rule seems to force the game to end very quickly once the first player decides to tear-down.

(there again ... I'm not even clear what "problem" this is a "solution" to).
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Stephen Michael Hickey
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Hi Greg, you made some great points here.

As you say, this game is totally dependent on the style of play of the participants; perhaps more so than any other game that I have played. I would also agree that the sort of game stall you experienced could easily be evident with players that are new to the game.

I've only played one 3 player game so far but found that one to be thoroughly competitive. I think the reason was that we realised that the Church is a major driving factor in forcing the game to a conclusion. Once one player controls the church (in our case with 5 cards that couldn't be beat) they can push their higher valued investments to the top of the pile with each town organisation move.

The opponents can then no longer leisurely withdraw their investments without providing the church owner with an income stream. The church owner can then concentrate on mass gold digging to form a second large income stream. It's then in the church owner's interest to finish the game, even if they have some/many investments left on the board because either (i) the other player's investments will be left buried beneath the Church owner's investments or (ii) the other players will have been providing the church owner with a second free income stream as they retrieve his investments while getting to their own.

Either way the church owner wins. Also if option (i) happens, the church owner can have one major turn when they collect some major investments in the round or two before they end the game.

At the end of the day, players need to realise that it is not about getting everything off the board but having less on the board than anyone else.

At least that is what happened in our game.


 
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Greg Schloesser
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unruled wrote:
gschloesser wrote:
wozenilek wrote:
I have not played, but couldn't you add the rule so that upon the first exit move, coins are adjusted to "buildings less one". In your case, with eight buildings, the coins would be adjusted to seven.

-Matthew


This sounds like a reasonable solution. Thanks for the idea!





Rather than modify (ruin?) the game to fit the group-think of a bunch of newbies, why not play again, explore new strategies, and see if the developer has more insight than 2 people with one game session between them?


Hey, Ray! I certainly intend to play again, but with so many new games vying for table time, getting a game that received a poor response back to the table any time soon seems remote.
 
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