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Subject: Walnut Grove: Holy Union of Agricola and Carcassonne? rss

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Carlos Robledo
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Overview

Walnut Grove is a new game from Lookout Games set in the days of American Settlers. The game is designed by relatively new designers Paul Laane and Touko Tahkokallio. You might have heard Touko's name recently due to his also recent smash hit, Eclipse. I was very impressed by how different the games are, not just in theme but also mechanics. I am very much looking forward to seeing what else we might see in the future from these guys.

Walnut Grove is a light euro game about settling a farm and gathering resources in order to survive the harsh winters. In that sense, it does feel like an "Agricola-lite," although the mechanics are not really similar. The game incorporates various different mechanics, such as tile-drawing and placement (a-la-Carcassonne) and worker placement. However, the game feels like an elegant flow of mechanics, not a jumble of things the designers threw together. Everything in the game seems deliberate and well playtested.

Sadly, the game is currently hard to find in the states, and will require import from Germany. However, the game is totally language independant and has English rules in the box as well. If you are into these types of games, read on. It migh be worth importing it after all.

What you get in the box



Walnut Grove follows most of the standards we have come to expect from Lookout Games in terms of components, and I don't say that in a bad way. The first thing that will jump at you is the art, as it is created by now famous artist Klemens Franz from Agricola and La Havre fame. Everything is very well illustrated and really makes the game feel like an old west setting, with the town square surrounded by saloons and churches and general stores.

The wooden and cardboard components are also pretty standard Euro fare. All the tiles and player boards are around the same thickness as Agricola, and definitely feel like good quality. Sadly, the two copies I have played on share a problem with the landscape tiles, which suffer from misaligned print sheets. All the landscape tiles are supposed to have 4 quadrants, each facing a stright edge of the tile. But on a few tiles, landscapes are off by a bit and don't meet in the corners correctly (where they should). this creates a but of a hassle later when you are trying to figure out if your landscapes and fences connect correctly, but all you have to do is rememer to always assume the lines dividing the terrain types should always be running into the corner even if they are 1/8 of an inch off.

Some of the extra componenets were very nice to see included in the game, such as the cloth bags for the landscape tiles and coins. It's always refreshing when companies include these in games that require drawing random tiles or chits.

Setup and Gameplay

Setup is fairly easy. You place the board in the middle, and stack the 8 year discs in a tack in the middle. The stack should have the 4 "B" discs at the bottom (randomized) and the 4 "A" discs on top of that (also randomized). Players then select a place to start in the two tracks in the middle of the board. All players setup their player board by simply grabbing a black pawn and placing it in your starting hut, and either a blue or yellow pawn depending on the pre-printed icon on the first covered wagon. All the reminaing pawns are then randomly placed on the main board in the 3 locations for them. Players place two 0-value coins in their starting barn, flip the first "A" disc in the middle face-up and they are ready to begin.

A game round (year) is divided into four phases (the seasons). The main objective of the game is using the actions available in Spring, Summer and Fall in order to accumulate resources to survive the Winter, while accumulating victory points in the process.

Spring - When the center disc is flipped, the first things players carry out is the Spring action, which is drawing landscape tiles out of the bag and diciding which one(s) to keep. When looking at a disc, the top quadrant depicts Spring. The first number in the symbol is how many tiles each player draws out of the bag, and the second number how many they get to keep out of those drawn. You draw the appropriate number, and bring them in to your board. You are allowed to play around with them, spin them around try out some test fits, until you have found out the tile(s) you want to keep. After you have made your choice, simply put the other tiles back in the bag. Once you have made your plaement decision and moved to Summer, you can never move it again though.

Usually, you want to try to find tiles that match your starting landscapes printed on your player board, and extend them by placing matching ones next to the printed ones. Another thing you want to look for is creating enclosed areas with fences (the thick black lines), which will help at end-game scoring. The reason bigger landscapes are more efficient is discussed below in Summer.

Summer - Summer is the production phase. During my plays we just took Spring and Summer phases simultaneously and independently, as there is no player interaction until the Fall. When you get to the Summer phase, you may now place all your pawns from your farm unto the landscapes you have created in order to produce resources there. The color of the pawn is irrelevant in this phase. You place the pawns into any of the terrain types you have, and that terrain will produce as many cubes as there are tiles in that terrain. so if you place a pawn in a water terrain that spans 3 tiles (inlcuding your board) then that pawn would produce 3 fish cubes. Cubes produced are stored in the square spaces in the terrain they were produced in. If you produce more than you can store there, you must place them in open spaces in your barns or loose them. The cube depicted in the Summer dection of the center disc determines which resource type will produce a bonus cube if you produce that resource this year. Obviously, if you produce that resource, you get one more cube than you have tiles in that landscape.

Fall - In order, players now get to carry actions in the town square. When it's your turn to move, you may move your pawn clockwise around the board as many spaces as yo want, until you land in an empty space you want to take an action at. When you finish your movement, you simply take the action associated with the building you landed at, and that is your turn. All players take one action before proceeding to Winter. Note the two spaces on the track marked with a coin (in front of Town Hall and Church). These are important when you cross over them, as explained below.

The action spaces are:
1. Post Office and Church: Receive two free goods. Place them in your barns.
2. Lodge, Hotel, Saloon: Pay the building cost and take a pawn to your farm. new pawns are placed next to your board, as they do NOT need to be fed the round you acquire them.
3. Carpenter and Mill: Pay the building cost and take an available barn or hut. Barns increase your storage capacity by two and huts reduce the heating costs in the Winter.
4. Svensons's and Soebuck's: Pay the building cost and take an improvment tiles. These tiles give you victory points at the end of the game.
5. General stores: Sell one of EACH of the printed good types. The maximum you would be able to sell is 3 goods, one of each type. You draw a random coin from the bag for each good sold, and an extra coin if you sell the good indicated by the Fall section of the center disc.

When your figure crosses one of the two spaces marked with a coin, you must pay Taxes or visit the Church Bazzar (they are mechanically identical). At that time you must pay one coin (value is irrelevant) to continue moving. If you are not able to pay, you must take a "neighbourly help" tile, which is -2 points if you still have that tile at the end of the game. These tiles can be paid back at any time by spending any 3 goods cubes, but if you ever need to take a "help" tile while you already have one it will flip the first one over making it impossible to repay it this game.



Winter - All players now return their pawns home from the fields, and must feed and heated. For every pawn, you need to pay one good of the color of the pawn in order to feed them. Futhermore, any pawns matching the color of the one depicted in the Winter section of the disc are extra hungry and require 2 cubes to be satisfied.

Then, all players need to pay one wood good for any pawns living in a covered wagon. Additionally, you also pay +1 wood good for every campfire symbol in the Winter section of the disc (this wood is unrelated to the living cost of the pawns). For every good you cannot pay (feeding or heating) you must take a neighbourly help tile.

Now is a good time to mention that you may use coins at any point during the game as wild goods, regardless of their value. Since the value of the coin is only relevant if you have it at the end of the game, you will most likely spend all the zero-value coins as wild goods.

After Winter, the year is over. Discard the current center disc, bring to your board any pawns purchased that turn, and start the next round. After 8 rounds, the game is over and you move in to final scoring.

Scoring is fairly simple. You get points for completed fenced in areas of your farm (type of land in the fence is irrelevant), for every pawn you have, and for every hut and barn built. Coins score as many points as their value, and improvement tiles score last based on their type. Some boost other scoring categores (such as fenced areas scoring an extra point each) while others add scoring categories (goods in barns at the end of the game are points). Finally, you subtract any neighbourly help tiles you still have left at the end of the game, and that is your final score.

Impressions

Walnut Grove was honestly a very pleasant surprise. To my knowledge it had no buzz coming out of Essen, but I am very glad I tried it at BGG.con. It is a light Euro that at first glance seems like it brings nothing new to the table, but I have played it a few times now and I don't feel bored with it. I would think it would be a great "next step" game after gateway games for newer gamers, espacially if you are interested in moving them into games like Agricola.

I overhead talk from a few people calling this "Agricola lite," and although I can see where it comes from it might be stretching it a bit. I will agree that Walnit Grove might share a few concepts with it, but the mechanics do not really overlap that much. It does teach a few things that you will need when playing Agricola, such as having enough resources when harvest (Winter) happens and learning when is the correct time to grow your family (laborers). I think there is enough in Walut Grove for it to stand on its own as a good solid game.

I defintely enjoy this one. It has a little bit of everything: some tile-laying, resource managment, and worker placement. There are a few hidden victory points from the coins, as well as variable end-game points from Inprovement tiles. It's very short as well, easily coming in at or under 45 minutes even for a first play if don't have any AP-prone players. If you have the chance, give this one a try. It's definitely a rare gem and worth a try. I hope it gets picked up for wide distribution in the US, but I'm not holding my breath.

Bottom Line
thumbsup Fast action with mostly simultaneous turns
thumbsup Simple mechanics that work together to make a coherent game
thumbsup Great next step for new gamers
thumbsdown Component issues (misaligned tiles) seem to be common
thumbsdown Randomness of coins can come into play with close games
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Seth Jaffee
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I missed Walnut Grove at BGG.con, but played it once with a friend's copy. I too was pleasantly surprised with it and find myself wanting to play again. I did not realize it was designed by the same guy who made Eclipse - which I just payed for the first time last week. Eclipse has a lot of good things going for it as well.

I note your thumbsdown for the randomness of the coins. I found the same thing, and in fact it ended up deciding the game in our one play. I would like to play the game again, but I am considering this variant for the next play to remove the random coin value being such a factor in victory (I posted this in the variant forum as well):

The first coin you get when selling is always Copper.
The second coin you get when selling is always Silver.
The third coin you get when selling is always Silver.
The fourth coin you get when selling is always Gold.

That way you always score 0-1/1-2/2-4 points for selling 1/2/3 cubes, and it's not random at all, it depends on whether you collect the correct cubes. If you want coins to spend, it's less important to sell all 3 cubes, but if you want to score well, you need to collect the correct assortment of cubes - which will give you some Gold to save, some Copper to spend, and some Silver to think about.
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Scot Ryder
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I didn't notice a problem with the coin randomness. It certainly didn't decode our game. Seth's variant adds complexity that I wouldn't want...I'd probably just remove the copper from the draw pile (players still start with copper.)
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Carlos Robledo
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Bean-Boy wrote:
It certainly didn't decode our game.


And I do agree that it does not decide EVERY game, probably not even most games. But when it's very close otherwise and someone has 2 2-value coins and you have 4 1 and 0 -zero value coins it can be a bit annoying. That is why I quantified in my review that it only surfaces in close games. After having it played around 4-5 times now, it only ever happened once, maybe twice.

Actually, the coins mechanic and the prestige tiles in Eclipse have that in common. They must have both come from Touko
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Steve Duff
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I like the random coins. It makes for some tough decisions when you want to move around the town track - "Do I give up my 2 points in order to take that spot? Or should I stop here at this spot for free, even though it's not as good?"
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Seth Jaffee
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
I like the random coins. It makes for some tough decisions when you want to move around the town track - "Do I give up my 2 points in order to take that spot? Or should I stop here at this spot for free, even though it's not as good?"

That comes from having coins of different value, not from having coins of random value.
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Seth Jaffee
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crobledo wrote:
Bean-Boy wrote:
It certainly didn't decode our game.


And I do agree that it does not decide EVERY game, probably not even most games. But when it's very close otherwise and someone has 2 2-value coins and you have 4 1 and 0 -zero value coins it can be a bit annoying. That is why I quantified in my review that it only surfaces in close games. After having it played around 4-5 times now, it only ever happened once, maybe twice.

Actually, the coins mechanic and the prestige tiles in Eclipse have that in common. They must have both come from Touko

That's really not the same thing at all. My variant is closer to how Eclipse works than the Walnut Grove coin drawing rule...

In Eclipse you can improve your chances of getting more points by "doing better" in combat and thereby drawing more tiles at a time, but you only keep 1. There's a mechanism like that in Thebes as well. I personally think there's a problem in Thebes in that you can draw many tiles (having spent a lot of time and effort preparing) and score less than the player who only draws a few tiles. The same problem exists in Walnut Grove - a player going out of their way to trade the maximum 3 cubes for 4 coins could actually score less than a player who just turns in 1 or 2 cubes. This is especially important on the last turn of the game, when you aren't going to need to spend coins anymore - in our game 2 players' last big play was turning in the "correct" set of 3 cubes, which you'd think should score comparably to the scoring tiles (other players' last big play), but the VP gain was wildly different between those 2 players (and the guy who did it on the previous turn).

In Eclipse I think it works better than in Walnut Grove because you're only ever keeping 1 tile - extra draws just serve to improve the value of that tile - and to me it seems to also work better than in Thebes, maybe because of tile distribution.

I will note that in Eclipse, near the end of the game all of the 3 and 4 VP tiles were gone from the bag, and nobody would take a 1 or 2 vp tile.. we just stopped drawing at that point.
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Steve Duff
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sedjtroll wrote:
That comes from having coins of different value, not from having coins of random value.


It's not the same at all. Your variant guarantees that you'll always earn some copper fodder to get rid of along with the coins you'd like to keep.

It's not knowing if you'll have any fodder, or only having high values that makes the decision difficult. How does getting a perfect spread every sale make for any decision to be made?
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Seth Jaffee
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
sedjtroll wrote:
That comes from having coins of different value, not from having coins of random value.


It's not the same at all. Your variant guarantees that you'll always earn some copper fodder to get rid of along with the coins you'd like to keep.

It's not knowing if you'll have any fodder, or only having high values that makes the decision difficult. How does getting a perfect spread every sale make for any decision to be made?


You never have to decide whether to keep coins or spend them before you get them. Therefore the interesting decision between spending and saving is not related to the random draw at all, but the result of the draw.

My suggestion is that the result not be random. If you do not collect many cubes, you're getting coin to spend - and players need coins to spend. Under my suggestion, if you plan to score well, then you need to collect an entire set of cubes.

In the random draw method it's possible that you might have only Gold and need to spend a coin, but I suspect the number of times players will discard gold it's rare, and if they do then that's not different from having had Copper instead. I suspect they'll do what they can to ensure they need not discard the Gold most of the time, because 2vp is really worth it.

Copper, at 0vp, is obviously only useful to spend. This is OK, because players are forced to spend coins at certain times during the game. Copper is most common, and in a random draw it's not unreasonable that you get nothing but (or a lot of) copper. Then there's no decision, you spend it, it's not worth saving. Silver is where the decision comes in - do I spend my silver, or do I save it for 1vp. More often than Gold this will be worth doing, but how often?

The decision "Do I give up my 2 points in order to take that spot? Or should I stop here at this spot for free, even though it's not as good?" is not made until after you've collected coins. Also, if you stop at the free spot, you still have to pay in a future turn to cross the line - so unless the 'free' spot is the 'get more coins' spot, or unless it's the last turn of the game, stopping at the "free" spot doesn't save you anything

I will concede that with random draws you could draw just 1-2 coins, get Gold, and then be presented with the opportunity to discard Gold to move more often, but I submit that that's not as big an up-side as the problems with random draws are a down side.
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Carlos Robledo
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
I like the random coins. It makes for some tough decisions when you want to move around the town track - "Do I give up my 2 points in order to take that spot? Or should I stop here at this spot for free, even though it's not as good?"


You know now that I think about it some more, the design decision does makes more sense to me as well. In all our games one thing that was always constant is space management in the barns. Smart use of coins is part of that. Besides, I did win one game by having 6 coins at the end of the game (all value zero or one) and the improvement tile that gets you points for coins
 
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Carlos Robledo
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Also, Steve and Seth, have you played with coins face up or face down on your barns? I was originally taught the game with coins face down, was told later that coins go face up once acquired. I have played at least twice with each, and I have to say I find coins face down to be vastly more fun.
 
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Hanno Girke
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crobledo wrote:
Also, Steve and Seth, have you played with coins face up or face down on your barns? I was originally taught the game with coins face down, was told later that coins go face up once acquired. I have played at least twice with each, and I have to say I find coins face down to be vastly more fun.


Coins should be face down.
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Seth Jaffee
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crobledo wrote:
Also, Steve and Seth, have you played with coins face up or face down on your barns? I was originally taught the game with coins face down, was told later that coins go face up once acquired. I have played at least twice with each, and I have to say I find coins face down to be vastly more fun.

We were pretty sure they were to be face down, and played as such. I wouldn't think face up would be any better (and I would probably like it less in fact).
 
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Jeffrey Nolin
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crobledo wrote:

Sadly, the game is currently hard to find in the states, and will require import from Germany...... I hope it gets picked up for wide distribution in the US, but I'm not holding my breath.

This has been on my wish list at Boards & Bits since November or December as a January Pre-Order and has just come in, so I'm curious as to why the lack of faith in US distribution?
 
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Carlos Robledo
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Actually just read that it's in stock a coolstuffinc so I guess it's wildly available now, even if it's straight from lookout!
 
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Adam O'Brien
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crobledo wrote:
Actually just read that it's in stock a coolstuffinc so I guess it's wildly available now, even if it's straight from lookout!


Lookout has been direct distributing several of its titles in the US for a while. Most notably Le Havre is distributed as a Lookout title in the US.
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Paul Beasi
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I just played my first game tonight (using Small World coins as substitutes for my missing coins which are en route from Europe). We had a good time with it even with only two players, though I imagine it will be better with more. I like that it's easy to learn/teach and very quick to play.
 
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My FLGS just got a copy in, so I'm hoping to see how this is.
 
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todd sanders
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played my first solo game tonight and i think i'd suggest this game is more a light version of Princes of Florence than either Agricola or Carcassone
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Seth Jaffee
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sedjtroll wrote:
I missed Walnut Grove at BGG.con, but played it once with a friend's copy. I too was pleasantly surprised with it and find myself wanting to play again. I did not realize it was designed by the same guy who made Eclipse - which I just payed for the first time last week. Eclipse has a lot of good things going for it as well.

I note your thumbsdown for the randomness of the coins. I found the same thing, and in fact it ended up deciding the game in our one play. I would like to play the game again, but I am considering this variant for the next play to remove the random coin value being such a factor in victory (I posted this in the variant forum as well):

The first coin you get when selling is always Copper.
The second coin you get when selling is always Silver.
The third coin you get when selling is always Silver.
The fourth coin you get when selling is always Gold.

That way you always score 0-1/1-2/2-4 points for selling 1/2/3 cubes, and it's not random at all, it depends on whether you collect the correct cubes. If you want coins to spend, it's less important to sell all 3 cubes, but if you want to score well, you need to collect the correct assortment of cubes - which will give you some Gold to save, some Copper to spend, and some Silver to think about.

For the record, I played this game twice on Thursday and once more on Friday this weekend, and both games on Thursday utilized the variant I had posted (see above quote). It worked very well. When explaining the game I did explain the real way to play as well as the variant, and after the game all players said they thought the variant was better than the sound of the real rule. On Friday we used the real rule again, and one of the Thursday players was there. After that game he indicated that he indeed liked the variant better.
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Simon Kwong
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The whole coin being random IS massively important for the fun factor - the reason is that you NEVER quite know if you have a chance of winning or pulling it back, so you don't ever give up. I love Agricola but there have been many games where you pretty much "know" the scoreline and the last few rounds are just abitrary - with WG, it gives you a large enough leeway that maybe, just maybe, if you play a little bit better at the end, you might squeeze a win. If you want something totally strategic with hardly any luck, then play Gric, however, I feel WG intended to be a "fun" game first (not that Gric isn't, just fun like the way competitive chess is).

The best example of this is Survive, you can play - each meeple is worth 1 point, but by half way through, guaranteed you'll have at least 1 person completely not bothered as he's too far behind and calculated a win is impossible... that is PRECISELY why the points are hidden.
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Brett Hudoba
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crobledo wrote:
UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
I like the random coins. It makes for some tough decisions when you want to move around the town track - "Do I give up my 2 points in order to take that spot? Or should I stop here at this spot for free, even though it's not as good?"


You know now that I think about it some more, the design decision does makes more sense to me as well. In all our games one thing that was always constant is space management in the barns. Smart use of coins is part of that. Besides, I did win one game by having 6 coins at the end of the game (all value zero or one) and the improvement tile that gets you points for coins

I just played the game twice this past weekend, and I'd say the random method is a lot more interesting, too, especially because of the storage space constraints.

If I know for certain I'm always getting X value out of my coins, then I find myself reserving that storage space every single game--a fixed strategy which I'd honestly find boring. If the value isn't guaranteed, however, now I have some interesting decisions to make. If I happen to draw higher-value coins, my progress around town is going to be slower since I'd like to preserve them and not pay any tolls. If I get a bunch of copper, then I can pretty much jump to wherever I want to gain better benefits (since I'm not losing anything at that point) and free up space for goods. To me, it allows for more flexibility, and it's nice to have an unknown scoring factor at game end.

Many players don't enjoy end game surprises and want to be able to calculate everything out to maximize their final moves, but in a game with so many already randomly-determined elements, it seems odd to house rule a perfect-information mechanic for one aspect. Life on the prairie is (or rather, was) harsh and unforgiving.

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Kevin B. Smith
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chindent wrote:
If I happen to draw higher-value coins, my progress around town is going to be slower since I'd like to preserve them and not pay any tolls. If I get a bunch of copper, then I can pretty much jump to wherever I want to gain better benefits (since I'm not losing anything at that point) and free up space for goods.

I have not played the game, but I am about to get it. What you say mostly makes sense, but since coins act as wild goods, isn't replacing a stored coin with a stored good a step down? So you are losing something...just not points.
 
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Seth Jaffee
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chindent wrote:
If I happen to draw higher-value coins, my progress around town is going to be slower since I'd like to preserve them and not pay any tolls. If I get a bunch of copper, then I can pretty much jump to wherever I want to gain better benefits (since I'm not losing anything at that point) and free up space for goods.

It's not like you can just get coins whenever you want... 2 of the 3 trading spots are right before a toll must be paid. And if you 'slow down' it's not like you will be able to trade again to get Coppers except in one case, but that probably means discarding like 3 or 4 coins - keeping only the best ones - and then still discarding one to pay the toll.

So the only way your scenario works is if you trade in the late game at the one Trading space which isn't right in front of a toll, get a good draw, and then decide to spend the rest of the game on that side of the board. That's all well and good, but if you're last turns involved bonus tiles then you either cannot do that, or you are giving up more by not getting the best stuff to preserve the 1 or 2 vp from silver or gold.
 
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