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Subject: Loving the game as a prototype. rss

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Bruce Murphy
Australia
Pyrmont
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I've been keeping an eye on Stratamax since I ran into them at Essen a few years ago and sat down to play Tammany Hall on the Thursday they opened with the game. After an entertaining game with the folks I'd travelled to Essen with, I immediately bought a copy.

The Sheepdogs of Pendleton Hill is the latest game from the Stratamax guys and is currently on Kickstarter, so I decided to whip up a prototype copy and give it a spin with some local groups. It's a bit simpler and shorter than Tammany Hall, I expected it to fit neatly into an hour even with rules, making it perfect fodder for our lunchtime sessions.

Somewhat reminiscent of Tammany Hall, the options for each move are quite simple, although players have a hand of cards drawn from a deck with 3 varying-power cards. The card chosen to play determines what actions are available. A key part of the game is interaction with other players, right up to playing with their pieces, so I made up some player aids so everyone could see exactly which things could be moved with each card. While useful for a first game, the rules are straightforward enough that they were hardly looked at by the halfway mark. I'll put something into the files section regardless.

We went around the rules a few times, our expected 5th decided that he'd prefer to sit and finish his lunch and just enjoy snarking during the game. Turns out, snarking while people play this game is actually quite fun. That's highly interactive games for you.

The game revolves around getting your sheep as far up the hill as possible before they match one of your shepherds and are then returned to you with some points. The twist is that pretty much everyone can move every piece, so there's absolutely nothing solitaire about this game.

This 4-player game started off with people first salting the higher-scoring fields with their own shepherds, and then, a few turns in, realising that they could just as productively salt the lower fields with other people's shepherds. Only two sheep hit the board in the first two turns around the table!

With lots of shepherds out, the focus turned to sheep. There were many opportunities to give away easy low-point matches to players, so the two initial flocks were quickly decimated, with only a single sheep making it up to the 5-point fields.

With the board cleared off again, focus now turned to pumping out flocks. Most of the players got more savvy with their plays, carefully choosing opposing shepherds to place in fields next to their own, thus ensuring one other player would try to avoid that field during an initial flock move. There was also a lot of careful mixing of sheep into flocks, player hoping that a shared colour would motivate other players to move the flock quickly, even in the knowledge that the dread crocodile was waiting to snag a superfluous-to-requirements sheep.

Interestingly, the yellow player who was being ignored managed a huge catch-up play (sadly only to 3rd place) by quietly creating a huge 5-sheep all-yellow flock in one of the pens and firing it up the hill. WIth such a large flock, there's little the other players can do without throwing away their own position to stop it, and he took 3pt, 5pt, and 7pt matches, losing only a couple of sheep to the croco-wolf. It's really important that nobody be permitted, and permitted is the word, to take complete ownership of a flock like that.

Finally, in the last couple of rounds, all hope was lost for better than a draw, when players tossing sheep into a field nudged it over the minimum 4 required and that flock shot out into the field collecting a tie-breaking single point. Sometimes the idle moves in the end-game can matter. On that note, the game can have a fairly uninteresting last couple of turns if players have missed the tempo and left themselves with no sheep on the hill. With only 15 + 1 turns per player (with 4), tempo control and simply getting sheep up into the hill is really important.

We noticed an odd lock condition where, if you can get one of your (or anyone's sheep) left unmatched in the 7 field, there's no way for anyone to get them out without sending the croco-wolf in after them, and thus no other flocks can move into the 7-point space. This is a handy way of locking other players out of the highest scoring field. This could be useful if you were solidly in the lead. In both games where this has happened, someone has eventually broken and wasted their turn (and a 2-card) for the croco-wolf.



I also had a chance to play a second game over the weekend, this time 3 people. As you can see in the picture, I'd managed to upgrade to a colour prototype board by this point. While it looks a lot prettier, by a few minutes in the game, no-one had eyes for anything but the dance of the player figures and sheep, and the movement of the ever-threatening croco-wolf. Even this pretty board can't distract from the gameplay, the suspicious looks at the other player, and the brain-bending effort of trying to make best use of the cards you have in order to advance your position while trying to look as non-threatening as possible.

In this game, everyone piled their sheep into the pens to get them onto the board and ready to score at the the start fo the game. One of the flocks was also heading up the hill before everyone realise how helpful it would be to get some low-point-scoring opposing shepherds into the lower fields to thin the flock.

During the game, the wonder of a 1+1 card was amply illustrated with many place-an-opposing-shepherd + move-flock-sideways-onto-it moves slowly whittling the flocks down to size. Lots of 2-cards being played, with the croco-wolf dashing around the board a lot more that when more players were involved (particularly in the early game where purple basically danced on everyone else's flocks). Perhaps with a smaller player-count, people are simply much less shy about making enemies, since everyone is against them anyway.

The final big scoring move of the game was a last flock of 2 red + 2 blue sheep, moved by red up the hill with a red/blue scoring at 5 points, and a deft sacrifice of the blue sheep to the lurking crocowolf before taking another 7 points. After yellow had whinged about card-draws all game, having the wild sheepdog to bring out in this stunning move came as a shock.

Purple was left with a stray flock stranded on the side of the hill, having already used her sheepdog card to stab blue with the wolf, she simply didn't have enough turns left to get it high enough to score, having to settle instead for taking a single point from

In the end, I wish I'd had the foresight to see the play with my sheep coming and simply take 3 points, which would have been plenty to win, which would have also forced red to sacrifice his own sheep to the dreaded croco-wolf, lurking at the top of the hill.



With three players, the game was a lot less freewheeling. Every played gets exactly 21 turns during the game, (vs 16 in a 4-player game), but there were still lots of opportunities to go in halves with another player in a flock and share motivations. Not necessarily share croco-wolf risk, though.

Conclusion

Sheepdogs is an awesome little game. It shares a distinct family resemblance to Tammany Hall in the level of player interaction and need to balance setting up your own position with maneuvering to tear down everyone else. The cards add a little randomness to the game, but they mostly balance out and at least the 1+1 and 2 cards are interestingly balanced. I'm hoping to get a couple more plays in and write up a full review before the Kickstarter deadline.
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Martin G
United Kingdom
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Nice write-up Bruce, I played a couple of games with a prototype last night too.

Quote:
We noticed an odd lock condition where, if you can get one of your (or anyone's sheep) left unmatched in the 7 field, there's no way for anyone to get them out without sending the croco-wolf in after them, and thus no other flocks can move into the 7-point space.

The rules in the version I was sent say that unmatched sheep arriving in the 7 field immediately run away (back to owner's supply).

Quote:
During the game, the wonder of a 1+1 card was amply illustrated with many place-an-opposing-shepherd + move-flock-sideways-onto-it moves

Hmm, that doesn't seem quite right. The 1+1 has to be one move involving none of your pieces and one involving *only* your pieces. The rules on the KS page are less clear on this than the rules in the box I was sent, but I checked with Max.
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Bruce Murphy
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I have a copy of the clarified rules too, but we weren't playing from it. I'll update my player aids, too. I somehow missed the top field rule, and the lock seemed odd.

B>
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Charles-Louis de Maere
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Thanks for your session report, Bruce!

I've already kickstarted the game and hope it reaches its goal in the 4 days left, because it seems like a nice take-that game
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Timothy Yordy
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Wish I had the money to back this game on KS.
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Max Michael
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substandardtim wrote:
Wish I had the money to back this game on KS.


I wish you did too!
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