The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Circle the Wagons
Circle the Wagons, a competitive two-player game of building boomtowns, is the latest wallet game from publisher Button Shy. The game, which won the 2016 Button Shy Wallet Design Contest, was designed by Steven Aramini, Danny Devine, and Paul Kluka, and features the artwork of Beth Sobel. The theme brings players back to frontier times and westward expansion, as each will be looking to build the best boomtown using the cards they draft.
To set up the game, fifteen cards are arranged in a circle, territory sides face up. The remaining three cards are flipped over, with those three cards forming that game's end game scoring bonuses. Each card is unique, so there are eighteen different scoring goals, creating literally thousands of potential combinations. Examples include:
• Badlands: 4 points per single Gun directly between two Desert territories.
• One Too Many: The player with the most Bottles loses 1 point for each Bottle their opponent has.
• Happy Cows: 2 points per Cow that is not adjacent to or on a Snow territory.
The territory side of each of the game's eighteen cards is divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant having one of six possible terrains -- Mountains, Forest, Desert, Snow, Water, and Plains. Additionally, each quadrant will have one of the six possible symbols -- Cattle, Fort, Bottle, Wagon, Pickaxe, and Six-shooter. On their turn, players will draft cards and lay them out in front of them, trying to create large contiguous areas of like terrain, while simultaneously trying to maximize various end game bonuses.
The card drafting has a particularly interesting element to it, in that a player may choose to take any card on the board, but each card they skip goes to their opponent. This allows players to skip ahead to get a card with a lot of particularly important symbols in that game, or perhaps force an opponent to take a card with undesirable symbols.
The game ends when all the cards have been drafted, and scores will be tallied. Players will get points for their largest area of each terrain, as well as the three end game bonuses.
Circle the Wagons fits a lot of variety and depth into eighteen cards, with card laying/terrain building elements reminiscent of Honshu, a rondel-draft hybrid similar to Patchwork, and variable end game scoring bonuses found in games like Castles of Mad King Ludwig and Isle of Skye. And again, this is all managed entirely in eighteen cards.
Pros: Plays very quickly, with very little set-up time. The design is distilled and elegant, with very simple and easy to understand rules. The decisions of which cards to take and where to place are very tactical. There is a good amount of depth considering the game's size and a great deal of variety with the multitude of scoring bonuses.
Cons: The game is a bit abstract, and while the Western theme works, it is not an immersive experience by any means. The game has nine different elements that need to be scored by each player at the end of a game, but comes with no scoring pad.
Circle the Wagons plays in about fifteen minutes, but is the kind of game you'll likely want to play again immediately after a game finishes. It is the best game I have played in Button Shy's line, and this line features other games I think very highly of, such as Ahead in the Clouds and Pentaquark. Highest possible recommendation.
Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of Circle the Wagons from the publisher.