The Wild West! Cowboys! Resource management and auctions! If those are the kind of things you desire from life, then Homesteaders from Tasty Minstrel Games is the game for you, pardner. The rough and tumble of the Old West may not be the first environment you immediately think of when choosing a new Euro(ish) title for your collection, but if you’re seeking something that will challenge you, Homesteaders shouldn’t be overlooked. Players take on the roles of (shockingly enough) a bunch of homesteaders and attempt to develop a town from humble beginnings, but it’s never that easy, is it?
Either three or four players (though there is a two player variant on BoardGameGeek) start the same – with a single Farm tile that provides a small amount of resources. There are ten rounds in the game, each one of which begins with allocation of these resources (and there’s many different types to collect, believe me, all of which can be traded at any time during the game). Each round of the game sees players purchasing (or attempting to purchase, anyway – auctions, remember?) new buildings and facilities that will, in turn, provide the necessary goods to buy more. This cycles through ten rounds and whichever player has the highest points at the end of the game wins.
The engine that drives Homesteaders is the auction board. Tiles are placed on the three spaces (assuming it’s a four player game – there’s always one less tile than there are players) and bids are made by moving cubes along a track next to each potential buy. Now, you’re not actually buying buildings at this stage – just the opportunity to do so from the currently available pool. Only the highest bidder will take a tile and only the player not guaranteed one is allowed to increase their bid. Of course, you may also skip bidding entirely and move along the track at the bottom of the auction board – a nice little twist that awards you a bonus which will give you incremental advantages as the game goes on. You can force other players to spend more on tiles you think they need, but you risk being stuck with something expensive that you can barely afford.
Once you’ve paid for your new tile (which costs you the amount you bid) you then spend resources to pick up an actual building. The round you’re in determines the range of buildings available and they grow in value as the game progresses. They often won’t net you anything though, for there is something else to consider – workers! Yes, because not only Homesteaders about resource management and auctions, there’s also worker placement in there as well! At the start of each round, workers (who also need paying, so make sure you have the money) are stationed on your tiles in order to bring in the resources and cash you need to get involved in the auctions – and as you’ve probably worked out by now, this game requires an immense amount of forward planning.
Homesteaders is something of a balancing act. You’re making sure that you can expand your town without going bankrupt, though if things get desperate you can take Debt tokens. This can be risky to do repeatedly, but it’s rare that a player will get through a game without going into the red at least once. However, if you keep missing out on auctions you’ll find yourself lagging behind quickly – aggressive bidding is encouraged, if only to ensure that you manage to keep up with your opponents! There is so much you need to consider in Homesteaders that I’m sure that the very notion of the game turns a lot of people off playing. There’s a kind of snowball effect that runs through Homesteaders where you’re starting small and rounds take mere moments, culminating in the endgame where you’re juggling a vast amount of resources and trying to maximise your points. This is not a game that you’ll be able to luck into winning – you really need to think.
Now, mention must be made of the level of production. Tasty Minstrel, the makers of Homesteaders, ran into some pretty major problems when it came to making the game. The company they tasked to create the components really dragged them over the coals on this one, and the guys at TM came in for a fair bit of criticism over the state that many copies shipped in. Some boxes had mould, tiles were offcut, some resources were shoddily made… for a while, it seemed like Tasty Minstrel were going to take a rather large hit on this. However, the quality of the game itself shone through – as a game, Homesteaders is incredibly solid, even if the initial print run was not at the high level the company was expecting. Hundreds of copies were given away free to attendees at last year’s BGG.con which only served to spread the word of how good this game is.
Yes, it’s not easy to win. It’s a game that rewards multiple plays and truly encourages the development of strategies. Experimentation is key, trying to work out which buildings work well together, optimising the resources that you have and trading them for things that you need to make sure your next move keeps you ahead of the pack. While Homesteaders is definitely not one to bring out for most first timers, more experienced players will find this an enjoyable and challenging brainburner. I look forward to seeing what Tasty Minstrel comes up with when they produce the second printing of Homesteaders – it’s certainly being organised at the moment, and I’m really considering picking up a new copy if only because I can replace dear old Hopalong, the one-legged cowboy!
Homesteaders was designed by Alex Rockwell – not bad at all for a first attempt! – and was originally released in 2009 by Tasty Minstrel Games. The second printing is due ‘sometime this year’ though I’d really say not to worry about any issues with the first edition – the game’s bloody good and deserves to be played! It’s available for between £25-30, so why not check it out?