[GR] Bison: Thunder on the Prairie
- I'm a big person for theme in my games, even if I know that it's
merely placed on top of the game to better accentuate the mechanics.
Games like Through the Desert could have been produced as a simple
abstract, but there is something comforting about even the thinnest
theme. Bison: Thunder on the Prairie (Phalanx and Mayfair Games, 2006
- Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling) is one such game, with an
extremely thin theme of hunting on the prairie pasted on what is yet
another variant of area control.
The theme is one of the thinnest I've ever played, and the game itself
became sheer drudgery for me to play. I have the greatest respect for
the Kramer and Kiesling duo, and they have produced some of the most
thought provoking games; but Bison was non-intuitive, and I couldn't
get over how the theme just didn't add anything to the game. It's
entirely too long for what it is; and while I do feel that there are
folks who will enjoy a game this dry, Bison was certainly not for my
Three marked hexagonal tiles (curved) are placed in the middle of the
table to form a board that is made up of various terrain regions
(mountains, prairies, and rivers). Each player is given a player
board, which has three tracks on it, marking the amounts of food of
three types: wildfowl, salmon, and bison. Each player places a marker
on the "10" spot and takes three other cubes of their color, as
"hunters". Players also receive four white action cubes, a value "1"
and "2" tepee, and a value "1" and "2" canoe. The remainder of a
player's pieces (four more cubes, four more tepees (values "1" through
"4"), and four more canoes (values "1" through "4") are placed in a
"market" area. The rest of the land tiles are placed in a face down
pile (number determined by the amount of players), and the youngest
player gets the totem pole to show that they go first. The first
round then begins (there are four to six rounds, depending on the
number of players).
At the beginning of each round, each player draws one tile that they
examine secretly. During the round, players will take four different
actions, out of six. On a player's turn, they place one of their
action cubes on one of the six spots on their board to show which
action they are taking. The next player then takes their turn, and
play continues until all actions are used. During all the actions,
players will use a certain number of hunters. Depending on the
hunters used in the action, players must pay a certain amount of food.
If a player uses no hunters, they gain one food, one hunter costs
zero food, two hunters cost two food, three hunters cost four food,
four hunters cost five food, and five hunters (max) cost ten food.
Food is paid by moving the food markers accordingly and can be reduced
in any combination.
The actions that can be taken are:
- Place a land tile. Land tiles are placed adjacent to any tile on
the board but must be kept with three spaces of one of the starting
three tiles. When placed, players may place up to five of their
hunters on any one region of the tile. Tiles show three animals on
them: bison, fish, and/or wildfowl.
- Build or enlarge a Tepee: A player may remove hunters from a
specific area and place a tepee of equal value in the same spot. A
player may upgrade a tepee the same way, by removing hunters equal to
- Build or enlarge a Canoe: This is the same as the previous action,
except it can only be done in water.
- Gather hunters: A player may bring up to five of their hunters to
any single space that already contains one of their hunters.
- Move hunters one space: A player may move up to five of their
hunters one space each. Hunters can be moved one area space each but
cannot move into a space that has a piece of another player in it.
- Move hunters up to three spaces: The same as the previous action,
but players can move hunters through the spaces of opposing pieces.
At any point on their turn, players may buy any of their pieces from
the market. Hunters can be bought for one of each animal, and tepees
and canoes can be bought for one of each animal per value of the item
(i.e. a "4" tepee costs four of each animal). Things bought from the
market are immediately added to a player's stock and can be used.
At the end of each round, scoring occurs. Each region (group of
connected areas of the same type) is scored, and the player with the
most influence there adds food to their total equal to the number of
animals in that region. Influence is determined by whoever has the
highest valued tepee/canoe in that region. In case of a tie, the next
highest valued tepee/canoe is checked, until finally the number of
hunters is checked. The player with the second most influence gains
half the animals in that region. If a player ever gains more than
fifteen of one type of animal (the highest number), then the extra may
be traded in (at a three for one ratio) for either of the other two
types of animals. Players then take back their action cubes, and a
new round begins, with the next player clockwise receiving the totem
At the end of the final round, scoring occurs in the same way, except
that all food counters are reset to zero first. The player with the
most total food is the winner!
Some comments about the game…
1.) Components: The tiles, which have wonderful artwork on them,
first caught my eye due to their odd shape, which is that of a
hexagon, with three of the sides in a concave curve, and the other
three convex. This causes some limitations as to how tiles can be
placed, and in fact was a bit non-intuitive for players throughout the
game. The player boards were interesting and had all the necessary
information on them, including costs for using certain amounts of
hunters and costs for new units. The hunters are wooden cubes of
green, red, yellow and blue, with white cubes used as the action
markers. The canoes and tepees are small cardboard counters, with a
number of diamonds on them of a player's color to delineate their
value. Everything fits easily in a small box with some nice artwork
of buffaloes on it.
2.) Rules: I can't say anything against the twelve pages of rules, as
they explain in many, many, many examples how everything works
together. This was very helpful, until I realized that I needed to
show all of these examples to players each time I taught the game.
Movement rules are not intuitive; and while area control games are
played often in my groups, this one still needed to be explained in
3.) Food and Theme: Maybe it's just me; but if a player is having
three different kinds of food that they are tracking, I want that to
mean something! The only time this really matters is when buying new
items, which cost a certain amount of each resource - other than that,
you can't tell the difference between buffalo and fish. Again, this
might not bother some players, but I wanted to have the theme mean
something, and it doesn't. I don't feel like someone controlling
hunters on the North American prairies, I feel like a guy moving cubes
around and trying to maximize points. Bleah.
4.) Actions: A player gets to choose four actions each turn, out of
six. Oh, and one of those actions is required, and three of the
actions are variants of the same thing - moving. I found this to be
rather uninspired, as the variety from picking different actions -
something that I love about games, simply isn't here. The biggest
variety comes from picking the order of the actions, and then griping
about how you can't pick the same action (placing a tepee) twice.
5.) Area control and Fun Factor: I love area control games, with El
Grande (by the same designer!) being at the top of the list. This
one, however, simply doesn't work for me. It's hard to keep track of
who is in control of each area, thanks to the wonky board, and the
theme is almost counter-intuitive (although not as bad as Wongar).
The game feels like Carcassonne in a small way, as players connect
tiles to make areas larger, but in the end just gives a very
I can see, looking over this review, that I haven't given too many
real reasons as to my dislike of Bison. It's not that it's a badly
designed game, as the mechanics seem to be well balanced and fair.
And I don't want it to be unfairly compared to other area control
games, but it must be - unless it offers something new. There's
really nothing new here, and the three resources are almost one and
the same, the actions are dry and uninteresting, and the theme is
non-existent. Combine all that together, and you have a very
forgettable game - even a drudgery to play. Folks who like dry gaming
experiences may enjoy this one, but I'm going to pass in the future
and play games that are more intuitive and exciting.
"Real men play board games"