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[GR] Bison: Thunder on the Prairie

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  • Tom Vasel
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2006
      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
      the difference.
      - 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 gameā€¦

      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
      more detail.

      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
      unsatisfactory feel.

      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.

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games"
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