After all the head-crushing difficulty and tangled mechanisms of First Martians the sight of Pioneers on my game shelf came like a positive breath of fresh air. For a start, Pioneers comes with the logo of Queen Games, who, for all the criticism aimed at their Kickstarter efforts, tend at the very least to put out solid, dependable games. They may be short on innovation and risk, but they tend to score highly for colour and economy of design. The worst of them are pretty dull, it has to be said (I am thinking of Parfum here) but others deserve a more permanent spot on people’s shelves, such as Alhambra and Roma II.
Get your pioneers onto these and drop them off at the right cities.
Pioneers is designed by Emanuele Ornella, and while none of his games has yet been a ground-shaking hit, I must admit to having enjoyed his Assyria very much indeed, which reminds me that I really should get around to playing it online at some point. So is Pioneers going to break Ornella into the realm of the heavy hitters, or is it going to be another decent enough game that is not quite going to do enough to differentiate itself from the ever growing tsunami of new releases?
Colourful and clear – Classic clean Queen!
The box is what you would expect from Queen, a standard sized but brightly coloured affair with bold illustrations that says “Play me!” Take up this invitation and there are no great surprises inside the box either. There is the standard array of decent quality components, a fold-out board, player mats, coaches, tokens, pioneers, roads and a coach, as well as instructions in multiple languages, a helpful touch especially as the game has no in-game text. Everything is in good working order, although the decision to run the scoring track anti-clockwise around the main board feels very strange. It makes no difference mechanically, but it certainly feels unusual.
See you at the Coach & Horses!
The rules are pretty much crystal clear as well, colourful and with multiple illustrations of what goes on, when it occurs and how it happens. After all that FAQing around with my previous review this was a blessed relief, even if the impression is of a game that promises to be so middle of the road that you could paint a white line down the back of it and nobody would be able to tell the difference. No surprises thus far, then. So how does it play?
Rules are simple! Is the game too straightforward?
Set up is a little on the fiddly side for a game that promises to be quick and easy to play, especially if dealing with less than the full player count of four. Play with a full complement and Pioneers presents you with one side of the board and pretty much the full selection of tiles and coaches. Play with fewer and you use the other side of the board and have to remove this many tiles of that many types, as well as random coaches, and if it is just you and a single friend than you also have to place some blocker tiles on the map. It is hardly a game-breaker, but it can take a while. Each player receives a personal board and a big pile of pioneers and roads and then you are off into the unknown.
The board is different for each player count.
Thematically, Pioneers takes the Wild West as its subject, and the idea of the game is to transport your pioneers to various points on the map in order to fulfil the demands of various locations. Some towns will need farmers, some will need bankers, and if you manage to get the right profession to the right location then you’ll grab a little bonus to boot. It is a neat and clean theme, and one that works surprisingly well, given how little difference it makes to the actual gameplay. Pioneers is played over a series of complete rounds, and the final one is triggered either when the final coach is placed into the display or when a player places their last piece of road. The player boards do a great job of outlining the progress of a turn in clear and simple iconography, and the central board does a similar job for the powers of the various tiles. Whatever other faults this game may have, it is certainly up the highest of standards when it comes to presenting information to the players.
Playing a turn? It comes in phases!
Each player’s turns has three phases, and they begin by collecting income, which is $3 by default, but which may be increased by settling banker pioneers. In the second phase they select actions, either laying a single road for $2, two roads for $5, or buying a coach whose prices vary depending on where they are in the display. I have a slight problem here thematically with the fact that laying two roads costs more than twice as much as laying two single roads, but we will let that wrinkle pass for the sake of the game. At the start of the game players may only select one action per turn, but may gain extra choices by settling merchant pioneers, though they can never select the same action twice in the same turn. This means that three roads would cost $7, but let’s not open that can of worms again.
On your turn you build roads or buy a coach. Simple.
Phase three is where the really interesting stuff happens, and there are some neat pieces of design in here as well. If at all possible a player must move the coach token to a city with a tile that matches a pioneer on one of their coaches, but one of the seemingly innocuous factors that serves to make the game interesting is that a player is never allowed to go through a location with one of these tiles, so their choices are limited. What is more, if a player does not own the road they use for travel they need to pay either to the bank or, worse still, to an opponent. In the first couple of turns this all seems like unnecessary froth, but it certainly changes the complexion of the end of the game hugely. After choosing a destination city the active player settles their pioneer and takes the associated action, which are as follows:
- The Banker secures extra income on each round.
- The Merchant gives an extra action per round.
- The Sergeant allows a player to place a road, or even a second road on a route (the only way this can happen).
- The Barkeeper lets a player remove a pioneer from their coach and place it back in their supply.
- The Gold Digger grants a random gold nugget, worth from three to five points.
- The Farmer allows a player to settle up to three farmers in that city.
- The Hotel gives income and allows a player to settle a pioneer of any type.
Lastly, the active player invites everyone else in turn to settle one of their pioneers of the same type on that city by paying them $2. This offer goes round the table and is first come first served.
Quick and to the point! There is much to admire!
What is particularly clever about the roles of the pioneers is that they all have real value in terms of what the players are attempting to do in the game, but that you must have one of those types of people on one of your coaches to be able to take advantage, always assuming you can reach a city that needs that occupation, of course. Players will also learn very quickly to be crafty about what pioneer they settle, as they can effectively block other players from being able to join them in a location if they are clever enough.
Get the right kind of pioneer to the right city to use their ability.
There are several things I like about this design. It is clean and simple to learn, eases players into the game gently but ramps up the complexity of the decisions as time goes by, all things I enjoy. Better still, the need to pay for the roads and the possibility that another player might be able to settle in the new location keeps everybody involved in the game on other players’ turns, minimising that annoying tendency for people to go off and check their ever so urgent emails or tweet about what they would rather be playing. No, instead you need to be watching what the active player is doing and working out whether it might be worth $2 to settle where they have settled, always assuming you get the chance, of course. This is clever stuff, and breathes life into what could otherwise have been a terribly dull piece of design.
Scales well…but the outlook is not variable!
Although Pioneers is clearly designed to work best with the full count of four players, the tighter side of the board and the fact that spaces are blocked off for a head to head match means that it scales well for all player counts, and that is a rare thing. It feels more open with more people seated around the table, but the truth is that it also presents an engaging and intriguing play as a head to head, blending strategy with tactics in a way that would probably appeal to those who like the design of themeless abstracts but find them just a little too dry in the playing.
Two player games are better than expected.
At heart, then, Pioneers is a solid and satisfying game, and one that exceeded my expectations, but it does need to be said that what variability there is from game to game is limited in its scope. The pioneer tiles on the map will be laid out differently from game to game, and the coaches will come out in a different order, but fundamentally the puzzle that Pioneers sets its players remains the same from one play to the next, just that the solution to that puzzle needs to be effected in a slightly different manner. This all means that Pioneers retains its freshness if played sparingly, and would get stale fairly quickly if played too many times in quick succession. Think of it, therefore, as a game to bring out from time to time, something that it is worth having on the edges of a collection rather than sitting at its very core.
Much that is right…but nothing that is exceptional!
Pioneers does a lot that is absolutely right. The components are good, the rules are clear, and the information is easy to assimilate. Turns pass quickly and cleanly, the game begins simply and becomes more involving as it goes on. Everything that is here is symptomatic of something that punches above its weight and which is certainly worth a try by many players, taking up as little as half an hour with two to maybe an hour or so with four.
There’s gold in them there hills!
However, there is nothing that Pioneers does that is exceptional, nothing to distinguish it from many other games that are good, solid plays and which sit on the periphery of many collections. In many ways it is a classic second or third choice game, one that finds its way to the table as an opener on games night, or for people new to the hobby, for whom it is an ideal fit. In terms of a mark, it could certainly aspire to an 8 for the qualities it possesses but for one thing, which is that its long-term variability is distinctly limited and merely presents different riffs on the same theme rather than presenting something new and exciting each time through.
Information is clear, easy to read, and always visible.
When all is said and done, Pioneers is a satisfying and solid game, slightly above average but not exceptional. For newcomers to the hobby it is a great example of how a simple and clean design can offer much more than expected, but for veterans it will feel like a passing fancy, maybe worth three or four games before the next newness hits the table. It impresses in the way it keeps players involved in making decisions even when it is not their turn, and in many other things too, but not enough to lift it sufficiently above the crowd to make it a hearty recommendation. A 7 out of 10 it is, then, but definitely on the upper end of that mark.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.