Review of Sutter's Mill

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

February 11, 2009


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A thoughtful Eurogame set in the Wild West, where figuring out when to get out of town is as important as knowing how to mine.

Shannon Appelcline has written 679 reviews (including 357 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of High Society.

This review has been read 3554 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Sutter's Mill
Publisher: Mayfair Games, Phalanx Games
Author: Marco Teubner
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $45.00
Year: 2008

SKU: PHA6028
ISBN: 1-56905-212-3


Review of Sutter's Mill
Sutter's Mill is a new majority-control and resource-management game by Marco Teubner, published in the US by Mayfair Games.

Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 60 minutes

The Components

Sutter's Mill comes in a large box with several components:

The Board: A large linen-textured four-panel board. It depicts the buildings of Coloma (complete with icons depicting their special abilities) and the gold fields surrounding it. The artwork is muted, but well-done.

One of the players pointed out that the board isn't really necessary, which I'd agree with: it exists solely to hold cards and counters. Nonetheless, it's attractive and keeps everything together.

Wooden Bits: There are five large wooden "prospector" pawns in each of the player colors (blue, green, yellow, and red).

Cards: Each player gets a set of 13 cards in their color, which are laid out with the regular values of playing cards: 2-A. Amusingly, each player also gets a specific suit (e.g., green is Spades), which I found a nice touch. These cards are half-sized and linen-textured. They're a bit plain, as they all have the same artwork on them.

There are also eight certificate cards and one "adventurer" card, each of which depict a special power that the player has access to when he controls that card. Each of these cards is full-sized and linen-textured.

Gold Counters: 84 circular cardboard discs, again linen-textured. They're split into four colors (red, blue, brown, and gray) to show where the player can get those counters (at start, in the water, on the hills, or in the mountains). Each one shows a number of gold nuggets on the reverse side.

Overviews: Each player gets a two-sided overview printed on very heavy cardstock which depicts the actions that he can take, depending on what phase of the game he's currently in (Build Up or Tear Down). These helpful charts provide all the info you need to play the game, though in a relatively utilitarian form.

Overall all of the components are good quality and the usability value of the game is very high. If I have any complaint about the components of the game it's only that they're relatively plain: the board is attractive, but there's little nuance to anything else. I've thus given the game "4" out of "5" for Style: still very good.

The Gameplay

The object of Sutter's Mill is to gain the most points by mining gold and by abandoning Coloma before it turns into a ghost town.

Setup: The board is filled with gold counters: 24 in the blue (river) area, 24 in the brown (hill) area, and 24 in the gray (mine) area.

Each player is given five prospectors (one of which is placed in the river camp), 13 influence cards (a suit, from 2-A), and three gold counters (worth a total of 6 nuggets).

The Gold Counters. Each gold counter is worth a variable number of gold nuggets. The ones in the river and in the mine are worth 1-3, while the ones in the hills are worth 2-4.

Build Up Order of Play: Sutter's Mill is somewhat uniquely broken into two phases of play. At the start of the game, everyone is in the "Build Up" phase, where they're adding influence and prospectors to Coloma; later in the game, players will individually choose to move into the "Tear Down" phase, where they start abandoning the town.

In Build Up, you can do one of two things on your turn: Gold Digging & Business or Operating in Town.

Gold Digging & Business: This is how you get gold out of the hills. You move one or more prospectors from the current camp into any building in town, and you take a number of gold counters from the same area of the board (river, hill, or mine).

You also get bonus gold counters: one per building certificate that you hold (as discussed momentarily) and one for certain special buildings, like the nominal Sutter's Mill (which gives a bonus river gold counter, if mining is currently in the river phase).

All gold counters are always taken from the front to the back, so first the river will be cleared out, then the hills, and finally the mines.

Operating in Town: When instead operating in town you can take one or more town actions. The number of actions you take costs a variable number of gold nuggets. For 1/2/3/4/5 actions you spend 0/1/3/8/15 nuggets. One, two, or three will probably be the most popular action counts.

During the Build Up phase you have three options for actions: place a prospector in Coloma; place an influence card in Coloma; or move a prospector.

Place a Prospector. You take one of your off-board prospectors and place him either in a mining camp or in a building in town.

Place an Influence Card. You take one of your 13 influence cards and place it on a building. However, you must have one prospector currently at the building for each of your cards there, including the one you are placing (e.g., to place your second card in a building, you must have two prospectors there at the time).

If you now have the highest total value of influence cards at a building, you take the building's certificate, which will give you a bonus to any mining, plus a special power.

(There's also a special "adventurer" card, which balances things by always going to the player with the fewest certificates: it gives a bonus to mining from any of the camps, though the rules sort of forget to note that.)

Besides their value for controlling buildings, influence cards are also quite valuable at end game, as noted below.

Move a Prospector. You can move a prospector from one on-board location to another. Usually, you'll move someone from town to a mining camp. However, you might also move a prospector around in town (to allow you to influence a different building) or from one mining camp to another (if the earlier one ran out of gold, leaving the prospector otherwise useless).

Tear Down Order of Play: Sutter's Mill is ultimately a game about timing, and one of your challenges is to get as many of your cards and prospectors off the board as it makes sense to before the end of the game. Thus at the start of any turn you can decide to enter the "Tear Down" phase of the game.

During this phase you can still do one of two things: Gold Digging & Business or Operating in Town. Gold Digging & Business works just the same, but you have different options now in Operating in Town.

Operating in Town (Redux): As before you can take multiple actions during an Operating in Town phase for costs in gold nuggets. However now your three potential actions are: move a prospector; remove a prospector from Coloma; or remove an influence card from Coloma.

Move a Prospector. Moving a prospector is the same as the build up action.

Remove a Prospector. Removing a prospector lets you pull a prospector off the board.

Remove an Influence Card. This action lets you remove the top influence card from a location. It may or may not be yours. You then return it to the appropriate player. You must have a prospector in the location to take this action, and to take it multiple times in the same turn, you must have multiple prospectors there at the time.

Building Special Powers: As noted, one of the advantages of owning the certificate to a building is that you get access to its special powers. Three buildings let you mine an extra sort of gold: river, hill, or mine. There's one building that lets you add a prospector for free and one that lets you remove one. There's one building that lets you add an influence card for free and one that lets you remove one. Finally, there's one building that lets you change the order of influence cards at a building.

Ending the Game: The game ends when the last gold counter is taken. At this point, all the players tally up their points:

The player with the highest total score wins.

Relationships to Other Games

Sutter's Mill is an unusual game because it combines several sorts of play. The main game element is probably action-point based. You use limited time (somewhat uniquely available in increasing amounts for a cost) in order to do things more effectively in your opponents. That's combined with a majority control element within the town itself.

(The other core element in Sutter's Mill, where each player gets to decide when he turns his game upside down is somewhat more unique.)

Marco Teubner has published several games over the last couple of years, but the others haven't made it to the American market.

The Game Design

I was pleasantly surprised by Sutter's Mill. Based on the rules, I couldn't see entirely how it was going to work, so I was pleased to discover a very quick-playing game that still had considerable depth. It reminds me of games like China and Hansa, which likewise clock in at a sprightly 45 minutes or so while still delivering good gameplay.

The biggest element in the game is that decision to flip from "Build Up" to "Tear Down", which influences much of the play both before and after it. That creates a really nice tension to the game and also introduces something of a press-your-luck element. You're always trying to decide whether you can manage one more turn of card play or prospecting or if there's going to be a sudden run out of town that you want to be at the head of.

This also results in some interesting brinkmanship concerning whether you leave people in camps or not. Giving another player sole access to a camp can give him control over the game timer, which isn't usually what you want to do.

The core game systems of action points and majority control work well to support the brinkmanship at the heart of the design, and little more need be said about them beyond that.

Overall, I think Sutter's Mill is a good game and I expect to play it again, so I've given it a "4" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

Sutter's Mill is a nice 45-minute game which supports tough brinkmanship decisions. There's always good tension and the game moves along quickly, spiraling toward its ghost-town end, at which points the players decide perhaps they should have been leaving town already ...

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