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Cracked LCD- Spurs: A Tale in the Old West in Review

spurs

Spurs: A Tale in the Old West, new from Mr. B Games, is a fairly light adventure game with an all-too-rare American West setting and a structure that is pulled straight from Red Dead Redemption and other open-world video games. Each player takes on the role of a western archetype (Lawman, Gunslinger, Bandit and so forth) and travels around a small map to reach quest markers. You might find yourself hunting animals to sell their pelts back in town, tracking down gangs of desperadoes or bringing fellow players to justice that have done bad things like robbing the bank or victimizing local ranchers. Mine for gold, and you’ll be drawing plastic nuggets out of a bag. Try to corral cattle or break a horse and you’ll do so in a die-rolling minigame. You might get bit by a rattlesnake, involved in a brawl with a drunk down at the saloon or get hired to escort a stagecoach from one town to another.

All of the above has likely set many gamers’ mouths to “salivate” because there simply aren’t enough games with this kind of setting, and it’s quite fitting that the game is designed by Ole Steinness (with Mr. B. Games’ Sean Brown). Mr. Steinness was responsible for one of last year’s big surprises, the modern cop co-op Police Precinct. The two designs don’t really have much in common except in one key aspect. They are both fun, unique games with under-represented settings that unfortunately fall short of pushing into “must-play” territory due to some bland design choices and a lack of polish.

The games of Spurs I’ve played of it with anywhere from two to six players (using the Gambler expansion) have been full of laughs, groans, bad language and worse accents alongside the occasional brow-furrowing and grimacing at certain mechanical aspects. Despite the terribly written and organized (?) rulebook, it’s fairly easy to play and unlike many other adventure games there’s not a lot of process or administration to fuss over. It’s really kind of a roll-and-move game in disguise. You roll your riding dice and can move that many spaces across a fairly small map. If there’s a challenge token in the space you wind up, you can attempt it and if you pass, an event card is drawn and a new challenge is placed on the board. Some challenges are mandatory and require you to attempt them. If you’re in town, you can visit any of the buildings you want to turn in outlaws, buy a round of drinks at the saloon or purchase items from a store. Next player.

The goal is to get ten fame points in the shorter (and recommended) game, 15 points in the longer (and more repetitive) game. Most of the challenges, which are analogous to the “side quest” markers in an open world video game like Red Dead Redemption, require you to return to one of the three towns to cash in the reward but on the way you might get ambushed by another player- who can, of course, steal things from you. And if you’ve done criminal things and received wanted posters, then there’s an extra incentive for some PVP because each one you have is worth $20 to the player that guns you down. That’s a particularly nice thematic touch.

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Player versus player battles are fun but sloppy affairs. Each player has a bag of bullets, seeded at the beginning with brown rifle rounds, grey revolver rounds and black “miss” bullets. You can upgrade your guns in town, adding bullets to your bag or changing black bullets to rifle or revolver rounds. When a duel occurs, each player squares off by drawing bullets as fast as possible (and within certain strictures) to try to be the first to pull two hits on the other player. It’s cool at first, but after the first couple of duels the novelty wears off. There is also an option provided to just do a simultaneous draw. I think this works better, even if it’s a little less rootin’ tootin’.

Combat against animals, desperados and outlaws involves pulling three bullet chits out of the bag. Some enemies require specific types of bullets- for example, a bear needs two rifle shots- while others just need two of anything that hits. If you take an injury under any circumstances, you toss a red bullet in the bag which counts as a miss until you can get the doctor to fish ‘em out.

There are a few things in this game that I really love, aside from the Old West setting. I think the “side quest” format works well on the tabletop- really quite better than it does in video games where it is usually a way to pad a 10 hour game into a 100 hour one- and I like that there is definitely an open world sensibility about the design. Player agency is very high. Your character does give some incentive or guidance as to what path you may take (for example, the Hunter has an advantage plying his trade, the Gambler gets a gold mining bonus) but it’s really up to the player as to how to proceed. You might take a chance on going after a tough outlaw worth three fame as a Hail Mary play to catch up to other players or you might make a career out of breaking horses and selling them in town- particularly lucrative if there’s an event that increases demand. Or you might just be a menace, pursuing other players to hijack their valuable challenge markers or to steal their money. There are three end of game bonuses awarding additional fame for having the most money, most wanted posters or the most bullets so there are also strategic incentives for scoring there. Not quite sure how having the most bullets makes you famous, but there it is.

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Thematic oddities aside (you mean I can sell my gold to a bank, rob it, and then hang out at the town’s saloon?) there is a lot I do not like about Spurs as well. My number one complaint against the game is that despite its ambition to include many different aspects of the Western setting, it feels limited in scope at best, repetitive at worst. Once you’ve shot one outlaw token, you’ve shot them all. The Desperado cards at least have names on them, but even then there’s a pervading sense of dullness that creeps into the game. There’s a kind of design tension going on in Spurs. It’s trying to be an epic, comprehensive exploration of the setting across a couple of different vectors but it is also attempting to keep everything manageable and simplified. I don’t know that it needs to go all Arkham Horror, into exaggerated realms of variability and potential, but it does feel like it needs more than a couple of event cards to give it variety. The geography is fixed and really pretty negligible, so there really isn’t any variety there either.

The minigame idea is cool, and everybody gets excited the first time they do the cattle herding or horse breaking. But it’s just not really any fun and rather half-assed. Nobody really enjoys watching someone else do some simple task like this after the third or fourth time. I’ve found that I’ve actually avoided doing either of those types of challenges in some games just because I’ve gotten bored with the process. It doesn’t help that the “rodeo dice”, as my gang has dubbed them, are absolute garbage. You can barely see the icons, they don’t make any intuitive sense, and some joker must have thought it would be funny to print them in black ink on dark blue plastic.

The component quality, despite some very nice character illustrations, is generally pretty bad. I love paper money, but I don’t love almost illegible paper money printed on what appears to be glossy magazine paper stock. The cowboy miniatures are dull and across the entire game the cheap-looking iconography imparts the feeling of an unfinished product. Why am I looking at a card for “Slaughter Steve” that has a fully painted background but with an all-black silhouette for the character? Why do the “miss” tokens show a black bullet instead of just saying “miss” on them?

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“Unfinished” is a word I keep coming back to when I think about Spurs, despite the fact that I do genuinely like the game and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the Western setting or a simpler, lighter adventure title. This is a Kickstarter game, and it shows from floor to ceiling. It’s another example of how the games coming from crowdsourcing tend to lack the kind of polish and precision that you might find in a Z-Man, Fantasy Flight or Asmodee title. For example, Desperadoes and Outlaws are thematically the same thing. So why are there both, and both with different rules regarding how they behave or are introduced into the game? That’s something development should have ironed out. Characters with three riding dice rarely find themselves coming up short on a move, and can often travel anywhere on a given turn. It would have made more sense to have set movement ratings- not die rolls- with bonuses provided by horses. The Spurs mechanic is another example of how the game lacks the kind of focus that polish can impart. If you have Spur tokens, you can spend them before your turn to get an extra draw or pull on most actions. But the rules don’t apply for PVP, and they’re different for the minigames where you can use them to reroll a die. It’s a needlessly complicated element in need of refinement.

Overall, the design is more tentative than Police Precinct was and I think it’s a somewhat lesser game overall. Spurs often comes across like a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas strung together with strong contextual linkage but somehow it never really finding its center. Going back to that “side quest” concept, I don’t think it helps the game that there is no overall storyline or overarching goal other than “be a famous guy in the Old West”. Imagine playing Red Dead Redemption but without the story parts, and that’s kind of how the entire game feels. With that said, there is a strong sense of emergent story that many players will enjoy creating with friends and family. Despite the rough edges Spurs mostly lives up to its subtitle- “A Tale in the Old West”- but it’s still nowhere near challenging Richard Hamblen’s Gunslinger for the Best Game in the West crown. It’s more Silverado than Once Upon a Time in the West.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

2 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- Spurs: A Tale in the Old West in Review”

  1. Ahhh, a western themed game! A must add to my collection. I was looking for your annual review of DragonCon but I see you didn’t attend. I did see your comments in Matt’s Gen Con rant. passed them on to my brother who agreed you nailed it! HAHAHA

  2. Weeks! Yes, I think you would definitely like Spurs…there’s some jankiness, but overall I think you would be the target audience for this one. Check it out!

    I didn’t go to Dragon Con this year. First time I have missed it since 1992. I decided that I just did not want to have anything to do with it and took the family to Disney World/Universal Studios instead. Had WAY more fun.

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