Tumbleweeds, prairie dogs, bandits, and pioneers. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns. Growing up, my grandfather would always have a western movie on and I read my fair share of books and played my fair share of western themed games. Released in 2022, Best of the West is an open world board game for 2-6 players designed by Eric Andrew Smith and published by Wily Beast Games. In the spirit of keeping this review thematic, we’re going to talk about the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
To walk through all the ins and outs of taking actions would take me a while, so let me get you a brief overview of how the game plays. Players are split into one of two roles: Bandits and Pioneers. Each pioneer is fending for themselves and the bandits play as a cooperative team, each with the goal of earning reputation points and being the player or team with the highest rep after 25 rounds.
Players choose an individual identity with special asymmetric abilities that help them in certain situations in the game. Both groups move around the board with a series of movement cards. Players can also ride the train which circles the interior of the board at the end of each round. Certain spaces on the board will earn players power cards that can help them in different situations such as battling an enemy, performing a task, or selling goods. All players have tools and items that help their specific faction. Players can upgrade their bag to hold more items, loot, and livestock. Each team also has a special location to help them heal their wounds.
Rounds progress with the pioneers acting first and the bandits acting second. At the end of each round, the first player pioneer marker is passed along. As the round tracker progresses around the board, sometimes different events are triggered such as upgrading NPC characters and poker tournaments.
Pioneers earn most of their reputation from mining and panning for gold, herding livestock, and trapping animals for fur. Pioneers can buy and sell specialty items and pets to help make their work more efficient and profitable at the Ranch and in the local town of Prosperity. Prosperity also holds the bank that pioneers can store their extra money and even collect interest. The Bandits earn their rep by stealing from the pioneers and robbing a variety of NPCs around the board. Bandits can Ambush players and the train and sell their stolen goods in special locations. To ambush, bandits play cards from a special deck and lay in waiting for the right time to spring their trap. The bandit team is provided a map and dry erase marker to communicate secretly in their plots against the pioneers.
The production quality of the game is well done, for the most part. The cardboard player aids and tokens are made of a high quality cardboard and the inserts fit all the pieces nicely. The quality of the cards is of high quality and you can’t knock a game for have animal meeple! I know this is the “good” section, but one downside of the production is the box itself. The inserts are wedged in so tight that they scrape the insides of the box. The box also has a lot of extra unneeded space after the game is completely punched out.
Best of the West is very thematic. From the actions that each player takes to the flavor text on the cards, you will be immersed in the western feel of the game. One of the bright spots are the balanced thematic characters. Different characters specialize in different aspects of the game such as gun fights or herding. Never did one character’s abilities seem overpowered to give them an unfair advantage in the game. In fact knowing these player abilities helped craft some of the strategy of which actions you might take against an enemy. Being thematic, the game comes with opportunities for fun narrative moments. In one instance, a bandit used their pet vulture to steal a sheep from the herd. With their location on the board, we could just imagine the vulture flying over the red rocks and over the river with a sheep in its claws taking it back to its owner. In another instance, a bandit ambushed a pioneer. After missing with their revolvers on two turns, the bandit pulled out a stick of dynamite. Their role was a critical failure and the dynamite blew up in the bandit’s face sending them straight to the graveyard and then to jail upon his resurrection. Other fun moments like this are littered throughout the game with the availability of various weapons, power cards, and items for players to modify their actions. However, we are still wondering how taming a wild bronco doesn’t automatically give you a horse.
The game also features a catch up mechanic that helps the player in last place. In rounds 9 and 16, the last place player will receive a free revolver and a free bag upgrade, respectively, and attacking the last player hits the attacking player with a two hit point penalty. In one game, I was solidly in last place and ended up winning, using the free gifts and attack bonus to score some big mining runs.
This is a long game. The box says two to three hours, but I could only see that with lower player counts and veteran players. Teaching the rules alone took almost an hour with lots of minutia rules and a poorly laid out rulebook (more on that later). Adding to the long game are things like the poker tournament. Draw power cards and roll dice to try and get some help in the game, but it didn’t seem meaningful enough to add the extra time. At the end of the day, it’s going to be difficult to get this game to the table very often. Finding people for a 4+ hour commitment isn’t easy these days with busy schedules. If you can get a veteran group together consistently, it may justify getting this game to the table.
The artwork, for me, was a little inconsistent. The box art is pretty great and inviting and seemed like it fit the complexity of the game inside. Once into the box, the artwork on the board, power cards, and the graphic design of the player aides gave me lighthearted, lightweight children’s game vibes. Sometimes it looked like clipart slapped onto some cards and player aides. The board was also a bit over-saturated making it hard to delineate spaces, especially with natural barriers.
Another element that the group didn’t particularly care for was the amount of stuff in the game. For each side, there are a minimum of 4 extra boards plus a jail board plus a player card and a bag card for each player plus seven different decks of cards and a main board; it makes this game a table hog and some elements aren’t even touched throughout the game. I didn’t even mention the hundreds of tiny cardboard tokens representing the money and items that are tough to stay in stacks and the writing on the back is small even for young healthy eyes. At the end of the day, some things could have used some editing. Maybe dual sided rations, similar to the revolvers, to limit some cardboard or consolidating power card decks. All of the stuff makes for a table hog of a game. What we were really hoping for were some sheets clarifying the rules for each side, which brings us to…
The rulebook needs a lot of editing. It is just plain confusing at times and makes teaching the game a chore. In the set-up section, please put everything needed to start the game. We didn’t even realize that each bandit started with a revolver until nine pages past the initial set-up page. Finding rules clarification is also tough. Sometimes it involves navigating to a section that doesn’t answer the question where the answer is found in the middle of a sentence in another section. It was also unclear whether bandits could take a certain action such as a trapping for fur only to figure out that since they couldn’t buy the trap item necessary, they couldn’t take the action. The rulebook did do some delineation between bandits and pioneers with red and blue text, but those delineations were also unclear. The group I played with suggested two separate rulebooks, one for pioneers and one for bandits or having some well detailed player aides listing the only actions a bandit or pioneer could take on their turn.
Let me say this upfront, I don’t hate this game. This game has a lot of elements that we enjoyed and has some potential to become a really solid game. The problem comes in the editing process. We don’t need all the stuff that this game has and if you’re going to include a lot of minutia in the rules, it needs to be clear. Some rulebook editing, some different player aides, and some extra time cleaning up the artwork, would make this game enjoyable to get to the table.
Dan is an educator from Colorado. Growing up as an Air Force dependent gained him lots of new perspectives on the world and a love for making new friends, especially over a good board game. When not at school or playing a board game, Dan is probably at the gym, attending a local sporting event, or performing or attending theater. Dan loves heavy euros, deck builders, living card games, and great solo rules.
Best of the West
A thematic western adventure pitting a team of bandits against pioneers out to make it on their own. Some good elements get lost in a subpar rule book bogged down with a bit of excess. Some editing and retooling could make this game great. If you can get through learning the game, have a few hours on your hand, and a lot of table space, there is some fun to be had.