Time: ~50 minutes
Times Played: 5
The Oregon Trail is a game ingrained in my heart. I can still remember sitting in the elementary school computer lab and playing this religiously when I finished whatever task was set before me. When The Oregon Trail board game was released in 2016, I was excited but that excitement was quickly doused once the game was played. Another Oregon Trail game was released in 2018 but instead I decided on another American West game to try and scratch that nostalgic itch: Pioneer Days.
Pioneer Days is an American Westward expansion themed dice drafting game where players need to contend with the elements, diseases, and bandits as they traverse from town to town.
Pioneer Days is played over four weeks (rounds) with each week having five days (turns). Every game will have a handful of dice (one set per player plus an additional set) added to the dice bag. Each die has a color that corresponds to the disaster track (which I’ll get to in a moment).
At the beginning of each week, the starting player will draw dice equal to the number of players plus one and roll them. Players, in turn order, will then select which die they want to take which will trigger the action they can take. The dice will have images on them that may trigger bonuses depending on goods and townsfolk a player has previously collected. Players can use the die to take silver (to buy goods), take an action, or recruit a townsfolk.
After all players have chosen a die, one will remain and that die is used to advance the disaster track one space. If a disaster marker reaches the end of the track, that disaster impacts all players.
A blue die will increase the Storm track. When the marker reaches the end of the track, players must pay one wood per wagon they own. If they cannot, the wagon takes damage.
A red die will increase the Raid track. When the marker reaches the end of the track, players must discard half of their silver rounded up.
A yellow die will increase the Famine track. When the marker reaches the end of the track, players must pay one silver per cow they own. If they cannot, they discard each cow that they cannot afford.
A green die will increase the Disease track. When the marker reaches the end of the track, players must discard one medicine for each townsfolk they have. If they cannot, they discard each townsfolk that they cannot give medicine to.
A black die will increase all tracks.
This continues for five days (turns). The dice bag will run empty as well so players physically won’t be able to take more turns. This step is known as Visiting Town and here, players will score points for cattle, satisfy the needs of the town to score points, and resolve any card effects.
The next week begins with a reset of the board and new cards coming out for town needs, townsfolk, and equipment. Rinse and repeat for four weeks (rounds) and the game ends with the player having the most points being the victor.
Pioneer Days offers a decent amount of variety thanks to the variable abilities of the starting characters and the townsfolk cards. On one side of the starting character player board is the standard character and the other has a more thematic version with variable abilities. After playing with the standard side once, we never went back to it. It’s a great way to learn and teach the game but we never found a reason to limit ourselves in future plays. The characters are thematic for the time period but all are ‘good’ characters and there’s no interaction between one another.
The Townsfolk Cards increase that replayability as there are five sets and only two sets are used each game. This changes the feel and strategy each time you play. However, this also increases the randomness and luck of the game mightily and means players will have to adjust their strategies each round. I enjoy both types of games (where I can plan and where I think on the fly) but that may not be for everyone.
Pioneer Days breaks down to becoming a game where players need to balance the good versus the bad. I have played a lot of games and there’s a strange phenomenon where players have no issue discarding cards and items but when they’re taken from you (even when you know you’re going to lose them), it makes each decision tougher. The empathy for the tiny meeple cows will trump reason as they try to save them from famine when in reality more points would be gathered by grabbing another townsfolk instead. The balance is interesting for each player and how they manage it (coupled with how players play the game) is the crux of Pioneer Days.
The mechanic of having the leftover die impact the disaster track is ingenious and makes Pioneer Days stand out against like dice drafting games. It allows players to play the game on their terms. If they want to work together, they can by ensuring that the disaster track advances on something they’re preparing for. If they want to play competitively, they can purposefully take dice that leave their opponents in dire straights. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game as we could play however we wanted which is great for different groups.
For a game that deals with storms, raids, famine, and disease, it was interesting to see such a cartoonish style of artwork paired with such morbid (but realistic) scenarios. The rest of the components are of a high quality, particularly the cardboard tokens. Each is a bit thicker than a normal component and makes the constant picking up and placing easy to do.
My only real complaint about the physical aspect of the game doesn’t come from the components but from the inability to store them. The game does not include an insert of any kind (which I found odd. Normally inserts are included that are too small and this time they didn’t even bother). Pioneer Days also didn’t come with enough bags for all the components. Most games I buy come with too many bags and again, it was weird to have this be the opposite. This doesn’t impact the game or storage at all as so far everything is still in great shape in the box even without an insert but it was such a common practice of every other game that it’s weird when the alternative is encountered.
There is another big complaint coming and it might be a deal breaker for a lot of players. It has to do with the dice and their colors. As each die is imprinted with the symbols needed for the actions used during gameplay, there’s no way to tell one die from another besides their color. Unfortunately, some players that are affected by color blindness will have difficulty discerning one die from another. My first play was with a color blind person and we had to point out each die to them when rolled. It was a minor addition to the game but disheartening for the individual as it definitely hindered their enjoyment of the game.
The game scales to any player count due to the only difference being the amount of dice used and I honestly don’t mind one player count over another. They were all equally fine to play as. I wish the game could support five as I think it would still play fast and not lose anything with the addition of another player.
The big draw offered by Pioneer Days is its theme. The game has the little cow meeples and the artwork and the disasters but I can’t say I was ever engrossed by the theme. I wanted to be. Badly. I love the idea of exploration dealing with the American frontier and have that nostalgia for The Oregon Trail but Pioneer Days never brought me into that world. The townsfolk having generic titles instead of names meant I had no attachment when they died off, the lack of exploration and travel never created any sort of adventure, and the disasters never truly worried me. While you may have lost an item (or person) here and there, it was easy to plan around and players will obviously prioritize what they’re going to score over something that may not net them anything.
Ignoring the comparison to The Oregon Trail, Pioneer Days is worthy enough to stand on its own as a light-to-middleweight dice drafting game with an interesting back plot. This won’t become a favorite of mine and isn’t something I see us pulling out each week but it’s a game I don’t mind. I wish the theme pulled me in more but not all games can do that.