Tuesday, December 17, 2013

(Sneak) Peak Oil: "Wildcatters"

Sure, I love boardgames but I love writing and editing even more. Because of my addiction to these pursuits, I don't have nearly as much time for gaming as I would like.

This is in stark contrast to someone like Kris who we added to our gaming group a few months back. For him, gaming isn't just a hobby, it's a pursuit that bleeds into every aspect of his life. In addition to amassing a collection of well over four-hundred titles and working his ass off to establish a game-related business venture, Kris also finds the time to attend many high-profile gaming conventions all over North America.

Needless to say, having Kris in our gaming circle yields a lot of pretty awesome dividends for the rest of us. For example, he just got back from Board Game Geek Con, an insane, five-day orgy of card-floppery and dice-hucking. Since the event now attracts about twenty-three hundred attendees, it's also a major industry hot-spot for designers and publishers who are looking to flog their latest wares.

As you can well imagine, Kris picked up a metric shit-ton of Hotness while he was down there and one of the titles he was particularly keen to table right away was Wildcatters.    

And, no, the game isn't about horny, middle-aged, classically-attired women who troll around in bars looking to hook up with younger men. Those are cougars, dumbass.

The game's title actually refers to prospectors who drill exploratory wells in places not known to contain oil, far away from civilized areas where only wildcats dwell. If they find evidence of oil, they snap up the land at a steal and then sell it for an obscene profit to developers.

Okay, so that explains the title of the game, but what about the game itself? A reservoir of info can be tapped just by watching this great l'il walkthrough vid straight from RASS Games:

Looking for the full gusher of rules? You can tap into the black gold that is knowledge by a-clickin' on the link right here.

The night of November 27'th was pretty hairy weather-wise. Torrential rains and high winds knocked out the power at our typical gaming arena, I.E. Dean's place. That's when Kris stepped in and suggested that we test drive his new acquisition at The Board Room Game Cafe, which turned out to be a great idea.

NOTE: due to time constraints we decided to play a five-round match. The standard game of Wildcatters is actually seven rounds, eight if you've got three players.



During our initial pre-game set up, Chad placed two Drilling Rigs in North America and one in South America. He decided to augment this strategy with a couple of rail lines, one in Canada and one in Mexico and then finished off with a Refinery in Peru and an Oil Tanker off the coast of Newfoundland.

Intent on digging a big, ugly hole in Alberta, I set up an Oil Refinery on the East Coast of Canada. Unfortunately, Chad and Dean snatched up the Area Cards that would have let me bring this nefarious goal to fruition. As a result, I had to be content with building two Drilling Rigs in Brazil and one in Russia. I decided to round this out with a Train line in South America and the Middle East and then christened an Oil Tanker which I decided to tie up adjacent to Chad's Refinery.

By dropping down a Refinery, a Drilling Rig and a Train, Dean managed to concentrate several of his resources in Mother Russia. The rest of his distribution, featuring a rail line in British Columbia, an oil derrick in Asia and a Tanker bobbin' off the coast of Japan, was less scattershot and more the product of necessity.

Along with Chad, Kris did a pretty decent job consolidating his starting resources in one region. By the end of the set-up phase he'd stocked Asia and the Middle East with a Refinery, a Tanker, a Train and a Drilling Rig. This allowed him to branch out into South America, where he placed a rail line and an oil derrick. He then elbowed into Dean's turf, erecting a Drilling Rig just outside of Moscow.  

Soooo, here's how the board looked just prior to kick-off:

Eschewing any development in Asia, Chad concentrated on the Western hemisphere. He transformed his two Drilling Rigs in central Canada into Pumpjacks and then started diverting all that ebony juice into Refineries owned by Kris and myself. This quickly made him the number one oil supplier in North America.

But it was down in South America where he really excelled, building a rail line in Brazil which linked up to Kris's facility on Mexico. After cobbling together three more derricks, he got them a-pumpin' which kept his own facility fully stocked with crude. By the end of the game, he'd collected such an obscene amount of shares (primarily in my company and Kris's company) that netting Wildcatter chips was like shooting fish in barrel!

Scattered as I was, I did my best to compete. After building a rail line in central Canada I managed to transform two of my Rigs there into Pumpjacks and then divert the resulting tsunami of petroleum to my Refinery out East. Despite of my best efforts, Chad managed to eke out a last-minute transaction out there and snatch the North American oil baron title away from me!

I had my revenge down in South America, though, doubling down on derricks and then converting three quarters of them into noddin' donkeys. Building a second Refinery in Brazil gave me the freedom to thumb my nose at Chad's competing operation out West and, in turn, I became the Pablo Escobar of South American oil. I also dabbled a little bit in Russia, converting one Rig into a pumping unit and then patronizing Dean's rail line and Refinery. Although this turned out to be barely worth my effort, it did let me recoup a few Shares in my own operation.

Even though Dean managed to hoist up no less then five, count 'em, five new Drilling Rigs in Russia, he only transformed two of 'em into Big Texans because of a curious dearth of matching Area Cards. Assisted by another Train route and a second Refinery out East, Dean barely managed to crawl away with the tile of Russia's primary oil czar. He also had just enough time to convert his lone derrick in Alberta into a "thirsty bird" (as the kids say), use his rail line to transport the resulting crude to Kris's Mexican plant and then ship two barrels out to North America.

Dwindling opportunities in Russia forced him to branch out in Asia, where he added a rail route and two more derricks, one of which he managed to convert into a Pumpjack. He also snuck one barrel from the resulting well into Kris's processing plant to the southwest, which precipitated the payout of another modest windfall of Shares. In fact, poor Dean found himself hemorrhaging more Shares then anyone else at the table. Indeed, the rest of us just didn't feel compelled to patronize Dean's relatively idle rail line in B.C. or the barnacle-encrusted Tanker that was still tied to the dock out East.

Towards the end of the game, Dean did succeed in getting one barrel sent off to the continent of Asia, but the rest of his reserve ended up stranded on the board. He tried to compensate by dropping a third Refinery in Africa, which gave him a few Hail Mary-style Victory Points right at the buzzer!  

Instead of concentrating solely on supplying the Continents with oil like Chad and I, Kris made a concerted effort to maintain a reasonable balance of Shares while snagging as many Wildcatter Chips as possible. Seeing that things were already getting super-nasty in South America, Kris just walked away, letting his Train and Refinery operations in Mexico generate Shares for him. Like a bunch of rubes, the rest of us seemed perfectly content to oblige this.

Avoiding a lot of direct competition, Kris poured most of his efforts into shoring up Asia. This involved the purchase of four more Oil Rigs, two of which he converted into productive Pumpjacks. At first he seemed content use my Train route for transportation, but pretty soon his own railroads were criss-crossing Asia and the Middle East. He even laid down an exploratory line out across the Sahara in a speculative effort to exploit Dean's new Refinery. Fortunately, the game came to an end just before that could happen.  

Right at the eleventh hour Kris attempted to muscle his way into Russia by converting his one and only derrick there into a rocking horse and then shipping the resulting Texas Tea to Dean's Gulag Refinery out in Siberia via Yellow Train. Unfortunately, like my own efforts up north, this seemed to cost him more Shares then he earned.   

After reaching the fifth round, all that was left to do was tally up those final scores!



















Here are a few take-away strategies that I'd like to test out in my next game:

  1. I don't know if it was a deliberate strategy or just fortuitous happenstance, but Chad managed to create an awesome infrastructure right from the start. This, in turn, gave him a massive surplus of Shares. 
  2. Not only are the Shares worth a lot in terms of end-game value, they also allow you to bid effectively for Wildcatter chips. These, in turn, are worth even more points.  
  3. It makes sense to avoid production knife-fights with several rivals in highly-contested areas. If you just want to get your beak wet in these regions, concentrate on snatching up all of the useful infrastructure like Trains, Tankers and Refineries. When your opponents are forced to use these things, you'll end up making out like a bandito.  
  4. Try to be strategic about how much oil you send to each continent. For example, instead of flooding South America with an overkill of oil I should have turned that excess into Shares or tried to snipe a second (or even first) place finish in a less-contested arena.
  5. Although the game does a great job preventing players from operating in a vacuum, don't be afraid to strike up new developments in those relatively-quiet parts of the map. I'm sure that if we'd played for another two rounds, the virginal-looking United States would have been the key to victory.



  • The game looks absolutely beautiful.  The board and components are colorful yet understated. The money looks great, even if some higher denominations should have been included. Although the layout is a tad confusing at first, the individual reference boards really help keep players on point during their turns. The vibrant wooden oil barrels are great and the thick cardboard tokens representing Refineries, Pumpjacks and Tankers are clear and charming. Oh, and how can you not love those cute l'il free-standing Oil Rigs?  Side note: although the wooden Trains we used in our game were a BGG Con exclusive, the Train tokens that come with the game are perfectly suitable.
  • I love how the map's elegant design perfectly replicates the idea that Oil is a finite resource. As with our own history, when the seemingly boundless resources in the United States, Russia and the Middle East start to dry up, a certain desperation sets in, forcing players to compete over far-flung areas to exploit. Honestly, a better title would have been Peak Oil: The Game.  Fair warning: don't click on that last link unless you wanna lose what remains of your Holiday cheer, pronto.  
  • It was actually a lot of fun setting up the infrastructure: using derricks to stake your claim, extracting the Oil with Pumpjacks, shipping barrels by Train or Tanker and then making that all-important decision to either muscle out the competition and become the dominant supplier or try to mount a hostile takeover of your rival's companies via Shares. Honestly, the game itself is a terrific sim of the industry.
  • Even though the MARK I rule book clearly screams TRANSLATION it's still reasonably clear and concise. Occasionally Kris was forced to rummage through the book in order to seek clarification but otherwise, things were fairly intuitive. I think a second edition rulebook and a Headless Hollow style tip sheet would really make this puppy fly by.  
  • Any time I feel compelled to write a post-game analysis or find myself lingering over alternate strategies, I know that I'm playing a winner. I'd definitely like to have another bash at this one, if only to apply what I learned from Game One.  

  • As I've already insinuated, the name Wildcatters is actually a bit of a misnomer. The game has less to do with prospecting and speculation and a lot more to do with simulating the development of the petroleum industry and the ravages that result.  

Despite the fact that I think fossil fuels are killing the planet and oil companies are more blatantly evil then the Umbrella Corporation, designers Rolf Sagel and André Spil have come up with mechanics that 
serve the game's theme very, very well. Even though I personally wasn't crazy about the subject matter, the design is so clever and the gameplay is so quick and light that I could easily be persuaded to try it again.

Looking beyond the slightly-fuzzy rule book and the bait-and-switch title, Wildcatters is still an awesome and borderline-educational little game. As such I'm gonna give this one five pips outta six with black blowout skyward.


Looking for an excuse to say "pumpjack" over and over again? Well, yer up the stump right now, son, since there's probably only about nine-hundred of these babies in existence right now.

Watch this space for further developments!  

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