Review: Dakota—Fantastic Game If You Earn It
This week, we take a look at Nexus Games’ Dakota—newly arrived on the shores of these United States. I was able to give this several plays—and multiple games are extremely necessary for Dakota. The players can choose to be Indians or Settlers, and the two provide very different experiences and goals.
One surprising aspect of Dakota was that the play experience varied widely depending on the group. Nicer groups will see a completely different game play out than ones who concentrate on spite and stopping their opponents. With the right group, this game is a blast to play. But if you jump in with some folks that don’t closely match your play style, you may be up for a frustrating experience.
Follow me past the cut for the full review.
The Basics. Dakota plays out in the American Frontier. At the beginning of the game, the players secretly select whether they will be Settlers or Indians. Uneven teams are allowed—even expected—but there must be at least one player on each faction. Picking a faction is extremely important. It doesn’t merely change the goal of the game, but dramatically impacts which goods the player will find valuable and how the player goes about acquiring them.
Because the Indian players value buffalo, for example, they can sell them for a whopping five coins, or buy them at the same price from the supply. The settlers, however, can buy and sell them for only two because they just aren’t that valuable. Gold works in the opposite manner with settlers paying and selling at a dear price and Indians at low prices.
Both factions can build up their civilizations. Settlers grow a small town and can build a saloon, bank, and other thematically-appropriate structures. These structures require substantial amounts of timber and metal. The Indians, by contrast, build totems for points and powers. These require a number of natural goods including horses, game, fish, and buffalo.
The goods on the board are divided into two rows. The top row is the uncultivated natural resources. These tend to be better for the Indians and relatively mediocre for the settlers. But, once depleted, the bottom row comes out. Bottom rows tend to be good for Settlers and ho-hum for Indians. As a result, Settlers want to deplete the top row as quickly as possible, while Indians want to get what they can, but prevent it from being completely harvested away. Those incentives reverse for the bottom row where Indians want to farm it out so that the frontier moves west and a new top row is made available.
Last mechanic of note is the neutral explorers. Indians and Settlers do not get along. If Indians and Settlers both end up on the same space vying for the same goods, only one is going to get it. Whichever faction commits more explorers gets to bring home the goods, and the other goes home empty-handed. So, a lone Indian would seem at a significant disadvantage against several Settler players. Not so. The game evens this out with the use of neutral pawns.
If there are more Settlers than Indians, then there will be more Neutral Indians than Neutral Settlers. This gives the Indian player a chance to back up his pawns with neutrals so that he can overtake the space. It also prevents the Settlers from ganging up on the Indian (since there are fewer Settlers to place) and encourages them to fight amongst themselves by putting Neutral Indians on one another.
The Feel. Dakota is a tough game to capsulize because the feel is very different between Indian and Settler, and even between different groups. As an Indian player, the goal is to use the resources without depleting. This is possible because the totems are built out of a variety of goods. Indian players can spend a turn collecting game, and the next turn collecting horses, and the next buffalo. They’ve acquired goods on each turn and haven’t put any one space in danger of being farmed out.
By contrast, the early game for a Settler is grueling. There are few goods that are wanted. And while, ideally, a Settler should just work to farm a space out entirely, it can be difficult to do in practice. Especially because the goods the player will receive are relatively worthless.
The other big difference is in competition. If there are several Indians, one might go to the fish spot, another to the buffalo spot, and a third to the horse spot. They each get a desirable good and are not in direct competition with one another. By contrast, this is not available to the Settlers. There is only one space that produces metal—a good all settlers need for three out of their four buildings (and in large quantities). As a result, as soon as metal becomes available, all the Settlers jump on that space and fight over it. Settlers must often utilize the market to buy their metal rather than merely harvest it like the Indians can. Of course, if they do abandon the harvest and go to the market, then a different settler might take the easier harvest and the market-going Settler is worse off than his fellow.
I would recommend playing an Indian for newer or inexperienced players. While Settlers can be very fun to play and their tactics run a little deeper, they are also more difficult to execute successfully—especially with competition. In fact, if there are three or four Settlers and one Indian player, then that Indian is going to have a substantial advantage.
The other aspect that varies wildly in Dakota is the level of spite. Spite is available and encouraged. Even if there are two Settlers in the game, there is only one winner. Dakota is not a team sport. So players are encouraged to backstab their fellow faction members in order to continue to progress.
In my very first game, we played it as more of a team exercise. Unfortunately, with low spite, everyone had built their entire town or totems by turn seven and the game still seemed to grind on. It’s must less fun without those interesting goals. On our second game, I encouraged everyone into a high spite mode. I hope I never see that much ruthlessness in one game again. This time, over the course of the full game, most players built no more than two structures—and one couldn’t build any. Later games found a happy medium, but be aware that high spite can derail a lot of progress.
This isn’t to say that high spite inevitably results in frustration and low scores. Further plays revealed that there were some times when it was best to go to the Market and buy goods (where the player can’t be kicked out by the opposing faction) rather than go to the frontier and try to harvest. Turn order, which rotates, dramatically impacts these decisions. There is a significant strategy here, but it is one that reveals itself only after several plays. A new player can be easily spited right out of the game and believe that Dakota is awful.
Components: 4.5 of 5. I love the pieces in Dakota. All of the counters and goods are on thick cardboard stock. And, rather than have little tokens or cubes to represent the buildings you construct, there are tiles with stands. The artwork is old-timey and perfect for the theme. It’s really fun to see the little Western town come to life, or watch as totems are erected. The rulebook is also very straightforward, gives tons of examples, and helps you realize that the basic mechanics are simple, even while a wealth of strategy is available. The pawns are painted wood and completely serviceable.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. There is no luck in Dakota. No dice, no cards, no randomness at all. The only “luck,” if it can be called that, is in finding out how many others have chosen your same faction. In general, I think it is preferable to have fewer in your faction than more. Also, the Settler faction has incredible strategic depth to it—but it also walks a razor’s edge. If you mess up, it is far easier to miss out on resources or otherwise blow a turn as a Settler than as an Indian.
Mechanics: 3 of 5. Dakota does one thing brilliantly, and botches another. The worry is that, with more of one faction than another, there will be more pawns out there to kick the lesser faction off the board and prevent them from acquiring goods. The neutrals are a sublime solution. The neutrals are added in such a way that, between player pawns and neutrals, there will be an even number of each faction. This prevents a “ganging up” mentality and gives the single player faction as much of a chance to harvest goods as the multiple-player faction.
However, it also ends up creating a different imbalance. A player can place the neutrals from either faction. This greatly favors a single-player faction. If there is only one Indian, there will be only four neutral settlers. When placing neutrals, that Indian player can place three Settlers somewhere. Maybe even on unoccupied lands. The remaining players, all Settlers, have only one neutral Settler to pick to hurt the Indian player. That one neutral is unlikely to do much. But, they now have access to tons of neutral Indians. And those can’t hurt the Indian player, but they sure as heck can hurt the other Settlers. So it devolves into a feeding frenzy where not only are the Settlers competing for the same resources, but they are also highly encouraged to fight amongst themselves leaving the Indian player relatively spite free.
Rather than have players pick randomly at the beginning, I would have players announce their factions out loud in turn order. I would also require that four-and-five-player games have at least two players in each factions. So this is something that could be remedied, but when playing with the rules as written, it’s a definite issue.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Dakota is extremely replayable. The gameplay between Indian and Settler is fantastically different. It’s almost a completely separate game. So if you’ve played one faction a few times, you can switch to another for a dramatically altered experience. Additionally, different players are going to try different strategies. And your tactics will be highly dependent on what other players do. This interaction and depth keeps the game feeling different and it does not get old quickly.
Spite: 4.5 of 5. Oh, the spite. The neutrals are the little spite kings that come in and spread their faery spite dust all throughout the American West. And the spite hurts. If you place all three characters on one land, and still see the neutrals of the opposing faction line up to oppose you, then you just lost your whole turn. Have a thick skin and be prepared to lose a turn or two. That’s how this game rolls. And, it needs to. Dakota has spite built in to its economic engine. If you refuse to spite, you’ll build your whole city and get to the end of your game before the game ends.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. One thing I cannot emphasize enough is that Dakota takes several plays before it gets really good. That isn’t to say that it’s terrible in early games. Just that the full strategies are very opaque at first and it requires a few plays, and a lot of testing, before tactics begin to emerge. This makes it hard to introduce to new players, and requires gamers to be willing to invest several plays. If you judge a game on one play, then you may not walk away from Dakota pleased. You have to earn it with Dakota. But, if you let this hit your table multiple times, and if you can get your gaming group to do likewise, a richness of strategy will develop. The trick is in getting those with shorter attention spans to go along with those several plays.
A very special thanks to Nexus Games for providing a review copy of Dakota.