Lords of the Sierra Madre

Sierra Madre Games Co.,
Designed by Phil Eklund
1-12 players, about 3-4 hours+
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Now this is the sort of game you can get your teeth into. A huge topic, obscure and flavoursome history, a novel and often clever game system, more atmosphere than a grown man can handle and all playable in about four hours. The subject is Mexico and the Southwestern US states in the turbulent years between 1898 and 1917 when a week seldom went by without a revolution.

The game's focus and the player's role is the hacendado, a group of ranchers, speculators and entrepreneurs who set up their own burgeoning empires in the none too hospitable terrain of the area. The background themes are economic, political, military and geographic (which should cover most of the bases). There are cattle ranches, slave plantations, railways, mines, smelters, small businesses, forts, camels, reed canoes, aircraft, casinos, kitchen sinks, Winchesters and machine gun mule detachments. I could go on. The stars include Cochise, the Arizona Rangers, Black Jack Pershing, Apaches, Mexican bandidos, the 7th Cavalry, Pinkertons, evil Germans and even William Randolph Hearst. If that lot doesn't satisfy, then you dead, boy.

Sierra Madre Games are a one man operation in the shape of Phil Eklund who seems to have been operating in relative anonymity until a scoop review in Berg's Review of Games highlighted their existence. As well as the production under review, they also sell Trilobite and Insecta which are ideal for Quirks fans the world over. Plenty of thorax and mandible counters here. These should feature next time.

Sierra Madre's production is both basic and appealing. Everything is generated on a Mac and the composition is of a high standard. The printouts are to a colour inkjet which gives the whole thing a homespun, dot matrix look that is both perfectly adequate and attractive in its way. The map is large and is supplied expertly stuck together and covered with clear plastic laminate (this must take hours to do) but does benefit from a perspex overlay to keep it flat. The counters are half-way finished - you need to cut them off of the pre-stuck cardboard strips - and the cards need cutting out, all of which will take about an hour. Or perhaps two if, like me, you read most of the cards as you go along.

The rule book is remarkably concise given the events that can happen in the game but most of these are directed by cards or several charts that are on both map and rulebook. The rules are clear in the main, though there are some lengthy diversions into gamespeak, and seem complete so far - for reasons to be explained, I am impressed at how the game can have so many different events linking into a set of rule sections that run to just 16 pages. The main point I would like to make here is that because the game is so unusual in structure, you need to read the rules and have faith in them. What it says is what you can do, however odd it might appear at the start. It would also be worth reading the strategy tips that will appear next issue (or are in the rules bank if you want them). LotSM has some of the most interesting design comments I've seen for a while. Phil Eklund lays out what he intended to do with the game (such as minimal setup time, low counter density, economic aspects, 1-12 players, time limit, no bookeeping etc) and shows how and why he achieved his aims.

LotSM can be played solo, as a map game, as a card game without the map and as a grand tournament game with map, counters and tactical turns - the latter are basically the movement and combat functions. All the comments below refer to the tournament game which we played with two, four or five players. The comments are based on four games and one aborted session because I managed to completely miss a vital rule. However, despite feeling embarrassed by this, it was a great help in working out how the game proceeds. As with all big games, especially with new systems, I would recommend a solitaire playthrough before the main event if you can spare the odd hour. Due to lack of time before this issue, I haven't yet tried the game without map and counters. This basically means the game can be played using the cards and economic rules only and it should be a lot quicker. I don't as yet know how it works, but it undoubtedly sounds interesting and may well also dodge some of the criticisms levelled below.

I have no real hope of conveying anything more than a broad brush picture of how the game works, such is the number of permutations. The general idea is to have most money at game end, which is always a good basis. You start with just one ranch, a few followers, an income of one gold piece per year and the clothes on your back. Your neighbours might be down the road or across the country somewhere. The game progresses in quarterly turns that feature thick and thin cards. One thick card is flipped each turn and can be bid for by all players - typically, these are business opportunities, events, personalities, political developments and so on. They also provide variable investment income which will get you through the lean times. Thin cards represent readily available items such as mules, guns, railroads, police, troops and so on and they can be bought at any time to strengthen your business empire. While the rules dictate which types of units can attack or combine with others, it is conceivable that you might have a real mix of police, villains and US Army counters all in your pay but working separately to achieve your ends.

As there are over 150 thick cards and even a long fifteen year game will see only 60, you can see that there is virtually no repetition of events even if you play several times. The games will also pan out in different ways depending on which cards come up and in which order; it is no good sitting around waiting for long term mine investments to appear if everyone else is arming up to the teeth and raiding banks, so to an extent you go with the flow but this doesn't rule out going your own way, as we shall see. The thick cards do vary considerably in usefulness and strength. Some cards are obviously powerful and attract big money (especially if they are located close to home), some are deceptive and will give you a big benefit somewhere down the line (mines especially) and others are low key in impact. Bidding therefore varies from the odd penny for a Telefunken Wireless Set to large sums for control of the ever popular siege artillery or the formidable rail gun. I just find it incredible that from Traveller and D&D to LotSM, players always seem to go for the big firepower option - regardless of its utility. Yeah, okay. I bought the rail gun.

The players notes indicate that the spy cards are very handy, which we have yet to ascertain (none have yet been purchased) but we did get a mean nationalisation card that could well have lost the game for the target player had we seen it played - as it turned out, the time limit intervened. Being on the end of one of the 'disaster' cards is seen as just one of those things that life throws in to keep you on the hop. You are meant to dust yourself down and start again from scratch, even if that means playing catch up. I have no real problem with this but it did rather disgruntle the competitive players in the group. After the aggro we had over the blind fate rule in Grand Prix Manager, I can foresee some trouble here.

As the game is unlike anything I have ever played, it is perhaps not surprising that the first couple of games suffered from players really not knowing what to do. Even with experience, the list of options is tough to recall. There are so many possibilities covered by the rules (shooting prisoners, assassinations, filing law suits and taxation are just four good examples) that there is a temptation to get on with the core game and only consult the special rules as they are required by the cards or player action. In fact, in the same way as Squad Leader works with its add-on paratroop rule modules, this seems the best way forward and you can pick up the rest as you go along. While you might lose a few minor tactical nuances, the flow of the game isn't spoilt and there are more than enough options even having read just the first few pages of rules.

One outcome of this was that we tried to do too much early on, when money is very tight and the arrival of your first single shot rifle or mule train is an exciting event. The temptation to trundle off and raid your neighbour's treasury is high, but generally this will slow the game down and be ineffective in the early stages. Accordingly, a complaint that I would have made is the lack of an introductory scenario and a copious set of notes on play strategies, but Snr Eklund now provides these in all more recent sets and, from what I've seen, really help matters.

To summarise, the best way forward is to really rip through the first four or five years (twenty card turns say) only buying what you absolutely must have and can afford, building up very small business ventures (your hacienda, a casino, a bullfight arena, or perhaps a border store, rather than a mine complex with railroad links to rival South Wales) and conserving money. If, like me, you are used to spending what you have, the desire should be curbed quickly. Worse, bank loans are practically a no go area; 300% interest is a bit of a bummer when you only earn enough to service the debt. The thing to bear in mind is that games will be won (either at the time limit or at the end of the year turns) by relatively low amounts of gold. There are sample games listed in the rules which show winners with as few as 7 GPs, which is the best indication of the winning strategy.

Movement and Combat are where the game comes closest to board wargame mechanisms, as I suppose one might expect. It is also where, in my view, it becomes rather too detailed and complicated for its own good. Given the size and scope of the game, I would have liked to have seen a simple, quick combat system and easily remembered movement rules. To clarify the latter, each unit has a movement value (no problem here) but there are zones of control, interdiction combat, supply and step losses to take care of and each type of transport (foot, mules, trucks, bicycles, canoes, camels, horses etc) has its own quirks and carrying capacity.

That said, unit densities remain low, the systems are not overly complex if you have a crib sheet in front of you, camels and canoes certainly aren't going to appear every game and the emphasis on movement is firmly based on staying alive rather than massive country wide manoeuvres. Your main concern is where your units are going to get their next drink. The supply rules are built into movement in that most units should finish their moves near a water source or suffer depletion. The latter is a polite word which hides an appreciable reduction in capacity. If you acquire a few of these, your troops will be doing passable imitations of piles of sunbleached bones. All fairly workable and flavoursome stuff but, as I said, rather wargamey which will rightly deter some of you. It very much depends what you are used to.

Combat is simpler but again, familiarity with combat result tables and shifts is required. It is also a little odd in that attackers get to roll first on the combat tables and only if there is a counterattack do they stand a chance of getting hurt. This seems unusual to say the least (see PAs passim for discussion on the merits of defending with firearms) but in the context of the game you can either live with it or, of course, change it to your tastes. Combat is bloody (especially if the counterattack does come) and the many types of weapons, from poisoned arrows to Gatling Guns, are portrayed well so that holding off bow armed Indians with Winchesters or facing Apaches armed with single shot rifles feels about right. Either way, you get to carry the little weapon counters around.

I mentioned up there at the start the various elements of the game: economics is easy - you never have enough money, neatly forcing decisions and resource allocation but causing some distress among some players who want more cash - this is easily tweaked, but I suspect game balance would go South. Money supply is usually really short, but it gets worse when there is a stock market crash or a recession of some sort. Geography is ever present, whether you are trying to simply move, ship mine products over long distances, attack neighbours or escape from raiding Yaquis. It feels right and only a faded sand coloured map would improve it. Military effects will pop up from time to time from the cards and you need to be prepared, though much of this is voluntary and a well defended hacienda can get you through many uprisings. All of this works well and is near perfectly balanced - no unit, even the vaunted Rangers or US Army, is powerful enough to have an unreasonable impact.

The final aspect is political, and this is where I got into some trouble. The situation is that you go through the card deck, merrily bidding for things, and then a card will pop up saying Gubernatorial Appointment. The whole world goes into turmoil (which is quite realistic for that time, I suppose) but the net result is that I felt the events were happening somewhere else and didn't really fit with the game I had been playing. The implicit opportunity to run for governor or Mexican or US president (or indeed shoot them) makes it worse. I'm sure the problem is nothing more than my lack of knowledge of the period and thus failing to take in the whole picture, but even having read the accompanying notes I was still fairly in the dark and these rules did feel rather tacked on.

My guess is that although the hacendado are powerful chaps, they don't feel powerful because gamers are used to doing this sort of thing anyway (the 'not much fun playing peasants' syndrome) and because they don't have it easy. Accordingly, it is hard to make the mental jump to realize that, with a few lucky breaks, these guys could be running the country - exactly like present day Britain in fact. With my lack of knowledge, it would be harsh to suggest that the game should improve this area in some way, but given how important it could be to the flow of the game perhaps something could be done to fill out the background or make it clearer as to just what you can get involved with politically and why you would choose to do it.

The net result of all this is a game the like of which I have never encountered, though I am told that Timbuktu, a game sitting on my shelf, has many similar qualities. Notes on a sample game might assist my description:

1898 Midnight Marauders (bandits under Epes Randolf) visit Slaughter's Ranch, stealing everything.
1899 Midnight Marauders, surviving an attack by Pershing but frustrated in their attempt to smuggle arms out of Bisbee, Arizona, burn down Slaughter's Ranch.
1900 Maytorena starts capitalizing a bank, which repossesses Slaughter's railroads when his loans become due, leaving him utterly possessionless.
1901 Juriquipa and Cabitari mines started.
1902 Carranza Revolution erupts (under Greene). Sonora secedes from Mexico under the Red Flag.
1903 Carranza arrested (by Col Patton himself) in his Nogales hotel, ending the Revolution. Halley's Comet panic ends the Red Flag Rebellion.
1904 Epes Randolf attacked by Midnight Marauders (now under De Huerta), but narrowly escapes with his life. His Juriquipa mines are torched.
1905 Maderista rebels from Dolores damage Cabitari mines.

Results Four hour game, reached summer 1905, 9 players with ending gold as follows:
De La Huerta: 50 Au (variety of small enterprises & deals)
Ysabel: 42 Au (rail baron)
Epes Rando1f: 39 Au (bandit chieftain)
Kleist: 33 Au (Slave empire)
Maytorena: 23 Au (banker)
Slaughter: 15 Au (homeless bum)
Hearst: 13 Au (a beginner)
Terrazas: 10 Au (a beginner)
Greene: Killed In Action by bandidos.

Within each turn you could have a whole raft of small events leading up to the above major incidents. The whole thing works on this level and if you aren't fighting off other players or deciding on your next business acquisition, you always have the lack of money and Indians to spice things up. The real strength of the game is the variety of events that can be triggered by just one card. If you buy a mine, you have to invest in it for a number of turns, building up to a roll to see if it will spout gobs of silver or is worthless. If you take control of a personality, he might cause you to take a sudden interest in all the pink counters on the board as playing a Conspiracy card might bring them under your control. If you acquire some useful troops or police, the vistas of raiding forts, night raids, kidnapping and freeing prisoners all appear.

As the game builds up turn after turn, in tandem with the liquidity, all of this creates a marvellous atmosphere which draws the players into the game (well, it did me) and, ultimately, to the history of the period. After the second game I read through the historical notes and started to piece things together. The game, in much the same way as Days of Decision, allows for a large number of period events (and I mean large), shuffles them up and lets the players recreate a believable pseudo-history. Occasionally the history comes out close to reality, at other times it is straight fiction. Whatever, the historic events seemed so chaotic it matters little in which order they emerge. As with Days of Decision, I really liked this feature.

As a game, ignoring for a moment any slightly dodgy systems, LotSM just feels right in almost every area - the period really does come alive. I think it might even be time to bring ambience out of the thesaurus and combine it with superb. You never know what is going to happen next and the speed and severity with which events or attacks can occur really keeps you on your toes. I like to play it turn to turn (we'll take it one game at a time, Barry) and see what I can do with the cards on offer, where I am going to allocate my hard earned cash (if at all) and whether I am going to risk moving anything or sit pat on my hacienda income.

You end up with both big and small decisions, such as whether to give your men better rifles, upgrade their mules to trucks or to send them by train, all the while deciding whether to run for president or invest big money in that smelter. There are steady drains on your cash in the shape of your investments, one is always mentally running little cash flows, and there is the constant need to keep the hacienda safe and strong. No one says becoming a millionaire is easy. In that respect, LotSM is a tough game (though also pretty good on the fun rating) that is going to make you work for what you achieve. But when you get somewhere (it often feels as if you won't) and your first carefully nurtured unit spends a couple of exciting turns fighting a rearguard action, pursued by Indians across the desert, thereby allowing your honcho to make it home safely, it is all well worth it.

Such is the strength of the atmosphere, which has been alluded to in all the reviews I've seen, I was intrigued to know where it came from. Certainly the period is interesting (to say the least) and is one that bears closer investigation. The research and history seem good (for example, Phil has recently spent five days translating a book on the use of air power in the region) but I guess overall it is the designer's enthusiasm for the subject and his drawing on the frenzied history that carry the day. Whatever the reason, this is a game that had me dusting off my sleeves as my 7th Cavalry rode into Ciudad Juarez in pursuit of some particularly nasty bandidos. I also felt more than pleased when I finally got some money out of a ropey little copper mine, having spent half a game's effort and two railroads coaxing it into existence at a massive loss, while the smug feeling of getting your first Gatling and being able to exact revenge on those pesky Comanches is something to experience.

It is easy to start thinking how the game might be improved, not because of any major shortcomings, but because the desire to play it again leads you to think about what might have been. I suppose the biggest improvement could have been with the map, as at present it holds a lot of information including man-made features (especially railroads) that technically aren't there until you build them. This gives rise to problems such as planning a campaign or a lumber railroad network only to remember that the permanent way is still under construction. What would have been great is a map that was pretty much desert to start with (though the one supplied creates a good feel for the land) and which builds up as the cards dictate by laying on new hex overlays, sand dunes, border fences, little ranch buildings, railroad engines with those big cowcatchers, dust clouds and of course cactii. I think I'll go and lie down now.

If the game supplied is not enough for your tastes, then you can buy the Manifest Destiny expansion kit that covers the period between 1848 and 1868. The kit uses the same map but provides extra cards and characters such as Geronimo, Mangus Colorado, Pancho Villa, scalphunters and drug runners, Kit Carson and even Marshal Bazaine with his French expeditionary forces. Much of this is therefore firmly in Flashman and the Redskins territory and I recommend this book as an ideal background read. The game is reputed to have an entirely different flavour to the later era and features even more difficult economic and environmental challenges, including measles epidemics.

There are some small scale hitches with LotSM, notably in the fiddly wargame systems and the odd combat sequence, but most of these are effectively swept away by the sheer grandeur of the game, its background detail and, importantly, familiarity. I think most of the problems I encountered were through finding out what was going on in an environment that, at times, feels almost open ended in that way that role playing games deliver. This is a two edged sword as that scope can also be intimidating. It isn't quite that wide ranging, when you analyse it with a clear head, but the same welcome feel is there in play. Although in reality restricted by the rules, card appearance and money, you are pretty much free to do what you will to win the game or, indeed, just go along for the ride.

This latter experience aspect is an element of the game that strongly appealed. The competition was there, but you could if desired sit quietly on the verandah with a few armed guards, running an efficient smelter in the background, puffing on a cheroot and spitting. One player quite happily moved into a monopoly holding on the various railroads and raked in the fees while doing little else - he didn't win, but had a good time. If you want to mix it with constant combat, fine, but the game can be won or enjoyed in many ways and such are the conditions in the area, the arguments against sending your expensive men and horses off into the unforgiving desert can be overwhelming.

I find the card system rather interesting as a driving mechanism and am already looking at ways of adapting it for other topics. The slight inconsistency is that you 'buy' everything, from airplane cards to people. The concept of buying the Texas Rangers is a little odd (unless you own a hamburger chain), as is their mixing within the same faction as bandidos or Indians, so you need to suspend disbelief on these points for the sake of the game. I can imagine a future system (or even a variant) where, perhaps, you are dealt a hand of cards representing your initial troop allocation and only the material items (and I include mercenary troops here) come up for sale. There might be for instance a separate card stack for reinforcements and another for events. Anyway, I'm rambling.

Whatever, with just a fraction of the cards yet encountered, it should offer quite a bit of variety in the future but beyond that, probably, lies a problem. For all its strengths, and this is just a hunch, I am not sure LotSM is going to be a game that gets played time and time again. There is little danger of repetition and the game system allows for plenty of strategies (though sometimes reactive, it must be said) but the net result, stripped of the atmosphere, is a little thin. It is difficult to pinpoint, but I would term it rather one-dimensional - a flattish game where events happen at ground level and relief is provided by the chrome generated atmosphere. Okay, so that was worthy of Pseud's Corner, but I am trying to elucidate.

I realise that the game system and the chrome are permanently intermingled and should probably be taken as whole but my concern, and it is nothing more than that, is that however good the atmosphere, the game needs to be solid and deep to offer extended play value. I am not entirely sure that LotSM delivers on this point. This links to the above comments on combat and the political system. I think the game might well be more approachable and viable long term if the emphasis were slightly away from combat and towards economics and politics. This could be as easy as a simpler combat and movement system or playing the cards only version.

Politically, you feel that there is a lot to do on the 'routine' stuff but you can neither fully expand into politics and the world at large nor get more heavily involved in, say, local governorship. In fact, looking wider, it is possibly because so many engaging aspects of the period are hinted at (and covered to varying degrees) that you feel a need to go deeper than you can. Width is no problem, depth possibly is - you are a big fish, but it is a shallow pond. Consequently, I just have a feeling that one way or the other LotSM will pall with time (perhaps after 7 to 10 games?) but I hope I'm proved wrong. All of which doesn't make it a bad game or one to pass up in the gameshop, but I thought I'd mention it.

As you can see, it is quite difficult to know who would like this game as it hardly fits into any gaming pigeonhole. I would like to think it would have quite a wide appeal but the playing time, complexity and nature of the game is going to dissuade pure fluffy gamers, as is the length of the rulebook. This is definitely a game that is easier to come to with knowledge of board wargames. Another group, who I term the Empire Builders (Risk, HotW players who like to see everything turn green), will have a great time if they can handle the tough terms laid down by the system. Further, I strongly doubt whether it will offer much to the Perfect Planners who are going to be hard put to find anything beyond atmosphere, but this is not a criticism, more a matter of taste.

I have no problems at all with this type of game where you react to the cards and incidents and make what you can of your opportunities. LotSM tends towards the chaotic, but as I said the experience factor is also high. Nevertheless, I am confident it will appeal, in different ways, to the business gamer, railway game fans, the board wargamer or those who can (and are happy to) immerse themselves in history. If you are lucky enough to enjoy a mix of all these you are in for a treat - as was I. Anyone interested in game systems, to play or borrow for other designs, will also find enough here to justify a place on the game shelf. As you will have gathered by now, I liked it and, quibbles aside, I consider it an important release.

NB LotSM is in short supply and stocks will definitely sell out soon. It is currently available from most of the shops on the Sumo list for about £30 or direct from Sierra Madre Game Co, 3262 West Avenida Manana, Tucson, AZ 85746 USA for US$30 (+$8 for Manifest Destiny) plus $10 postage. If you want to use Visa/Mastercard, the game can also be bought from Chris Cummins of Decision Games. As for the future, LotSM will be re-issued as a Decision Games/Sierra Madre Joint Venture early in 1995.

On to the review of Vernissage or back to the Gamer's Notebook.

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