GTM #202 - Saloon Tycoon
Reviewed by John Kaufeld

Plenty of folks came to town looking to make their fortunes in gold, but not you — your vision looked different. When you saw all of those tired and hungry people milling around, one word flashed through your mind: Saloon.

A few other sharp-eyed entrepreneurs had similar ambitions, so now the lot of you are in a healthy competition. Everybody wants to expand their businesses, lure in the townsfolk, keep the “bad apples” away (preferably by parking them at someone else’s saloon), and rake in the money.

Pull up a barrel, sit yourself down for a spell, and get to know Saloon Tycoon from Van Ryder Games.

~ Start Small, Then Grow ~

Seeing as how this here’s the “land of opportunity” and all, everybody starts the game with the same setup. You get a nice plot of land (your player board) with plenty of room to grow, plus a swell saloon, some money, some resource cards, and a couple of secret goals (more about those later).

The land on your player board is organized in an “L” shape, with the starting space for your saloon in the corner and two sets of four small building spaces connecting to it across and down the board.

In the beginning of the game, gold is your key resource because it buys new tiles to expand your saloon. And every time you expand the saloon, you get more gold! (Kinda clever the way that works, ain’t it?)

The game includes both small (rectangular) and large (square) tiles. You get the same income bump whether you build a small or large tile, but the choice has plenty of impact on your future strategy. You can build a large tile on top of two small tiles, but large tiles themselves only support other large tiles.

To build a small tile in one of the spaces on either side of your saloon, you only pay the cost of the tile. Every space further away costs a little extra gold on top of the tile cost itself, but you get some bonus victory points for your trouble. Large tiles cover two small building spaces, so pay close attention to the total cost of the tile and the land under it or you’ll get stuck.

~ Building Up (and Up) ~

Since eight plots of land won’t carry your entrepreneurial dreams very far, you need another option — and in this game, that means building straight up.

To add a second floor, you buy and place supply cubes onto the first floor tile. Small tiles take three cubes, while large tiles need four. Once you buy and place enough cubes to fill the tile, it’s “complete” and ready to support a second floor.

Adding a new floor atop a completed existing tile gives you two benefits. First, it’s a zero-cost space for the new tile, because you already paid for everything under it. Second, each completed tile provides you with an immediate bonus of some kind. The details depend on the tile itself, so you might get free gold, more supply cubes, or even an extra action.

Building and completing a tile on the third floor gives you an extra bonus: a free roof tile worth extra victory points.

~ Playing Your Cards ~

Sometimes you need to call in a favor or give your strategy a little boost. That’s where Tycoon cards come into play. You start the game with three Tycoon cards, but you can use a turn to draw two more when you run low.

Each Tycoon card gives you an immediate bonus. You might get gold, some supply cubes, or an extra action — or maybe even two. Some cards get rid of pesky outlaws (more about them in a moment) or let you ignore building prerequisites to add a special tile to your saloon before an opponent snags it.

If you play several Tycoon cards in the right order, you might be able to do quite a lot on a single turn by letting one card trigger another. (In gamer parlance, that’s called “chaining” the cards, because they build one after another like a chain reaction.)

~ Dealing With Townsfolk ~

Every town includes people who’ll help you out of a jam, as well as the ones who’ll push you down the hill just to see how far you’ll roll. In Saloon Tycoon, they’re known as Citizens (the good ones) and Outlaws (the less-than-entirely-good-and-often-downright-mean ones).

Citizens show up as a bonus when you complete certain tiles. For example, completing the Theater brings Purty Nellie to your door, while adding a Jail gives Sheriff Fletcher an office to call his own. Every citizen gives you extra victory points at the end of the game.

Outlaws, on the other hand, show up when a player completes a certain milestone, such as a certain amount of gold, a bunch of supply cubes, or a saloon with five tiles in it. Each outlaw inflicts a penalty, such as reducing your income, making you discard cards, or slapping you with negative victory points.

The good news is that you can bribe the outlaws (and citizens, too) to leave your establishment and be someone else’s friend for a little while.

~ Staking Some Claims ~

The two decks of Claim cards give Saloon Tycoon a ton of replayability. Each game, players get two Secret Claim cards each, which they choose from a hand of four. Depending on the number of players, you also set up four to six Open Claim cards face-up on the table.

Anyone can complete an Open Claim card simply by meeting the conditions on the card. That might involve things like welcoming (or bribing) a certain group of characters to your saloon or building a certain combination of tiles. Secret Claims work the same way, but your opponents don’t know which ones you have in your hand.

Pay attention to the Open Claim cards as you play, because once they’re claimed, they’re gone. Plan carefully and you can pick up some easy victory points.

~ Verdict ~

Saloon Tycoon gets a very solid thumbs-up for high replayability, engaging game play, and plenty of really fun thematic elements, including my favorite line in the rulebook: “… you may build a Poker Room after having built a Schoolroom (but please, think of the children).”

If your gaming group likes mid-level strategy with a nice balance of luck, strategy, card combinations, and economics, then you’ll find plenty to like here.

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Set-up/Play Time: 5 to set up, 30-60 to play
  • # of Players: 2-4
  • Price Point: $54.99
John Kaufeld often frets over whether the word "meeple" has a proper plural form. You can find him writing about board games, parenting, and other stuff on Twitter at @johnkaufeld and in his newspaper column, The Dad Game (http://dadga.me/column).