As a board game community we are obviously very pessimistic about the future as we are constantly playing games about the end of the world. Whether it's zombies, nuclear attack or the mysteriously named 'the event' (please remain indoors) we all seem to be convinced that civilisation as we know it is about to end and we're all going to be scratching for survival in a nightmare future. The Pioneers Program from GCT Studios treads this familiar scorched ground as you attempt to build a settlement and attract notable personalities to your cause.
As part of the Pioneers Program you have been sent forth from the Arc to build a settlement and bring wealth and prosperity back to the wasteland, and to do this you'll need to accumulate four victory points or have the most victory points at the end of the game. The Pioneers Program has a variable game length but you'll always have two full rounds before the game ends, so there is a sense of urgency yet at the same time you have the opportunity to put one final plan into action.
Victory points can be gained in a number of ways. You could expand your headquarters by buying new buildings for your settlement from the market. You can attract key personalities to your cause, either buying their favour from the market or finding them wandering the wastelands. You can research new technologies gaining you new abilities as well as victory points. Last of all you can select the Walter White character for the round allowing you to exchange four gold for a victory point.
Pioneers Program forces you to keep on your toes because you're not going to be able to gain all four victory points through just one of these routes; you're probably going to have to dabble in all four strategies.
Key to these strategies is character selection. Six characters are on offer and each one guides your choices as well as determining play order. There are characters that gain you bonuses to combat, others that allow you to take an extra action or even draw more cards. Then there is Sarge, who allows you to raid other players.
There are wasteland cards that allow players to raid and attack but the Sarge is the main way in which you can steal resources from another player or lay waste to their town. That raids are quite rare which makes them more of a threat, and when someone selects good old Sarge everyone starts looking at their defence and pool of reaction tokens in earnest.
The Pioneers Program is all about resources. Because you have so very few resources you are going to have to utilise and guard them very carefully. You will have a limited supply of cash, food and reaction tokens. The purpose of food and cash are obvious, food to feed your town and cash to buy shiny new things (rusty old things that barely work) but reaction tokens are a new gaming concept and have to be more carefully managed than the other two.
Reaction tokens can be used in raids and attacks to re-roll dice or add to the result and as such a cache of reaction tokens makes you both a strong attacker and defender, but it's the mechanic whereby a reaction token is needed to play a card that makes them such a valuable resource. You may have cash to buy the juiciest buildings or have scoured the wasteland for a powerful personality but if you don't have the reaction tokens to put them into play, they just sit in your hand, their potential unfulfilled.
I like games that give the player fewer actions than they feel they need, and The Pioneers Program takes this concept and runs with it. Each round you can only make two actions, two, when what you would really like is four or five. This leads to the feeling that you are severely limited in you turn, making each decision important and meaning that careful planning is essential. It does unfortunately mean that a single mistake can leave you reeling but the game works best when you keep an eye on your opponents and exploit their mistakes.
Pioneers Program's problem is that, to begin with, the game doesn't feel very good. At first it feels too complex; too many rules, too many cards and tokens and it is really difficult at first to see the routes to victory. You may only need four victory points to end the game but at the start they all feel so very far out of reach. There then comes this click moment, for some it will be after the first game, for others it may well be well into the second game. It’s that point where everything comes together and the rules make sense, the game flows, you can see a way forward and what at first seemed like a complicated mess is in fact rather straightforward.
But then there is a final realisation.
It hits you of just how many moving parts that simplicity has, a realisation that your best laid plans are in severe danger as they rely not only on you executing your strategy but also on not a single opposing player getting in your way. And it’s the good kind of complication; it’s that level of complication that means you have options, that means you have strategies and means that careful planning and a little luck can catapult you into the lead.
This three stages means that at first, Pioneers Program does not look like a good game. I must admit to being a bit non-plussed with the demo at the UK Games Expo. It didn’t feel particularly original or particularly fun, but as I’ve played the game a few more times it has revealed more of its strategies and more of its depth. Of course there is always a limit to how much you can play a game before the Kickstarter launches and, here’s the thing, I want to play this game more. I think I’ve got my head round the strategy and want to try it to make sure that strategy is viable.
Pioneer Program has seen some significant improvements since we played the demo at the UK Games Expo. The game feels more balanced and flows much better. The number of personalities available from the wasteland has been reduced, making mining the wasteland deck no longer the obvious strategy and the upgrade of your HQ has been simplified, making it a more valid and more enticing strategy. I'm still unsure about the addition of the research system, it required a significant investment of resources and although it offered another route to victory points, it wasn't enough to tempt us to fund them.
I’m not going to be one of those overly positive Kickstarter reviewers and tell you that the Pioneers Program is the best game ever, because it isn't but at the same time there’s a lot that Pioneers Program does right. Everyone found the game overly complicated at first, but the game does click after a few round. However, the game does have issues with randomness. The wasteland and market decks are big decks of cards and there’s no way you’ll get through a deck in a single game. It means that each game is different; some games you’ll find yourself fighting over personalities, other times you’ll all be desperately trying to purchase buildings to build up your headquarters but what comes out and when is random. This can mean that simply fishing the wasteland deck can be more rewarding than a careful strategy or you can spend too long waiting for the right card to come onto the market.
I’m also of the opinion that the research system needs a bit more balancing but GCT have been very responsive to feedback during the game's development and I imagine the version that gets a full retail release will have been improved upon even further.
The Pioneers Program has got a great and distinctive art style, it flows well and mechanically it all fits together. There's a balance between the limited actions, the numerous methods of gaining victory points and the chaos of multiple players thwarting your plans that means the game remains full of options without being crushed under the weight of analysis paralysis. I want to play the Pioneers Program again, I think I’ve got my strategy sorted, I think I know how to win this game. I think.
This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game provided by the publisher; the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.