Cactus Town Board Game Review

Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review

Don’t be so easily misled by this game's appearance.  The cartoon standees, the bright colours, or even the name, Cactus Town is a surprise of simple asymmetry.  A simple ruleset, a skewed action programming system and a Western movie-style theme all come together to create a dog, cat, mouse and cheese game of chase that unfolds into a fun story told in under an hour.
Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review - The Shootout
You'll play three of the four cards from your hand face down into a collaborative stack in reverse order.  Revealing those cards one at a time performing the predetermined action.  Easy, except for the reverse programming (that always takes me a moment to get my head around).  The ‘Run’ action allows you to move as many of your team to an adjacent card/location.  The ‘Sneak’ does the same but without revealing that location.  ‘Duel’ triggers a shootout and then each player has a team specific card, Sheriff, Bandit and Bounty Hunter which all do unique actions such as arrest, steal plunder and capture respectively.

Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review - Hand Of Cards

Too Simple?

The twist is that each of these types of cards will work for or against the different roles depending on the order the cards are used and the state of the game - I like to think of them as Acts of a story.  This is all because of the conflicting goals. The Sheriff’s Deputies needs to arrest two Bandits.  The Bandits need to find, steal and escape with two pieces of plunder.  And the Bounty Hunter needs to capture one Bandit and steal two horses.  As soon as any player achieves their goal, game over and they win.  

The action cards matter here because the very town itself is a bit of a mystery to everybody.  The Deputies are new, the Bandits are simply on the rob and the Bounty Hunters are just chasing the bandits.  In terms of the game, this means that Cactus Town is made up of a grid of face-down cards, each of which represents a location.  The Bandit player is given four possible target locations to discover and then steal from; so a careful exploration of the town is required first, but without getting too close to the Deputies who are making a B-line for them.  Not to mention the Bounty Hunters…

Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review - In Start

This causes all players to immediately be at odds with one another in a smart and delicate way.  It’s not simply the game-winning objectives that create the conflict in Cactus Town, but each of the steps required by the different roles to achieve those objectives.  The Deputies need to get to the Bandits as quickly as possible but without revealing too many locations.  The Bandits are trying to do exactly the opposite.  Meanwhile the Bounty Hunters are trying to do a little of both.  

At the heart of the game, though is a very typical Western story, it’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and a Western needs action! Cactus Town creates this sense of simultaneous and dynamic action by the use of the action programming, here there is a feeling of “who will reach for their gun first” achieved, again, very simply by the player’s ability to anticipate their opponent’s previous actions and get their timing just right.

Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review - In Sheriff

There will be times in this game where you planned poorly, or you were caught by a surprise move that means by the time your Duel card is revealed your deputy is standing outside the Barbershop on their own.  There will be others where you’ve got just the right card revealed just at the right time to make an arrest or to sneak away and escape from the no-doubt upcoming duel.  Each game of Cactus Town will have at least one climactic moment, where the fate of the rest of the game and the story hinges upon the next card, upon the roll of the die - but it never feels like it is ‘just a dice roll’ or a ‘just the luck of the draw’, as there have been a string of events that all players around the table have collaboratively woven together to create that moment.       

In this way, Cactus Town reminds me a lot of Burgle Bros., not so much in the theme, setting, or even the rules but in its ability to craft engaging and potentially exciting stories.  By its very nature, this game is quite cinematic, not something that is created in the artwork, but the familiarity of the setting, the concept of a Mexican Standoff are all very easily recognised and brought to life on the table.

Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review - In Play

Over the course of playing this game, I realised that my action card selection, in each of the roles, was often the same series of three cards in the same order over the different “Acts” of the game.  However, realising this didn’t prevent me agonising over the decision each round, it didn’t stop me trying to second guess my opponents, and since no one knows at which point the story will shift into the next act, you have to remain fluid and ready to use your predetermined actions in a way you didn’t anticipate.

Cactus Town plays well at two players, but really you’ll want to play this at the maximum player count of three, where all forces are at play.  This game is great for anyone that wants to start exploring asymmetry in games as the conflicting goals and slight difference in player powers means that although the same rules are being followed each role plays quite differently.  

Polyhedron Collider Cactus Town Review - The Escape

Cactus Town is a clever little game, it’s not so clever as to completely belie its appearance, but there’s far more to it than I expected.  It manages to deftly create an exciting Western, hitting all the key points I would expect it to have without overdoing the point.  Above all, Cactus Town manages to tell a great story with straightforward rules and by simply pitching players against one another in the style of a classic Spaghetti Western.

Cactus Town is live now on Kickstarter

This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game provided by the publisher and was originally written in February in preparation for the campaign launch in March; however, COVID19 stalled those plans and in the meantime the publishers and designers have continued to fine tune the game and have even added another faction not mentioned here. As the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.

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