Posted by: gschloesser | August 5, 2011

Lords of the Sierra Madre

Design by:  Phil Eklund
Published by:  Sierra Madre Games
2 – 4 Player, 3 -4 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser


First, let me describe the game for those who have yet to tackle it.  Lords of the Sierra Madre was originally designed by Phil Eklund and released by Sierra Madre Games.  After suitable legal arrangements, Decision Games released a more professional appearing edition, changing some, but not much, of the game’s mechanics and rules.  It is the Decision Games edition that our group has played and which is reviewed here.

Players represent wealthy landowners (known as hacendados) in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States in the late 19th Century.  The object is to purchase a wide variety of enterprises, fund them to maturity and profitability, and hopefully live long enough to enjoy the financial fruits of your labors.  Sounds something like Monopoly, doesn’t it?  Well, that’s about all of the similarity there is.

The flow of the game is pretty much driven by the cards, one of which is revealed each game turn (which represents seasonal quarters).  The card may be an enterprise to purchase (railroads, mines, smelters, plantations, farms, etc.), troop cards (Federales, Rurales, U.S. Troops), bandidos, Indians, political offices, or the dreaded Event card (which always seems to bring some catastrophe).  With over 200 possible cards in the deck, of which only 60 – 80 will appear during the course of a game, each game is guaranteed to be radically different.

As cards are turned over each quarter, they may generate income to the players.  This is important, especially early in the game, as there are no enterprises on the board producing income for several more turns.  Thus, players live to see those little gold bars on the cards which represent income.  Of course, it is possible to go several quarters without any cards being so generous.  The card then goes up for bidding amongst the players (with the exception of Event cards, which usually effect all players).  If the card represents an enterprise, the high bidder must then pay to develop the card to maturity (one gold piece a quarter), a process which can take from one to ten quarters.  Only upon reaching maturity will an enterprise begin yielding a profit.  Then again, if it is a railroad, it will only produce income if other players use it.  There is a further danger lurking with the development of a mine enterprise.  Once mature, a player must roll on the Mine Assay Table to determine the level of output the mine will yield each quarter.  It is possible that it will be a bust and be worthless.  I speak from experience.

Other cards which can surface, as mentioned earlier, are troop cards, bandidos, Indians, political offices, strikers and many, many more.  These cards are also bid upon and players can then use the soldier cards to perform various actions – taxing, raiding, burning, pillaging and the like.  Political offices can also prove quite powerful, as explained later.  And, of course, let’s not forget the dreaded Event cards.  They can wreak all types of havoc:  mines can deplete; plantations can burn; plaques and famines can strike; wars can occur.  Even Haley’s Comet can make an appearance and cause troops to flee in panic. 

This vast variety of possibilities, I believe, is the attractiveness of the game (along with the subject matter, which has not been adequately dealt with in other titles).  However, it is this vast variety that is the game’s greatest obstacle.  In short, the game has everything (except maybe Panzers).  Unfortunately, the rules do not cover every possible event or direction that the game can take.  During the course of one of our group’s outings, which lasted three full evenings (4 + hours each), I was forced to e-mail game designer Phil Eklund twice with a lengthy list of questions.  He was more than kind to answer these, but even he admitted several times that the rules did not fully address some of the situations we encountered.  Even certain totally illogical sections of the rules were declared to be true, flying in the face of all reason.  (On the brighter side, he did say that he is attempting to gather data for a re-writing of the rules and encourages input from players.)

In our first game of LotSM, money had flowed freely.  We were filthy rich.  We suffered no disasters until late in the game.  Further, no wars occurred (save a European one which two players rushed to join) and politics was not a factor.  Our second outing was the first game’s evil twin, while the third game was plain D-U-L-L.

Within the first few turns of our second game, one player (John Moore) declared bankruptcy; one (Doug Daigle) was killed upon his return from a skirmish in the Yucatan; and one saw his lengthy and costly investment in a mine result in a total bust (sadly, it was me!).  The only player who managed to develop a mine to maturity (Clyde Hayman) saw it severely reduced on a few turns later by a vicious Event card.  Montezuma was seeking his revenge in other than the usual fashion. 

The game also took a political twist with one player (the offspring of Doug Daigle) capturing the Arizona Governorship and another (Lenny Leo) seizing the Presidency of Mexico during the course of a war with the U.S.  This is where much confusion surfaced, as wars force the re-distribution of troop cards; yet, the offices of governor and President have the power to usurp cards from other players as well as the discard deck and any new cards revealed.  Who would get what cards, and which cards had to be re-distributed?  Also during wartime, players can commit atrocities against enterprises in their own home country, but the troops responsible are forced to go up for re-bidding at the end of the round.  Yet, according to the rules, these cards would automatically return to the offending player!  This seems absurd, but was confirmed by the game’s designer.

Another great source of confusion occurred when the U.S. defeated the Mexicans in a war, capturing all of its troops.  In the process, it had ‘pulled a Sherman’ and burnt and eliminated all viable enterprises within the Mexican border.  Technically, the war could continue, since both sides must agree to end hostilities.  Thus, each turn, U.S. troops could march unopposed into Mexico and burn any new enterprises which would appear since Mexico would not get any new troops to defend its borders.  This effectively would end the game as no player could develop anything on 2/3 of the board!  Phil admitted that this was not addressed in the rules, but suggested that a house rule be installed stating that if all troops of one side were eliminated, the war would end.  It is just these rule (and play-testing) inadequacies which force players to constantly institute house rules, a severe problem which usually causes some players to be happy with the decision while others are outraged. 

One would think that with experience the game would flow much smoother and rule consultations and problems would be held to a minimum.  Not so.  Our third playing only amplified the rules problems and caused even more debate and dissension.  Folks, that’s not what I look for in my gaming experiences.  I am now forced to come to the conclusion that Lords of the Sierra Madre, although dealing with an interesting and overlooked time-period and possessing several intriguing mechanisms, is fatally flawed.

Can the game be salvaged?  Perhaps.  A re-writing of the rules better addressing the myriad of possibilities and giving thorough examples of game play is a MUST.  Further, something must be done prevent players from being ‘shut-out’ of the action, as has occurred in all of our games.  This was a problem in all of our games, but especially so during our most recent game where three of the players were basically just forced to sit and watch the action unfold.  Can you spell B-O-R-I-N-G? 

I had actually begun the process of attempting to re-write the rules and better clarify the particulars surrounding many of the events which can occur.  However, after three playings and the resulting controversy and dissension they provoked, I have abandoned the project.  Sadly, Lords of the Sierra Madre will be relegated to the shelf as an intriguing yet fatally flawed project.



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