Dakota Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up
  • For 3 to 5 player
  • About 90 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Rewards
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Hard
  • Adult – Moderate

Theme & Narrative:

  • Two cultures, the Native Americans and the Settlers, clash to claim and own the limited resources of the land and their destiny.

Endorsements:

  • Father geek approved!
  • Child geek approved!

Overview

In Dakota, 3 to 5 players take on the role as leaders of a tribe of Native Americans or as a leader for a group of Settlers. The land is abundant with resources, but not all resources are equal or even wanted. To the Native Americans, the land provides food and shelter, but to the Settlers the land provides building materials and riches. The two cultures clash and must compete for the same resources to survive. While the Native Americans must do what they can to conserve, the Settlers do all they can to reduce. But both sides will lose if the resources of the land completely run out. It is a balancing act that both sides must play against themselves and their opponents.

As this is a very large game, I will simply summarize it and the rules here. See Nexus Games International for a complete copy of the game rule book.

This game is comprised of 1 very big board, 5 player screens, 5 reference cards, 5 score counters (one per player), 30 explorer tokens (6 per color in 5 different colors), 10 horseman pawns (2 per color in 5 different colors), 26 neutral explorer pawns (13 per color in 2 different colors), 49 plastic bases, 1 round counter, and a lot punch out bits (that represent money, resources, and other game components). All the components are high quality, well detailed, and very durable. If it sounds like you get a lot in the box, you do. And while the volume of what is in the box might sound difficult to manage, the game is actually very easy to set up and store.

To set up the game, place the board in the middle of the playing area. The board is larger than your average board and will demand slightly more space. Any kitchen table, however, should be able to manage it. The board represents the different territories of the  Wild West. Each territory provides different resources and at different times. Depending on the number of players in the game, only a few of the territories will be available. The rest of the territories not in use are considered the “Frontier” and will be open later in the game. The territories that are open are supplied with the top row of resource tokens and the boundary of the frontier is marked with special Frontier marker.

After the Wild West has been built, each player selects one of the five colors and gets 6 explorer  pawns and 2 horseman pawns. The player also gets 1 player reference card and 1 player screen that matches their pawn color. Next, each player takes a faction token and decides, secretly, which faction they want to play as: Native Americans or Settlers. Once decide, all players reveal their selected faction. Note that there must always be at least one Native American and one Settler. Once the factions have been decided, the players flip their player reference card to the correct side, place 3 explorer pawns on their reference card, and all the other pawns behind their player screen. Lastly, the neutral Settlers and Native Americans are placed on the game board. The number of neutral pawns placed is dependent on the number of players and number of factions. The game is now ready to play.

Image of the game board and layout in the rule book

This game is played in rounds and on each round, a new player becomes the “First Player” which changes the turn order. Regardless of the turn order, each player will complete the following phases as a group:

Activation Phase

Each player can activate any special effects or bonuses given to them by settlements and reinforcement that are already in play. Settlements and reinforcements are purchased during the Market Phase.

First Placement Phase

Starting with the first player and going clockwise, each player places three of their available pawns from their player reference card on active territories or the market. The pawns can be placed in any order (2 on 1 territories, 1 on 3 territories, 2 on the market and 1 on a territory, etc.). These pawns represent the character’s influence and strength in a particular territory. Pawns located in the market provide the player an opportunity to buy resources.

Second Placement Phase

Starting with the first player and going counterclockwise, place 3 Neutral Explorers of either faction (Native American or Settler), on active territories. These pawns are placed in the same way as the player’s pawns but do not benefit individual players. Rather, the Neutral Explorers assist players of the two different factions by adding to the territory influence and strength (explained in the Collection Phase). Neutral Pawns cannot be placed in the market. If a player has additional pawns that are currently active, they can place them during this phase, replacing one of the Neutral Explorers with one of theirs. Regardless, the player still gets to place 3 pawns.

Collection Phase

This phase determines which faction and then what players gets the resources. The faction with the most pawns wins the territory for this round. Each territory is divided in half. One half belongs to the Native Americans, the other belongs to the Settlers. Count all the pawns, including the Neutral Explorers, for both factions. Each explorer pawn is equal to “1 strength”, while each horse pawn is equal to “2 strength”. The loosing faction in the territory removes the pawns and returns them to either the owning player’s reference card or the Neutral Explorers area of the board. At this time, the winning faction should also remove any Neutral Explorers leaving only the player pawns. In the case of a faction tie, no players collect any resources for that round for that territory.

If only one player is on the territory, that player takes 1 resource for every pawn they have on the territory. Resources must be taken from the top row first. If at anytime the resources are depleted from the top row, no more resources can be taken from that territory for the duration of the round.

If two or more players are located on the same territory, the player with the most strength (explorers equal “1”, horses equal “2”) goes first and removes their pawn in the process. Strength of all the players is again determined. If another player is still stronger than the other players, the process repeats. However, if the strength of all the players is determined to be equal, than the players, in turn order going clockwise, take turns removing a resource. Again, resources must be taken from the top row first. If at anytime the resources are depleted from the top row, no more resources can be taken from that territory for the duration of the round.

After all the pawns have been removed, the first player replenishes one resource of their choice to each active territory that still has at least one resource available and had no pawns located on it this round.

If any territory had its resources removed from the top row, the bottom row of resources for that territory are now filled.

If any territory had its resources completely removed from the bottom row, the territory is now considered depleted and will never again provide resources. A new territory in the same row is opened and the top row is filled with resources. This territory is now active and can be played on in the next round.

Market Phase

Each player, starting with the first player, can buy resources per pawn they currently have in the market space of the board. The price for resources is dependent on what faction the player belongs. The prices are listed on the player reference cards for easy reference.

Development Phase

Each player, starting with the first player, can now acquire reinforcements and settlements, sell surplus resources, recruit new explorers, and acquire victory points (VP). There is no limit to how many times they can do any of these actions during the Development Phase.

This is where the players will need to decide if they bank their resources for further development or sell them for victory points. Ultimately, the victory points are the most important, but having resources is key to ensuring your tribe or town will flourish.

End of the Round

At the end of the round, the round marker is advanced, the first player marker is given to a new player, and all reinforcement on the board are removed and returned to their owners. If this is the last round, the victory points for each player are counted and a winner declared.

That’s the game in a nutshell and it really isn’t half as difficult as I make it sound. The goal for each player is to manage the resources available. For Native Americans, the top row of each territory’s resources are the most beneficial. The Native Americans must do what they can to maintain these resource while at the same time use them. For the Settlers, the bottom row of each territory’s resources are the most beneficial. The Settlers must try to exhaust the top row of the resources so they can start to make use of the second row. However, like the Native Americans, the Settlers must manage those resources.

The only other portion of the game that deserves mention are the settlements the and reinforcements.

Regardless of what faction, the settlements provide the owning player a victory points at the end of the game and an additional action during the game. For Native Americans, the settlements provide extra resources. For Settlers, the settlements provide lowers costs for goods or bonuses when selling particular goods. Only one settlement of each type can be played during the game by a player. The Settlers have a slight advantage over the Native Americans when it comes to settlements.

Reinforcements do not provide any victory points, are used by each faction in the same way, and are meant to strengthen a player’s position on the board. For both factions, the reinforcements allow one of the player’s pawns to be replaced with a horse pawn. The Native Americans have an additional reinforcement that can be placed on any territory and blocks any Neutral Settler Explorers from being placed. Only one reinforcement of each type can be played during the game by a player. The Native Americans have a slight advantage over the Settlers when it comes to reinforcements.

Predictions

It should be obvious that this is a lot of game. While the mechanics are not difficult, there is a lot to keep track of on the board. Most little geek games have the objective out in the front, like a big carrot, that the players can run to. The objective is always clear and the path to it is more times than not easy to follow.

This game is not Candy Land. The path in which the player chooses to take to the objective is not clear, can drastically change, and if the player doesn’t pay attention, they will be left behind. This is a more mature game with deeper mechanics and higher demand on the player. As such, I have no doubt my oldest little geek will be overwhelmed. Much hand holding will be needed and the game will go slowly to ensure that nothing is ever rushed, the choices being made are understood, and at all the times the end goal of the game is clear.

To be perfectly honest, this is exactly the kind of thing older geeks should look forward to. After playing many hours of “children games”, the basic geek skills should be well grounded. You must push your little geeks to the next level by introducing more complex games with longer play times and deeper mechanics. Dakota will be my son’s first real resource management game and it will test his geek skills. But let us also consider that Dakota is an abstract game with very limited reading necessary (meaning, the adult can do all the reading if need be) and is bright and colorful. There is enough here to intrigue which is exactly what you want when teaching a new game.

So, after going over the rules, we set up a  3 player game. Before we started, I asked my son if he had any opening comments. He said the following:

“This game looks really hard, but I understand what I am supposed to do.” – Liam, Age 6

Excellent. That is exactly the kind of attitude you need in a young player. And so, off we go.

Final Word

As expected, my little geek had a hard time with the game, but was not overwhelmed. I can easily see him playing this game with much more ease in a year. For now, the game length is a bit too long. What was a wonderful surprise was how well he adapted to the changing board. He was able to determine what he wanted to buy and how to get it every round and then made changes based on how the board looked at the end of the round.

My little geek played Settlers (the easier faction to play, in my opinion) and I took the Native Americans. We played a dummy player who belonged to the Settler faction who my little geek and I took turns playing. From the start, he played strong. Again, he knew what he was after and was trying very fast to get there. However, what he did not realize is that this game is not a race that will be won with speed, but endurance. He started to get burned out and began to lose focus. I can relate to that as I have played some very long games and have lost interest myself. Lack of interest and direction is very apparent in any player. Their play style gets sloppy and they begin to make moves that have no visible immediate or long turn benefit.

When I saw my son do more and more of these moves, I asked him if he wanted to stop the game. Sure enough, he did. But he did like the game; it was just too long. Really, a 90 minute board game isn’t that time-consuming from my point of view, but I must remember that I have many more years of game experience under my belt than my son. Since I don’t want to turn him off the larger games, we called it, cleaned up the game, and played several hands of Go Fish, which he won.

Dakota is an entertaining resource management game that will test the player’s ability to balance the resources available to them, while at the same time battle it out for control. The factions play very differently and it could be argued that at times the games feels a little off-balance. However, I have never found this feeling of “off-balance” to be anything but a refreshing game element that is supported by the game theme. If the Native Americans do not do all they can to reduce the effectiveness of the Settlers, they will lose. In contrast, if the Settlers do not actively work on utilizing the resources, they will never be able to fully benefit from the territories.

I greatly enjoy Dakota. I’ve played other resource games and they all have different play styles. What makes Dakota different from the other games I have played is the factions. Native American and Settlers play very differently. While the objective is the same for all players, the “how you get there from here” for the different factions creates a great deal of replayability. This also provides the game with some very interesting strategies and tactics the players must use and find along the way. Each time I play this game it only gets better and better and seems to offer something new to think about every time I’m at the table.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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