Friday, October 11, 2013

Western Music and Western Gaming

[NOTE: This is the 400th post at Gaming with Chuck.  Huzzah!]

The mythological old west of the United States is a fantastic place, to tell stories, to set songs, and even to base gaming themes on.  First a couple of pieces of classic Western music.

In the fantastic song Ghost Riders in the Sky a story is told about a herd of demonic cattle (red eyes, steel hooves, flaming brands) being chased forever by cursed cowboys.  It is reminiscent of tales like the Flying Dutchman, or the Wild Hunt.  The song was first recorded by none other than the fantastic singer, Burl Ives in February of 1949.  It was then recorded by Vaughn Monroe in March of 1949.  Monroe's version is fantastic, partially because of his incredible basso voice, but also the music is very well done.  In contrast, many other versions that feature (mostly) a single instrument - like Burl Ives', or Johnny Cash's versions - are pretty nice to hear as well.  There is a nice Youtube recording of the Burl Ives version.

This song has been recorded so many times, by so many great artists, it is hard to know which to include.  However, in the (mostly terrible) movie Ghost Rider (based on the much better comic book character), Nicholas Cage gets a modern remake of the skull-and-hellfire cowboy.  The song got a remake as well, with a version by Spiderbait.  Dare I say it - the brief bit with Sam Elliott as the traditional horse riding version of Ghost Rider is 187x more classy than Nick Cage's motorcycle riding version.  But then again, Sam Elliott is a real cowboy.

Famous cowboy singer Marty Robbins did a version as well.  But, if I'm going to include a western song by Marty Robbins, it HAS to be El Paso.  Nothing more to say on that one.  I think verses of it even were reprinted inside the rulebook "Hey You in the Jail" (great range war miniatures game by Peter Pig).

American Cowboy (the website of the cowboy lifestyle) has a great list of the top 100 western songs.  Lots of great songs there.  But if I think of some of my favorite western movies, and some of the songs from them, I have to include the rendition of "My Rifle, my Pony, and Me" by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, from the fantastic John Wayne piece, "Rio Bravo" (1959).

Okay, moving from what is a HUGE topic of music, to an equally large topic of gaming, I would like to start with a relatively recent (2002) offering - the card game Bang!.  This has been a great hit for Emiliano Sciarra, spinning of a bunch of expansions and variations.  There is even, now, a dice game.

The game is about gun fighting in a classic Hollywood, or Spaghetti Western, style town.  There are different roles for the players - Sheriff, Deputy, Outlaw and Renegade - and classic actions (shooting, hiding, etc).  Here is the text from Board Game Geek, which is mostly from the original game's box back...
"The Outlaws hunt the Sheriff. The Sheriff hunts the Outlaws. The Renegade plots secretly, ready to take one side or the other. Bullets fly. Who among the gunmen is a Deputy, ready to sacrifice himself for the Sheriff? And who is a merciless Outlaw, willing to kill him? If you want to find out, just draw (your cards)!" (From back of box)

This card game recreates an old-fashioned spaghetti western shoot-out, with each player randomly receiving a Character card to determine special abilities, and a secret Role card to determine their goal.

Four different Roles are available, each with a unique victory condition:
  • Sheriff - Kill all Outlaws and the Renegade
  • Deputy - Protect the Sheriff and kill any Outlaws
  • Outlaw - Kill the Sheriff
  • Renegade - Be the last person standing
A player's Role is kept secret, except for the Sheriff. Character cards are placed face-up on table, and also track strength (hand limit) in addition to special ability.
There are 22 different types of cards in the draw deck. Most common are the BANG! cards, which let you shoot at another player, assuming the target is within "range" of your current gun. The target player can play a "MISSED!" card to dodge the shot. Other cards can provide temporary boosts while in play (for example, different guns to improve your firing range) and special one-time effects to help you or hinder your opponents (such as Beer to restore health, or Barrels to hide behind during a shootout). A horse is useful for keeping your distance from unruly neighbors, while the Winchester can hit a target at range 5.
The Gatling is a deadly exception where range doesn't matter - it can only be used once, but targets all other players at the table!
Information on the cards is displayed using language-independent symbols, and 7 summary/reference cards are included.
A great game.  Another western themed card game that has loads of period flavor is the fantastic Mystery Rummy spinoff Wyatt Earp, based on the original series design by Mike Fitzgerald.  The game also has Richard Borg listed as a designer, so perhaps he added the unique elements to this title. The game has the players in the role of Sheriff's attempting to bring in dangerous (and famous) criminals of the old west.  It involves collecting and playing sets of cards.  Lots of fun, and a ton of theme.

Another card game, that is quite popular, but not one of my favorites, is Munchkin.  There is (yes, of course there is) an Old West themed version, called The Good, the Bad, and the Munchkin! It, itself, even has expansions.

 On the boardgame front, there is a lot to choose from, including the classic man-to-man shooting boardgame from Avalon Hill, Gunslinger (1982). It is a great hex based man-to-man cowboy combat game, with a number of cool scenarios you can play out of the book, and is easy enough to create any situation you want, from novels, movies, or your own imagination.


A nice modern re-doing of the man-to-man cowboy game (and there have been a number over the years) is the 2007 release of "Cowboys: Way of the Gun" from Worthington Games.  Other than different mechanics, one of the big differences is the reliance on square grid vs. hex grid for the map structure and movement, etc.



Another nice theme for board games is Western Expansion.  Two that I can immediately think of, other than the many, many different railroad games set in the old west, are Oregon, and Settlers of America: Trails to Rails.  There are many, many titles in this category as well, but those two come to mind immediately.

Oregon is all about building up buildings, mines, and other features to help construct a territory in the west. It is a lot of fun, pretty well balanced (typical Euro in that regard), and great art/theme. It is a settling game, and appropriately, it is based on Area Control and placing Tiles.  Great game, however.

Settlers of America: Trails to Rails is a Settlers of Catan based game, with a fixed map of the United States during the Manifest Destiny period, and it is a great economic game about western expansion. And it features typically high quality components and quality control from Mayfair Games.

There are also a lot of western themed RPGs that I could mention (Boot Hill, Deadlands, Western Hero), as well as some western themed Miniatures Rules (The Rules With No Name, Hey You in the Jail, Pony Wars).  After all of this, however, I am again faced with the thought that the Old West (in myth, if not in reality) is a fantastic theme for music, games, and movies.  And I didn't even mention too much about the movies...


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