Cowboys: Way of the Gun – Boardgame Review
Cowboys: Way of the Gun. Boardgame Review. Publisher: Worthington Games. Designers: Grant Wylie, Mike Wylie, Kevin Wylie, Matt Burchfield. $49.99
Passed Inspection: Plays fast, good mix of historical and fictional gunfights.
Failed Basic: Too-light rules leave you wanting for more tactical options.
In the days before gun laws, the gun was the law. Those who had the fastest (or the most) guns defined the cultural sensibilities and legal niceties of the Wild West. Return with us now to the days of yore with Worthington Games’ Cowboys: Way of the Gun, the first Old West tactical game that’s not a role-playing game released in a long time.
At first glance, Cowboys struck me as a miniatures game without the miniatures, and that’s not far off. The gunfighters and outlaws of the game are represented by thirty 1.5 inch tall full-color cardboard counters, printed on both sides and showing the front and back of the cowboy in question; these counters are slid into slotted bases to stand up. Townsfolk are smaller 3/4 inch counters (sixteen of these) that lay flat on the play area. You also get a stagecoach (can be slid into a base or can lay flat) and even cattle counters the same size as townsfolk.
Cowboys: Way of the Gun is a fast-playing game of fast shooting
The play area is composed of six 8 x 11 inch rectangular tiles, brightly illustrated double-sided terrain cards that show different buildings common to the Old West. There are of course the saloon, brothel, and jail, but also a few homes, a bunk house, and the undertaker’s office. The outdoors terrain cards are mostly scrub terrain with rocky areas scattered about.
You begin by choosing a scenario, the game has a scenarios book with twenty-eight of them. This tells you which terrain cards (labeled A through L) you use, how they are set up, and which cowboys each player begins with. There are ten cowboys available, each with an ID number and a shooting modifier from 0 to +2 marked on the stand-up. So in one scenario, the cowboy stand-up #3 with a +2 modifier is Commodore Owens, while in another the same figure is used to represent gunfighter Frank Leslie.
Each cowboy has a small card you use to keep track of his health and weapons; there are twenty-seven townsfolk-sized markers for rifles, pistols, and shotguns. The cowboys’ cards have sixteen spaces on them for ammunition records; a figure armed with a rifle starts with a rifle counter on the 16 space, pistols are six-shooters and so start on the 6 space, while shotguns have only two shots and begin on the 2 space. This same "tracking card" is also used to keep track of injuries; all cowboys can take four hits so place a Health marker on the space marked 4.
Townsfolk either begin play under the control of one player or they appear as the result of cards being played (see below). Townsfolk move and take actions like cowboys but they don’t get any shooting modifiers, never bother with ammunition, and have only one health so can only move one space and take one hit before being removed.
Once your cowboys are chosen, armed, and set-up according to the scenario, it’s time to start blasting. Each cowboy can take a move action or shoot, not both in the same turn. Movement is through squares, one movement point per square (everybody begins with four MP and loses one for each wound). The only terrain rules are that walls (black lines) block movement, while obstacles (red lines) cost one extra movement point to cross. Movement points can also be spent to mount or dismount a horse or the stagecoach, to change weapons, or to pick up a dropped weapon (two movement points for each of these actions). After movement, the figure must face in one direction; facing only affects combat, not movement, as a figure can change facing for free at any time during movement.
A Shoot action allows a cowboy to take two shots with one weapon. Draw And Shoot allows a figure to draw a holstered pistol and take one shot. Reload brings a weapon back to full ammo, while Spin And Shoot allows a figure to change facing and fire one shot. Each shot is resolved by rolling two six-sided dice, applying a few modifiers, and then comparing the roll to the number needed to hit on the Player Aid Card. A pistol hits on a roll of 6 or better at a range of one or two squares, while at a range of seven or more squares you need to get a 12; a rifle will hit on a roll of 10 or more at seven to ten squares. Maximum range is also indicated on the card; pistols are no good beyond ten squares, while rifles can reach out to twenty, and shotguns are effective only out to six squares.
If it all seems basic, that’s because it is; you won’t find stats for different gun types or ammunition in this system. But you do get a deck of playing cards which adds a great element to the game. It’s a poker-legal deck, 52 cards and jokers (my deck came with three jokers). In addition to the suits and values, each card also allows you to break or change the rules. So Aces are "A good day for killing", which gives your cowboy an extra +1 modifier for the remainder of the gunfight. "Speed Reload" allows you to reload and shoot once in the same turn, while "Gun Jam" cancels one cowboy’s Shoot action (he does nothing this turn). Players begin the scenario with a specific number of cards, drawn randomly from the deck; you can play them at any time in the game but never replenish them. Once played, a card is spent and lost.
The scenarios in the game are a mix of historical reality and celluloid fiction. The historically accurate OK Corral scenario and the end of the Dalton Gang are here, along with the Hollywood stereotypical saloon fight between the aging gunfighter and two young turk rivals, the ubiquitous jail break, and gaming simulations of the climaxes of The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. It’s great to have the gunfight of High Noon represented, as well as the real-life High Noon-like gunfight between Commodore Perry Owens (love the name) and four outlaws. And to see who goes first in a scenario, everybody draws a five-card hand from the deck, whoever gets the best poker hand wins. Definitely feels like the Old West!
On the down side, many scenarios don’t allow much in the way of tactics. The pure gunfight scenarios begin with both sides facing each other a few squares apart, then the shooting begins. The rules have one side taking actions with all of their cowboys, then the other side can act; a little too static for gunfights, best to have each player alternate acting with one of his cowboys, if one side is outnumbered then the extra cowboys act at the end of the turn. Also, there are several buildings on each terrain card, so no matter what scenario you are playing there’s a laundry and diner always next to the bank; it would have been nicer to give us single buildings on each terrain card so that we can lay out our own Old West towns.
The rules are light enough that a few more options — rules on kneeling, for example (subtracts two from any shooting attack made against you) or called shots (penalty of -4 to your attack. but damage is two points instead of one if a hit is scored) — could have been added without making the game overly complex. Can you slide under the stagecoach? In my game you can, but there should be a rule for that instead of one I have to make up (sliding under the stagecoach costs three movement points, you have to begin your move beside the coach).
As it stands, Cowboys: Way of the Gun is a fast-playing game of fast shooting, one of those fun "beer and pretzels" games you can play in under an hour. It’s open-ended enough that you can re-enact your favorite scenes — in preparing this article, I fought the climax of Audie Murphy’s Destry, and another player has used Cowboys to game out all of the fights from Silverado — as well as historical fights. But it could have used a few more rules, a little more flavoring, to turn it into a solid tactical game of six-gun justice. A fun game as is, but could have been more.
Solitaire Rating: 3 out of 5
About the Author:
Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1000+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America or running one of several Pittsburgh area bookstores.