"Wild West Shows" were traveling vaudeville performances in the United States popular during the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. They caricatured the lives and work of those who lived in the American West, performing plays with western themes and showcasing exhibition shooters (such as Annie Oakley, "The Little Sure Shot of the West"), ropers, and more. Buffalo Bill's Wild West was the most famous of these shows, marketing itself as an annually touring, circus-like attraction. Wild West Show, the latest addition to BANG! the card game's official expansions, tries to adopt the showy, thematic elements of the Wild West Shows of old.
Theme. The expansion provides 8 new characters, all of whom are inspired by famous western actors, not historical figures of the American West. 10 event cards, in the vein of A Fistful of Cards and High Noon (and even more the unofficial El Dorado), are included too. These event cards consist of cards pointing to Wild West Show gimmicks: references to shoot out reenactments, dances, banjo music, wild west women ("Helena Zontero" inspired by Elena Montero, the fictional character from The Mask of Zorro played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), the woman that Wild Bill Hickock and Dave Tutt supposedly fought over (Susannah Moore, "Miss Susanna"), and more. A few, like Sacagaway, Bone Orchard, and Gag seem thematically out of place for the expansion. Nonetheless, in terms of theme, Wild West Show excels.
Thematic Value: 9/10.
Artwork. The art for Wild West Show, I believe again provided by Alessandro Pierangelini, is beautiful as always. The character art is a little crisper than in the original BANG! or the Dodge City expansion, but this is not a fault. The character poses are fun and reveal their personalities and abilities. For instance, Gregory Deck is shown at a card table holding a full hand of cards with his right hand. His left hand, which is placed just under the table, shows him cheating by having kept an ace of spades. Flint Westwood looks quick on the draw, and Sheriff John Pain is pushing open Saloon doors. The event cards have nice backs, and the art for each card is in full color like all BANG! player cards. Many of the sketches are excellent; some like Darling Valentine, Lady Rose of Texas, Showdown, and Wild West Show I consider to be amongst the best art in the whole BANG! franchise. To the artist's credit, almost all of the pieces communicate well what the effects of the cards are too. As for the card stock, Wild West Show is printed like previous BANG! expansions on sturdy, linen-textured card stock.
Aesthetic Value: 9.5/10.
Gameplay. So far, so good for Wild West Show. Unfortunately, the new BANG! expansion's value plummets in the gameplay arena. I will start with the positives. Wild West Show is a modular expansion like Dodge City, A Fistful of Cards, or High Noon. It is easy to add or remove Wild West Show from any game of BANG! You can choose to incorporate just the event cards or just the character cards from the expansion (of course, you can incorporate both). This makes it an easy addition to the BANG! Arsenal. Next, the new characters possess abilities that are truly novel, not mirroring abilities possessed by previous BANG! characters. They will require real adjustments to gameplay when they are in play. Most of the character abilities are "neutral," not clearly offensive or defensive. Only Lee Van Kliff and Big Spencer are clearly offensive characters, and Teren Kill clearly a defensive character. The others suit the strategy of the player. Like usual, these new characters provide more variety in game situations and thus increase the replayability of BANG!
In terms of the Wild West Show event deck, it is more novel than its High Noon and A Fistful of Cards brethren. The event cards are player dictated: they occur when a Stagecoach or Wells Fargo is played by any player. The card stays in effect until another Stagecoach or Wells Fargo is played. If a player who possesses a Stagecoach or Wells Fargo really enjoys the event card, he can choose to wait to play the card, or in extreme cases discard it, to prolong the event card's effect. This gives 2 cards in the BANG! deck that can activate/replace the event cards. Obviously, the event cards are replaced more often from round to round in larger BANG! games as a result. This new gameplay element in the event cards seems clearly inspired by the unofficial El Dorado expansion, where to activate/replace the event cards players had to play/discard an Ace.
Despite these positive additions to BANG! gameplay, I believe that the textual confusion, severe unbalance of the characters and somewhat with the events cards, increased randomness, and lack of novelty counterbalance them.
- Textual Confusion.
Several of the Wild West Show card descriptions are not clear, and clarity is important when it comes to character abilities. Take Flint Westwood: "During his turn, he may trade one card from hand with 2 cards at random from the hand of another player." The trading of cards is clear, but how many times can Flint Westwood use this ability? If infinite, then Flint Westwood could reduce every other player's hand to 1 card and keep swapping until he has the best possible hand. This seems epic OP, so it does not seem that he can do it infinitely. But that does not mean he cannot do it more than once. Perhaps he can only do it once a turn per player? The extra explanation cards do not help on this question. For Flint Westwood it states, "The card from your hand is of your choice, not at random. If the target player has only one card, you get only one card." How could dv-Giochi neglect such an important detail from the rules? The FAQ, which I translated into English in January 2011, finally clarified this (Flint Westwood can only use the ability once on his turn), but until then, English players were in the dark regarding the limits of Flint Westwood's ability. You could assume that any really powerful ability can only be done once, but then you would be wrong. Lee Van Kliff is a character who may "discard a BANG! to repeat the effect of a brown-bordered card he just played" on his turn (this includes Wells Fargo!). He can use his powerful replicating ability as many times as he desires (given that he has BANG! in his hand to discard).
Now that I have given an example from the character cards, let me turn to the event cards. One event card, Dorothy Rage, states, "During his turn, each player can force another player to play one of his cards." This initial description is incredibly vague! Does it mean during each player's turn he can select another player to play a card if he can? Since cards are not played out of turn in BANG! except via reaction (Missed!, Dodge, etc.), what does it mean for them to play the card? Do we pretend it was their turn during this selection process, and then they play a card of their choice? If so, you could see it as a way for a team to coordinate an attack on another player perhaps.
The further explanation card for Dorothy Rage only brings further surprise and confusion: "If the forced player does not have the called card, he must show his hand. If he has it, he must play it as if it was his turn (also for counting the distances), but you choose any target(s) if the card requires so." It mentions a "called card" that was not described in the original card (nor calling at all): where did this come from? Apparently, each player is supposed to select a player and then "call out a card." If the player has the card, then he plays the card, but the selecting player chooses whom it effects (given proper distance constraints) if choice is required. This is very different from the initial card! Even then, some items still require a lot of imagination. I imagine, although it is not specified, that the "called card" must be in his hand, otherwise there would be no need for the calling. Even though Dorothy Rage says the card must be played, I imagine that the cards that cannot be played without an appropriate event (Missed!, Dodge), need not be played. Or is it that Missed! cannot be called out at all since they cannot be played on one's turn? I could imagine if I was Slab the Killer and attacked another player with a BANG!, I might want to use Dorothy Rage to force that player to play 1 Missed!? That way, I might force him to play a useless Missed! (unless he adds another), and then hit him with another attack card like a Knife. Whether or not this is allowed, and when you can choose to activate the Dorothy Rage ability during your turn, is important.
As one other quick example, Gag states that "Players may not talk (they can gesture, moan, ...). Whoever talks loses 1 life point." The question with Gag is whether players lose 1 life point each time they talk, or if they can only lose 1 life point while Gag is in play.
Summary: Many descriptions in Wild West Show were poor, leading to confusing gameplay. This is not to claim all were worded badly (Gary Looter is easy to understand, for instance), but rather that enough were to be a detriment.
- Unbalanced Characters and Cards. Generally, in a game like BANG!, you want to make all characters at the same level of power. Despite some exceptions (Lucky Duke or Claus the Saint are examples of generally weaker characters, amongst others), previous characters in BANG! basically had this. Of course, some required greater strategic gameplay to utilize well, and many characters' values fluctuated depending on your assigned role. Still, all this granted, no character was extremely more OP than another.
All of this is thrown out with Wild West Show. You get the sense that the designers were thinking, "Ooh! We need to make an expansion--let's get people excited by making really powerful characters!" Unfortunately, this had a negative impact on game dynamics. The most obvious abuse is Greygory Deck: "At the start of his turn, he may draw 2 characters at random. He has all the abilities of the drawn characters." Even though an explanation card qualifies that these characters can only come from the base game, the fact remains that he get 2 character abilities! Clearly, under any balancing scale, 2 is better than 1. And while most players have to deal with the ability they are stuck with, he can swap them out for others! Lee Van Kliff's ability to "discard a BANG! to repeat the effect of a brown-bordered card he just played" on his turn is likewise obscene.
I can imagine some player responding that you just have to concentrate on this character more to eliminate him, that's all. But there is a problem with this response: it doesn't work when it comes to that character being the Sheriff. The other players are already concentrating as hard as they can to eliminate him! The Sheriff, in this case, gets a straight up upgrade. For instance, I have yet to see a 5+ player game where a Gary Looter Sheriff was defeated. Gary Looter's ability (besides starting with 5 life points) specifies that "He draws all excess cards discarded by other players at the end of their turn." So first, the Sheriff Gary Looter has a huge defensive benefit by having 6 life points. Second of all, whenever a Deputy or Renegade wants to pass a card from his hand to the Sheriff, he can simply discard it when he is over his card limit! This card feeding to the Sheriff is ridiculous. In general, the Sheriff gains an undue benefit from the OP Wild West Show characters.
Some of the event cards also have unbalances, although they are not as grievous as the character cards. Let me give 2 examples. Miss Susanna states "During his turn, each player must play at least 3 cards. If he does not, he loses 1 life point." All things equal, this card clearly favors 4+ life point characters, who not only are more likely have more cards in their hands to play initially, but have more life points to spare.
Bone Orchard states, "At the start of their turn, all eliminated players return to play with 1 life point. Deal their roles at random from those the eliminated players." I think most BANG! players can attest that Outlaws tend to die both more often and earlier in the game. I have been in several games where the Outlaws are the only roles amongst the dead. You might believe that this therefore favors the Outlaws when it comes to Bone Orchard, but this is not the case! Being either the only ones dead or the majority of the dead, the living have almost sure knowledge or a good guess that the resurrected players are outlaws. Because the resurrected outlaws have only 1 life point, and likely gain no defenses from the 2 cards they draw on their turn, they are open to quick elimination. Why is this bad? Because there is still a 3 card bonus for eliminating Outlaws! Bone Orchard makes Outlaws get farmed for card bonuses. I am sure that the card was designed to try to keep dead players involved in the game, but the most likely eliminated players get placed often in a worse situation than before.
Summary: Most of the new characters were not created with balance in mind (not all). Some of the event cards were poorly conceived. Amusingly, the designer admits this: the expansion was conceived for "sporting characters more wild than balanced." For a game that I believe was wild enough, this expansion only made things worse.
- Increased Randomness. Fluxx fans and many BANG! fans may love randomness, but many of us don't. Randomness is in BANG!, and in my opinion already plays too large a role, but it shouldn't be the focus of the game. Wild West Show's event cards add even more randomness, which BANG! fans such as myself won't appreciate. Of course, which event cards come into play are always random, but the event cards themselves also employ random effects. Darling Valentine states, "At the start of his turn, each player discards his hand and draws the same number of cards from the deck." Were you building up a good hand over several turns? Too bad. Helena Zontero instructs, "When Helena comes into play, 'draw!': on Hearts or Diamonds, shuffle all active roles, except the Sheriff, and deal them at random." Were you playing well as a team and about to win? Too bad.
- Lack of Novelty. While the characters definitely bring wild new abilities into play and the event cards provide a new structure to gameplay, I think many who purchase Wild West Show will think, "that's it?" BANG! already had event cards with High Noon and A Fistful of Cards, so why should we be that excited about the event cards in Wild West Show? It is very unlikely that you will be playing with 2+ event decks simultaneously, so the new event deck isn't as great as a modular component as you might think. It doesn't seriously add to the gameplay, as the excellent Dodge City expansion did. And some of the event cards like Gag, which doesn't allow players to play on penalty of losing life points, just isn't fun. So all the showiness seems a bit unnecessary: event cards and characters like these could be written on slips of paper. A significant expansion should provide more.
Gameplay Value: 8/20.
Cost. Lastly, there is the question of money. At $10 (or $8.71 on Amazon), and only providing 18 cards to the game, Wild West Show is pricey. You might find it used for cheaper, but then you will have to swallow shipping costs that will make it cost about the same. Since Wild West Show is the only expansion not available in the special edition Bullet, you can't get it any other way. Of course, it came after the Bullet, so I can't blame it for that. What really irks you with Wild West Show is how padded the product is. The expansion comes in a big plastic box, hiding how little you are really receiving. 4 of the cards you get are rules cards and 1 card is an advertisement! When it comes in a big plastic box, an advertising card is unnecessary. And why not give us more cards and less rule cards (just provide an info pamphlet or even a web address instead)?
Financial Value: 6/10.
Wild West Show is too true to its name: it provides a nice show with its thematic touches and artwork, but the expansion is only skin deep. BANG! gameplay is made (at least further) off unbalanced and random. The lack of new features makes the expansion feel mind-numbingly unoriginal. And for $10 you ask yourself, "why didn't I just buy a used version of some other game?" I think another reviewer's remarks are apt: "you'll like it if the chaos sounds fun and you won't if you think that Bang! is already silly enough." This expansion I believe is very divisive: many BANG! fans may buy it, but a good chunk of them won't enjoy it that much.