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[Review] Big Manitou

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I was in the middle of my first game of Big Manitou (What's Your Game, 2005 - Gunter Burkhardt) when I suddenly realized that I was playing a "Eurogame". Of course, I have hundreds of "Eurogames", but there is a stereotype of many Eurogames in that they are considered themeless and dry and mechanical. For some reason, Big Manitou, though fun, gave me the feeling that if there were a game the personified this accused "lifelessness", it would be this one.

Please don't get me wrong, Big Manitou is a very interesting, good game. It has very nice components and plays well with room for some good strategy. But it certainly doesn’t feel like an Indian hunt, which is the theme of the game. Big Manitou also seems to have a learning curve of at least one game and offers a lot more strategic options than one might think on the onset. While I won't play the game for its theme, the mechanics are intriguing; and I'm still thinking about my tactics for the next game.

Each player (up to five) is given a deck of eighteen cards in their color. The cards include ten hunter cards (numbered one through ten), two chieftains, two squaws, one scout, one rain maker, and one medicine man. A pile of tiles is shuffled and mixed in a cloth bag, and two wooden cylinders (the totem and the horse) are set to the side. One player is the dealer for the first hunt (of three to five hunts - depending on number of players).

Each hunt occurs the same way, with the dealer drawing the "booty" tiles from the bag and forming three hunting grounds - each a group of two to four tiles, depending on the number of players. Each player then chooses from among their cards a certain number to use for the first hunt. The first player chooses nine, the next player(s) eight, and the last player seven. Players then shuffle the cards they have picked and draw the top three cards into their hand. The starting player goes first with play proceeding clockwise around the table.

On a turn, a player plays one of their cards face up next to one of the three hunting grounds. They then draw a card from their deck to replace their card. This continues until players have placed seven cards, at which time the hunt ends. During the hunt, as cards are being played, Warrior cards are simply placed down and stay until the end of the round. Hero cards (all the non-Warrior ones) are played differently, however. Each hero is either stronger or weaker than the others - for example, the Medicine Man is stronger than the Rain Maker and the Squaw but weaker than the Chieftain and the Scout. When two heroes are played at the same group of tiles, the stronger one defeats the other one, causing it to be turned face down. Cards of equal strength destroy each other, and a player can play two heroes at the same location to make their position even stronger.

At the end of the hunt, players first decide who attracts the leather thief. The player with the highest sum showing on their Hunter cards must discard a tepee or buffalo tile. Then, each hunting ground (group of tiles) is evaluated, giving the player with the hero there (if any) the choice of any one tile with the player with the highest hunter sum chooses next, taking two tiles; and the second player with the most hunter takes any remaining tiles. All played cards are then discarded, and unused cards are shuffled for the second hunt with a new player becoming the first player. Every other round, players can choose their hunt cards once again.

There are five types of booty tiles, the most common being the teepee and buffalo tiles. At the end of the game, each pair of teepees and buffaloes score one victory point (some tiles count as more than one tepee/buffalo). Tomahawk tiles add to the sum of every hunter card played (if I have two tomahawk tiles, and a "7" and a "3" at a location, it is now as if I have a "9" and "5" laid down. Totem tiles are useful, because the player with the most (or first to get the most) takes the totem token. In future hunts, they may place an eight card after all other players are finished. The player with the most horse tokens gets the white horse token, which allows them to move one card to a different location at the end of a hunt.

After the final hunt, points are totaled, with each pair of tepee/buffalo scoring one point. The player with the most tomahawks gets one point, the player with the horse gains one point, and the player with the totem receives one point. The player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The cards are not only high quality, but the illustrations on them are fantastic, showing Native Americans in beautiful array. The tiles are of a good thickness, and they, the chunky wooden cylinders, and the cloth bag of tiles barely fit in the smallish box. Components are fairly good for this game, but I'll give the artwork a tremendous grade.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is six full color pages long; and although there are a few snafus due to translation, it's very easy to understand. I've been able to teach it with very few problems. There is one rule, however, that is just confusing and fiddly - and that's the amount of cards each player starts with. "Did I have seven or eight cards?" is a question often mentioned in the games. I suppose that there is some strategic significance, with the player going first having more cards, etc., it's just a pain in the neck. I'm not sure that tactical considerations are equivalent to the annoyance of remembering how many cards you're supposed to draw. Why not just have everyone use half of their cards? Other than that, however, the rules are easy - the hero powers are basically a more complicated version of paper-rock-scissors.

3.) Points: When first going over the rules, I saw that the person with the most tomahawks got an extra victory point. "Big Deal", I thought - one measly point. Well, Big Manitou has some of the lowest scores I've ever seen in a game, with "5" being a large score. Therefore, this brings sharply to focus the fact that every point is critically important, and players therefore cannot make one false move. A player who has a terrible first hunt - not getting any booty tiles - can fall dreadfully behind, and experienced players won't allow him to catch up.

4.) Cards: In one of our games, one player denounced the fact that players picked their cards to use each turn, stating that random picks would be equally as good. However, after trying this out, I can state unequivocally that this is certainly not so. I chose all heroes and got totally devastated; and the next round, with all warriors, things were just as bad. In fact, choosing cards is a big part of the game - almost like building a deck in a collectible card game. Knowing where to play the cards is another matter. A player can play two heroes to one spot, hoping to claim that spot; but is it worth the extra cards?

5.) Tactics: The hero cards are important, because they allow a person to take the first tile from a group; but having the most warrior cards is often better, since you get two tiles! However, the game has a clever mechanic in which the person with the most warrior points must lose a buffalo/tepee tile, which can be rather annoying. Knowing which tile to take is also important - should one take another tomahawk to buff up their future hunts, or attempt to get the totem or horse?

6.) Fun Factor: The game is a fun exercise for those who like a slow auction, which the game basically is; but it can be frustrating for some people. I've often seen a turn in which a player, because of the way that the game worked out, got NOTHING from any of the three hunts. This can really bother some people, but a pure tactician might enjoy taking their chances like this. So far, the game seems to work best with three people, as four or five lessens your chances to get anything from a hunt.

If a small score, unforgiving choices, and rather interesting options interest you, then Big Manitou is certainly a game you might enjoy. No one will probably get into the theme, in which players hunt for tomahawks and tepees, but the gameplay is certainly solid. It's a bit unforgiving for new players, and a costly mistake will most likely cause a player to lose the game. Still, once all players know what's going on, Big Manitou rises above the thematic failings and is an interesting card 'n tile game.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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