Before I begin, I was sent a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. This is not a paid review. You can check out my video review below. Get your own copy here.
One of the games that I was most excited to get from Kickstarter in the past few years was Unbroken. Yes that Unbroken. That is a game that I was unable to keep because of the horrible experience with the publisher separated from what was a an overall, solid game. This left a bit of a hole in my collection for a resource management survival style game.
So when the designer reached out about covering Backwoods, a co-op survival game with significant resource management, I was hopeful. In the game you take on one, or more, survivors of a expedition in 1800’s Colorado. To survive you will be managing a bag of potential resources, both cultivating what is in it, and drawing from it each turn. Along with that you will be managing exploring new regions as you search for the safety of the fort, and surviving attacks by wild, and possibly possessed, animals each day, while facing supernatural events every night.
Each round it broken down into various phases. You start by exploring new cards around you, each of which will have a different effect from providing you with much needed water, to causing you to spend water by climbing a mountainous region. Then you spend your time foraging, where you place tokens into the bag, and then draw them out hoping not to be stung by wasps or diseased by mosquitoes. Next you have a chance to heal yourself with a skill check, and craft anything you can from bone armor to a camp fire to help you survive into the next day. Next you are faced with an event or battle with a wild animal, which will be resolved by various skill checks. Finally you will feed and water your party, then resolve a night card, and deal with anything that occurs during twilight.
So what do I think?
One of the core game mechanics is bag building/cultivation. This is very cool. Because the resource economy is exceedingly tight in this game it makes the choice of how to spend your opportunity each forage phase extremely important. At the same time you desperately need certain resources, both to survive, and to make the gear that you will need to over come challenges. at the center of it, is the way the foraging works, and it is probably the best part of the game.
I also enjoy the way the level up system works, it is very easy to see how close you are to gaining a new level, and at the same time you are constantly hit with the delightful choice of whether you save your insight (xp) or spend it to improve a roll of the dice. Along with the ease of predicting when you will level up, the bonuses tied to each of the core stats are all extremely valuable, and constantly creates hard choices.
I like the look of the game, everything has a consistent aesthetic, one that is very simple and much of which looks hand drawn. It is not stand-out brilliant, but very pleasant to look at overall. The game also has clearly made an effort at inclusion with the different character types offered in the game, I always appreciate that.
One of the other parts of the game I enjoy is the crafting of gear, however, because materials are so hard to come by, it is pretty rare that you feel like you can just go wild and craft away. You have to be very selective with what you craft, and when you do it because by using a piece of wood to make a spear, you will likely be cold at night.
The rulebook is a bit of a mess. I had to use the t video made by the designer to really understand what was going on. It just is not a well laid out rulebook, and it is hard to track what is going on, which is a shame cause the game itself plays fairly simply. There is a new rules pdf coming, but the rules in the box leave a bit to be desired.
This game is significantly harder in the early game, and the first two games I played I lost in the first few rounds as the events, night cards, bag pulls, and dice rolls can all go badly and your game is over. There is a significant amount of chance in the game, though almost all the randomness does have mitigation built in, but you need time to build that up.
Finally, I love the push for diversity and inclusion in the game, however, the game has a core mechanic of faith, that is centered around Christianity, even with verses from the Bible being found on some cards. I think this is a bit of a miss, not because Christianity was not a large part of pioneer life, I suspect it was, but because with the inclusion of a diverse cast of characters that ignores other potential faiths. What a wonderful opportunity to have researched the faith of the native tribe one character is, or the believes of the Chinese character (I believe he is Chinese, if I am mistaken I apologize), which I think was missed. To be clear the game is not offensive or aggressive in its portrayal here, but the “faith” stat is quite important to success in the game, and it could rub some the wrong way.
Bringing it all together
Backwoods, is a fun quick game. I really enjoy the way you can build multiple characters to synergize with each other in delightful ways. The bag building/cultivation is very cool, as is the core leveling mechanics and exploration. This is a game that reminds me of Unbroken, but without the horrible publisher baggage. The rules are a challenge to grok, but there is a good video available from the publisher. The game has made an excellent effort to be inclusive and diverse, though there is a bit of a focus on Christianity that may, or may not be attractive to you. This is a game that can just immediately go very very wrong, which feels thematic, but could be frustrating. If you like a resource management style survival game, with healthy dose of dice chucking then this is absolutely a game to check out.
Sorry had to burn the review to keep warm…what are you on about?
* Solid production on the game, with a clear theme and good art style
* Leveling mechanics, and bag cultivation is wonderful
* Good inclusion and diversity push, though there is a focus on Christian faith that may be good, neutral or bad depending on your preferences
* Fun co-op experience that is very challenging in the early game which can lead to quick defeats
* Building characters that work together is a delightful puzzle to work through