A Review of Backwoods

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Backwoods is a cooperative bag-building, exploration game from Kickstarter back in August, 2020; it promised delivery in July 2021 (about a 1 year later). I received my Kickstarter copy about Sept 20, 2021, so it was a few months late. A few months late for a Kickstarter? That’s not bad, especially in today’s shipping climate!

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The back of the box (see above) show Backwoods for 1-4 Players, ages 14+ and plays in 1 to 2 hours. My experience with the game make me feel like this info is accurate.

Unboxing

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Backwoods is in a smaller box (smaller than a Ticket To Ride box, abut half the size), but it’s pretty full of stuff.

The most important card in the game is the summary card above: it outlines how the game flows and what the rules are in each phase.

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The rulebook looks like a survival/bird manual.

Included with the game was this very pretty little “woodsy” card. It didn’t really have a purpose (except to be art), but it did set the mood for the game: we are out in the backwoods! I almost feel like it might have made a better cover to the game.

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There are a BUNCH of punchout tokens: most of these are for the grab bag: this is basically a bag-building game; you will build and fill your bag with resources as one of the main mechanisms.

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I have the Deluxe edition which has dual-layer boards. These are really nice and easy to read and use!

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All the boards represent the same info, but there’s a different graphic on each board (see above). These boards are used to keep track of abilities and some key stats for each character. This is probably my favorite component in the game: they are linen-finished, dual-layer, and easy to use.

The rest of the box holds the cards, cubes, dice, and remaining tokens. See above.

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Another main component of the game is the bag itself: see above. This is a bag-building game!! You put the cardboard tokens (to the right in the picture) into the bag: The bag is big and easy to put your hand in to pull stuff out/put stuff in.

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The cards are all very well-marked with their type: see below. (I really appreciate that) They are also all linen-coated! The text is always big and easy to read. See above. I really really appreciate this feature!

The card art is a bit inconsistent and odd. The regions have a different flavor than the pioneers than the items than the night cards. It’s all “kind of” the same theme, but there seems to be an odd inconsistency to the art.

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The cubes (above) are used for the dual-layer Character board. The dice (below) are used for Skill checks.

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The final, pretty nice wood tokens are used to mark Locations.

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In general, the game looks and feels pretty nice. About everything is linen-finished which really adds a nice touch to the initial feeling of quality.

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It looks pretty nice! There’s a lot here for a smaller box.

The Rulebook

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This rulebook is really not very good. I sometimes rate rulebooks by how many times I yell “Grr!” when reading. This was at least a 5-“Grr!” rulebook. (Roll Camera, by contrast from last week, was a “0-Grr!” rulebook and one of the better rulebooks I’ve read in a while). I struggled greatly with this rulebook.

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The rulebook looks like it might “bird-hunting” manual (see above) which is quite thematic. And at the end of the day, “most stuff” is somewhere. But, it was a struggle.

Problem One: What’s the theme? What am I doing overall? The first few pages DO NOT DESCRIBE what we are supposed to be doing from a high-level persepctive!! Most rulebooks start with that! The only place I found it was on the back of the box:

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Problem Two: What were some the tokens? Page 2 does show the tokens (see below), but some tokens were no accounted for. (The brown tokens that seem to correlate to some of the animals .. what are they?)

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Problem Three: Where the set-up picture? I expected some sort of set-up picture in the Starting Out, but there wasn’t any.

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I did find a set-up picture, again, on the back of the box! … not in the rulebook where most rulebooks show them. (And I didn’t find the picture below until my third time playing).

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Problem Four: What am I supposed to be doing? How do I win? Immediately after Set-up, it jumps into the scenarios. And doesn’t describe “Freedom Mode” (which is what the “first set-up” is described with).

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Am I supposed to play Just A Scratch first? Freedom Mode (alluded to in the Set-up)? If you look all the way at the VERY END of the rulebook, you find some description of what you need to do to win:

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So, notice that the Freedom mode is described on the LAST page of the rulebook, as well as adjustments for the number of players. Shouldn’t that have been all at Set-Up?

Problem Five: Just poor organization. And not a lot of pictures, if any. I struggled reading anything.

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Overall, you can figure out how to play the game from the rulebook (well, mostly, see below). But this rulebook almost made me toss the game on the scrap pile.

After playing a few times, I found a “How To Play” set-up on the website. https://mosthighdesign.com/backwoodsgame/resources/

I wish I had known about that beforehand.

Set-Up

A picture of set-up (again, on the back of the box) goes a long way towards seeing what the game looks like. Once you see the game set-up, you forgive some of the grumpiness of the rulebook because the dual-layer board and linen-coated cards look nice on the table. For future generations, above is a picture of set-up!

Solo Play

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See a picture of a solo game, a few rounds in.

Luckily, the game has a solo mode (thank you for following Saunders’ Law): they basically just slightly adjusts the abilities for balance.

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Once you FIND the solo rules (on the VEEEEERRY last page), it’s a decent way to learn the game. I think you really to need to play the game solo before you present this game to anyone: it’s too much to try to learn this in real-time with a group because the rulebook is so bad. I have to admit that I was pretty grumpy with my solo game, but once I presented the game to my friends, it flowed a lot better BECAUSE I had already suffered through the rulebook.

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See a losing game (above).

After playing the game a few times, I think the solo game is significantly harder than the cooperative game because you can’t do quite as much per turn: a solo player will have to take 3 events before he can build three things (as he can only only build once per turn, so three turns have to pass), but a 3-Player game can build 3 times with only one event (in one turn). I think that is a correct assessment of how to play, but again, the rulebook isn’t clear.

Exploration

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The game is all about trying to stay alive while you look for the Fort (at least for the first “Freedom Mode” scenario).  Once you make it to the Fort (see below): you win!

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You can go out to a few Locations and can either (a) Scout it or (b) just head in there blind. It’s a simple explore mechanism, as you just flip a card (orthogonally) next to you from the Regions deck:

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When you are all done, you have explored a number of Regions which is kind of neat.  And each region has very different characteristics.

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By the end of the game, it’s kind of a cool little map you’ve set up. And every region has different explore effects.

Gameplay

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The most important piece in the game is the map above: it gives a VERY nice summary of how the game flows.  The little owl marks which “phase” of the game you are in, and a nice summary in on the edges of the card.  This card, this card saved this game from the scrap-heap: It’s a nice summary that can at least get you in to the game without HAVING to keep your nose in the rulebook. 

At it’s core, this is a bag-building game and resource management game.  To win, you need to find the Fort (usually), but along the way, you need food and water (and other things) to survive. You can get that food and water from the bag (see opportunity below) or trying other actions in the game (fighting animals, events, etc).  For example: If you defeat the “Barred Owls” below in combat, you get 2 Meat (lower left on card).

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You can place items in the bag for 1 opportunity (see lower left of player board) or pull from the bag for 2 opportunity.

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You can also use resources in the game for building items:

The fire above can be built for 1 WOOD, and it’s imperative, especially in the early game, as it allow you to fight hypothermia.

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There are TONS of ITEMS in the game. I didn’t realize it until the end of my first solo game, but building items is KEY to winning the game! You can choose ANY item in the deck to build, as long as you have the resources!!

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In the different phases of the game, you explore, build, heal, and fight as you look for the Fort. There are sort of two sets of Bad News cards (this is a cooperative game after all): The Events Cards feel like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure cards, and add an element of “adventure” to the game: The results can be good or bad, depending on what you choose.

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The Night cards, on the other hand, are more like the traditional Bad News cards in cooperative games: something bad happens.

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In general, the game flows through a bunch of days where you explore, build, heal, choose, and end with a Night card. Continue until you’ve found the Fort!

Religion

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One of the elements of the game is religious “Christian faith”. It is an optional rule, but the game acknowledges that 1800s in the USA was typically settled by religious (often Christian) settlers. I didn’t have a problem with this rule, because it felt thematic: in my USA History classes, it was very clear that a lot of Christian Settlers had come to the US for religious freedom during the early parts of American history. So, I didn’t have a problem with it.

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My friends, who tend to me more religious, had more problems with it. They argued that it was perhaps reductive to their faith (reducing Christian religion to just mechanisms with the Faith attribute) and some characters (like the Indian princess character) would probably have a different flavor of faith. So, rather than pigeon-hole the faith as “Christian” mechanism in the game, maybe it should have been handled more generically than the very Christian way it was dealt.

I don’t think anyone was offended, and it didn’t get the way of the game, but we all imagined some people might have a problem with the “faith” part of the game. Luckily, the “faith” rules are optional, but you should be aware of them in case it might rub you the wrong way.

Cooperative Play

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As a game, Backwoods worked better as a cooperative game than a solo game. We all worked together and made decisions about what Items to buy (an essential part of the game). The solo mode is essential for learning the game, but I think you would pull this game out to play it cooperatively more than solo.

Conclusion

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In the end, Backwoods strikes me as a cooperative bag-building version of Paleo! Paleo (a cooperative game that won the 2021 Kennerspiel des Jahres which we reviewed here) is all about managing resources and building the necessary things to survive. Backwoods has a very similar feel to Paleo, but Backwoods uses a bag-building mechanism to help manage resources. If you enjoyed Paleo’s resource management and exploration “feel”, I suspect Backwoods would be a game you might enjoy.

Some of the art and graphic design of Backwoods rubbed my friends the wrong way: they seemed to think that the art and graphic design seemed inconsistent (see above). Also, the rulebook definitely needs a major reworking (needing significant re-organization and rewriting), but once you have played the game a few times, however, the rulebook issues are less pronounced. The cooperative game is better than the solo game (as the solo game seems perhaps too difficult), with some interesting decisions made as a group.

My friends seemed to think that Backwoods needed more development and would give it a 5/10. I liked it more than they did, but I see their point. The game has some really neat ideas and the gameplay does flow pretty well once you get into it, but be aware of the potential issues (art, graphic design, rulebook, faith rules) before you buy: hopefully you can get a good idea of all that from this review.

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