Digging up a Gold Nugget, or a Pyrite Disappointment? A Review of Pay Dirt.

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Gold. There is something about it’s allure that is difficult to entirely describe. That precious metal has been sought after for centuries. Emperors craved it, kings warred over it, prospectors gambled their lives and their fortunes for it, and now investors are plunking their money down for it, desperate for financial security.

Gold. Something about it’s color and luminescence captivates our imaginations. Young boys dream of finding buried treasures of gold and any good movie about treasure hunting usually features gobs of it. It is hard to think of another physical substance that has been so coveted over the centuries of human civilization.

Gold. It is still important today too, even beyond the the investment craze. It is a vital component for special electronic wires and components. It is used in all sorts of fine jewelry and rings. It has a significant demand and usefulness. Hence the gold mining industry.

We don’t often think of gold mining as a modern industry. When we think of mining we think of coal, ore, or recently natural gas, or Minecraft. But gold mining continues, albeit half-way across the world in South Africa where there are rich gold mines.

But wait! We would do well not to forget that it continues on our own shores, especially in Alaska. While we often equate gold mining here with the 1800’s and the prospecting boom, there are still gold mining operations in the area.

It is a hard, cold, expensive job, but someone has got to do it. Will that someone be you?

OVERVIEW:

My homemade box

My homemade box

Before you start packing your bag for the next flight to Alaska (I hope you packed plenty of long underwear!),allow me to clarify. In this case, I am referring to a new game put out by Crash Game: Pay Dirt. Pay Dirt is a worker placement game about the modern gold mining industry in Alaska.The game is 2-5 players (though the PnP version only has files for 4 players), and lasts about 90 minutes or so. It recently funded on kickstarter so expect to see it available in retail next year.  While winter clothes are not required, a determined attitude is.

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Digging for gold in the frigid North is by no means a walk in the park. The gold is out in the bush, far away from civilization…which isn’t saying much since it is Alaska! And did I mention it is cold and hard? Equipment is always in need of repair or wearing out, good staff are hard to come by, funds are limited, and hardship are a plenty. Rusted axles, snap freezes, misfiled paperwork, dishonest employees, diesel shortages… wait, where are you going?

Just like the real thing, Pay Dirt nicely captures the challenges and excitement of the modern gold mining industry in Alaska. This is not your average worker placement game with a pasted on theme. The theme here is rich and engaging. In an abstract way, you do feel like you are trying to lead your ragtag mining outfit to victory (most gold wins!) But theme is not everything. To take the analogy in my title here, a good theme is like a good shiny appearance. Only by looking at what’s under the hood can we tell if this is the real deal, or a fake disappointment.

CONSTRUCTION:

If you plan on buying a copy when it is produced, then feel free to skip this part. But, if you are like me- a frugal, crafty kind of guy, then keep reading!

Pay Dirt has been my most exhaustive/involved PnP build to date. Part of that was due to some of my choices to make it nice, and part of that was due to the fact that this is a big game (on par with Puerto Rico, or Ticket to Ride as far as amount of components). I have been detailing some of the construction in previous posts: here, here, and here

The first step is to (obviously) print everything out. The tiles and the player boards I printed on matte photo paper. For the cards (Personnel and Hardships), I printed on high quality printer paper, double-sided (these have fronts and backs, and photo paper only can be printed on one side, hence regular paper).

The cards were the easiest to make. after printing them out, I ran them through my laminator. (Man, I love this tool!) After cutting them out, I pulled out my nifty, new, corner rounder  to give them a nice professional-ish appearance. The nipping with the cutter was tedious, but it made a difference.

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The tiles were simple as well. Because this is the PnP version, the tile backs (with the exception of the pay dirt tiles) are not included. I simply glued the pages to cereal cardstock and pressed it with a dry iron on low heat. This worked well in “laminating” the paper to the cardstock. Once everything had dried for a day between thick theology books (to keep the boards from warping as the glue dried), it was just a matter of cutting out the tiles.

There are a lot of components to this game as well. You need some unique pieces to track the dropping temperature, to  mark bidding categories, and to mark the head miner. (I have half a mind to go and find a cheap hard hat to serve this purpose! 🙂 )You need 48 red cubes to track wear to your equipment, 25 gold nuggets, 25 gold bars (worth 5 nuggets), 40 workers, 10 each in Blue, Red, Brown, Green.

You can use counting cubes for most of this, and designate different colors to differentiate. However, I decided to get some wood dowels and make my own token. Talk about cheap! (But, labor intensive). I bought a 1/4″ square dowel and chopped it into cubes.

The raw materials

The raw materials

These became the wear cubes and gold nuggets. I then chopped 13/16″ lengths in another 1/4″ square dowel to make the gold bars. The workers and tacking tokens were chopped from a 1/2″ round dowel. Everything was then soaked overnight in paint baths. While the coloring is not the most impressive (with the exception of the gold pieces), it was a cheap and somewhat fun…but also tedious. I think the results were worth it though for custom bits at a fraction of the price. Had I had to do it over, I would have bought some spray paint  for better finish results when painting.

GAMEPLAY:

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Unlike some games that overwhelm you with details and choices right out of the gate (I am looking at you Caylus), Pay Dirt offers a streamlined, simplified experience without dumbing things down. There is still plenty of strategy here, but it is very accessible. The game plays over a variable number of rounds (ultimately determined by the players). Each round has four phases.

The first phase is auction, and really this is the heart of the game. When you start the game, you have old, slow equipment and few workers. In the auction phase you can upgrade equipment, hire personnel, and stake more claims. But the way the bidding works makes things difficult sometimes to get what you need. You will find yourself in all out bidding wars with your opponents for vital pieces of equipment, and valuable workers. Once one item is auctioned off (there are three pools of choices to choose from: equipment, personnel, claims), the next auction must be for something different. (Example: The player before started bidding on a new excavator (a equipment tile). Once that  auction ends, you may start bidding on an item, but not from the equipment category. So if there was a new wash plant you were looking at: sorry!)

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Choices, choices, choices. Do I want a new wash plant? or a new claim with valuable gold? or more workers?, or maybe an excavator?

The Auction "house" The little brown cylinder marks the "no bid" area

The Auction “house” The little brown cylinder marks the “no bid” area

Once everyone has had a chance to start bidding on something or has won something, then the auction phase ends, and all items won are incorporated into your outfit.

Play then moves to the Work phase. This phase is pretty simple- Simultaneously place your workers and preform actions. In essence your player board represents a conveyor belt of sorts as the gold is dug up, transported, and washed. Tiles are excavated from claims (they are kept face down until processed), moved from excavator to loader, and then through the wash plant. Once the pay dirt tile reaches the last space in this “conveyor belt”, then it is flipped over and the amount of gold you get is revealed.DSCF3432

Each piece of equipment is divided into 1-3 “stages” that the pay dirt must move across. Each worker assigned to an equipment moves the dirt one stage. So, until you get more workers, better equipment or both, it takes a long time (about two turns) to process each pay dirt tile. So it is imperative to upgrade your outfit in one way or another.

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By using all five workers, I can pull a piece of pay dirt (The brown tile) from the claim, across the excavator, across the loader, and onto the first stage of the wash plant. Because the dirt hit every piece of equipment, they all gain 1 wear cube. (Notice too that the earth movers had been upgraded to have two slots instead of three, speeding up the process somewhat.)

Each time your equipment loads a dirt tile, it wears down a little (represented by wear cubes) Once the wear cubes gained are equal to the wrench icons, the equipment in question breaks down and needs repaired. You can assign workers to repair  and remove the cubes, but of course this ties up valuable manpower.

Cubes! Though, you don't want too many of these...

Cubes! Though, you don’t want too many of these…

In addition to this main task, you can send workers to town to sell gold for cash, or buy camp gear. (These are little upgrades to help your process: generators, test drills, etc.)

In other words, there is lots of work to do, and not enough hands to go around.

After the Work phase, the Hardships start rolling in. After all, this is Alaska. Whoever has the least gold, draws hardship cards for all the players, and distributes them at his discretion. This is a nice catch up mechanism, in my opinion. These hardship cards are not a walk in the park- they can really hamper your operation next turn. Whether you lose prized equipment you paid top dollar for, or lose gold, or employees, or have other difficulties that require more men, etc, you really have to fight to keep your operation moving some turns.

Hardships, they a'coming

Hardships, they a’coming

Whoever is the head miner (Start player for the round) then looks at the temperature indicated on his hardship card, and drops the temperature on the main board accordingly. Once the temperature reaches 0, then the last round begins after this round finishes.

Since I am head miner this turn, the temperature drops 2 degrees. Brr.....

Since I am head miner this turn, the temperature drops 2 degrees. Brr…..

After the hardships are resolved, the final phase is  Income- every player gains $2,000. (a subsidary from the government) The round finishes and the next player to the left of the start player becomes the new Head Miner, and the next round begins.

That is really all there is to it. It takes a lot to explain it, but once you’ve played a round or two, it is pretty intuitive and straightforward. Once the game is over, players tally up their gold- most gold wins!

FINAL THOUGHTS:

So is this a nugget of gold, or a pyrite disappointment? The short answer: yes to the former, no to the latter. Pay Dirt really is a gem of a game. It is simple in one aspect. There is really only one strategy/one goal you are working towards. This is not a complex, point salad game. In fact this is the first game I’ve played in a while with not a ubiquitous victory point in sight. It is not overwhelming  too much to “newbie” players, or non-gamers….too much. It is after all a modern “euro” game so there is plenty to take in, and plenty to keep your mind busy, but it is not overwhelming or brain burning.

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Looks like that old excavator needs some repairing before you load anymore dirt this turn!

That said, it is also complex enough to keep the gamers among us interested. There is some strategy involved, from the auction phase to the dilemma of where to place your workers in the work phase. (too much to do, not enough hands to do it…). Do you focus on adding more workers to your outfit, or better equipment? Do you use camp gear to help supplement? Do you sell hard earned gold for some needed cash for auctions next round? Or, do you make do with what you have?

Your typical Euro is bashed for being “meh” when it comes to theme. With some games, the theme really is just the wrapping paper to the game itself. No so with Pay Dirt. This Alaskan gold mining theme is practically oozing from every part of this game (and I mean this in a good way). The theme is so closely connect with the mechanics, you really do get a sense of “roughing it” while making your fortune in the Alaskan wild.  I would recommend wearing flannel shirts while playing this game. A scruffy beard doesn’t hurt either, just to get int he spirit of things.

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In case you can’t tell, I really, really like this game. Even for it being the PnP version, the art is great (Kudos to Crash Games for even making this available!), and the game play really is enjoyable, with out being too difficult. All the people I have introduced it to, have enjoyed it. While for some it was a bit of a shock to play a game where things are so hard to get things moving sometime (Those hardship cards don’t pull any punches! Between that, your poor equipment, and your meager amount of workers, you feel as if you are barely keeping your operation afloat the first few rounds), the game really does shine.

One gripe I have (and it is a minor one), is that while it says it plays 2-5 players, the two player games I have tried have been lackluster. Mainly because it is hard to have a lively auction round (where much of the action is in the game) with just two players. I don’t know if others who have played have had the same experience, or if there are tweaks to the rules for a two player game I am not aware of, but this is one spot where Pay Dirt falls short. But from 3-5 players, this is absolutely one of my favorite game, hands down!

Interested? Check out the game on Board game Geek here. You can find the PnP files if you want to craft it, or information for when it will be released to retail.

How about you? Have you tried this game yet? If so, what did you think? Be sure to share in the comments below, and if you want to keep more content like this coming, please subscribe! (either at the top or bottom of the page!)

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2 thoughts on “Digging up a Gold Nugget, or a Pyrite Disappointment? A Review of Pay Dirt.

  1. Pingback: Yardmaster Express- an Express review | The Frugal Hobbyist

  2. Pingback: #30- A Look Back, and a Look Ahead | The Frugal Hobbyist

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