Six Gun Saga Review
Developer: Cryptic Comet
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium 4 1.2 GHz, 256 MB RAM, Video Card with 32 MB VRAM, 200 MB HD space, Windows XP or more recent operating system
"This town isn't big enough for the both of us... or all four of us if we're playing a four-player game." I'm pretty sure Wyatt Earp said that. At least, he did in Six Gun Saga, a strategic card game in which up to four bosses (from a pool of seven) hire help and battle against one another to wrest control of a late-19th century town in the American Wild West for themselves.
Six Gun Saga is an exceedingly clever game that, properly programmed, would be brilliant fun. What Six Gun Saga suffers from is not poor game design. Instead, it's simply poor implementation. The steep learning curve could have been circumvented with a decent tutorial, or even decent tooltips and a friendlier interface. Once I had learned the ropes (and avoided hanging from them), I started to really enjoy Six Gun Saga. It was barely a few games more before I had thoroughly bested the AI and was ready to test my mettle against a human opponent, but I couldn't. I understand that coding multiplayer is hard, but I had friends who wanted to try it out and play with me and even a hot-seat option would have been a godsend.
The game isn't yet balanced, but it's an extremely clever design. Each of the cards has quite a few functions. Cards allow players to purchase the deed to a location, hire a dude or pay to set up an ambush for opponents. They each also have alternate uses in the form of special actions, cards that can be used to build poker hands or a cash value that can be used to fund other options. At first glance, it seems that cash is the main resource needed to build an army of henchmen and go toe-to-toe with other bosses, but in reality, the only important resource is cards.
There's considerable complexity, but play comes down to selling cards to get enough cash to hire a posse and send them on missions to story cards to amass victory points faster than the other bosses. If a posse can lurk on a story card and not get kicked off by other boss' posses, that boss will gain victory points and usually another special benefit. The challenge is in figuring out what sort of posse to build, where to send them and how to use the special actions to gain an advantage while earning enough cash to keep your payroll in the black. Each boss has his own talents that influence play, making it worthwhile to pursue slightly different strategies, depending on which boss you control.
That complexity, combined with the interface, is what makes Six Gun Saga so hard to learn. The PDF manual isn't enough to explain the various portions of a turn, and it wasn't clear to me until I'd struggled through half a dozen games exactly what I had to do to move the game forward. There were times when I needed to make a selection, such as during movement, and I had no idea exactly where to click until I'd randomly poked around a lot. Sometimes it was hard to distinguish a freeze or crash from a moment when I simply needed to click in the right place.
It's also challenging to keep track of the game at first because there's no option to watch other bosses go through their series of moves. If it were possible to watch the AI play out a turn, that would go a long way toward replacing a tutorial. Unfortunately, the only option is to read a text log of other players' turns. Not only is that not fun, but it's a work-intensive way to get up to speed with what's going on in the game.
One of the cooler aspects of the game is that each card also has a poker card value that can be played onto a posse. When two posses meet – or when one is ambushed – the conflict is resolved through Texas Hold 'Em-style poker. Hands have values which are added to the gunfighting potential of a posse, so while having solid gunslingers will confer an advantage, luck is still important. By playing the poker value onto a posse, it's possible to pre-arm that posse with as much as a pair to improve those chances. The problem is that (except with one boss who earns some cash from playing poker cards) it makes much more sense to use those cards for their actions or to build more powerful posses than to play them for their poker value.
That's part of the balance problem of Six Gun Saga. Everything still needs a bit more tweaking. Some cards, played on the first turn, are crippling. Being forced to discard four cards before even having a turn would mean a loss against a competent foe. It's still possible to beat the AI that way, but only because the AI is marginal. Other cards need balance, too. Increasing the upkeep of a dude by $3 is a death sentence, while many cards have actions that are nearly pointless.
Once I had a grip on the powerful imbalances, and how the AI copes, I lost interest in the game, simply because there were no humans to keep things interesting. The one place the imbalances are brilliant are when you add the Weird West cards. These cards aren't balanced, but they add vampires, aliens, skinwalkers and other fun events to the game to keep things different and exciting.
Six Gun Saga's design is extraordinary. What it needs is more testing and better implementation. There's no question that Six Gun Saga is worth the effort, but there's also little question that gamers should wait until that better implementation is implemented.