I just finished my first game of Union Stockyards. This is a game themed around the Union Stockyards of Chicago in the late 1800’s. More info can be found here.
I played a two-player game with me being both players. The game board is two-sided and one of those sides is specifically for a two-player game.
Union Stockyards is a worker placement game. There are a few different areas, or types, of placement spaces in the game; You can build infrastructure, slaughter animals, and do some marketing. There’s an interesting space in the board for political campaigning which is really a space for taking the first-player token for yourself with the added benefit of being able to pick which of two political-adjacent actions are available.
I was a little disappointed in the supply-demand pricing mechanism because adjustments are only made at the end of each year, not right after any player makes a sale. The market didn’t seem easy to manipulate without losing something by doing so. But the market pricing does provide a bit of a race between players because the profit margin for each type of meat is included in the final scoring – you can’t simply ignore one of the price tracks even if you don’t intend to ever sell that type of meat.
The game was simpler than I expected. That could be a good thing. It’s a medium-weight worker-placement game, about as complicated as Viticulture, which is one of the many worker-placement games I own that doesn’t require rereading the rule book each time I play it. I would have liked a slightly more complicated market structure as well as something more serious happening during a union strike – the union spirit track is almost meaningless.
Here are some more details…
Each player can place a worker to buy land, build buildings in the stockyard and in far-off cities, market their company to increase reputation, and slaughter livestock. There are spaces that can be used to change the union spirit and to gain the first-player token for the next round.
Buying land is an action that feels rather minor but a player who focuses on it can either build later for free on their land or collect money from other players building on their land. It is an interesting alternative to the slaughterhouse for making money.
Building in the stockyards is where a player can pick up end-of-game points while also getting a small instant benefit like having their sale price of livestock go up or getting an increase in reputation. The buildings are of a few different shapes and there is a little bit of a Tetris vibe in how the buildings can be placed. Building a branch house is simpler and plays just pay a little and then place on of their markers in a space in one of the outside cities. Like many actions in the game, this provides a variety of benefits such as getting a sale price increase or a reputation increase. And also like other actions, there are points gained at the end of the game based on these building placements.
Slaughtering livestock and selling meat can be a big money-maker in the game. A player just places their worker on a space that has a cattle, hog, or sheep token, removing the token, and then they get the profit from this sale. The profit is the difference between their buying cost and their selling price. The buying cost will go up or down during the game depending on which of the three types of livestock are in abundance and which are hard to get. Various other actions in the game raise a player’s selling price which in turn makes it desirable to sell that type of meat. That, in turn, causes the supply to go down thus raising the cost and lowering the profits in the future.
Marketing your brand for reputation is a way to race on a track for points while also providing benefits at various different reputation levels. The benefits are all increases in the selling price of meat.
There are some other spaces on the board but they are all minor compared to the actions described so far. Like most worker-placement games, there is even a space for gaining a coin in case there are no other useful spaces available. This was not a problem at all in my two-player game.
Now for a bit more detail on how the game felt while I was playing it…
Union Spirit felt like it meant almost nothing. If there was a strike, both players got an unhappy worker token and both players lost a worker for the following round. Unless a player screws up and gets many more of these unhappiness tokens, there is little to no downside to a strike. I can imagine one player perhaps seeing that another has a few more unhappy worker tokens and then works for a strike to give the other player another – the penalty of these tokens increases in a curve (exponentially) so while the first token is worth -2 points, the third one is worth -6 points. Making another player get a fourth could be a good strategic move but just doesn’t seem like something that would happen enough to warrant even having this feature in the game. But it certainly doesn’t hurt anything beyond taking up some board space. And with less workers, the game goes quicker so a strike could also keep another player from making an extra sale, making them lose out on those points.
The building mechanism is straightforward and is a nice mini-game. I would have liked there to have been a bit more of a benefit from connecting things in the stockyard. It’s nice to be able to place railroad tokens in cities but it seemed impossible to do anything strategic with any but the two asterisk tokens that could be placed in any city. Those two “wild-card” railroads were the only place where there was any competition to place them first since it would let a player pick a city where they have branch houses already. Branch houses are worth points.
I found the supply and demand of the market just a little underwhelming. I would have preferred to have the market price change after every single sale instead of just six times in the game (at the end of each round). It was hard to manipulate the market to great benefit or to the detriment of other players.
The politics is an interesting bit of gaming and makes the taking of the first player token more interesting than it could have been.
In the end, the game was fun to play and the theme worked well enough. Even though a few of the individual aspects of the game felt a little weak, together, they give the player many choices on where to get points. Any player interaction, beyond taking a space that another player wants to use, is subtle.
I played this game about an hour or two after playing Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle is a game of diplomacy where the USSR and USA compete for world “domination” during the cold war (1947 to 1991). That game is HARD to play and players interact in many ways. So Union Stockyards felt simple partly because of the game played earlier that day.
I will definitely play this again. Hopefully soon so I can remember where I wanted to experiment with things like buying all of the land and trying to manipulate the market. It’s a medium game that could have been a hard game but there is a place on the shelf for games of this complexity and I’m happy to fill that space with a game all about slaughtering animals. It can sit right next to Offshore and Pipeline.