Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de

Cactus Town


Raul Luque Torner

Second Gate Games

No. of Players:



G@mebox author Frank Schulte-Kulkmann writes about the game:

Programming goes Wild West!

The standard for all action programming games has been set decades ago by Roborally, one of the first games of this genre. Even today Roborally still offers a lot of playing fun, although the mayhem resulting from 5-card programming rounds and the loss of program slots due to robot damage tends to lead to some rather imbalanced endings. Until today, it has remained a challenge for designers of programming games to avoid these pitfalls regarding game balance and fairness, and today we will have a new contestant on the table: Cactus Town.

[Cactus Town]

Click on image to enlarge!

In contrast to full-sized Roborally, Cactus Town is a much more compact 2 or 3 player game in which outlaws, the Sheriff's deputies and (in a three player game) a bunch of bounty hunters are battling for dominance over sleepy Cactus Town. Looking at the two-player game first, it is the task of the Outlaw player to discover two of his three target buildings from the hidden city map, plunder these buildings and then escape with two of his three outlaws into the wilderness. The Sheriff player on the other hand is aiming to capture at least two of the outlaws, locking them away into prison. If a third player joins the fray, this player will take the role of bounty hunters which are trying to capture one of the outlaws. So, the third player will have to prevent the Sheriff player from reaching his goal, while at the same time he will try to catch one of the outlaws and find some horses in order to leave the town with the prisoner.

To reach their goals, each player possesses a set of four Action cards, and three of these cards will be used each round by the players to program the actions of their characters. Before giving these cards a closer look, let's first examine the general programming procedure, since this is the core element of Cactus Town from which the game's challenge and attractiveness are derived. Unlike any game I have seen yet, Cactus Town uses a reverse programming mechanism, with the players taking turns to add programming cards to an action stack which - when completed with three cards from each player - will be revealed in backwards order. This may sound like a brain teaser, and indeed it seems to be the aim of this reversed programming procedure to confoundly confuse the players, because the last actions to be played in a turn are the first to be programmed. This requirement of backward thinking is certainly a nice twist introduced by the game`s designer, and the players will take a short adjusting period to get used to the procedure. However, due to the limited scope of available actions, the players will quickly recover their precision and planning abilities.

[Cactus Town]

Click on image to enlarge!

Being a compact fun game with a playing duration of up to 45 minutes, the actions available to the players are pretty straighforward. So, each player possesses cards which allow the movement of their characters on the city map, thus getting their characters in position to rob from target buildings (outlaws), steal a horse (bounty hunters) or capture an outlaw (deputies and bounty hunters). To perform the respective action, the player characters have to be at the fitting town location, and so the players will aim to get their characters there as quickly as possible. For the outlaws and the bounty hunters this means that they will first have to explore the town, since they first need to locate the buildings from which they can steal.

Here the playing fun begins, since the task to find some buildings to perform actions there overlaps with the aim of the deputies and the bounty hunters to get to the same location as an outlaw. To perform an arrest, a player needs to have a character at the same location with an outlaw character, and in addition a duel needs to be won (triggered by yet another Action card). So, Cactus Town in essence is not just a game of effective action programming, but furthermore there as a very strong element of guessing and counter guessing, because the players will try to anticipate the moves of the other players' characters in order to be able to fulfil their own aims and ends.

This element of direct player interaction is especially attractive if you compare it with the interaction which could be found in old Roborally. If you did not use the Armed and Dangerous expansion, the player interaction in Roborally was mostly indirect due to more or less random robot collisions, and furthermore the players faced an additional lack of control due to a changing hand of action cards each round. This situation is totally reversed in Cactus Town, since here the players' actions are limited to movement, duel and interaction with a location, and in addition all of these actions are available to the players each round of play. So, the element of randomness in Cactus Town is limited to rolling dice to determine the outcome of a duel, whereas all main actions and their effectiveness depend on the players' skills to predict the actions of their opponents.

[Cactus Town]

Click on image to enlarge!

This very streamlined programming procedure makes Cactus Town a true highlight in the category of programming games, since the game basically operates without unnecessary fluff or complications. Well, perhaps not fully, because the question can be asked whether the reversed programming order really is a necessity for Cactus Town. Indeed, the reversed card order puts an additional challange on the thinking of the players, but in effect the reversed programming has no other game function. Since all programming is made hidden, the players have no possibility to react to cards programmed by their opponents, and so their action will always follow the plan which they have made at the beginning of the round. This happens regardless of normal or reversed programming, and so the reversed programming remains a nice puzzle, but it is no essential game element. So, if you prefer an even more streamlined gameplay, you can go for the also included Straight Programming variant which removes the reversed programming order.

However, leaving this observation aside, the true strengths of Cactus Town can be found in its straighforward gameplay, its high player interaction and the challenge to the players' speculation skills. Taken together, these elements guarantee a very high entertainment value within a rather moderate playing duration, and so Cactus Town certainly is a game which will hit the table not once but several times during a gaming session. To increase long term playability, the game also features an advanced deck of Town Building cards with special functions, and so the game effectively can be geared up to feature a completely new level of playing depth by giving the players the possibility to interact with the locations visited by their characters. The use of these special buildings certainly is a matter of individual preference, but in effect the players have the possibility to configure Cactus Town either as a quick and dirty duel game or as a longer gunfight with a few more tactical options.

Duel or gunfight - the result is explosive!

Please click here to visit the Cactus Town Kickstarter Campaign!

Release notice:

The review was written in February 2020, in preparation of the planned Kickstarter campaign launch for Cactus Town in March.

Covid has crossed plans for the campaign timing (now launching September 22nd).

The developers have used this time to create additional content not included in this article, of particular mention the 4th player (the Can Can dancer) and the second shot in the duel action.

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Copyright © 2020 Ralf Togler & Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany