Review: Montana

Posted by James (admin) on September 27th, 2012

I like the idea of using poker hand mechanics in a game.  At Spiel 2011, I played a game that used poker hands but it turned out to be average so I was really intrigued when, just 5 minutes later, I noticed Montana on the Cambridge Games Factory.  With a cheap price, I decided to pre-order it and it arrived a couple of months ago.

Montana is an area control game where players compete for control over 3 areas each round, and the player with the most victory points (VPs) at the end of the game wins.  Players score VPs for (a) areas they control with a bonus for having multiple connected regions, (b) if they control their secret objectives, (c) if they control the most red regions, and (d) if they control the most blue regions.

Players start the game with some cards (numbered 1-12 in five colours x 2) as well as two secret objectives (for which they’ll score extra points if they control that specific region).  On the table are 3 boards with 16 regions on each.  At the start of each turn, one player chooses which region will be contested on the main board (the other two boards are contested in numerical sequence).   

Each round, players take turns placing one of their cards in front of them to create one or more poker-style hands of cards.  When a player folds (passes), they can not lay down more cards that round and they draw some new cards – the fewer unplayed cards they currently have, the more they draw.  A player folding at the start of a round gets to draw 2 extra cards, and discards 2 as well, so they gain the same number of cards as usual but have more choice.

At the end of each round, the different hands of cards in front of the players are compared like regular poker hands, plus there are some non-standard hands like a 3 card flush, etc.  The player with the best hand chooses which of the 3 regions they will take control of (place their marker in), the player with the second best hand takes control of one of the remaining regions, and the player with the third best hand takes control of the remaining region.  Players can sometimes take control of more than one region in a round. If players have the same type of hand, the tie is broken by whoever has the highest total value on their cards (unlike usual poker) and if that doesn’t decide it, the player that is earlier in turn order wins the tie, so turn order can be very important.

Once all regions have been claimed, players reveal their secret objectives and calculate their VPs.

Overall, Montana is a fun game where you have to work out when to fight hard for regions based on what cards you hold, which regions will be most beneficial to you (and least beneficial to others), and which regions you think other people will want.  Plus, you need to balance the cards you play with gaining new cards too.  What other players do is important too, like when they drop out of a round, so there’s more interaction than just the card playing.

Also, the situation can change quite rapidly as cards are played with players qualifying to claim regions switching a lot during a round, so you usually need to keep re-assessing the cards you’ll play for a round.  I found it interesting that I sometimes won some regions using just one or two cards because other players folded before me.  The rules say don’t be afraid to bluff and playing a strong first card can mean other players drop out; however, it’s hard to bluff if players have laid down a few cards already as players tend to play the best cards they can.

Whoever had the worst hand in a round (having no hand at all doesn’t count) chooses which region on the main board will be contested next round which can be important.  Whoever had the best hand in a round will be first player in the next round which is also important.

The boards are all double-sided and can be played in any combination which is a nice touch for some variety in replay as the main board has coloured regions in different locations and the numbered regions are laid out in different patterns.

There is some of luck of the draw in the cards as some cards are inherently weaker than others.  I don’t like too much luck in a game and I didn’t find this too much of a problem – sometimes you just need to skip a round to get more and/or better cards.  I did wonder if it would be good to have an option of discarding any/all your cards and drawing new ones at the cost of 1 or 2 VPs (maybe a limited number of times per game) so a player felt they were never stuck without options.

As players have relatively few cards in their hands, the hands weren’t as high value as I thought  (i.e. there weren’t loads of full houses and five of a kind) and there wasn’t as much choosing how to best combine or split your cards as I initially expected.  This wasn’t a bad thing as all players tried to find the best combination of the cards they held, and high value hands were more special; however, I did wonder what it would be like to play with 1 or 2 more cards each.

Those previous two items are more my own preference and the only direct criticism I have of Montana is a small production issue.  The hardest thing to remember is how many cards you draw as it’s not easy to remember.  However, this isn’t listed on any of the boards, whereas some of the set-up information (which isn’t useful during the game) is on the boards.  This should have been the other way around as we kept needing to flick the rulebook between the list of which hand beats another (given there are lots of different hands compared to normal poker) and the ;card drawing’ chart.  Still, it wasn’t a major issue.

Even though the boards are a thin card, the production quality is very good with glossy boards and cards, on-theme pencil drawing artwork and nice coloured glass player markers. I’m not a fan of the boxes that Cambridge Games Factory use (clear plastic trays) as they don’t stack well with other games; however, that’s a minor, personal issue.

In the end, I really enjoyed Montana – it’s a light game but contains enough decisions and there’re lots of humorous interaction as players outdo each other.


[Played with 5 players]




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