The term “wildcatter” refers to individuals who would drill wells on land that wasn’t currently known to have oil, hoping to strike it rich. These wildcat wells were not an insignificant part of the explosion of the oil industry, but were largely acquired by the giant corporations who came in with their superior infrastructure and processes.
In Wildcatters, you will play one of these huge conglomerate corporations attempting to drill for oil and acquire these independent operations along the way. Wildcatters is an area control game that plays in about two hours. It plays 2-4 players, but it’s best with the full four.
Each turn in Wildcatters, players will have the option to add infrastructure to the map as well as start drilling for and transporting oil. There are effectively two different currencies in the game: workers and shares. Workers are used to build trains, oil derricks, ships, and refineries. They are also used to initiate the drilling process and to transport oil from the fields to the harbor. However, it is unlikely you will be able to create all the pieces needed in each area you want to work, so you will often be using the trains and ships owned by other players. In doing so, you must pay them shares in your company.
The map consists of four main “continents”, each divided into two parts with three neutral continents. To begin your turn you must select a region card that will depict one of the 8 unique areas and you can only perform actions in that region or a neutral continent on that turn.
Once a region has at least four oil derricks present, it can be drilled for oil. The player who initiates the drilling pays the worker costs, but gets to automatically convert one of their derricks into a pumpjack, producing three barrels of oil. Other players with a derrick present may also convert one of them to a pumpjack, but must pay the active player three shares in their company for the benefit of doing so. Then, anyone with a pumpjack present can participate in an auction to acquire any Wildcatters in that region, giving them additional oil and victory points.
Once oil is drilled, it must be transported to the nearest harbor and make its way to a refinery. When one player starts a transport action, all players with oil in the region may transport as well. To move from the fields to the harbor requires moving via train, so players either must have a train present in the region or pay another player a share to use theirs. Once in the harbor, oil can be shipped to any other harbor or transported along the rail network to an available refinery. If you deliver oil and another player’s refinery, they must pay you for the oil—2 shares in their company.
Having shares in your own company is crucial. If you have to pay someone for delivering oil to your refinery and you don’t have shares to give them, you are obligated to take a loan. You receive 10 shares from the bank, but have to pay back either 18 shares at the start of round five; or 25 shares at the end of the game. There is also value in getting shares in everyone’s corporation. If you have two shares of each company you can buy a consolidation chip that will give you an additional share every round and end game victory points. These get more expensive as the game progresses, but also increase in the number of victory points they award.
Finally, at the end of each turn, if a refinery is full, it empties. Each continent, including the neutral ones, has a space at the bottom of the board to place oil that was refined in that area. The majority of the game’s victory points come from having the majority of oil refined in each area (in addition to having lots of Wildcatter tokens and refineries). The player who owned the refinery gets four shares in any companies they would like for each barrel of oil that isn’t theirs. However, if you refine your own oil, you can either choose to use it for end game scoring or return it to the supply for four additional shares.
At the heart of it Wildcatters is just an area control game. You want to focus on a few regions to have the most oil and if you can sneak in a few other points here and there, you should do well. But it isn’t as simple as like placing your oil where you like on the map. Getting your oil where it needs to go is a logistical nightmare, in the best sense of the phrase.
Early on, it feels logical to try to develop an area that other players don’t have much of a presence in. You will be able to use your own trains and boats and move a bunch of your own oil. But Wildcatters requires much more competitive cooperation. If you are the only one in an area, you’ll have to install four oil derricks yourself, pay to drill oil, and pay to transport every time. It’s hard to eek out any advantages when you have to do all the work yourself.
Keep in mind you are also limited to activating the regions available on the cards each turn. You can spend victory points to refresh the available cards, but if there is only one area you are interested in, you will often find yourself unable to work there as cards that are chosen never return to the supply. That said, things do come together for you it can be quite profitable.
Branching out into numerous areas has its advantages. Hopefully, with some cooperation from others, you’ll be able to drill for oil more quickly and always have a few different options of area cards that could be beneficial. You may have to pay other players more often for the benefit of using their trains and oil tankers—but they will likely be using some of yours as well.
Regardless of where the oil is being drilled, it can be shipped to a refinery anywhere in the world so long as there is a ship available in the harbor. Transportation starts with the active player and moves clockwise around the table for anyone who has oil in the area, but movement on the railroad happens before any ships leave the harbor. This allows a lot of interesting decisions and interaction as you try to guess where your opponents may be delivering their oil.
Obviously which continent the oil is delivered to impacts the area control scoring at the end of the game, but also who will have to pay shares for receiving the oil in their refinery. If you need more shares of the blue company to purchase a consolidation chip, it may be worth delivering to them regardless of if you are competing for control of that area.
It’s how and when to spend your shares that often turns into a bit of a press-your-luck mini game. Being forced to take out a loan, while not completely devastating, can be unwelcome. You will often have to consider not piggybacking on the actions of others because you can’t afford to run too low on shares. In other cases you may risk it and just hope no one delivers oil to your refinery until you are able to acquire more shares.
This is especially the case with the wildcatter auctions. While winning a wildcatter auction only gives you one additional barrel of oil, collecting lots of wildcatters can be worth a lot of points. If you only have one, you’ll score two points. But if you manage to get six wildcatter tokens those will translate into 42 points.
Wildcatters isn’t without a couple of drawbacks. First off is addressing the player count. With 4 players, each player controls a corporation and everything is great. With three players, the corporation not controlled by players will still place some oil derricks out and transport oil. This actually works out fairly well as you can put “robot corp’s” barrels in areas that may hurt other players as they do count for area control scoring. With two, each player controls a corporation but also makes the decisions for one of the inactive corporations. And there are a couple of tokens available to take additional actions once throughout the game. Depending on your tolerance for ghost-players in games, this may or may not be a big deal.
Secondly playing with a mix of new and experienced players can be troublesome. There is quite a bit to teach and the different currencies can be a lot to grasp. It is especially confusing that when spending shares sometime you have to spend your own company, other times it is any company. The included player aid does a great job summarizing, but new players will have to refer to it a lot. It isn’t unusual for a heavy euro game to favor someone with experience in a dramatic way. Heck, I’d be concerned if it didn’t. But new players have the ability to king make other players, even accidentally, with some of the choices they might make.
The production from Capstone games is top notch. The derricks, oil barrels, trains, and ships are all wooden pieces. The old-world style map conveys the early 20th century time period and really looks great on the table. It certainly will draw some attention when you have a game setup on the table. The round barrels can be a bit of a pain to get set up on the pumpjacks on a crowded board, but it’s a minor complaint.
Wildcatters theme and gameplay both hit the mark for me. Maybe it is my love of There Will Be Blood or just a fascination with the time period but drilling for oil and screaming, “I drink your milkshake!” makes for quite a good time.
Players being forced to not only compete, but also cooperate, creates a really interesting dynamic that isn’t often seen in games that don’t have some more obvious negotiation elements. Wildcatters isn’t about outright making deals with other players, but making the most of the opportunities that benefit everyone (and hopefully just benefit you the most). There is a lot to think about with every move but Wildcatters moves along briskly and fits well within its suggested two hour window.
Final Score: 4 Stars – A great area control game with a lot of moving parts with wonderful production and unique mechanisms.
• Area control elements are made more interesting by added logistics to creating infrastructure
• Other scoring options require taking into account additional information rather than just area majority.
• Wildcatter auctions allow you to take differing approaches
• Hard to teach and beginning players can struggle.
• Restricted player count – really at its best with 4.