It's probably been over a year, maybe two, since I played my last game of Junta.
But the spirit of Junta lives on in Lords of the Sierra Madre, which was just re-released by Decision Games (in a joint venture with Sierra Madre games). In LotSM, each of the 2-8 players takes the part of a hacendado, a wealthy land owner. The map covers the SW US (from El Paso to eastern CA) and the Chihuahua and Sonora regions of Mexico. Each player is trying to amass as much money as possible either directly or through puppets. Along the way, there are enough different events to make Kings N' Things look like a stable game.
I'm serious. Ray Pfeifer said that he watched a game of this and it looked like land owners dealing with "everything that did or could have happened" in the Era (1898-1917, or so). So far in the games I've played) there have been earthquakes, revolutions, stock market crashes, wars, strikes, bandits burning down mines, german spies, governorships, and general mayhem. We've even had a player become President of the US. Halley's Comet hasn't shown up yet, but it might happen next game...
The basics of the game are very simple. Each turn is a quarter year. An event card is flipped up and then the players collect income and pay out capitalization costs. Income can come from investor's capital (which is noted on the event cards), ranches, mines or smelters, railroads (which make money by connecting to mines and during tactical rounds as people ride the rails), and other "enterprises," which include banks, casinos, slave plantations, ferries, stores, dams, hospitals, etc...
After income, the card that was flipped over takes effect. Sometimes it is an event, and other times it is an enterprise that comes up for auction. Once you win a card in an auction, you have to capitalize it for some number of quarters. This means you have to pay 1 gold/quarter until the enterprise matures. This can represent laying down RR tracks, building a ranch, financing a bank, etc.
Some cards are not enterprise cards, they are Mordida (bribery) cards that can be held onto, and played at a later time. Other cards represent military units (either Mexican troops, US troops, mercenaries, or criminal units) that are placed onto the map.
After the card that is flipped over is auctioned off, there is the "common card auction." There is a deck of cards that are common to each game. These include some military units (US and Mexican Only), most of the railroads, all of the smelters, and some mordida cards (including a newspaper and presidential elections). Any player can bid on any of these cards on any turn.
After the buying frenzy is over players may play mordida cards, and then tactical rounds (aka Coup Phase from Junta) take effect. At this point, units march around the map. There are up to 45 rounds (as the game designer points out, it rarely lasts that long. People don't fight much when their troops don't mystically heal) although the players can agree that everyone is done. On a player's turn all of his troops can march, fight, try to burn something down, conduct a night raid (bank robbing, breaking people out of jail, etc), and tax.
Taxation is the big one. Mexican units can walk up to an enterprise and demand money from it, which must be given (if the owner has money and the enterprise made money). But other mexican troops can interdict, if they happen to be there. As a player might have various enterprises scattered all across the board, it can be difficult to protect them all. Fortunately, each enterprise can only be taxed for one gold a turn. If a player controls criminals, they can also perform more (ahem) entrepreneurial tasks such as burning a rival's mine to the ground.
Meanwhile, players have to follow the laws of the times. US and Mexican troops have to respect the border, troops won't fire on their countrymen, and the like. Even worse, if a player double crosses his units, one or the other of them will cease being pawns for the player. However, a clever player can work around them...for instance, in my last game, my federales went a-taxing and wound up with money. However, I wasn't allowed to keep it (taxes are government money). So, the army units I controlled (under my skillfull leadership) agreed to use the money to purchase rifles for the Seri Indians. The Seri tribe is woefully misunderstood (to wit, criminal), but the army dutifully followed my orders to deliver the rifles to the desert edge and leave them there. Rifles exchanged, money laundered and everyone was happy. The Seri paid me personally, and the army sees nothing wrong with using tax money to buy new rifles....
Of course, like any good game of Junta, you have to watch your back. A similiar deal saw a store owned by yours truly well paid for a stock of rifles, under the condition that my steam ferry would bring (smuggle is such a harsh word) them into Mexico. This I did, happily counting my money until a border raid destroyed my highly profitable mine... using those same rifles.
After the tactical rounds are over, players must pay to refurbish their troops and a new turn begins. Starting in 1907, the game ends whenever a roll of 13 or more (on 2d6) is rolled. Of course, some of the cards increase the tensions, adding 1 to the roll for the rest of the game. The most money wins the game.
The first few times playing the game were confusing. The rules have to cover a lot of ground, so some details mightn't be understood the first time through. The basic mechanics should be obvious after 4 turns (a year) of play. but don't expect to know everything that can happen after 1 (or even 5) playings.
OK, enough of mechanics. How's the game like? Well, it has good points and bad points. I'll start with the bad points.
The components need work. There aren't enough counters. There are no control markers at all, and since troops aren't player specific it can get confusing (whose federales are whose?). In addition, there should be "under construction" counters just so players can see how the railroad network (and mines) are devoping. Since it can take 2 years for some enterprises to mature (or more...the dams can take from 2 to 5 years), it's easy to forget that someone is already building that railroad, or that a mine will be coming online soon.
Those are annoying. Worse yet, the game did include counters to show which mines, RRs, etc were open, but not enough for each player. The first few games, we thought it was because we were playing with 2-3 players. However, even in a 6 player game, there weren't enough. Players have to scrounge to show what property they own. While you can use any counter to show what is open, using a mine counter to show that you own a railroad seems absurd.
The rules are pretty well written, but not conducive to really learning the game. Skip the first 6 sections, which are basically glorified component descriptions with enough rules to make you wonder why you can't understand the game. Read sections 7-end first (the real rules) and then go back to those first six. There are enough details to the game that you will forget that you should re-read the rules.
Once you get past those hurdles, the game is good enough to get me to play 4 times in as many days. It has it's problems, though. First, you can be going along quite well when the trumpets on high proclaim that YOU, for no fault of your own, SHALL SUFFER. Although this is true for any game with random events, it's more pronounced here. One card rarely targets one player in particular, but it happens. A string of bad luck can end it. One game saw a player lose two ranches (worth about 8/summer) destroyed in an earthquake. His rebuilding costs to get them to a total of 8/summer were ~10 gold over two years (with no income). He instead chose to spend 4 gold to get 4/summer.
Less obvious, but perhaps more pervasive, are the fact that mines are capitalized (for about 2 years) and then a roll is made to determine the load, which can range from 0-4/quarter. Railroads (which add 2 to profit) can help, but a player can keep striking salt...or gold...and not really have much control.
Another point is that the game is long. Sometimes. It depends. I suspect that this game will last 3-4 hours minimum. The average is probably 5-6, but could stretch out to ten. The "Random ending" is one reason. One game we played had enough "revolution inducing" cards show up so that I expected the game to end in mid 1908 and was only off by 2 turns (6mos). It took 3 hours. But if revolution is slow...
Also, some of the cards can really suck the cash out of the game, which means that the turns can really fly by. Our three hour game also saw a stock market crash which meant that practically nothing happened for two years.
So, the bad parts are the luck and the variable time. It's big redeeming feature is that it is pretty fun. The game has a good feel. You have to deal with "the rest of the world" as well as the players; this isn't what I always want in a game, but for this subject matter it is approriate. In addition, there is plenty of room for diplomacy, backstabbing, and dealing, plenty of history, and room for speaking in horribly bad accents. ("Hey, Gringo, ees time to pay your takses.") It's pretty easy to have one experienced player guide new players. (I wouldn't say teach...). I suspect that part of my enjoyment has been the crowd...but that's enough of a reason to play.
I tend to dislike longer games (lately). Part of the reason is that the time is 'wasted'. Lords doesn't have that problem, though. In a game with 6 players, about the only time you get left out is when you have bailed out of a tense auction or are smugly safe in your hacienda while bandits are out destroying other players property. Since there aren't any player turns, I don't find myself bored often. The contrary point to this is that if a single player is slow, the game will drag. Also, players will probably want to avoid lengthy negotiations (unless everyone is negotiating at the same time).
Replay value looks pretty high, just because of the variability I mentioned before. There are certainly "opening strategies" depending on the hacienda locations the players get, but beyond learning the basics of the map, there isn't much "off-line" planning.
All in all, if you can get a spare saturday with someone who knows the game, it's definitely worth a try. I'm not sure it's worth $50. If you have a group of serious gamers it probably is, but if you are more into the 'party games crowd' it will be too complicated. Also, the game really needs more than the minimum 2 listed on the box. (No diplomacy.) 4-5 is a good minimum. I've tried it with 8, and it seems to play at about the same speed.
Overall, I'd recommend trying this game out once or twice before buying it. It won't appeal to everyone, it is complicated and occasionally confusing; but it has been fun to play.