I bought Aces & Eights by Kenzer & Co. back in 2007 when it was game of the year and winning awards all over the place. I’ve met a few people who have bought it; I know no one to date who has played it. Why buy a game you’re not going to play? (I know there are those that collect games, who enjoy reading them, sussing apart the mechanics, etc.) In this case because it was simply one of the best sourcebooks for the Old West you’ll find. (I made a cursory internet check and suspect at least one of the authors has a degree in history, specializing in the West.)

When I bought this, I was hip deep in preparing for my comprehensive exams in Modern US History and US Western history…I have an idea concerning the subject and how well this might cover it. Suffice it to say, if you know nothing about the West shy of a few movie tropes, this book would go a long way to helping you fill in the blanks for playing or running in a Western. (For Victorian period gamers, remember that many folk loved to take a trip out West, to see the frontier and have an adventure or two.)

First, the system. Kenzer & Co. decided to go with a “modular” system that allows you to add on elements of the mechanics as you want. It feels to me like this started out as a simple set of Western-style gunfighting mechanics onto which the authors ported a role playing game rules set. In the most basic set of rules, you need to know how fast you are, how accurate, and not much else. For the fleshed out version, you have nine basic abilities that give you benefits and governor how much you can lift, learn, how many people you can influence at a time, etc. Skills are bought on a straight percentile dice and you want to get below that number to succeed (modifiers can alter the target number, of course.) The character creation seems very clunky, but it went smoothly enough when I sat down to crank out a quick gunslinger.

Combat’s where the game has truly novel mechanics. The initiative system is based on tenths of a second and you cannot even say what you’re doing until you get to your roll (say I roll a 5, but have a speed of -4 [I’m rattlesnake quick!]…I get to announce my intentions on the first 1/10 second.) It’s a bit overly bookeeperish for me, but it works alright. When shooting you take a “shot clock” — a clear plastic sheet with a bullseye series of numbers and playing card symbols on it. You place it over where you are aiming (say, the hand of the other gunfighter), roll your d20 with all your mods. 25 or higher and you hit right where you want to. Less and you pull a playing card — the suit and number gives you a position on the shot clock. Say I rolled a 20 total and pulled a 4 of diamonds — according to the shot clock, I shot outside and low of his hand. Had I been going center of mass, I’d have plugged him near the liver.

Where the game really shines, however, is on the background material. While Shattered Frontiers is set in a West where the Confedeate States are still hanging about, and other powers than the US government are in play, the book provides a superb view of the West. Beyond the usual cost of stuff, the authors paid special attention to genre specifics: there’s a chapter on horses — from the breeds, to markings, temperament, etc. there’s a fascinating chapter on cattle ranching — what it takes to start and keep one, how you would do branding, why and how you do a cattle run. Another deals with the day to day hardships of prospecting to gold and other metals. It covers claims, claim jumping, quality of gold, and more.

There’s a chapter on gambling — what games were common, odds, cheating, etc. Then there’s the chapter on “frontier justice” — both legal and otherwise. There’s how to run a trial (this is a set of rules I liked so much I once stole them for another system.) There’s a chapter on towns and the campaign:  illustrating how towns would come together and evolve. (Their campaign town goes so far as to have lot numbers, owner listings, and a listing of townfolk you could meet.)

The game has each of the professions one might meet in the West, from the standards of cowboy or lawman, to more mundane ones like dentist. These are listed with personal goals for characters that might be in those trades. Say you have a Farrier — a person that trades in furs. His goals would be fairly simple — start his business, make it permanent, grow it until he has an employee, etc. Cowboys would want to get a job as a ranchhand, work their way up to pushing cattle on long drives, to maybe buying his own herd and running it.

The production quality of the book is stunning: red embossed faux leather with gilding for the lettering on the binding. Heavy high-glass stock for the paper in full color with loads of Remington and Charles Russel paintings from the period. The clear shot clocks for pistol/rifle and shotgun are tucked in the back.

I forget how much I paid for the book, but it was upwards of $50 or more new. As a primer for an Old West campaign (or say, a certain space cowboy franchise) it’s invaluable for ideas. Substance is an easy 5 out of 5, with the background material making it worth the price of admission; the game system is well developed, but as I said — everyone I’ve met who has it has Aces & Eights as a sourcebook of sorts. The style is also 5 out of 5 — it’s a beautiful book.