Great Western Trail is the newest title from Alex Pfister, a designer that has forged one hell of a name for himself and not just for his penchant for stetsons and cowboy boots. He is the designer of Mombasa, Isle of Skye, Broom Service, Oh My Goods and Port Royal, all of which are games I have thoroughly enjoyed, or are so well regarded I’m desperate to try them out. He’s won enough Kennerspiel and Spiel des Jahres awards to be getting bored of them. So hopefully you are satisfied with his pedigree, the question now is how well does this meaty specimen fit into his heard?
Time: 75-150 mins
Cows! I never thought I could be so excited about cows! Buying cows, selling cows, shuffling cows. All the cow-based activity you never knew you wanted is present and that’s merely the first flavourful whiff of the nuanced blend of scents making up this old west adventure. The acrid smoke of steam trains, the sun baked plains, the sweat of workers hammering together new buildings as the years go by. I don’t want to say Great Western Trail is a thematic game, but it has a wonderfully strong setting that shines through its very European mechanics.
Let’s start with those noblest of beasts: the cows. Each journey along the long trail to Kansas City sees you carefully manipulating your hand of cows (their lesser known collective noun) until you have the perfect set for sale. As any rancher will tell you, that’s when every cow is unique, that is, different breeds. Now I know what you’re thinking, and of course all your cows are unique, but the buyers just don’t know their characters yet – and yes, yes of course I’m sure they’ll take good care of them, look keep it together, this game has a lot of elements to get through!
The art to achieving a perfect hand is in knowing when to push your luck in spending and drawing cards at the various locations that line the route, and in carefully managing the collection of cows in your herd (or, deck). Thus, you can invest energy in trashing your initial Jerseys (which are cows as well as potatoes! Who knew!) buying new, exciting Holstein cows from the cattle market, and ensuring you can cycle your deck quickly to get at the good cows by judiciously building and visiting locations. A responsible cow owner will take good care of their deck, as the rewards for doing so are substantial in terms of both money and victory points.
Your turn is merely a step upon the road to Kansas, jumping forwards (always forwards) from the bottom right corner, along the road to a location you wish to visit. The many empty spaces don’t count against your movement limit but buildings and hazards tiles do. As the board gets more crowded, it takes longer to reach Kansas unless you take an opportunity to upgrade your movement. This is a common theme in Great Western Trail. The game tightens up as the turns go on: those three spaces of movement don’t get you as far as they once did, those dear Dutch Belt cows just aren’t giving you as much benefit as you’d like, your deck gets fatter and you are searching for the less common, but higher value cows you bought earlier. But the game also offers you release valves you can use if you decide you want to. You can throw away the multiple, common starting cows, or you can draw through them, or you can upgrade your hand limit to get greater potential sales that way instead. You can switch and pivot as you need to but those decisions of how and when to pivot are always interesting.
When you stop on a building you get to take the actions depicted, so long as it’s a neutral building or one that you’ve constructed. Neutral buildings offer you all the actions a healthy cow herder needs, but your buildings, selected randomly each game, often offer better combinations of actions. Additionally, you can choose where to build them and this choice can be incredibly powerful. Perhaps the neutral buildings aren’t in the best order for your chosen strategy, then build the action you want where you want it. Many of your buildings let you do a thing and then move again. Obviously an awesome power, especially when placed within range of a useful neutral tile, and especially if you manage to chain multiple bonus moves together! Another common feature are hands. Hands are the worst. I hate hands.
As you’ll be aware, hands come in two flavours: green and black. Each will cost you money to pass. To begin with they are only present on the hazard tiles and that’s fine because who wants to risk their cows by travelling through the swamp or the desert or rockfall valley? But then some arse will inevitably build a building on the safe dry routes that has their own had on it. Halt! It says. You must pay me to move past. Inevitably they do this next to the hazard route (because they are arses). So now you are handing them money every time you go past but there is a hilarious side affect to this strategy. You see, if you don’t have any money, you go past and just don’t pay. So suddenly everyone is seriously considering throwing all their money at whatever is on the preceding space just to avoid giving another player cash. At the same time others are high tailing it through the swamps, even if it costs more! There’s a race between removing hazards from the alternate route (an action that rewards victory points but daring swamps isn’t cheap, as it turns out) and placing new ones by the building’s owner (part of the token refilling process that happens in Kansas). The moment one of these buildings go down the game’s dynamic changes and it’s great!
The other big element of the game are trains which run around the edge of the board and oh my God you get train meeples aren’t they the best!?
The trains can move down the line and that’s a good thing. For one, the further you are down the line the cheaper it is to transport your cows to the exciting cities of the west. Whenever you reach Kansas you must sell to one of these cities so you can put your dobber on it (a noble aspiration, I’m sure you agree). Obviously that’ll get you victory points (everything gets you victory points). But two things need to be considered. One, just like when buying a train ticket today, the total value of the cows you have with you determines which city you can reach (earning you that much cash) and two, you pay for how far your train is from that location already. Moving your train is therefore a valuable way of gaining you money in the long term, but it costs you time to take those actions.
There is a secondary benefit to moving your train though. Along the line are sidings which lead to stations. As you chug along you can stop off at these sidings and build stations! Circular, wooden stations that also look a lot like dobbers. But stations are worth victory points and so you don’t ask too many questions. The first few stations are also in search of a station master. You can put one of your worker tiles in place at that station and claim the tile there. These are good things to have, offering you some bonus (like the awesome permanent rosette to increase your herd’s value) and a new way of earning victory points at game end! Because we were all concerned there wasn’t enough of those, weren’t we?
But where do we get these exciting dobbers from? Let me introduce you to your player board.
Now, don’t panic. It’s not contagious. Your board starts out covered in dobbers and when you get the opportunity to shift one to the main board, you choose one to remove. The large spread on the left hand side correspond to “auxiliary actions”. These less exciting actions are available if you need to stop at someone else’s building or on a hazard tile. But while they are less exciting they include the ability to draw and replace cows to improve your hand, and trashing cards from your deck. So you may want to stop at less useful locations to use these actions. But since you need to have unlocked the action, choosing a dobber to remove becomes a strategic choice. The actions can also be doubled up and certain buildings let you use a doubled action, letting you really double down on a particular strategy early or spreading your options out across multiple actions so you can tailor your turns. Interestingly, to pay for certain actions you might be asked to move your train backwards. Why in God’s name is that interesting you might be thinking. Because once you go past a station you can’t get your dobber in there – unless you drive your train backwards to it! Given other people’s trains block spaces, hilariously leading to trains leap-frogging each other down the track, this could be incredibly useful to you.
You can upgrade your movement and your hand size here too, both powerful options that you’ll probably be keen to achieve, but those dobbers can only be placed on certain coloured stations and cities that you won’t be able to reach until probably the mid game. In the centre of the board is the big empty whole in your life you’ll want to fill with workers. I’ve dropped hints to them already and you’ll be pleased to hear they are the final element of this western extravaganza. Workers just make everything better. Or rather, specific things better. The grand, intimidating grid along the left hand side of the board is where you’ll hire these rugged men from.
Cow boys are essential for buying cows. If you want to get good deals on your Brown Swiss or to ever even consider picking up a Texas Longhorn (the mightiest of all the cows) you’ll need some cow boys. Engineers with level 1 facial hair let you really go to town on building. You’ll need a specific number of engineers to build a given building, although you can also upgrade existing ones if you have the difference. Finally with the full level 2 facial hair are the fat controllers, who help move your trains along at quite a pace. They also give you immediate benefits when you cover up spaces on the board as they aren’t quite as essential to the pursuit of a given strategy.
Speaking of strategies you really do have a wide world full of possibility with Great Western Trail. Moving trains, trading cows, building buildings, perfecting your herd, clearing hazards, trading with Indians (i.e. taking their tepees and being given money to do so… Slightly awkward?). There is a lot to think about and all is intimately interconnected. And yet once you get passed the slightly brain burning rules explanation, the gameplay itself is a breeze and turns race round the table with experienced players. Because each turn you are only asked one question. What building would you like to visit next? You have just enough time between turns to think about that in the context of your long term strategy. It’s still a long game, but because it keeps you engaged in a perfectly understandable yet unsolvable puzzle, you don’t notice it at all.
Even better, we have here that rarest of things. A euro game where you don’t sit around counting victory points before you take a turn. I mean, you’ll be sitting around at the end counting victory points but I think that is a price worth paying when it frees you from the tyranny of numbers and lets you focus on the world and what you want to make of it. You think in terms of the actions themselves. I want to build lots of buildings this game, I need to hire some workers this trip to Kansas so that next trip I can afford to do this, you mother-f***** I wanted that cow! Everything is worth doing so it becomes about what you fancy doing. You can pursue one approach to the extreme, filling the board with buildings or driving your train to the end of the Earth, or you can do a bit of this, a bit of that, changing as the game goes on.
It offers you the potential for efficiency but doesn’t make you math it out. Workers can be hired two at a time, but only if you can afford it. Train movements can be timed to perfection so that no movement is wasted getting to stations. A turn spent doing auxiliary actions feels like a turn wasted, unless you really needed to do it. And there’s the rub. Deciding when it’s ok to allow those little inefficiencies in. When it’s ok to give someone a coin for going past their hand-covered building because you need that horde of cash for all those cows you’re going to buy. When is it worth taking an extra turn to try and improve your hand before pulling in to Kansas?
Player interaction is present too. You won’t be stealing cows or having shoot outs at high noon, it’s just not that sort of game. You don’t block each other when moving either. But workers you buy aren’t replaced, nor are cows. The position of everyone else’s trains can be very important for leap frogging a greater distance or grabbing that station first. And building placement is huge! Affecting everyone’s movement and spending habits for the rest of the game.
Great Western Trail is about as perfect a Euro game as you are likely to find. It’s a wonderful puzzle. Despite the multitude of elements, the mechanics for the most part fall away and let you get into the act of doing stuff right from the get go. It engages respectfully with its theme, like an Englishman engages with his emotions. Gently, whimsically, but enough to ensure there’s some flavour to enjoy. It’s just a pleasure to play! It Seems like Sheriff Pfister has done it again, so round up a posse of friends and try to lasso yourselves a copy as soon as possible!
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