“Hi, sorry, how much is one ticket to -”
“Oh right. Can I get a return ticket.”
“Returns cost a whistle.”
“A whistle!? But I’ve only got coal.”
“Sorry son, thats just how trains work. But, hey, here’s your complementary blue cube.”
“Don’t spend it all at once.”
Whistle Stop is a game of trains and railways and building those railways from East to West and yes, I know I just reviewed Railroad Revolution last week. Apparently, you wait forever for a train game and then two come along at once! Happily, these are two very different games. Where one is more historically grounded, the other is gleefully abstracted. Where Railroad Revolution is a deep, individually focused puzzle, Whistle Stop is as interactive as a train crash. And while Railroad Revolution is comfortably smoking cigars in the expert lounge, Whistle Stop pitches itself as Ticket to Ride’s cooler, older brother. It soundly achieves it.
Taking place ostensibly in the American age of steam like so many games before (like… Age of Steam) Whistle Stop takes one look at the classical map of the United States and says “F- that!” Instead, not only will you be building out the tracks as you go, you will be doing so with all the engineering efficiency and artistic style of a child flinging spaghetti at a wall. But that’s actually not meant as a criticism. While Whistle Stop embraces the undeniably abstract aesthetics and, in some ways, mechanics of games like Tsuro, it also creates a delicious web of options to literally navigate. Let’s take the Whistle Stop tour.
Starting the game on the rightmost edge of the board you will have multiple trains pointing west with the ostensible goal of reaching the glistening cities of the Pacific coast. However, lined up along the centre of the board and soon to appear scattered amongst the rest of the map tiles, like the tempting meatballs they are, will be intermediate cities that offer useful stopping off points. Many offer stock options in the town’s finest establishment which can also be worth big points at game end. The balance between racing west and wisely investing is the central strategic decision but it’s a sliding scale rather than a binary switch thanks to having multiple trains to play with. Sending one or two hurtling west does not preclude chasing down some fine end game stock points.
The really astonishing achievement of this game is how the multiple physical scales of the map drive and influence your gameplay at an appropriate level, yet seem to blend together smoothly into a coherent whole. A single action will typically involve moving one train along a track to a neighbouring node/station, which also earns you a delicious resource morsel, like a spot of mushroom or bacon in this spaghetti bake. These little cubes are essential as you’ll need to spend them when you reach the west coast or visit a share giving city in order to qualify for the points/shares, and indeed! To avoid taking a negative point penalty instead! Each and every move gets you closer to achieving these long term goals both spatially and in terms of the resources you desire.
Since there are 6 of these different resources, sub divided into 3 common and 3 uncommon resources (which are appropriately easy/difficult to find on the map you create), you are constantly plotting and re-evaluating your moves, hunting down routes that will bring you the resources you need in time for when you need them. This is the next scale of interest, looking one or more tiles ahead for resources while thinking of your longer term destinations. But these are plans that shift and re-evaluate as the map develops. Should your train move along a track and into empty space, like the pioneer you are you will play tile(s) from your hand until your train arrives at a new node. This is huge for so many reasons.
Some tiles have clear, node free paths on them, allowing you to make long sweeping moves across the board to rush towards the end. Since you select new tiles from a face up display, you can choose the resources, and shapes of track you feel like you might need in future turns. New, exciting city spaces come out this way letting you ensure personal access to a given stock. But so much more important is how interactive this whole system is. You are not just creating routes for yourself, you are creating them for everyone!
You can open up a super fast route, but then everyone else will want to make use of it too. Valuable sources of resources will bring in other players like moths to a flame. Getting the decision on where routes go, on the other hand, is incredibly valuable: you can get a great route while leaving a nearby opponent with nothing. Building one of the cube demanding city tiles will block anyone unprepared for it. Whistle Stop is a surprisingly interactive game.
And it’s not just tiles. Only a single train can occupy a given node (big cities excepting) so if you were in any doubt as to the nature of the game, you won’t be after turn 1 when the first couple of players intentionally block as many of the routes out of the starting blocks as they physically can. The stock bonus points are a brutal collect-the-most race with potential 30 point swings and there are upgrades out there that will cause your opponents to groan in pain.
But things are rarely devastating and can be planned around or even exploited. The key to this is in Whistle Stop’s surprisingly expressive movement system. Moving a train one node along the tracks requires coal, and you can spend up to 4 pieces of coal a turn to power whichever of your engines you like. So a single train can move multiple times or 4 of your trains can move once or any combination thereof. So even if a train or two is blocked you can have fully constructive turns with a single engine. Instead of coal you can also spend whistles and these are either your get out of jail cards, or the secret to some really cunning moves.
Coal not only restricts you to one space of movement, which can be blocked, it also prevents you from moving back towards the East. Yes that’s a weird coal fact I bet you didn’t know, but boy does it make for an interesting challenge, and reinforces the value of whistles. Whistles allow you to move back Eastwards, letting you set up powerful little loops between adjacent locations for as long as you can maintain a whistle/coal supply. They also allow you to move two places, skipping the intervening stop, and getting you around frustrating Sunday train drivers (or surprise towns) who insist on getting in your way.
All the elements of this movement system, the coal and whistles, the multiple trains, the placement of new tiles, combine to enable exceptional turns where your game state seems to leap forward or you find a killer combination of actions and these feel great! Picture grabbing a couple of resources and then playing out three straight line tiles in one go to swing into the big point scoring western city. Or visiting a stock location, playing a whistle to go back and collect the extra resources you need to visit it again the next action and swinging into the majority of that share type. These moves feel amazing, because firstly you must have the awareness to spot them, but then you also need to work to set them up, either in terms of gathering basic resources or positioning yourself on the map.
Let us recap: you have the next spots to move to, and what cubes they provide, you have the further away targets for spending those resources, and the multi-tile routes you must take to get there, and you have the global, end of the line objectives on the western coast to aim for over the course of the game. That is a perfect scaling of objectives. Into that you mix the dynamic movement system with multiple trains, whistles vs coal, and tile placement mechanics to let you pull together dramatic turns, all while constantly affecting everyone else’s game. It is spectacular.
Well, with a couple of caveats. One, the game does suffer a little from down time between turns at high player counts, especially as player actions will affect your options (a plus! But it can get in the way of planning your turn.) Two, the artwork and theme, while appropriate, is uninspiring and the more abstracted mechanics and look of the game will detract from the experience for some people. Three, the graphic design is excellent… for anyone who isn’t colour blind. If you are then the mix of unmarked cubes and cube symbols on the board is going to cause problems. It is, once again, a frustrating deficiency for a game in 2017.
But for me the positives more than out way the negatives. It is a triumph of design, for creating a reasonably accessible game that provides you with endless scope for clever satisfying moves, for creating tons of interaction without ever totally screwing you, for being a fully euro euro-game but still letting you play with your friends. I have to say, I think Whistle Stop might be one of my favourite 2017 releases so far!
Rating: Stop! Whistle Time