Reviewed by Frank Hamrick
GREAT WESTERN TRAIL (Stronghold Games/eggertspiele, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 75-150 minutes; $69.95)
Great Western Trail is the latest game from Alexander Pfister, designer of the 2015 Spiel des Jarhres winner, Isle of Skye, (featured in the Fall 2015 Gamers Alliance Report) and the very popular Mombasa (Winter 2016 GAR) and Broom Service (Spring 2016 GAR). With this kind of resume, most gaming enthusiasts had their eye on Great Western Trail long before it released – and in this reviewer’s opinion, it did not disappoint!
The game is set in the ‘cattle-driving’ days of US History in the late 1800’s. Each player will collect herds of cattle, drive them from Texas to Kansas City to sell them for profit and then ship them by train to points west. The game combines elements of deckbuilding, hand management, tile laying, worker placement, “board building” and “Feldian point salad” components to produce an intriguing and highly enjoyable game.
GWT is played over a succession of rounds during which players move their cattle along various trails (there are numerous branches along the way) to Kansas City, avoid hazards such as floods, rock slides, and drought, construct buildings along the way that will help in future cattle drives, hire workers to manage the herd, construct buildings, build rail lines further west from Kansas City and trade with Indian tribes.
As you can see, a lot is going on! Players are working on many fronts and will find it impossible to do everything they want to do. Hard choices have to be made at each turn of the game and various strategies present themselves to the players.
Basically there are three sections to the game board: 1) The Trails from Texas to Kansas City; 2) The Kansas City Action spaces; and 3) The Train line from Kansas City to San Francisco and beyond.
THE TRAILS TO KANSAS CITY
The trails consist of some 13 different branches that wind from Texas to Kansas City. Along the trails are 47 blank ‘spaces’ or locations on which buildings, hazards, and Indian Tribes will be placed as the game develops.
Each player has a Cattleman (Cowboy meeple) which he moves along the trail, stopping at the various buildings, hazards, and teepees (Indian tribes). Hazards and teepees cost money to stop on or pass over but do offer players an “auxiliary” action when stopping on them. However, they are generally avoided when possible as money is tight. Buildings consist of other player’s buildings, neutral buildings, and a player’s own buildings. When a player stops his movement action on one of his own or a neutral building, he may take the action(s) that building provides. When stopping on another player’s buildings or on hazards or teepees, a may only take an ‘auxiliary’ action and may have to pay a ‘fee’ either to the owner of the building or to the bank if it is a hazard or teepee.
Auxiliary Actions are printed on each player’s play mat. At the beginning of the game, only two Auxiliary actions are available but, over time, the player may uncover other Auxiliary actions that he may take. Generally these actions are helpful but are not as good as actions provided by the player’s own and Neutral buildings.
Actions on the Neutral and the player’s own buildings may allow the player to a) upgrade both his current hand of cattle cards and his cattle card deck, b) advance his rail line further west from Kansas City, c) hire workers, and/or d) build buildings. Each action is crucial and the angst of the game often comes in choosing which buildings to build and where to place them.
Constructing Buildings (Trail/Board Building)
The game begins with 7 Neutral Buildings already built on the trail, as well as 7 hazards and/or teepees. During the course of the game, however, the trail will become crowded with additional buildings, hazards, and teepees. (A sort of ‘board-building mechanic.”) Since a player may only move a limited number of “spaces” (locations with cardboard buildings, hazards, or teepees) per turn, the more cardboard on the trail, the longer it takes to get to Kansas City but the better the actions a player may take as he travels. Thus, Board Building is at the heart of the game, since it will determine the kinds of actions you will be able to take on each trip to Kansas City.
Deck Building and Hand Building
As important as the buildings are, the core of the game is the building of a player’s deck of cattle cards so that he can a) draw them into hand, b) sell them for higher prices in Kansas City and c) deliver them to cities further west. The more successful he is at this, the greater his chances of winning the game.
Each card represents one of five different types of cattle of varying value from 1-5. On a player’s turn, he will draw 4 cattle cards into his hand. As he travels along the trail to Kansas City, he will seek to improve his hand so as to get a higher price when he sells them. When a player’s herd reaches Kansas City, the cattle are sold for the value of the cards in hand.
At the beginning of the game, each player has an identical deck of 14 cattle consisting of 4 different kinds of cattle (gray, black, white, green) of values 1 or 2. These cards are shuffled and the players each draw 4 of their cards into their hand.
During their journey from Texas to Kansas City players will seek to a) improve their future deck and b) improve their current hand by either visiting the cattle market and purchasing different color and value cards and placing them in his discards or by discarding lower value and/or duplicate cards from his hand and replacing them with higher value or different color cards.
When a player’s Cattleman reaches Kansas City, five things happen. The first three actions consists of adding a single hazard to the trail and adding one or two “workers” to the available job market. (More on the workers in a moment.)
The fourth action consists of selling the player’s herd. The player adds up the total value of each different type of cattle card he has in hand. Thus, if he has two ‘gray” cows worth 1 each, and 2 black cows worth 2 each, his hand value is only ‘3’ (1+2=3), rather than ‘6.’ A player is then paid the exact value of his hand value. Thus, a player wants to collect many different colors (breeds) of cattle as he moves around the trail.
The fifth action taken in Kansas City is to deliver the just sold cattle to a city along the rail lines west.
The rail line stretches along the top and right of the game board. The line consists of rail spaces and cities from Kansas City to San Francisco and beyond. At the beginning of the game, each player has a small train “meeple” in Kansas City. As he takes actions along the trail, he will move his train west from Kansas City. The further his train, the cheaper his cost to deliver his just sold cattle westward. Thus, along with collecting better cattle and building buildings, a player will want to advance his train toward San Francisco and beyond. The catch is that only one delivery may be made to each city – forcing the players to continually seek to increase their hand value.
During the game the player will hire workers from the job market. These ‘workers” come in three types: Cowboys, Craftsmen, and Engineers. As they are added to the job market when players arrive in Kansas City, they become available for players to hire along the trail.
Cowboys help the player purchase better cattle at the Cattle Market, Craftsmen enable the player to build better buildings along the trail and Engineers allow the player to advance his train line from Kansas. Hired workers are placed on the player’s board. If a player collects enough workers of a type, he may also receive various bonus actions, and endgame victory points.
STRATEGY & FINAL THOUGHTS
I love this game. Why? First, I enjoy the western theme! Second, I love the fact that this is a game that offers lots to discover in successive games! You never seem to feel that you have “mastered” or “exhausted” the game (at least after 5 plays)! I am still exploring different strategies and combinations. Do I go for Cowboys and Deck building? Do I go for a train strategy and hire lots of Engineers? Do I go for ‘Board-Building” and hire lots of Craftsmen? Or do I use some form of combination of these? Which buildings do I build? Which Auxiliary Actions do I expand? There are a ton of decisions at every “junction” of this trail! I love this kind of game.
One Final Note. The theme is not historically correct. Most cattle drives did not lead to Kansas City and most rail lines took the cattle to the East (not west). The designer (Alexander Pfister) originally designed the game for deliveries to be made to eastern cities. However, Andreas Resch, the Austrian researcher and illustrator for eggertspiele, changed it to the more “western” sounding names as he thought this would be more appealing to Europeans. Also, the Eastern railway systems would require a lot more complexity as the lines kept changing names, etc.
For some, this might prove a disappointment, but I don’t worry with such things. And I see this one getting lots of life on my table! Change history! Enjoy the game! – – – – – – – Frank Hamrick
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