THE GRAND TRUNK JOURNEY

Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore

THE GRAND TRUNK JOURNEY (Spielworxx, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-120 minutes; $80) 

 

The Grand Trunk Journey is the first published game by Canadian designer Claude Sirois.  For those not in the know, The Grand Trunk Railroad operated in southern Canada and the northern United States.  It was a successful railroad for many years being founded in 1852 and operating until it was nationalized by the Canadian government in 1923.

In the game, players take on the role of an up-and-coming manager for the GTRR.  You want to show the company’s directors that you can outcompete the other managers (players) as you angle for advancement in the company.  To do this, you want to score more VPs than any competitor by the end of the game.  The Grand Trunk Journey (TGTJ) is presented as the first game in the Griffintown Series, so perhaps this theme will be further explored in future releases from Mr. Sirois.

TGTJ is in a moderate sized box, featuring an attractive cover.  Opening it you find a nicely mounted map of southern Canada and northern New England.  I personally have seen few maps where the city of Boston is depicted in the southern edge of the map!  In addition to the map, there are rule books in German and English, a sheet of cardboard counters, several playing-cards, a few wooden bits, and some nice player mats which have an excellent guide to the proceedings on them.

TGTJ uses a mild deckbuilding mechanism to drive the action.  Each player gets 20 cards (2 locomotive cards, 10 starting cards, and 8 cards that can be unlocked during the game).  Every player has the same functions over their entire deck, but each deck is slightly different.  Most cards offer two functions, and the various combinations of functions are the differing factor in each deck.

Looking at the board, you see that there are a few more elements to the board beyond the dominant map.  Around the edge run two tracks.  The larger track measures time – players will act in a “least-time spent” order.  Another track is used to track victory points.  In addition, there is a track for recording how many “wood” deliveries a player has completed.  (More on that to come.)

Four cities and four ports are open and ready for business at the start of the game.  Using tiles, the demand and availability of goods will be different each game.  Players will want to load goods from a supplying city and deliver them to a city with demand for those goods.  The basic goods are wood, coal and iron.  Players will spend time points to move along the rails, one day per link.  Delivered cubes are retained by the player, as they count for endgame scoring, and are also used for some in-game matters.

In addition to these basic deliveries, special contracts are revealed as the game progresses, allowing a player to deliver goods for a posted bounty of victory points if they can deliver within the window of time allowed for by the contract.  These contracts are displayed alongside the time track, and are available for the first player who completes the delivery.

While coal is simply delivered, both wood and iron have ramifications for each delivery.  Wood deliveries are tracked on the special track I mentioned earlier.  Advancement on this track gives increasing numbers of victory points for special cards that can be acquired as your play the game.  Iron is different. When iron is delivered to a city, the city’s mills immediately convert it to a fourth commodity: steel.  Steel can be loaded from any city that has some steel produced.  Steel can only be delivered to ports, but each cube delivered is worth 3 VPs, and those deliveries can be a substantial contribution to a player’s score.

All of the activities I just mentioned must be carefully planned.  Each player has a small deck of cards that drives what capabilities are in effect.  If you want to haul coal, you need to have a coal car in your hand of five cards.  If you want to visit Boston, you need a Boston card in hand.  Arranging to get to where you want to go, while having the right rolling stock available can be challenging.  Fortunately, the deck is small, so you don’t often need to wait for a card to allow an effective turn – but you might have to adjust your plans if a key card did not get drawn.

Most cards have two functions.  I have mentioned needing a city card and a rolling-stock card that matches the commodity you wish to haul.  All of the cards have at least one of these functions on them.  But about half of the cards allow for alternate (advanced) actions.  For example, there are development cards to improve your engine’s speed or hauling power.  At the beginning of the game your engine is slow, and can only haul a single boxcar.  By playing a development card, you can, within some limitations, make your trains longer and/or faster.

Other actions include the opportunity to open a new city for trade.  This can be interesting.  Each player’s deck is tuned slightly differently.  By opening up say, the city of Utica, one player will get access to a new action that differs from the new action an opponent gets.  For you see, each new city that is opened inserts that new card into everyone’s card set.

There are many other actions to explore using.  It is worth mentioning that taking these actions almost always costs some amount of time.  As a player only has 36 time points to use for the entire game, weighing which actions to pursue is a key strategy consideration.

One of the further actions allows a player to buy a special card from the sideboard that is set up at the start of the game.  The contents of the sideboard will vary from game to game, but all of these special cards confer nice bonus effects or slight rule-bends.  While nice enough to want them on their own, they become even more attractive if you have advanced on the wood track as each advancement makes these cards pay off more handsomely at the end of the game.

TGTJ combines a strong pick up and deliver boardgame paired with a light deckbuilding card game.  The focus remains firmly on the board, but some attention about how your deck is working is merited.  As opponents open up new cities, other player may find their deck tuning changes, sometimes for the worse.  On board, players can vie for the valuable available steel.  The sideboard of bonus cards does not replenish, so players can also compete for the collection of these valuable assets.  Layered on top of all this the management of time can also be key.  The player furthest back in time is the active player, and sharp players may be able to swoop in on a key opportunity ahead of a player who has spent more time.

I have found this to be a nice stew to cogitate.  The game plays relatively quickly.  I have seen 4-player games complete in 2 hours and expect that 90 minutes would be very attainable with experienced players.

Overall, the game is attractive and well built although I found the map to be very muted in its coloring and did find myself wishing a bit more color had been injected into the overall presentation.  During the game, some cities are “open” at the start, while others open later.  Open cities are marked with a “terminal” counter.  I have found myself wishing this counter was more noticeable as it is simply black on white.  A bit of color would have made it a bit more obvious that a city was open for business.  One final nit is the color of the cubes vary from the colors indicated in the rulebook. These complaints I lodge are minor, and the game is easily played with the supplied components.  I did choose to sleeve the cards, as some cards will receive more wear than others.

I have not yet explored the scenarios listed on the last page of the rules but am enticed that there are ways to change up the game.  Over on BGG, the designer has been posting a series of solitaire challenges.  I did try a couple of them and found them to be good fun.  All in all, The Grand Trunk Journey is a worthy middle-weight euro.  The Grand trunk Journey does carry a somewhat high price tag but if the price is not a deterrent, I recommend it to rail buffs and any player who enjoys a thoughtful euro-game.  — – – – – – – Kevin Whitmore


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