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TINNERS’ TRAIL

Reviewed by Joe Huber

TINNERS’ TRAIL (Treefrog, 3-4 players, ages 13 and up, 60-90 minutes; about $75)

 

For some years now, Martin Wallace has been known for his gamer-friendly designs. While Age of Steam (Winter 2003 GA REPORT) stands out as his most popular design, many of his other designs such as Princes of the Renaissance (Winter 2004 GA REPORT) have gained their own followings as well. His lighter designs, such as …Und Tschuss and Der Weisse Lotus have been somewhat less well received but, particularly in the latter case, there were apparently significant rule changes made to the design. Rather than risk such issues recurring, Martin has moved to publishing some of his lighter designs under the Treefrog label. Lighter, however, does not imply light or gamer-unfriendly; the titles announced so far might be shorter in duration than some Warfrog offerings but they would otherwise fit right in. Such is certainly the case with Tinners’ Trail, the first title in the line. Wallace has designed many economic games set in the United Kingdom previously, including Lancashire Railways and Brass, and Tinners’ Trail fits right in. Unlike those games, it can regularly be completed in an hour and the options offered are  somewhat easier to wrap one’s head around, but it’s still clearly a game aimed at more serious gamers.tinnerstrail

The theme of Tinners’ Trail is mining copper and tin in the Cornwall section of England back in the 19th century. The game is played over four turns; each turn, players receive ten time units to spend on various actions. The most important of those actions is the
auctioning of land; players may only mine on land that they own. This action takes two units of time as well as the financial cost of the winning bid. Many of the spaces are seeded with copper, tin, and most unwelcome water at the start of the game; spaces that haven’t already been seeded are populated by a dice roll once purchased. Mining takes one unit of time and costs one pound per item extracted for each unit of water present. The initial mining limit is two units of copper and/or tin each time an area in mined. Future mining is impeded by the addition of a unit of water to the territory at the end of each mining action.

In addition, there are five choices of actions to improve land. Miners take one unit of time to hire and improve the number of units that may be mined in one action by one unit. Ports require two units of time to build and remove one unit of water in addition to
improving production by one unit. Steam Trains aren’t available until the final two turns, but, at a cost of two time units, remove two units of water from the territory where they are placed as well as one unit from each adjacent space while increasing production. Each territory may only have a single piece of each type. Adits are placed between two spaces and remove a unit of water from each while adding a unit of copper and a unit of tin to each. Adits cost three units of time and only one adit can be placed between any two particular territories. Finally, steam pumps simply remove water from one or more territories at the cost of one time unit each. One other action is available; players may spend one unit of time to sell pasties – sandwiches – and receive one pound.

Each turn then continues, in a manner very similar to that of Thebes (Fall 2007 GA REPORT), with the player who has used the least time either taking an action or passing, until all players have passed (perhaps because they’ve run out of time for actions). Players are then paid for their mined copper and tin and, in the order that they passed, have the opportunity to purchase victory points. There is no advantage to buying in bulk, but it is a significant advantage to purchasing victory points early; points purchased on the final turn are twice as expensive as those purchased the first turn. This is balanced by the need to have money on hand for auctions and mining on the next turn. The game continues through four similar turns and, at the end, the player with the most victory points wins.

The most common negative reaction I’ve heard to Tinners’ Trail relates to the random factors. First, the prices for copper and tin are set randomly each turn. There are various adjustments made under certain circumstances, but the value of the metals still can vary widely. The requirement than all materials must be sold each turn does somewhat limit the ability to plan for a better future. Not entirely however. Players can choose which goods to mine and when. As a practical matter, the effect of this ran

domness is to force tactical choices but it’s not bothered me or the groups I’ve played with. The other random factor is the placement of copper, tin, and water cubes, but this only impacts land which has been bought blind, and thus is a random factor that the players can choose or avoid as they see fit.

The concern I have with the game relates to the amount that there is to do. The various improvements – from miners through adits – are all free to play and therefore fairly clear choices, provided one has a mine on which to place them. But all of the improvements combined will take only 54 time units to complete, out of 120 time units (in a three player game) or 160 time units (in a four player game). Assuming each player buys 4 mines (a bit above the average I’ve seen, because it’s hard to make money with more mines than that) and mines them twice each (again, higher the average), another 16 time units per played is added: 48 time units in a three player game, 64 in a four player game. In a three player game, this works reasonably well – 102 of the 120 time units are accounted for – but with four players 42 time units remain. And selling pasties, while a useful and clever mechanism for dealing with cash shortages, isn’t the most compelling action. Even worse, the choices to be made aren’t particularly difficult. Letting other players take the improvements is clearly a poor option. And auctions are nearly always carried out early to gain the best available land options or later when other players don’t have enough time units remaining to participate in the auction. Mining is carried out after making improvements (and possibly selling enough pasties) to mine as much metal as desired. I suspect that having a financial cost associated with the improvements would help matters but haven’t gone so far as testing out this theory.

On the other hand, the theme of Tinners’ Trail is wonderfully carried out by the mechanisms. The struggle to keep water out of the mines is very thematic and yet is carried off with the simplest of mechanisms. It’s rare that a single, well-done mechanism rings so well with me but, in my opinion, this is one of the more brilliant game elements Wallace has designed. None of the other main mechanisms in the game strike me as particularly innovative, however. The tradeoff between spending money early on victory points at twice the return and spending money late is more clearly drawn than in many games but in practice, the need for money is limited enough to make it easy to spend early as compared to in games such as Saint Petersburg (Summer 2004 GA REPORT). The game does move along well and quickly, easily finishing in an hour. The money track can be a bit problematic for those not accustomed to money systems based upon units of twenty but it’s a minor quibble.

There are only limited opportunities for strategy in the game; there are more opportunities for tactical choices but even those are rather limited in scope. The most obvious one is to get oneself late in the turn order after eight units of time. Only players later in the turn order will be eligible to compete in auctions. This can be a good way to get land inexpensively, allowing for resources to be saved for mining. Another tactic to keep in mind is the option of using steam pumps early in the round. This will guarantee another opportunity to pick up another improvement. Given the way adits and steam trains operate, it’s worth trying to win auctions on the same part of the board or, if that’s not possible, near positions where other players are likely to place trains.

The main strategic option is balancing between improving a limited number of sites and acquiring more sites but making fewer improvements. In general, the game steers players towards acquiring fewer locations. Not only is the available profit limited but the game clearly rewards plowing the profits received into victory points as early as possible rather than using them to reap greater profits from the mines.

I’m really not sure just what to make of Tinners’ Trail. The wonderful water mechanism is enough to bring the game to the table multiple times; the lack of space to explore in the game – either in terms of varying strategies or options – strongly pushes the game towards my trade pile. I’ve heard similar reactions to my own from some; others – including some who are bigger fans of Wallace’s game in general than me – have not found the limit to the options to be as big a problem. And that, perhaps, is the key. If not a fan of Wallace’s games, it’s still worth trying Tinners’ Trail so as to see the water mechanism in action. For a fan of Wallace’s games, it might be worth taking a chance on purchasing the game in order to create that opportunity. Only “might” because the game is quite expensive. There is no US distribution for the game and no US online retailers currently offering the game. However, a reprint has been announced by JKLM. For most, it’s likely worth waiting for the reprint rather than trying to secure the Treefrog edition. The components in the Treefrog edition are generally nice though the blue player pieces are too similar in shade to the water pieces, and some have reported a shortage of water pieces. From the reactions on BoardGameGeek, no one seems to strongly dislike the game, making it a reasonably safe game to bring to the table – as well as one worth trying, to see if it’s a hit with your group. – – – – – – Joe Huber


 

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