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WHISTLE STOP

Reviewed by Frank Hamrick

WHISTLE STOP (Bezier Games,  2 to 5 players, ages 13 and up 75-90 minutes; $59.95)

 

Yes, Whistle Stop is yet another train game! And yes, there are a lot of train games in the Euro gaming hobby (over 1000 are listed on BGG!) from Wallis’s New Railway Game (published in 1830), to Dispatcher (my first ‘train’ game, 1958) to Whistle Stop in 2017/ This genre has been popular with gamers, for many reasons:  a) Train games excel in a beloved gaming mechanic: pick up and deliver, b) not all, but many Train games are played on a map (and who doesn’t like maps?), c) train games often involve buying and selling stocks – yet another popular genre in the gaming world, d) train games generally feature the expanding growth of rail lines – and gamers love games that expand across a map (whether it’s an army, a growing city, a farm, roads, power networks, villages, kingdoms, or rail lines) and, finally, e) there’s just something romantic about the great iron dragons that thunder across our hills and valleys! Thus, the gaming landscape will always make room for another train!

So – what does Whistle Stop bring to the table? How is it similar, and how is it different from other current popular train games?

The game box describes Whistle Stop as a game about the expansion of the railroad in the United States from its beginnings in 1869. In Whistle Stop, as designed by Scott Caputo, you make your way west, as you build routes, pick up and deliver needed goods to growing towns, create a network of Whistle Stops, gain shares in other railroads, and watch your reputation grow as you move westward. Sounds like many other train games. But is it?

In Whistle Stop, players will move from 3-5 trains (depending on player count) across an as-yet-to-be filled in map from the east coast to the west. The first major decision players make is where to start their trains. There are 16 starting “Stops” on the east side of the board, and players must take turn in reverse turn order placing one train per round on one of these 16 starting locations. This decision will be based on the small part of the map revealed at the beginning of the game. The game board consists of a frame to hold 8 columns of (Catan-like) hexes of which only three columns are filled with hexes at the beginning of the game: a generic first column, a second column of “special” train stops 3 blank hex columns to the west, and a column of the Final Train Stops some 8 columns away in the far west. On those three columns of hexes, they will see where some of the valuable tiles lie. The other five columns of hexes will be filled in by the players themselves as they expand west.

After placing all of their pastel colored (!) trains on the starting “stops”’ the game is ready to commence.

On a player’s turn he/she may take up to 4 “Actions” of two types: a) they may move one of their trains to a new stop and take the reward offered at that stop, or b) they may spend resources to purchase up to two upgrades for their train.

If they choose to move a train, they must spend either a “coal” token or a “whistle” token. Coal will move their train one stop west or one stop up or down in the same column (but not backwards). If, instead, they expend a whistle token, they may move their train up to two “stops” up, down, west, or backwards (to the east). Whistles, therefore, are very valuable – but harder to come by. After their move, they may then utilize the benefit of the stop to which they moved: a “Whistle” stop grants them a “whistle” token; a coal mine provides 2 coal tokens; gold mines provide a gold token (on the bottom of which they will discover from 3-5 victory points); a General Store stop will grant a resource of your choice; a trading post allows a player to trade common resources for coal, whistles, or a different common resource, and/or you may trade rare resources for two commons or a different rare; and a City stop will allow players to pay the appropriate resources to obtain stock in a particular rail line. Most of the stops, however, simply provide one of the six different resources used as commodities in the game (wood, gravel, cotton, or the rare commodities of cattle, steel, whiskey).  

If movement will take a train to an empty area of the board, the player chooses one of three rail hexes he holds in his hand (received at the beginning of the game). These tiles will be laid in empty spaces to continue his rail line further west, east, north or south. The tiles may contain from 0-2 stops with rail lines connecting to the surrounding hexes. The player then moves his train onto the new hex, stopping at the next stop (if using coal), or moving two stops if he used a whistle to move. He then collects any benefit provided by the stop. After this, a player may spend another coal to take a second move. He may move the same, or a different one of his trains.

Trains, however, may not stop at a small “resource” location occupied by another train – though any number of trains may stop at the large “special” hex tiles (coal mines, gold mines, store, cities, Whistle stops, etc.). Thus, a part of the intrigue of the game is designing the track lay-out so as to block the train advancement of other players, and to secure the best resource stops for yourself. Players will try to set up their rail lines to intersect with the valuable large location tiles visible across the expanding game board. From there, players will race to the high victory point hexes at the end of the line to the west.

The second type of action a player may take on his turn, is to purchase an upgrade for his train. A number of ‘upgrades’ will be randomly chosen at the beginning of the game, to be available to the players. Upgrades cost resource cubes or other commodities the players obtain by moving their trains. These upgrades provide numerous advantages to the players who own them, and each game will use only a few of the upgrades provided by the game. On a player’s turn, he may purchase up to two of the available upgrades (thus, using two of his four allowed actions). He may even purchase upgrades from another player, by paying the cost of the upgrade to the bank, and giving the current owner a “rare” resource (cattle, steel, or whiskey). (Players may not refuse to ‘sell’ their upgrade!) No player may own more than three upgrades at any point in the game and whoever owns an upgrade at game end will also gain victory points for the upgrades he possesses.

At the end of his turn (after taking four or fewer actions, a player refills his hand to three hex-tiles. Play continues in this manner until the game ends.

A game ends one of two ways (whichever comes first):  1) After 9-12 game turns (depending on player count), or 2) when a single player has moved ALL of his trains to the last row of hexes at the “end-of-the-line.” Final scores are then counted for resources in hand, gold collected, left over coal and whistle tokens, the majority holder of each of the 5 rail lines (the majority holder of each line will be awarded 15 reputation points), and upgrades. These points are added to points players have collected throughout the game. The player with the highest score wins.

So, does the game “deliver” as described? Here are my thoughts.

First, Whistle Stop really isn’t a pick-up-and-deliver game! True, there are goods (“resources” such as cotton, gravel, lumber, and the more expensive/rare whiskey, cattle, and steel) that must be obtained – but, in this game, they are not “delivered”. Rather, the resources are like financial instruments (money) to be “spent” for upgrades or to purchase stock in five different railroad lines, or to obtain reputation points on the ‘end tiles’ to the West.

However, there is an expanding map created as players add columns of hexes to a nearly blank beginning map in the relentless race west. As the trains move, rail lines and whistle stops appear offering resources, or coal, whistles, or gold; or a “general store” or “trading post” and cities appear with their benefits. The discovery of this expanding map is an aspect of the game I really enjoy and makes every game different and interesting.

But, at its heart, Whistle Stop is a “puzzly” race game! Yes, you are racing with trains and working out a puzzle of sorts throughout the game!! Players will rush to build rail lines to gold and coal; to gain important resource production areas; to arrive at Cities (some of which start already on the game board, and some of which will “pop-up” as the landscape expands) to purchase the most valuable stocks. Buying stock before others is an important aspect of the game as the value of stocks deteriorates with each purchase. So, while players need to stop for needed resources to “spend” along the way, if they move too slowly, they will not get the more valuable stock or reach the lucrative reputation point hexes to the far west before the game ends. Thus, pace is an important part of this game and I find this tension between the necessity to stop for needed resources, and the need to rush to the stock and reputation point hexes to be the most interesting part.

Whistle Stop is unlike any of the train games I’ve played. It is much heavier game than Ticket to Ride or Union Pacific, but certainly not as heavy as the 1800 series, or other “route-building” games like Power Grid, etc.  It is an excellent mid-weight game with challenging decisions and a puzzle to work out at every turn. Though there are only two types of actions available on a player’s turn, there is a significant array of choices – I need coal; I need whistles; I need to get to that blue (steel) resource before someone blocks me; I need to beat the others to the “yellow” railroad stock just ahead (lower numbered stock tiles are more powerful); do I use my “whistle” now or later; how can I most efficiently build a route to that high-scoring tile to the west; what’s the best way to build my route, how can I best use the hex tiles I have, to get me to the best spots the fastest, etc. There are so many wonderful and tense decisions to be made!

Having played this at only two player counts (2 & 4 player), I think I will prefer it with fewer players. The game can be a bit AP prone as there is a significant array of choices to make on your turn. (And of couple of us in our gaming group are a bit on the AP side of things). But I will still gladly play it with the full complement of 5 players.

Yes – I really enjoy Whistle Stop – perhaps better than any rails game I own!! Its small footprint, and relatively simple mechanics, present a myriad of tough choices and tension throughout. There is a real feeling of accomplishment at game end. And, if you don’t have too many slow players, the game plays in a relatively short time. – – – – – – – – – Frank Hamrick


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