2-4 players, Competitive, Deck Building Point Salad
Designer: Alexander Pfister
Artwork: Alexander Pfister
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Overview of Gameplay
Great Western Trail has players taking on the role of cattle herders wrangling those beasts from Texas on up to Kansas City. Ultimately the player that garners the most points by game end will be the winner, however there are many, many ways to garner said points. So a typical round usually has a player moving his cowboy meeple to a particular tile on the board. Once you stop on a tile you can then take the actions listed on it such as buying cattle from the market or manipulating one of the MANY other aspects of the board. Then you refill your hand of cattle cards up to your hand limit if you used any and play passes to the next player. Now that sounds SUPER simple and the typical game rounds are super simple, it’s the stuff in between that gets complicated.
For example when you stop on a tile the actions listed on them are all iconography so it will take you about one game (or less) before you understand them. They are actually REALLY easy to comprehend and you pick up on them very fast, I was impressed by this as I usually hate too much iconography in games. But man there are lots of things you can do from discarding particular cow cards for money to moving your train up on the track to removing teepees or hazards along the trail to placing new tiles on the board etc. Not only that but when placing these tiles it is important WHERE you place them in conjunction with where other players have placed theirs. You want to kind of “control” the board in a sense, try to force players to move through your certain tiles so they end up paying you for moving through them. But not only that but also for each tile placed, that increases the amount of movement that needs to happen to get where you are wanting to go.
So bottom line here, you are trying to get as many DIFFERENT kinds of cow cards in your hand as possible before you reach Kansas City on the board. You see you add up all the different kinds of cows and calculate the price you get for them and that determines how far you can ship them by the train. The further out, the better the points for endgame scoring. You manipulate these cards through the tiles you pass through on your journey. There are just so many mechanisms at work here and good gravy THEY ALL WORK PERFECTLY. I have played a lot of games and this is the first one that after I finished I literally could not think of a single mechanism in this game that didn’t work with another or felt out of place. That is an incredible feat unto itself.
The game doesn’t end when you reach Kansas City though. After the shipping of your cows your meeple will round its way back to the beginning of the board and start the journey again. This time however a little more seasoned and ready to REALLY manipulate the tiles for that perfect hand of cows to sell. Each time a player reaches Kansas City they will add a few “worker” tokens the game board that will slowly push the end game token towards the bottom. Once enough workers have been added and the token pushed off the bottom of the board, the game has reached its climax. So expect to circle the board multiple times slowly getting more and more seasoned at selling cattle.
The components are decent enough although nothing to write home about. There are some wooden meeples and the colored wooden tokens and little wooden trains. The player mats are pretty basic thin sheets that your wooden pegs will sit atop until used. Although there is a turn reference listed on there that is handy once you understand the iconography. There are some cardboard tiles that you lay on the board that correspond to the buildings that you will end up building. These are a nice thickness and have a premium feel to them and I wish the player boards were this same thickness honestly.
The board itself works well how it’s designed. The art is ok, again nothing to go wild about but the gameplay design held within is incredible. There are branching pathways here and there and spots of more iconography to show what can be done in certain instances. The numbered sections on the board for when you reach Kansas City is especially useful for new players. The train track along the top and side of the board is neat looking but more importantly, it serves a critical gameplay purpose just like EVERYTHING on this board. So taking a step back, the game isn’t the prettiest but everything is designed to gameplay perfection here.
Now there is one thing that….well it kinda freaks me out. The box art……is creepy. Now I like the muted gray colors on the box but that train conductor creeping over the shoulder of the rancher. Something about him shoots an evil chill down my spine. I don’t know if it’s his hat, arched brows, slight grin or perhaps his perfectly trimmed blazing white beard but /shudder. Also after I got the game board unpacked I flipped the board over to see if perhaps it was double sided or what not and BAM, bearded conductor dude staring deep into my soul.
Well I already discussed the box above a bit /chills. As for the size it perfectly fits in a standard Kallax shelf and is actually rather thin when compared to most games anymore. Not the most sturdy box though and the insert is comprised of a small thin piece of folded white cardboard which is used to just hold the game board and manual up above the tokens and cards. You will need to bag up everything included but luckily setup is pretty fast and there aren’t THAT many tokens to contend with. I could see myself possibly picking up a storage solution in the future though as I plan on playing this more and more.
Visual Appeal /Theme
This is an interesting point for this game. Theme-wise it’s pretty lacking, I mean you are herding cattle. Visually it’s much the same, the cattle pictures on the cards are ok and other than the standout train conductor from hell on the box cover and back of board nothing really jumps out at ya here. THAT SAID, the mechanics of the game work in conjunction with the theme and visuals beautifully! This game is a creeper much like that train conductor. When you bring it out to your groups you probably won’t hear oo’s and ah’s about the components but after each full trip to Kansas City for each player you can see the interest and excitement build more and more surrounding the gameplay mechanics.
The rulebook…….was not my favorite. It is oversized which I typically enjoy and it has a nice visual component list right at the front. Its layout is also good for the most part but whoa nelly that setup page is daunting to look at. Walls and walls of small text abound. Each paragraph is numbered so it’s easy to follow but I would have preferred more visual representations and less text. Other than that they do a good job of color coding the different sections and it is really ready to read and understand the point they are trying to convey. For example when explaining the train movement they do it in such a way that makes it super easy to understand. Also, and this was the biggest miss for me, there are no round/turn order reference cards. There is the turn order iconography listed on the player sheet but something without iconography printed for each player starting out would be super helpful.
Now onto the fabled iconography that I’ve mentioned multiple times in this review already. There is a lot of it. The first time you crack this game open you will be overwhelmed with the variety of symbols. The good news, you pick up on them VERY quickly. I’ll tell ya recently I’ve received another couple games that overuse iconography, Mysthea and Batman: Gotham City Chronicles, and when I opened Great Western Trail and saw it I let out a huge sigh. It depressed me to be frank. I hate trying to learn games that over-rely on icons that you have to remember what each of them means or have to keep a paper of the icons next to you at all times to reference every time you play. And those two games I listed above, even though both are great games, are just the worst with that. HOWEVER, I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up on ALL of Great Western Trail’s icons before I was even done playing the first game. During my second game I understood them all enough that I was easily able to explain them all to new players without even referencing the rulebook. Another testament to great game design.
Table Talk/Replayability/Fun Factor
This game creates an interesting player dynamic with the way players can manipulate the board state. By placing your own building tiles down in any open building spot along the trail you are not only slowing movement in specific areas but also possibly causing hard choices to be made on where exactly players will want to move. Now there are many different branching paths you can take along the trail, with these usually being through a hazardous area (water, desert, mountain and uhhh natives) or through a more traveled area……with lots of delicious open area to build. So players can and will manipulate this to their advantage by placing certain buildings along the easy path to cause other players to pay them money when they move through…OR they can choose to go the hazardous route and also pay money, but to the bank. And this is just scratching the surface of the strategies players can employ with these placements.
Needless to say this will create a good amount of table talk with players openly discussing routes and situations that may arise. A lot of times players will place a building and then later on realize the benefits of placing it somewhere else. It’s these instances that REALLY give the game that amazing replayability. There is always room for improvement and with each game you are continually surprised with new instances of that.
Positive Final Thoughts
Before I even bought the game I had heard nothing but good things. I still wasn’t jumping outta my chair to get it though based purely around the theme. I found I was making a huge mistake ignoring games because of their theme more recently as I finally picked up Wingspan and loved it as well. So with my newfound knowledge that theme isn’t everything, I snatched up a copy of Great Western Trail. And I’m so glad I did! I have never played a game where the mechanics all work together in such perfect harmony. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING in this game works with something else and nothing is wasted. I TRIED to find just one thing that I felt the game could have done without or was added JUST to add more to the game and failed miserably. In a word, this game is “tight”.
If you want a game that will deliver a pure gameplay experience that you will WANT to play again and again, if only to better yourself, then look no further.
Negative Final Thoughts
The theme is pretty meh as cattle herding isn’t something I am super interested in personally. The components are all pretty basic and the box and insert are pretty lacking as well. Bottom line this isn’t a very pretty game although the board art isn’t terrible. The monster train conductor on the box gives me nightmares. The instruction manual could be less wordy with more visual examples and included player aids would be nice as well.