DESIGNERS: Alexander Pfister
ARTWORK: Andreas Resch
PUBLISHER: eggertspiel, Stronghold Games
TIME: 75-120+ minutes
When I first started playing modern board games, each new box was an exploration that expanded my conception of what a game could be:
“You mean players don’t have to be eliminated as we go along?”
“You mean to tell me that we can play a game collaboratively?”
“What is a worker and why would he let my very visible hand go placing him into the gears of industry?”
Speaking of workers and hands of varying visibility, Adam Smith and Karl Marx might not have agreed on much, but I think they would have each enjoyed today’s games as experiments that shed light on human motivation. In fact, there are games to provide evidence for just about every economic predilection: from the benevolent side-effects of self-interest, to perils of proletariat exploitation. But I assume you didn’t come here to read about long-dead economic theorists, so let me get back to the point.
At this stage in my board game playing career, I feel like I’ve encountered the majority of game mechanics that exist. Worker placement? Check. Area control? Check. Hand-management? Check. Multi-use cards? Check. Rather than just rattle off the entire taxonomy, you can just peruse the BoardGameGeek list if you so desire.
Naturally then, the more games one has under her or his belt, the likelihood of having one’s mind expanded by a new mechanic decreases. This is not to suggest that boardgaming fervor necessitates diminishing returns; no, just like any art form, instead of expecting innovation and virgin territory with every encounter, the nuance of a creation and the refinement of its execution come to the fore. As I delve ever deeper into board gaming, I find that my joy increasingly comes from seeing new iterations of time-tested mechanics and familiar systems that interact in clever and unexpected ways.
All of which brings me to Great Western Trail. As if I hadn’t telegraphed it, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about this game. But like Madeira before it, what it does, it does very well. So much so, that despite incorporating several standard tropes, the Great Western Trail gameplay experience feels utterly unique.
In the game, two to four players take on the role of cattle magnates, repeatedly driving their herds from Texas to Kansas City, where cattle will then be shipped by rail to slaughterhouses across the American West for victory points and profit.
As tidy and vegetarian-unfriendly as this all sounds, a couple things should be made clear. First off, the real-life Great Western Cattle Trail never went to Kansas City. It actually went from southern Texas to Dodge City (over 300 miles west of Kansas City), Ogallala, and points further north. Second, in the late 1800s, railroads primarily funnelled cattle east toward the Chicago Stock Yards as opposed to west toward San Francisco. The fact that El Paso serves as one of the western shipping destinations is particularly odd–why drive Texas cattle hundreds of miles north, only to ship them back whence they came? All of that said, we can live with the fantasy of California as the ultimate goal for everyone (and every cow) in
the American West since it has no impact on gameplay.
On to mechanisms then. One of the most prominent is a point-to-point movement system. Say “board game” to the uninitiated, and most will groan and picture moving pieces around a track a la Monopoly, a close mechanistic cousin (i.e. the deterministic “roll and move” vs. the slightly less bounded “point-to-point”). Great Western Trail starts with seven neutral buildings on the board, strewn along the path from Texas to Kansas City, and allots players a number of movement points. Each building along the trail counts as one space and players get to complete a specific action based upon where they choose to end their movement.
While this all sounds straightforward enough, we’ve already come to one of the places in Great Western Trail where Alexander Pfister takes something familiar and tweaks it to profound effect. Since players have the opportunity to build their own buildings along the trail, the distance to Kansas City grows throughout the game. Where many games accelerate or gain efficiency in the last few rounds, this one features a surprising deceleration as movement along the trail becomes less efficient. And yet, surprisingly, the pacing of the game does not suffer.
This is because the increasing inefficiency in movement is counterbalanced with efficiency gains in other areas. Nonetheless, movement represents one of the central challenges of Great Western Trail–should you speed through and sell your cattle, or stop and take advantage of the special action spots (often discarding valuable cows in the process) to gain some sort of advantage? When players first venture onto the trail, they will be tempted to stop at every available spot. When asked whether they’d like to build buildings, buy cattle, remove hazards, hire staff, or move their train, the answer is invariably “Yes, all of the above!”
However, if other players choose to forgo the pleasures of the open trail, instead focusing on delivering their herds repeatedly to Kansas City, you can easily fall behind since delivering herds to market is one of the chief ways to make money and points in the game. “Well then,” you think, “I’m just going to deliver cows the whole game–to heck with distractions.” Let me tell you why that’s a bad idea. Cattle herds are represented by hands of cards. Each cow breed has a different market value. All players start with the same mix of cows and draw four into their hand at a time. Kansas City buyers appreciate diversity (only being willing to purchase one of each breed), so players aim to collect their four best, different cows by the time they reach trail’s end. The only way to cycle cards through your hand and assemble that superlative herd? Stopping at certain locations to discard cards or buy new, better cows.
This is another tension in the game, managing one’s hand and building one’s deck such that the best cows are always readily available. But the more cows you acquire, the more your deck grows. The more your deck grows, the more time you have to spend stopping off at locations in hopes of culling the plentiful, yet woebegone one-point Jerseys. Again, these mechanics are not novel in and of themselves, but the way they are integrated into Great Western Trail makes them feel unique because of the linkage of movement and hand management. In a standard deck-builder, you might spend a turn discarding the inefficient cards from your hand; in Great Western Trail, you have to move to a certain location (perhaps skipping other valuable locations in the process) in order to do so.
While the game is chock-full of interesting trade-off decisions like those I’ve outlined above, there do seem to be some fairly universal paths to success. For one, unlocking increased hand-sizes (from four to five, then five to six) is paramount to shipping your cows to farther-flung, higher point value destinations. (I haven’t even mentioned yet how players are only allowed to ship to each city along the railroad once, save for a couple of exceptions.) Likewise, raiding the cattle market for the highest value cow cards enables not only market success, but victory points at game end.
Other strategies seem less crucial to victory. Placing your own buildings along the trail? I’ve seen games where the victor hasn’t even bothered to build. This has knock-on effects when it comes to hiring staff. Cowboys and engineers are crucial for buying cattle and moving your train down the line, but craftsmen (the ones who build buildings) are often left to clog up the hiring market. None of this is to say that constructing buildings can’t be part of a successful strategy (they are worth points, after all), just that the other routes to points are perhaps easier to follow.
I’ve played Great Western Trail at all player counts and it scales fairly well. As with many games of its weight, I found three players to be the sweet spot–enabling diversity and disruption without adding too much downtime between turns. Though all turns are fairly quick (move, then take an action), since player interaction is limited (players can occupy the same spaces, but hire employees, buy cattle, take objective cards, and make station upgrades from first-come, first-served pools), any downtime can feel like an interruption to a solitaire optimization puzzle. I happen to enjoy these kinds of game systems, but I could see those who hunger for lots of direct player interaction being left a bit wanting.
Much has been made of the peculiar cover art–namely the grimacing faces staring out from across some cardboard uncanny valley. But don’t let these three gentlemen frighten you, the artwork inside the box is excellent–it is colorful, detailed, and brimming with helpful iconography. It’s all in keeping with a particularly romanticized view of the Wild West–more Matt Dillon than John Chivington. After all, in her 1916 article “History of the Cattle Industry in the Southwest,” Clara Love made clear the battle lines: “The cattle industry could not prosper…as long as the Indian tribes were unsubdued.” Think about that next time you choose to take the trail that leads through the “Indian trading” area. (Perhaps the fact that “trading” involves removing tipis from the map is a surreptitious stab at social commentary.) In the end, the setting of Great Western Trail is just as fantastical as what you might find in any swords and sorcery world.
Despite the historical elisions, the game shines because of its tightly interwoven mechanisms and inverted framework. Even if its mechanics aren’t completely new, they work together in ways that come as close to mind-expanding as I’ve encountered in a while. And that, for me, is the mark of a good game.