Despite the theme – Wild West, cowboys, steam trains – Great Western Trail is a Euro game with lots of crunchy mechanics for lovers of thinky games to enjoy. Deck-build a herd of cattle, tile-lay useful buildings, and worker-place your meeple and train to get benefits and do actions. It came out at Essen 2016 and has sold out just about everywhere. Yeah, it’s an excellent game.
However let’s start with the box and get it out of the way. The shelf appeal of the box is pretty low – the monochrome art features the looming faces of three Western dudes who all appear to be strongly related (to the point of being triplets) and distinguished only by their facial hair and hats.
The most important feature of the box though, which should put the gloomy art straight out of your mind, is the designer’s name at the top – Alexander Pfister. Pfister is boardgame royalty at the moment, having won the Kennerspiel “best expert game” prize back-to-back in 2015 (with Broom Service) and 2016 (with Isle of Skye). So while the box art may promise little, the designer and publisher pedigree certainly does, and the reception Great Western Trail has already received from players since it launched in late 2016 has proven that all is well once the board hits the table. It already outranks both Pfister’s Kennerspiel games and his excellent Mombasa on BGG, pulling in an 8.3 rating from over 2000 reviews, and is appearing in many reviewers’ Top 10 of 2016 lists.
Great Western Trail plays 2-4 players and is good, if long, at all these player counts.
The Bits and Pieces
The components are decent without being exciting. The board and chits are thick card, but the player boards are thin card for some reason. The cards and cardboard coins are as good as they need to be, and other than that it’s just standard wooden disks, meeples and cubes.
The rulebook is 15 densely-packed large pages but it is very clear and features many images and examples, and there are a number of decent gameplay runthrough videos online from the usual suspects.
Kanban With Cows – Yup, It’s Heavy
Great Western Trail is a heavy Euro game clocking in at 3.77 on BGG, which I think is about right. Games of a similar weight are Le Havre, Alchemists, Bora Bora, Caverna and Nippon.
When learning the game I felt it was “almost as heavy as Kanban” (actually rated 4.28) and it has a number of similarities, mainly the player boards from which you reveal abilities during the game, and the many different ways to score points. Great Western Trail is right on the edge of playability and teachability for me; I got rid of Kanban because I knew I’d rarely play it, never want to teach anyone else to play it, and probably never get good enough at it to enjoy playing it anyway.
Great Western Trail is just the right side of too heavy, mainly I think because there is more structure provided to each turn, in that you progress along a route to a fixed destination. There’s still a lot to think about but you only have a subset to think about at any one time.
In Great Western Trail you start with a modest herd of cows represented by cards, a few dollars, three workers (a cowboy, a craftsman and a conductor) and a set of abilities on a player board, most of which are covered up and unavailable at first. You also receive 10 building tiles with different costs and benefits which you can place on the board during the game, provided you can pay for them.
Main Board – Game in Progress
The board features a map of the route between Texas and Kansas City, with a number of branching paths along which are some initial neutral buildings and numerous spaces to put new buildings. Your goal is to progress your meeple from Texas (bottom right of the board) to Kansas City (top left) along the Great Western Trail, following any of the defined paths, visiting buildings along the way to enable actions such as visiting the cattle market to buy more cows, overcoming hazards, placing your own buildings on empty spaces, and hiring new workers, that help you do more powerful actions, from the employment market.
As you cross the plains you use familiar deck building mechanics to scroll through your hand of cow cards and try to improve your hand size and cow values during the game; delivering good quality cows to Kansas City is an important way to gain VPs and money, which is inevitably in short supply.
Workers for you to Recruit from the Job Market
Once at Kansas City you load your cows onto a train, trading them in for VPs, money and other benefits, and ride your faithful horse speedily back to Texas to start the whole route again, only this time with your improved herd.
During the game you need to set up a kind of ‘engine’ of buildings laid out in a route on the map, so you can (say) perform an action to gain cash before you go to the cattle market, then trade in some low value cows, then move your train, and so on. The tactics won’t be obvious in the first game but will reveal themselves during play, usually when you realise you “should have put that building there” or unlocked that ability a lot earlier.
You also have to manage your train which takes the cows from Kansas City and delivers them to other cities. Deliver too far away from your train’s location and many of the points you earn are lost again as a penalty. It’s a delicate balance to keep your train in step with your hand of cows, and the mechanism helps to pace the game
Great Western Trail also provides other mechanisms to prevent total AP overload and to keep the game balanced. For example, buildings have increasing costs and requirements so weaker buildings have to be put out before upgrading to the beefier ones, more powerful player abilities can only be unlocked once certain targets have been achieved, and valuable cows can only be bought after you’ve acquired a certain number of cowboys. These help keep Great Western Trail playable and balanced, allowing good play to be rewarded without allowing mad tactics to break the game.
A Thousand Ways to Win – Scoring VPs
12 Different Ways to Score -> therefore -> Scoring Sheets
There are many ways to earn points and benefits in Great Western Trail; in fact the game comes with a pad of scoring sheets with 12 boxes per player to record end-game scores. There are VPs for buildings built, valuable cows owned, objectives cards fulfilled, stations claimed, bonus objectives given by claimed stations, residual money, and more.
I’m tempted to say it’s a point salad game but seeing as this is all about cows (and, by implication, beef – after all these cows are not going to Kansas City on holiday) I’m going to go with point buffet. US-style, all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet. With a side of everything.
Traversing the Great Western Trail – It Sure Takes a While…
Great Western Trail is long; plays seem to run about 1 hour per player. This can be mitigated by house rules such as starting with more money, workers, buildings or unlocked abilities (eg: maybe start with a hand size of 5 cows instead of 4).
In fact the length of the game is dictated by the frequency at which players visit Kansas City, as this fills up the job market and pushes down the end game marker; when the marker drops off the bottom, the game ends. If one or more players race across the board, only stopping on a few buildings each round, it makes for a shorter game. There are advantages to rushing, but just as many (maybe more?) advantages to taking it slow, it depends on each player’s strategy during the game.
It also depends on how many buildings are put out, and where they’re placed. You can only move 3 buildings per turn by default (4 in a 4-player game) so more buildings on the board usually means more stops between visits to KC. You can also unlock a player board ability to move 1-3 extra buildings per turn, helping you to speed through the building-strewn landscape and deliver a nice handful of fat valuable cows, or plod from building to building if you like in order to perform more actions and improve your herd.
…But It’s Different Every Time
Trains, Stations Claimed and Cities Delivered To on the Rail Track Section
The variability of Great Western Trail is huge because there are 29 building spaces, and 20 player buildings (10 double-sided tiles) per player, which can be placed in just about any combination on the board, so every game will play out on a differently-evolving board layout. Workers, bonuses, tepees and hazards all come out randomly too. With so many different ways to earn points it’s possible after a couple of plays to start plotting strategies based on your knowledge of the buildings and mechanisms, so you can enjoy playing the game in many different ways to see how it plays out.
Negatives – There’s Not Much Here
Firstly, Great Western Trail is a dry Euro despite its Wild West theme. There are no gunfights, castle rustling or apologising to anyone’s mule. There’s not a lot of interaction; some buildings force other players who land on them to pay rent Monopoly-style (oh no I mentioned the M word) and there are opportunities to take spaces such as stations that other players might want, but there is little direct interaction.
Great Western Trail is undoubtedly AP inducing; there is so much to think about every turn that AP-prone players will drag the game out forever, although most players will appreciate some thinking time between turns. A thematically-appropriate cattle prod may be required. There’s also a lot of iconography to contend with but it does make sense and becomes intuitive fairly quickly. A player aid from the BGG files section will help here, and you may find yourself taking the building tiles up to bed to read up on their benefits and effects. OK just me then.
There’s a printing error on the red 8b building in the first edition of the game. Do a quick print-and-stick job with the correct image downloaded from Eggertspiele’s website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your address for a (free) replacement tile.
A Great (Western) Game or a Load of Bulls?
Objective Cards with Bonuses (and Penalties if you Fail)
So there you have it – you traverse the board multiple times and it gets more complicated every time as more buildings come out. You try to add buildings in the right places to support your strategy, piggybacking off the neutral buildings and even other players’ buildings. You recruit workers from the job market and take advantage of the benefits they offer. You try to improve your deck of cows by buying new ones and culling others, and you have to constantly look for opportunities to grab extra VPs from almost every action as they all add up in the end – just doing the basics probably won’t win you the game.
Great Western Trail is rightfully claiming spots in Top 10 lists all over the place and must be a contender for Pfister’s 3rd Kennerspiel in a row. It is a fascinating, crunchy Euro with masses of replayability and many ways to win, giving you that lovely post-game feeling that you want to play it again just to try a different strategy. The Western theme is still Euro-vague but at least it’s a change from the “trading silk in Renaissance Italy” that it could so easily have been.
It’s heavy game with much to explore so unless you like explaining rules to new players, and then usually thrashing them because you kinda know what you’re doing and they don’t, you’ll probably want to play it many times with the same group so that you all have the chance to develop similar knowledge of the game’s subtleties.
The BGG strategy games rankings put Great Western Trail 35th, ahead of Mombasa, Trajan, Russian Railroads, Troyes, Nations, even Dominion. It is a mighty fine game. I would rate it very close to an 8 on my arbitrary scale; if it was a bit lighter and a bit shorter I could see it being played more and it would probably be an 8.5. So my advice is to ignore the creepy dudes on the box and give it a go.
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Mancunian now living in Leicestershire countryside. Grew up with boardgames, miniatures wargaming, D&D, Traveller etc. Left it all behind for work and "normal life", now happily re-engaged with boardgames thanks to Gaming Daughter (age 12), Occasional Gaming Wife (age undisclosed) and friendly local group of boardgame chums.