Whistle Stop is a tile-laying and pick-up-and-deliver game from designer Scott Caputo, produced by Bezier Games. It’s thinky, easy to learn, and thoroughly evil. I like it a lot.
According to the box, in Whistle Stop players “take control of a pioneer railroad company” after the completion of the USA’s transcontinental railway system in 1869, but with it’s pastel colours and toy town graphics it feels more like taking control of a child’s Brio train set, or helping Thomas and Percy to expand the rail network across the island of Sodor. It has a Suburbia feel to it which is not surprising as it comes from Bezier and was ‘developed’ by Suburbia designer Ted Alspach. This is no bad thing – the graphics are clear and do exactly what they need to, and the game looks great on the table.
Components are excellent barring a few strange glitches – the score track graphics don’t line up on some of the joins of the board ‘frame’, and the player board for the yellow player is distinctly not yellow, in fact it’s close enough to the brown player’s board as to be confusing. Also, colour blind players may struggle with the choice of pastel colours for the five sets of trains.
The rulebook is very stripped back – the rules themselves, excluding the setup and explanation of individual tiles and tokens, only amount to 1½ pages of A4, which indicates how easy Whistle Stop is to learn. I found it very straightforward and easy to learn the game, however a clearer explanation of how train movement works when trains are blocked by other trains would have helped (look on BGG for detailed discussions, with contributions from the designer).
Setup – Your Game has Been Delayed (a bit)
Setup is fiddly, even though you’re only creating the bare bones of the territory you’re going to be filling with tiles. It’s one of those games where you have to separate out a subset of tiles from the main supply, use some of them, then shuffle the remainder back in. With Whistle Stop you also have to rummage out a specific collection of the special tiles – one of these, one of those, one of either that or that but not that – and jump through a few other hoops before the board is set up. I’ve taken to getting all this done at the end of a game, ready for the next one, keeping the sorted tiles in separate baggies.
Five-player game close to the end
The rulebook runs you through the process clearly so it’s not terrible, just a bit long-winded considering most of the board remains empty space. And forget about piling up coal tokens on the turn track as advised in the rulebook; maybe for 2 players you might bother, but otherwise just stick one token on each space to keep track of the turn, and then dish out 2 coal or 1 whistle per player, as required, from the supply.
Theme; Is It Really a Train Game?
As hinted at by the graphic design, Whistle Stop does not stand up to much thematic scrutiny. You can have one train pick up a cube in the top-left of the map and have it delivered in the very next turn by a train in the bottom-right. Trains are powered by coal and whistles – whistles? Not water? The “town” tiles don’t even have any town graphics on them at all, simply the names of train companies in which you’re given shares when delivering to that town. The resources represented by the cubes are irrelevant too, they’re either ‘common’ or ‘rare’ but what they are supposed to be doesn’t matter at all. I call them tomatoes, gin, grass, gravel, mud and cocaine, making cocaine in my games more readily available than tomatoes. Depending on where you live, you may feel this is thematically accurate.
Rules & Gameplay
Pretty much all the rules!
Players are trying to move their trains from the eastern edge of the map to the west, collecting and dropping off resources in various places to get immediate points and compete for end-game bonuses.
Players have four movement actions per turn and can move any one of their trains on each action, so each turn they can move one train four times, four trains once each, or any combination. Trains follow the routes on the hex tiles and move between stops (where they collect resource cubes) and other special tiles (where cool stuff happens). If a train moves off a placed tile, the player places a new tile from their hand of three to continue the route, so they get to build routes which hopefully will help them out in terms of resources and access to other tiles.
Blue making the most of the special tiles and town tiles
Most tiles have a mass of routes and intersections, which means the network the players build as they play is fantastically complicated. Even within the first few turns the number of options you’re presented with is mind-boggling.
The main resources in the game are various coloured cubes (three common colours and three rare), which are available on most tiles, and stocks, which are only available in ‘towns’. Cubes can be traded in at towns to get stocks, or kept until a train reaches the ‘end tiles’ on the left-hand side of the map and then traded in for points. Getting stocks is good because they give a modest bonus immediately and there is a bigger bonus at the end of the game if you have the most stocks from a particular town.
As well as collecting and trading cubes and stocks, you also have to manage coal and whistles, the fuels that power the trains. You only get 2 coal tokens per round and you have 4 turns, so being able to rustle up extra coal, or manage without, is an important part of the game. Various special tiles exist to help you source more coal and fuel, but there’s only guaranteed to be one of these out in any game (although others will probably appear as players lay tiles).
Two-player game in progress
There’s a great game here already with lots to think about and almost unlimited options on every turn, but there’s more. ‘Upgrades’ are special powers that players can acquire by spending resources. They let you do things like blocking other players from a special tile you’re occupying, exchanging coal for resources or gold, or increasing the number of tiles you can hold and play on a turn. The twist with Upgrades is that other players can forcibly buy them off you at any time provided they compensate you with resources. If you’re having success using a particular tile, then you can expect it to be eyed enviously by other players, and sometimes ripped from you just when you need it most.
You can tell by the setup process that Whistle Stop will be different every time, despite the limits of the square frame of the board. There are always 2 end tiles that don’t get put out each game, and occasionally these will be both of the stocks bonus tiles, meaning stocks will be slightly less worth collecting in that game. Or they may both come out and both happen to be placed in the corner of the board, making routes to that corner more sought after by players going for a stocks strategy.
Green builds a nice coal-generating loop
Similarly the selection and positions of the tiles in the middle column will be different each game. Sometimes the Gold Mine will appear and you can immediately start working out if you can build a gold generating engine and defend it against other players. Other times you may get two Whistle Factories, which may inspire you to think about stocking up on whistles and making reverse moves to collect resources or revisit town tiles that other players have moved past, thus sneakily gaining a majority of stocks they thought they’d got sewn up.
Of the 12 Upgrade tiles in the game, only a subset come out each time, so your favourite might be in one game and not the next. New tactics required.
And all of that is before you start playing and laying out the intricate network that completes the board; I calculate the chances of that being the same twice as about 3.6 bazillion to 1.
There Are No Monsters… But It’s Still Evil
Whistle Stop has no monsters, dungeon-dwelling creatures or Cthulhu… things, whatever they’re called. Yet what Bezier have given us in this box is a toolkit for sheer devilment. What looks like a dry pick-up-and-deliver game is actually a cutthroat game of screwage, evil and death. OK maybe not death.
Evil tile-laying to stop other players accessing the Stock Market bonus tile
The rules are relatively simple, and anything not covered by the rules is fair game. Want to build a loop of track and spend multiple turns revisiting the Coal Yard to stockpile coal for later turns? That’s allowed. Want to buy up all the red cubes to prevent anyone else claiming bonuses or stock certificates requiring red cubes? Why not! Want to deliberately lay track across a scoring tiles to isolate it from the network and prevent anyone accessing it? Sure, go ahead!
This level of interaction raises Whistle Stop above the level of most pick-up-and-deliver games, and gives it real bite. It can be as quiet or as vicious as the players want it to be, and this needs to taken into account when choosing who to play it with. One hardcore fighty gamer playing with three care bear Rahdo types will be a recipe for disaster.
Combos -v- AP
I don’t suffer from AP so I love games that allow me to set up big, tricksy moves that make me feel smart. I don’t want to leave other players twiddling their thumbs while I seek them out, but it’s nice when they’re readily available. Whistle Stop is awesome in this regard, there are so many ways to get just what you need to do a thing that allows you to get something else to do another thing.
The four moves you have each turn are just enough to set up some cool combos, such as grabbing a selection of resources from all over the board and immediately cashing them in, or using multiple whistles and plain track tiles to move almost the entire width of the map and deliver a surprise game end (the other two players had trains in the very last column awaiting what they thought was going to be the final turn, but I sped home to snatch a win. See? EVIL! Told you).
Scaling – Is Less More?
One player’s stuff mid-game; lots of stocks and a bit of gold
Whistle Stop feels quite different with two players than it does with four or five. With two players each player has 5 trains, and you feel more inclined to use one or even two of them to build resource gathering loops or to hang back on the map and spend more time building up supplies of cubes, coal or stocks.
With five players, and only 3 trains each, it feels more important to race over to the left of the board and land those bonuses, or at least keep pace with everyone else and make sure you don’t get caught bumbling around the map while other players end the game early by exiting their trains. Both are good, just different, game experiences.
Are Stocks Overpowered? Short Answer – No.
There’s a thread on BGG that suggests collecting stocks will always be more worthwhile than collecting resources. Whilst the OP uses something called “maths” to try to prove that a stock certificate is inherently more valuable than a resource cube, he fails to take into account how hard it is to gain a stock certificate rather than a resource.
Look at those tempting bonuses…
Without going into the detail, my feeling is the time spent focussing on stocks can pay off but it’s just as likely you’ll be outmanoeuvred by another player who races across the map, trades in cubes for points on the bonus tiles, and ends the game before you’ve done what you need to do. So I don’t buy it. For me both approaches feel balanced and there’s no sure-fire way to win Whistle Stop.
Whistle Stop – On Track or Off the Rails?
If you can handle the fightiness then Whistle Stop is a fantastic game. It takes what could have been a bland resource-ferrying game and spices it up with a lot of variety and just enough conflict to make it interesting – for me, this means it kills both Ticket to Ride and Istanbul. In Whistle Stop you can lightly torment other players without provoking a table flip or a Diplomacy-like ending of relations. I’m happy to play Whistle Stop any time with any number of players so I’m giving it a long-term place in my Kallax and a 9/10 rating.
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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.