Great Western Trail: A four-sided game review

Great Western Trail* is a medium to heavyweight cowboy-themed euro game where the emphasis is on the cows, rather than gun-toting John Waynes rounding up a posse.

The game will take two to four players the best part of two hours to complete, and it definitely sits in the ‘advanced’ category: the box recommends ages 12+ and you’ll definitely want to play with more experienced euro gamers.

While the theme just about holds together, Great Western Train is definitely a euro game first and a thematic game (a long distant) second. This isn’t a criticism – it just needs to be said: this game is all about the marriage of deck building, hand/resource management, action selection and tile placement and how you manipulate them: you’ll have to work pretty hard to imagine yourself out on the plains while playing this one.

That said, the components certainly help. Andreas Resch has done a great job on the artwork and graphic design, giving us a vibrant set of cards and tiles alongside a gorgeous board that perfectly blends form and function with style. All the components are of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Eggertspiele and Stronghold games: in the box you’ll find more than 100 cards, 200+ cardboard tokens and more than sixty wooden pieces, plus player boards and a score pad. You can find the game for around £40 in the UK right now, which I’d say is reasonable value.

Teaching

Great Western Trail has an awful lot going on and you might want to get the snacks and comfy chairs ready: this is a game that needs a long rules explanation before you get going, as all the options (and there are many) are going to be available to the players in the first couple of turns.

However, experienced euro game players will find they’re in familiar territory. There are no new mechanisms here and the familiar ones you’ll find are largely handled in a traditional manner – its how they all come together that makes the game feel fresh and new. But really, do not try and teach this one to new players unless you want a very slow game.

The thematic essence of the game is that each player is driving their cattle (their personal deck of cattle cards) to Kansas City (across the board), stopping at various locations along the way (where they’ll perform actions on each of their turns) – before heading back out to the range to drive the next herd.

The player boards do a good job of reminding players what they can do, and what they can build towards. The main section of the board is dedicated to storing workers you hire as the game goes on, who in turn will make the related action options more powerful. These are the chaps depicted on the box cover – cowboys, craftsmen and engineers.

The game starts with seven neutral buildings on the board, which act as the game’s action spaces (there tends to be a few actions available on each, but we’ll stick to the key ones here). One lets you hire available guys; one lets you build your own buildings (craftsmen make this more powerful); and one lets you buy more cattle (helped by having more cowboys); and two let you move your own train (which goes further with more engineers).

When you buy a building, you place it onto an empty space. This is now an extra space you can use which may also slow your opponents and even make them pay you for passing them – so placement, as well as type of building, is an interesting decision. Every player has the same set of buildings available to them, which variously help different strategies.

Buying cattle will let you add better cows to your initial personal deck of 14 cow cards. You’ll start the game with a hand of four, with the aim of having as many different breeds of cow in your hand by the time you arrive in Kansas. Cards have a dollar value and a colour (breed), with your initial cards being worth only $1 or $2 in four colours (so a potential sale value of just $7). But five more breeds are available, with values from $3-5. Luckily, many of the action spaces have actions that let you sell cattle along the trail, or gain rosettes that add value, allowing you to draw new cards and get your optimum hand in place.

While your cowboy moves repeatedly across the board, your train will make slow progress around its edge. When you arrive in Kansas you’ll get initial money for your cattle, but will then need to get them to another city – with ‘better’ cities (which demand a higher value herd) giving better bonuses. But these cities are further away, meaning you’ll need to have got your railway further to avoid incurring financial penalties. But an extended train network will also open up the opportunity to open stations, which give lucrative immediate and end game bonuses.

And these are just the main mechanisms: your player board has many smaller actions, all of which can be improved, while you can also increase your hand size, amount of spaces you can move, quality of baked beans for your trip etc (sorry – I expect that will be in the expansion).

Buildings offer even more variety: everywhere you look, a basic premise of the game can be built upon in incremental ways. As I said, there’s an awful lot going on – and when its all over, everything scores points in a Feldy salady fashion.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While Great Western Trail is large in scope, the restrictions on movement shrinks the decision space each turn (at the start to four choices) and actions tend to be snappy. This brings it almost into line with a Mac Gerdts rondel game, helping everyone stay engaged and ticking over. However what it lacks is the elegance of the best Gerdts games: there are twice as many rules, twice as many icons, and god knows how many more ways to score points. But somehow, it hangs together well enough to be make sense.
  • The thinker: The initial play suggests set places for the seven neutral buildings, after which you can place them randomly. Your own set of 10 buildings have an ‘a’ and ‘b’ side, and you choose which to use (as a group) at the start of each game. This helps add variety to each play in a similar way to a deck-builder such as Dominion: survey your options, decide on a strategy, and go for it. You may be scuppered by the way workers come into the game, but otherwise – after half a dozen plays – the real strategist may find themselves running out of enthusiasm.
  • The trasher: In terms of interaction and screwage, Great Western Trail hints at much but delivers less. Clever placement of your buildings can give you a nice little income stream, but the few extra coins are unlikely to swing the game in your favour: it certainly isn’t a strategy in itself. And if it was, oh my – can you imagine the volume of the euro softy whining lol! Another potential screwage area is choosing which worker and hazard tiles to place onto the board each time you reach Kansas (hazards can potentially filter players to your buildings, by making alternative routes more expensive). But so many come out, so often, it rarely has an impact.
  • The dabbler: While the game looks great and I liked the theme, it can be very punishing if you get things wrong early. Most games we’ve played have seen at least one player end up with half the score of the others – not a problem for many groups, but it’s worth mentioning if you have a table-flipper/moody type in your midst! And don’t come in looking for the theme to have any depth: you’ll soon be asking yourself why you can only send one herd to each city, for example – and let’s not start down the route of historically accuracy (cattle drives to Kansas? The cattle going west by train? etc etc).

Key observations

This is a game where EVERYTHING scores you points and where many strategies may lead to victory. Interaction is limited, it’s pretty crunchy, and beyond the deck manipulation it is largely deterministic – if that isn’t your thing, Great Western Trail isn’t here to convert you to the euro cause.

But even for a hardened euro salad fan such as myself, there is sometimes a little too much going on here and a few ‘decisions’ could’ve been safely left on the design room floor. When you arrive at Kansas City, for example, you need to pick three workers/hazards from a set of six. This is fiddly and largely pointless, rarely being much of a choice (you could grab them from a bag).

Also, despite the options, the game can feel repetitive: wander across the board, sell cattle, repeat – and you’ll do this 10+ times each per game. Sure, the building selection ramps up a little and the cattle get more valuable – but largely its rinse and repeat. The game lacks the push-and-pull of Alexander Pfister’s previous design Mombasa and many will see it as lacking in comparison because of this. It feels much like a solitaire puzzle than an interactive euro game.

All the fiddliness and plethora of options makes for many icons, exceptions etc; and while I’d praise the rulebook for first learning the game, it becomes a very poor resource for later looking anything up. Great Western Trail is a game crying out for a simple reference sheet including all the myriad of similar (yet significantly different in practice) icons. Instead I found myself frustratingly flicking back and forth trying to find what I needed – a real impediment to a game which benefits from what should be short, snappy turns.

Conclusion

I’ve ummed and ahhed about my overall thoughts on Great Western Trail over my five or six plays so far, going from loving it to indifference to warming to it again.

There are interesting decisions to be made, both strategic and tactical, but is there real long time appeal? I’m currently enjoying ‘exploring the game space’, but in the same way I did with a few plays of Lewis and Clark or Russian Railroads – games that felt instantly fascinating to me, but which faded once I’d tried the few available strategies available and realised they lacked the competition needed to keep coming back for more.

But almost everyone I’ve played Great Western Trail with has really enjoyed it and I’ve enjoyed it too, so I’ll be keeping the game on my shelves – at least in the short term. And isn’t that the plight of the modern euro? To be played five times, then replaced by the latest new hotness? If so, this is the perfect example of the new breed – but I can feel my heart yearning for those simpler, more interactive and timeless euro classics that may well outlive the current crop of games. Or maybe I’m just getting old…

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review.

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