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Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail Review
Every month the staff at Athena Games chooses a game that they love and we put it on display as our ‘pick of the month’. In this article, Alfie Adams takes a look at his choice; Great Western Trail.
2015 saw Alexander Pfister co-designed Broom Service hit the streets. This was a game about witches delivering potions in exchange for the most prestigious of victory points. Later in October, Broom Service went on to win the “Kennerspiel Des Jahres” award at Essen. The “Advanced game of the year” for those of us not fluent in German. The same year also saw Pfister bring three other major successes to the hobby with Oh my Goods, Mombassa and Isle of Skye. The latter of which went on to win him another Kennerspiel the following year. By the end of 2015, Alexander Pfister had set himself up as one of the new designers to look out for, setting a high standard for his games. In 2016 Pfister, instead of witches delivering potions, had was cowboys delivering cattle.
Great Western Trail is a euro style game that combines engine building and deck building amongst numerous other mechanisms. Pitting 2-4 players as cow-barons of the great west, each trying to take the best cows they can to market in Kansas City. Delivering them as far across the country as they can. They do this while also trying to gain prestige by, amongst other possibilities, creating networks of buildings, dealing with hazards along the route and trading with the Native Americans. The game plays anywhere between 75-150 minutes depending on the player count and strategies used. It falls into the heavier side of medium weight head-scratchers.
Set up and overview
Players start with the same setup. The same personal board, a deck of cattle cards, a set of workers and available actions. Throughout the game, players will upgrade their actions, their stock of cattle and pool of workers in order to compete in the game and win by scoring the most points.
Players move their cowboy playing piece up to a maximum number of spaces (determined by player count) along a network of buildings. They also must stop along the way to Kansas City so they can perform a number of different actions. These actions may see them hiring workers to help make future actions easier, buying cattle cards to strengthen your deck for when you get to Kansas City or moving your train further along the line to pick up bonuses, score points or make deliveries cheaper. The classic worker placement game Caylus shares a similar idea where actions are carried out in a particular order as you move down the road. Careful planning is needed as if you misread the network you may find yourself short of resources in later rounds.
The actions you make through the rounds will often let you discard cattle cards out of your hand. At the end of your turn, you will draw back up to your hand limit. The mini deck building aspect of the game is how you make better sales of cattle as the game goes on. Different values of cattle make up your deck. When you reach Kansas City to sell your cattle it is only the unique different values you have in your hand that make up your sale. This clever use of hand management is key to knowing how many actions to stop at while making sure not to fall behind in your number of deliveries.
But wait there’s more!
The worker market sees players hiring different staff. Cowboys, help you acquire better cattle at reduced costs. Builders help you construct better action spaces for you to use (another Caylus like mechanism possibly more well-known in the hugely popular Lords of Waterdeep) and Engineers help move your train along the track. All of these are strong strategies to either focus on or balance throughout, as you build your engine, upgrading your personal available actions. Once the worker market is full this triggers the end game. The player who causes the end of the game receives a 2 point bonus. All of the remaining players take one final turn before scores are calculated.
Great Western Trail also has player interaction with an almost Monopoly-like taxing mechanism. Yes, I said Monopoly on a modern board game blog… and please don’t read into it. It’s not really anything like Monopoly. If en route you happen to travel through an opponent’s building there may be a charge for doing so. This brings a bit of a take that mechanism to the game, but it does this less as an aggressive attack and more of a strategic plan. Focusing the players down certain routes.
This is just a very basic outline of some of the main ideas of the game. The rulebook is very clearly written but I highly recommend this playthrough video if you do have any issues. This handy frequently missed rules thread might also tie up a few loose ends. Finally, I’m happy to help with any questions if you ever see me in store!
Re-playability and scalability
The game holds a good amount of re-playability straight out of the box. After many plays, there will still be many different paths to explore with multiple strategies available. As you upgrade your player board, your strategies change. This gives each player somewhat asymmetrical abilities which add to the already deep strategy. There is basic setup for the neutral buildings when first learning the game. Once players are comfortable with this the neutral buildings but can be laid out in any order, changing the gameplay from round one. Finally, all of the personal buildings a player can construct during the game are double-sided. Any combination of a and b sides can be used.
Great Western Trail scales well at all player counts. It has some minor changes on the personal player boards depending on the number of players to keep gameplay consistent. This shows some real development and an effort that has been put into the design of this game. It can maybe run a bit long for some game groups and could be prone to some semi-serious analysis paralysis. There is only ever a few actions available to you each turn so the choices aren’t too overwhelming. Each single turn passes fairly quickly. As with many of the heavier eurogames, there is a learning curve but the deck building mechanism can even see the most experienced player sometimes just missing out on the bigger deliveries.
So to conclude
Great Western Trail is a great medium heavy eurogame, there are tons of paths to victory and different ways to score. It has you planning a couple of turns ahead and gives you some really tough choices to make. There is some light interaction between players. The push your luck element, when you’re drawing cards before reaching Kansas city, gives intensity and excitement. It’s a sprawling, organic euro, carefully planned and full to the brim with interlocking interesting mechanisms. At their heart, familiar but put together in an interesting and unique way. Great Western Trail will leave you questioning if you made the most of your turns hours after the game ended. If that’s what you like in a game I highly recommend it.
My advanced game of 2016. Continuing to rush up the board game geek rankings and going out of print all over the country.
For Fans of Caylus/Mombassa/Cows/