The first time I mentioned Great Western Trail was last summer in one of my first ‘tabletop I’m excited for’ posts and once again in my ‘Essen Wishlist’ video last autumn. And sometimes things I’m excited for can change from one month to the next. It can be for any number of reasons, but on many an occasion my initial excitement over a game can turn into a ‘maybe….not’. Others however will go the distance. Great Western Trail was one of them for me. Despite its 8.3 BGG rating it’s received a mixed bag of reviews, many very positive but a few of disappointment that it maybe wasn’t the wonder game that was expected. So here I am to throw my two-pennies-worth into the mix.
I think that when a game does get a lot of pre-release hype, or has a tall order to stand up to (in this case Mombasa) it can struggle to meet expectations. I’ve not played Mombasa but I did enjoy Broom Service a great deal (that Pfister co-designed) and I wasn’t really holding it to any extravagant expectations. I just thought GWT sounded like a good time. It’s a eurogame about travelling around midwest America living the life of a cattle rancher. This involves following a forked trail, moving your meeple from place to place (only 1-3 route spaces at a time), stopping at buildings, selling and trading your cattle (cards) getting ahead on the railroad (with your adorable wooden train) hiring workers and selling your hand every time you arrive at good ol’ Kansas City.
For me it was an instant hit, just on a cerebral level I knew liked it, I didn’t have to think ‘why do I like this?’ or ‘hmmmm maybe I need a few more games to get into it’, it simply clicked. But for the purpose of writing about it I guess I should touch on what ticked the boxes for me (in my funny lizard brain).
I like games that I’m not instantly good at, where I start off not really knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing or why. I see the sprawling board with a ton of detail, multiple tiles and little wooden pieces, my intricate player board full of stuff, and of course- cattle cards. It’s like a fascinating puzzle waiting to be solved. Once I got my head around the game not only does it become clear what I’m doing and why, but also how I’m going to win. This is also the point where I start to see how wonderfully designed the game is.
Here are a few things I’ve come to appreciate during my initial plays of Great Western Trail…
The Flow of the Game
I like the way the game flows as you make your way up to Kansas City and back again. Turns are super speedy but you choose the pace of how quickly you travel from one end of the board to the other. Every time you sell your hand at Kansas City three out of nine tiles on the ‘foresight’ spaces are chosen. If you choose to place future workers on the job market this affects how quickly the game will end, because when the last worker drops off the market that’s end of game. Something about the movement of this game just does it for me, it’s smooth and has a different feel from many other games I’ve played, and it’s a good thing.
Building in the Game
In my initial game of GWT I thought ‘ok I’m placing building tiles, cool, I’ll just put one erm….here!’. But after a few games I realised it’s really not a case of popping them wherever and hoping for the best. The buildings not only score you bonus points at the end of game but they can really save your hide (sorry) at the last knockings. When you’re almost at Kansas City and your selling hand is terrible (more on that later) they can also help you accumulate cash- for instance some buildings mean that a player has to pay you (if able) when they pass through. Other buildings will help you rake in the cash, e.g.- when you have multiple buildings on green areas of the board you’ll receive two coins for each building. So if you choose the ‘get rich quick’ route those particular buildings are really handy to have. But you can only place ‘2’ ‘3’ ‘4’ buildings and so on when you have builders to do so, so there’s some balancing to be done there. Hazard tiles on the trail can also be cleared to assist you with achieving objectives and to clear the trail. This means you can build on the spaces where smashing bonus actions are available and avoid paying a fine for passing through a hazardous area.
Bonuses in the Game
I love me a bonus I do, and there is abundance in GWT. I love wracking up bonuses knowing that if all else fails I’ll have some good solid points awaiting me at end scoring. As well as the building bonuses in the hazardous areas there are also bonuses on your player board and objective cards. I must admit I was a bit unsure of the objective cards at first. You are dealt one at random during set up and you choose to collect more thereafter. These go straight into your discard pile and if you commit yourself to a card later on by placing it in your play area then you must meet it, or else are deducted points at the end of game. When that time comes you can choose to score them anyway, whether you are committed or not, so I was kind of wondering why bother committing yourself to them in the first place? Well it’s the bonus actions that can be taken when committing to the objective that can really help you out. Perhaps you’re in desperate need of money, or really want to move up the train track- it can be for any number of reasons, but trust me, at some point one of those bonus actions will matter.
The Train in the Game
During my initial play-through of GWT I honestly didn’t understand what the train aspect of the game was for, other than being synonymous of the old west and another complexity to an already full game. And it is a complexity but yet it’s so necessary. Your selling hand at Kansas City determines the station you can stop at, which in turn allows you to take a wooden cube from your player board unlocking an ‘auxiliary action’. The pain of it is once you have stopped at the cheap and cheerful stations you have to keep increasing your hand value to go further. For example- your final hand is the value of 7 but you’ve already stopped at stations 2-6, meaning that you can now only stop at stations 8 onwards. Of course you can always go back- to Topeka or Kansas City- but this deducts points at the end of game. So you really need a decent hand (and to have found ways to increase its value on your way up the trail). The certificates that can be accessed on your player board/buildings/train station tiles are so unbelievably helpful for this as well. The train can also give you bonus tiles and actions or can be used as payment for auxiliary actions, so overall the railroad is absolutely crucial to the game.
The Cows in the Game
Another crucial aspect to the game is of course The Cows, and the deck building element to GWT is pretty fantastic. It’s also kind of different for me to play a deckbuilder that’s not using the deck for combat or special abilities, but simply for points and cash, it’s basic yet it forms the crux of the game. Throughout GWT you are refining and manipulating your deck to build the best hand possible in time for Kansas City and it’s really great fun. The cattle market is refreshed when the job market hits the yellow arrow and you can buy cattle via certain buildings. You need cash to purchase of course, and 2+ cowboys for the pricier cattle. It’s also desirable to arrive before your opponent if you want first dibs on the best of the bunch (a Texas Longhorn worth 7 points- amazing). The auxiliary actions and buildings are essential for building and fiddling your deck, and that’s what I love about GWT; not only does it flow nicely but the mechanics are interwoven very well indeed.
What I’ve enjoyed the most is how damn replayable it is. There are so many ways you can go about scoring big and/or winning that at the end of every game I think ‘next time I’ll try something different’. The game is so deep you can’t possibly do it all in one play, so you have to sacrifice one aspect in order to focus on another, and then resolve to try another next time.
I’m so glad Great Western Trail went the distance for me, from wishlist to shelf to possibly a top ten game. It is a complex one but not crazy heavy, but heavy enough to feel like you put your poor brain through the ringer. I never thought a game about cattle ranching could make me swear so much and GWT is one of those where you’re desperate, exasperated, nail biting, plotting and hustling the whole way through and it’s unbelievable enjoyable.
And that’s my thoughts on Great Western Trail. And…cows. Thanks for reading!