We are cowboys in the old west. No guns, no duelling, we just bring cows from our ranch, along the Great Western Trail, to Kansas City to sell. All day, every day.
Great Western Trail, from Alexander Pfister, is a big Euro game, three-hour long big. I found that explaining the rules always took a while, it’s quite a lot to take in, but the game plays very smoothly. The turns go quick, so although the game can take hours, you are basically constantly doing something. When you’re done thinking about your next move, you can already execute it. However, I did find that a four player game for me personally took too long. I rarely want to spend three hours one the same game. Three players is probability ideal for this game and two was also good.
What about the game itself. I love it. On your turn you must move your cowboy a couple of spaces along the trail. The trail is not a straight line. There are multiple ways to reach Kansas City. A space, one step towards the city, is a building, a hazard or a Teepee tile.
In the beginning of the game there are only neutral buildings on the board, but later in the game players will build their own buildings along the trail, where only they can execute its action. Other players can only execute basic action if they end up on your building.
To build these buildings you need workers. These workers can be bought at the market and placed on your personal player board. You can also buy engineers and cowboys at the market. You need engineers to advance your train on the track. Which allows you to sell cows to cities further away without paying extra or become station master at stations further away.
To sell cows you need to buy them first, the cowboys you hire at the market are used for that purpose. The more cowboys you own, the better cow cards you can buy, or the more or cheaper you can buy them.
These cow cards are very important. Every player starts with the same starting deck of fourteen cow cards. Cow cards have different colours and these colours have different values. You start with ones and twos, and you can buy threes, fours and fives later in the game.
You use these cows during the game, at certain buildings, to generate money. Discard one green two for two coins. Things like that. Most importantly, you need your cows in Kansas City. Here you show everyone your hand and add the value of all unique cards together, add certificates if you want, and that’s the amount of money you get.
After that you have to choose to which city you want to ship these cows to. No, you don’t get rid of your cow cards, you just place one of your disks on a city with a number equal or lower than the amount of money you just got. The cities with lower values might give you negative points, but the farther away you ship the better the bonuses will get.
Once you placed a disk, your cowboy goes back to the start and you start a new workday, guiding your cows along the trail again, and again, and again.
You basically build your own rondel by cleverly placing your own buildings along the route, between the neutral buildings and all the buildings from the other players that you cannot use, buildings that slow you down and make you waste a turn on ‘just’ a basic action.
Planning your path is very interesting and cleverly placing your buildings pretty important. You need to create a logical order of actions. Having a building where you can buy cows, before you can actually get the amount of money you need is pretty useless.
Money is tight and you need it to acquire cows, build buildings and become a station master. All these things give you points and allow you to do better actions, send your cows to more beneficial cities further away or give you end-game scoring conditions.
In the beginning of the game all players can pretty much do the same actions, in the same order. The neutral buildings are the only ones along the trail, except from one, maybe two private buildings. The longer the game takes the more private buildings will be placed. From then on one player can do her actions in a different order than another player. This is one of the cool things about this game. Your little economy is different from your neighbour.
The trail, with all these new buildings popping up, gets also more crowded and that slows you down. You sometimes cannot reach a neutral building or a building of your own within the steps you are allowed to take. This is where proper management of your personal player board comes in. The player board functions like the one in Terra Mystica, or Scythe. When you do certain actions, in this case you place your disks on stations or cities, you open up new actions or make existing actions better. In this way you can increase your hand limit, open up new basic actions, or increase the amount of steps you can take during a turn.
The game does push you into a certain direction. You don’t have total freedom in which disk to place where, and therefore which action to improve at what moment in time. On your player board you find that disks are placed on white or black spaces. To place a disk on a white spot on the board, you have to remove it from a white spot on your player board. The same happens with disks on black spots. You will see that the disks from black spots can only be placed in stations and cities that are further away. You’ll need better cows and a train that has progressed enough to place them, and that’ll happen only later in the game.
This is not a bad thing I think. It just keeps you from spending loads of energy on an actions early in the game that look very beneficial to you, they may give you a lot of points, but wont be of any use during the rest of the game. This black and white system basically guides you through the game. No, the game doesn’t hold your hand while playing, it just gives you some direction.
You have plenty of room to move. In the basic game the neutral building are all located at logical spots. They’re sort of in a logical spend – earn sequence. Plus, all the players use the same (basic) private buildings.
When you want to play the advanced version of the game you place the neutral buildings in random order and you flip the private building to their B-side (or use a mix of A-side and B-side buildings). This mixes things up quite a bit when you are used to the basic game, I have to say. You now have to reassess the usefulness of certain locations in their new spot along the trail.
All in all I have to say, again, that I really enjoy Great Western Trail. It’s a heavy Euro game, no doubt about that, but the turns go pretty fast and your options in you turn are limited. You create your path of actions yourself, the order of things doesn’t change very much. At some point it may take you longer to reach your buildings, because of other buildings or hazards, but you can easily plan ahead and think of something clever to do. I don’t like games where you have to wait a while before your turn comes up again, or games where you cannot plan at all because so much changes between turns, or a combination of both, so this games is perfect in that aspect. Deckbuilding is fun, and although it is only a part of this game, it is really important. A fine collection of interesting and fun mechanisms.
You like heavy Euro games? Then this game is one you should definitely try.