Great Western Trail: The Overture
Having become ensconced in a group of hardcore Eurogamers, you’ve arrived for your first play of Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail. Bragging a strong Board Game Geek rating (currently #10), and enthusiastic players who not only love to play this game, but see how many different ways they can deconstruct the gameplay, you’re curious about how well Great Western Trail could possibly hold up. Surely, with so many games co-opting the medieval or fantasy theme, a tabletop Euro with a Wild West backdrop can’t be all that, can it?
You’ve seen bigger boards; heck, you’ve assembled bigger Catan worlds in Seafarers and Explorers and Pirates. Nonetheless, it’s a majestic sheet of cardboard covered with cryptic iconography that looks like it might have been recovered by Colonel O’Neill through the Stargate. An experienced Euro player, your mesmerization disintegrates as you absorb the game’s language, and become hungry to play.
While much of Great Western Trail is very fresh, you can’t help but notice traces of other tabletop games. And the comparisons aren’t always flattering. While your first trip to Kansas City is uphill Chutes & Ladders, with a deckbuilding twist from Dominion, by your second trip, players have unloaded their toll properties, and your second trip reminds you a bit of Monopoly, albeit with the added possibility of choosing to throw yourself in river rapids, deserts, or sharp, vulture-covered rocks to avoid paying rent to other players.
Then the Great Western Trail veteran, after a few slow crawls to Kansas City, starts pounding discs down in rodeo-worthy gallops across the board, skipping so many cash and point generating opportunities that you wonder at the game’s end less how they won than what in tarnation did you just play?
Movement, the Cattle Economy, and Skydiving Cowboy Meeples
Great Western Train opens with two to four players receiving fourteen (14) monochrome discs, one (1) choo-choo meeple of the same color, one (1) cowboy meeple, one (1) starting objective, 14 (14) cattle cards, one (1) player sheet encoded with sufficient iconography that one could either a) reverse engineer the game or b) summon Cthulhu. If a player can do anything not encoded on this sheet, it’s encoded on a building tile or the board.
Having placed their discs on their spots on the player sheet, shuffled their cattle cards, then drawn four, each player takes their initial turn by placing their cowboy meeple on any building tile and performing the action allowed by the tile. While this will usually be the first tile, as you start the game resource-poor, and it’s good not to miss any opportunities initially, your cowboy meeple is a skydiving cowboy meeple (my term, not Alexander Pfister’s), able to choose any building tile at all for your opening move. So if your opening cattle card hand is a perfect hand of four different cows (more on that later), you could start right next to Kansas City, and be the first one to have a crack at the second row of workers (a good strategy if you want Cowboys and they’re all in the second worker row). So–never, never forget that you start with a skydiving cowboy meeple; like the pawn’s en passant in chess, it may rarely be used, but every now and then that ability to jump forward in your opening move should be enjoyed.
For their second turn, each player moves their cowboy a certain number of tiles. While all cowboys can move at least three tiles if they choose, often a player will only move their cowboy only one tile, because skipped tiles equal skipped opportunities; that said, it should be obvious that in any timed game the winner’s speed controls the available opportunities for all players. No, there is no timer in the box; Great Western Trail‘s timer is concealed in the Job Market on the left side of the board. Every trip to Kansas City pumps out more workers, and every dip in the worker row moves the game closer to its conclusion. While it’s fun to play Great Western Trail as Slowpoke Rodriguez, hitting every stop, Speedy Gonzales can win this game if you let him, as while you’re taking every available opportunity, he’s eliminating the stops that don’t feed into his strategy. While Slowpoke is selling that cow for $2, Speedy has the first crack of the $5 workers, and Slowpoke’s extra $2 are counter-productive when they arrive at the worker row and find nothing cheaper than $8.
As Great Western Trail progresses, and more building tiles enter the game, your move becomes less powerful, because you don’t count board spaces, you count building tiles. Moreover, many of these tiles cost a toll to pass, paid directly to the owning player. Unlike Monopoly, there are alternate routes in Great Western Trail. Not only are there diverse city routes that might be more or less hospitable to you, but there are hazard routes, which charge a toll payable to the bank, so that you can at least not enrich your competitors with your hard-earned play money. Also, it is possible to improve your movement rate as the game progresses.
To make money, you discard a cattle card of the right color, which pays in dollars indicated on the building tile. So if the building tile says “discard a green cow and gain $2,” and you have no green cows, you don’t get income on that tile. If you do, you discard it, and at the end of your turn, you draw up from your cattle card deck until you have a full hand. If all of your cattle cards are in your personal discard pile, then you shuffle them and draw up. In such a way, the contents of your hand are always changing. At the start of the game, you have access to four of your fourteen cattle cards, each one of which has a variable value when trading at building tiles, and when arriving at Kansas City. As the game progresses, you can expand your cattle hand to five or six cards by moving discs from your player sheet, and you can buy new cows with not only victory points but higher dollar values, so that you can hit more valuable deliveries, thus scoring even more victory points. Once you’ve played Great Western Trail a few times, it should be obvious that one of the primary keys to victory is buying tons of cattle cards, not only for their victory points, but for the additional victory points unlocked by powerful deliveries, as well as the objective cards contingent on cattle cards. Not that it’s the only powerful strategy, but it’s a good one, and probably the easiest for a newbie to latch onto: hire cowboys, buy cattle cards, make deliveries, get cattle card objectives, then toss that point salad ad infinitum.
What’s a delivery, you ask? When you arrive at Kansas City, you count the numerical value of each different colored cattle card in your hand to determine your breeding strength, select a city with a numerical value equal to or less than that, drop a disc from your player board on that city (also uncovering a new ability on your player sheet) if you have not delivered to it before (with the exception of Kansas City and San Francisco, which can be delivered to an unlimited number of times), then receive cash equal to your breeding strength minus the distance between your train and that city. (Breeding strength can also be modified by certificates, which I’ll more or less ignore today, except to say that you should grab these when you can).
Oh yes, trains. Some building tiles allow you to move not your cowboy meeple, but your train. As your train advances on the track, it allows you to unload additional discs from your player sheet, thus unlocking more covered abilities, plus adding points to your point salad at game end. Most importantly, there are five bonus tiles on the train track, and these go first come, first serve. While three of these are so-so, two are very strong: one which gives you a bonus point for each worker on your sheet, and another which gives you three points for each pair of certificates, temporary or permanent. While the others usually score from three to six bonus points, these two can easily be worth ten or more points each, plus the associated points from the disc drop.
A Word on “Weight”
Some tabletop gamers might get scared off by the weight (complexity) assigned by Board Game Geek, and I’d like to stress here that while Great Western Trail does have a new iconographic language for you to learn, it’s only a little harder to assimilate than the language of 7 Wonders, and, in my opinion, more intuitive than the symbology of Castles of Burgundy. Learning the language of Great Western Trail will take you about ten minutes if you’re familiar with eurogames, and about twenty minutes if you’re not, but have a good teacher that’s less interested in an easy victory than in creating new Great Western Trail players. If your introducer is of the “sink or swim” variety, that snickers and tells you that you’ll learn it as you go, you will still learn it by the end of the game, although this is probably the worst way to learn Great Western Trail.
While Terraforming Mars and Caverna have BGG weights similar to Great Western Trail, the latter is by far the easiest to pick up. Don’t be intimidated by this great game.
That said, if you insist on learning Great Western Trail from its hermetic rulebook, heaven help you. While this is the way that I learned the game, I would never recommend it, as the rules were compiled not by grammar and logic, but by fashion sense, as if the writer inserted paragraphs where they would bling the best. You’re best off having Great Western Trail taught to you, or using online resources.
Texan Point Salad
Great Western Trail is a point salad game, which means that, like 7 Wonders and many other euros, it comes with a score sheet you use to count up all the generated points. You get points not only for deliveries, but for cattle cards, stations, station bonus tiles, building tiles, hazard tiles, dollars, and objectives.
With this dynamic, you would expect that there are many paths to victory in Great Western Trail. While this is theoretically true, the game’s bias leans toward a few basic strategies, which I will call Cattle Bandit, Boxcar Tycoon, and Rail Baron.
With Cattle Bandit, you’re mainly hoarding Cowboys and Cattle Cards, and getting whatever incidental victory points that will round out that beefy sandwich. While this is a great strategy for newbies, it’s limited by the relatively few high point cows in the deck, unless you’re extremely good at disciplining yourself not to sightsee along the trail, and always moving your maximum move, so as to rush the game. Cattle Bandit must rush the game to win, and it’s extremely desirable to have four or more Cowboys.
With Boxcar Tycoon, you’re also buying Cattle Cards, but only until you have a great deck that will allow you to cram as many discs as you can into San Francisco (9 victory points each). Trimming your deck, by the ability unlocked in the bottom left of your player sheet, often goes hand in hand with this strategy. If you also pick up all of the San Francisco objective cards, that makes each of those deliveries worth a total of fourteen points each (9 for the disc, and 5 for the card).
With Rail Baron, you’re hiring all of the Engineers that you can and dashing for the station master bonus tiles and the big victory points just past the kink in the tracks. Rail Baron may be better off leaving the three mediocre station master bonus tiles for the other players, grabbing the two that count for the most, and heading for those big points on the right-hand side. If you’re lucky enough to get a lot of engineers, note that the first five stations are only worth 9 VP total, while the next five are worth 35 VP. You won’t have time to stop at all of them in a typical game of Great Western Trail, so it’s better to get the bonus tiles you want, race for the right-hand side, then use the “teleportation” ability unlocked at the end of the track to get a few of the cheap ones you missed. It’s easy to grasp that the Rail Baron has the potential to be the best strategy, as they’re not also enjoying the largest point salad, they’re also unlocking more of their player sheet with their grind on both the train and delivery tracks. That said, this strategy is vulnerable; just as Cattle Bandit must rush the game, Rail Baron usually only has time to deliver to six of the ten stations, at most, and they must pick which ones they want the most. Also, if Rail Baron gets greedy, and goes for all the bonus tiles, they play the rest of their game relatively worker-poor compared to the other players. (Every time you take a station master bonus tile, you must permanently station one of your workers on that spot.) It’s better to grab the two strategic ones and head for the right hand side, where the big VP don’t require the loss of a worker to acquire.
Note that all of these strategies are actually strategic foci, so that Cattle Bandit and Boxcar Tycoon are also moving their train and Rail Baron is also buying cows and making deliveries. You can’t be a Great Western Trail Rail Baron without playing Great Western Trail. But these strategic thrusts are so distinguishable that you can soon differentiate between each of these play styles.
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