I have been looking forward to the release of Great Western Trail (it was listed as #1 on My Top 10 Most Anticipated Games from Essen Spiel 2016) since it was announced earlier this year. The game is designed by Alexander Pfister, who most recently has had great success with his other games including Mombasa and Broom Service, and the expectations for GWT are through the roof. I received my pre-order copy the day after Thanksgiving and have been enjoying the depth of the game since. In fact, it has broken into my Top 10 Games of 2016 (look for this post in January!) and might even be located in the top 3 once I have had an opportunity to play a few more times. So, I reached out to Alexander for an interview and he was extremely gracious. With that, here is our interview:
Grant: Tell us a little about yourself. What got you into board game design? What games do you like to play? What is your favorite game that you have designed to date?
Alexander: I’m 45 years old, married and have one daughter. I live in Vienna. I have been playing and designing games forever. As a kid, I think I was 12 years old, I designed a game set in Africa. As a player you bought plantations, produced goods and then sold them to cities. By selling them you gained influence in these cities. The cities bought troops and fought against each other. About 10 years ago I found the board of this game and remembered the fun we had with it 20 years ago. I reworked it and this game became Mombasa. You can see the similarities, buying plantations, investing in trading companies and then fighting against each other. My favorite game probably is Port Royal. It is also my best selling game. Of course, it depends on what sort of game I want to play, but Port Royal plays quickly and nevertheless has interesting decisions but also a lot of emotions.
Grant: What is required to make a great game? What is your favorite part of board game design? What is the most difficult part?
Alexander: My favorite part of design is the first step, finding a good idea and playing the game in my head. I don’t like the next step, when you have to first design the game on the computer. You invest a lot of time, you have to define cards, the board, etc. but you have no clue what they should look like. Therefore the first test is usually a disaster but you don’t know if it is the wrong balancing or a weak core mechanic. Then you make your first tweaks and try it again. I think a good game needs a strong core mechanic. Otherwise, you invest a lot of time in a game, which at best can be average. I did this a couple of times and of course publishers are not very interested in an average game. It might not be a bad game, they might even consider it for publishing, but it cannot be great without a great mechanic that is memorable.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the theme of cattle running in the American West in Great Western Trail? Do you design around a theme or pick your chosen mechanics first?
Alexander: I always start with the mechanic first and then try to find a good theme as quickly as possible. The core mechanic in Great Western Trail were the use of the buildings, which all players build along the same route. The cattle theme was not there at first, but it was set in America at this period of time so it made sense. At first, it was also about oil and gold mining but running cattle really made the most sense. And now I could not think of better theme that requires you to travel along the same route several times throughout the course of the game.
Grant: What mechanics were used in the design? What is the central mechanic and why did you choose that as the focus?
Alexander: The central mechanic is building action spots on the same route as all the other players. I like rondel games, where you can choose one action out of the next X possible actions. So I thought why not allow people to build their own action spaces. And that was how this game began. I wanted the players to improve the actions, so I introduced workers, which increases the usefulness of the action from the buildings based upon how many cowboys, engineers or craftsman you have on your player board.
Grant: What is the main goal of Great Western Trail? What do you hope that players will enjoy most about the game play experience?
Alexander: I hope that players will plan ahead. This makes the game fast and allows for the most advantages from the buildings in your path. Usually, I like a parallel planning phase like in Mombasa because this reduces downtime. But Great Western Trail works well with players going one after the other because in most cases you know what you want to do. Other players rarely spoil your next move, so you can plan ahead. People seem to like, that you have long term strategies but you also have to react to your cards. So you have to make the best out of your cards but also pursue a long term plan.
Grant: In our plays of GWT, planning is very important. I found myself planning the last 3 or 4 moves prior to Kansas City to make sure I had done all I needed to do to be able to take advantage of stations or to ship to far away cities. How long have you been working on this game? How much has it changed since the beginning? How much input from playtesters made it into the final design? Can you give specific examples of the changes?
Alexander: My first files are dated from 2011. So I was working on this game for about 5 years. It all started with buildings and using workers to operate them. I think in the first versions you spent your workers, now you just have to have them on your player board. At the begining there was only one type of worker, now there are three different types. Another change was the ending of the route. At first people had to wait at the end of the route (it was not Kansas City at this time) until all other players arrived. They could do some special actions. I thought it was important that all players had the same number of cycles. It worked, but the game improved when this wasn’t the case anymore. A very important rule is, that you can deliver to each city only once. This puts the player under pressure to improve their cattle herd over time and moving too fast becomes difficult and wont let you maximize your herd for the largest ability to move to the cities further down the line.
Grant: What is the starting deck like? How does the player work with this deck?
The starting deck is quite weak, you can only reach a value of 7 at most. You only add the values of different cows in your hand. So having 4 times the same cow gives its value only once. Fortunately you can improve your hand during your travels. You may sell cows at various buildings, which means you discard them, gaining money and then fill up your hand at the end of your turn. So if you have 2 cows of the same type, selling one of them not only gives you some money – which is always tight in this game – but also might improve your hand. There is one action which lets you eliminate a card from your deck. You can use this strategy to get more control over this aspect of the game by getting rid of your lower valued cards.
Grant: The goal of the game is to move your herd to Kansas City. What happens along the trail to Kansas City and how many different paths are there?
Alexander: You move from tile to tile. Every tile costs 1 movement point. In a 4 player game you start with 4 movement points but this can be increased during the game. There are 2 paths which cross 6 times on their way to Kansas City. At each crossing there is a neutral building, which can be used by anybody. At each crossing you can choose where to go. On one path there may be hazards like floods, rock falls, etc. This will cost you money and movement points. But sometimes you will take this route because on the other path there are some buildings, where you have to pay money to its owner. So you rather pay to the bank than to another player. Hazards can also be removed. This costs you money, but they earn you victory points. If you see that the risky path has many hazards, it might be good to build a building on the parallel path, where players have to pay you. There are many decisions like this in the game.
Grant: How do the buildings along the trail work and what benefits do they offer players? Why are the buildings so key to the journey? Can you give a couple examples of the buildings and their specific abilities?
Alexander: Every building gives actions to its owner, when he arrives there. Neutral buildings give their actions to any player. Several actions may be enhanced by owning more workers of a specific type, e.g. when you have many craftsmen, you can build more powerful buildings. So you have to pursue a strategy and build the right buildings. If you focus on cowboys and want to improve your herd, you should build the building which lets you go to the cattle market. There is a neutral one, but if you have your own building, you can do this two times within the route. Another building for example is the lumber mill. When you go there, you collect 2$ per building adjacent to a forest. So it could be a strategy to build many buildings next to a forest.
Grant: I understand that players can build their own buildings for use. How does this work and what advantage is there over using other buildings?
Alexander: You can only use your own and neutral buildings. Other players buildings might cost you money when moving over them. Neutral buildings give you all the basic actions. So every player can build new buildings, buy new cows, move their trains, remove hazard tiles, trade with Indians, etc. Your own buildings often have the same action, but are more powerful, e.g. removing hazards give you victory points but cost you $7. In your building it only costs you $5.
Grant: How is deck building used in the game? How is set collection used to gather cattle?
Alexander: In Kansas City cows of the same type only count one time, so having 2 Jerseys only count as 1 Jersey. So you want to have different cows when arriving in Kansas City. But there are several actions which lets you exchange cards in your hand. Deck building is only a small part of Great Western Trail. I you like it, you can focus on it, remove cows from your deck and buy better ones. But you can also find other ways to improve your herd like focusing on certificates. There are buildings which give you certificates on each round. You can gather station master tiles, which give you permanent certificates, etc.
Grant: Can you win the game without focusing on cattle? How?
Alexander: Yes. There are 3 main strategies: cowboys/cattle, craftsmen/buildings and engineers/train. They all give you points and by hiring these people enhance these strategies. But there is no pure strategy as every strategy needs the right buildings. So the building strategy can be combined with other strategies. And a cowboy strategy should also try to expand its train network to reduce transport costs.
Grant: What role do the teepee tiles play in the game? What advantage do they give players?
Alexander: You need teepees for your objective cards. Furthermore trading with Indians, i.e. taking a teepee from the board, might give you a lot of money depending on where they are located.
Grant: How do you buy workers, including cowboys, craftsman and engineers? Is there a strategy to how to accomplish this acquisition of workers?
Alexander: There is a neutral building where you can hire workers. Your 5th and 6th worker of each type gives you 4 victory points. Also you get a bonus action for some workers, especially the engineers. I think it’s important to have some workers. And don’t be shy to use them as a station master as you will gain points and possibly special actions that will help you to win the game.
Grant: What information is tracked on each players personal board? How do players manage this board and what is the strategy to proper management?
Alexander: There is a turn summary at the top. Then there is a big area, where you put your workers. And then there are several spots for discs. When you deliver to a city or build a station, you remove a disc from your player board which uncovers a specific auxiliary action. This gives you an extra action, which are activated on some buildings. But some discs also increase your movement points or your hand size, which are both very important. A hand size of 5 is a great improvement, because you can score more different cows. As you only start with 4 different cows, it’s not so important to immediately have a bigger hand size, but it becomes more valuable later on.
Grant: How does the advanced version of the game differ from the basic game?
Alexander: After your first game, you should shuffle the neutral buildings and distribute them randomly among their 7 spots. This action alone will change the game very much. The next step should be to play with a random mix of buildings – every building has 2 sides, A and B. But be sure, that every player has the same set of buildings, as they are not equally strong.
Grant: What other projects are your working on?
Alexander: Just yesterday we had a play testing for one of my new games that is in design. Actually I had 5 games this evening, but 3 together with co-designers. They are all small and easy games. Nothing comparable to Great Western Trail. I’m working on 2 big games at the moment. We’ll see if I find a publisher for them.
Thanks for all of the great information on this fantastic game! When I do my Top 10 Games of 2016 list, I am sure that Great Western Trail will be in the top 3 at least, maybe even higher.