In Great Western Trail, designed by a rising star in the board game design arena Alexander Pfister (Port Royal, Mombasa, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King and Broom Service), you take on the role of a rancher who repeatedly herds your varied types of cattle from the Great State of Texas to Kansas City, where you ship them off to parts unknown across the United States by train to supply butchers with great, high quality meat to sell to their patrons. This earns you money and victory points. Needless to say, each time you arrive in Kansas City, you want to have your most valuable cattle in tow and have a variety of different types to catch the interest of the buyers. However, the travel along the “Great Western Trail” can be treacherous and full of dangers such as drought, falling rocks and flooded rivers. This will require special attention to not only keep your herd in good shape, but also to take advantage of the various buildings located along the trail. Also, because you cannot do everything yourself it is a good idea to hire capable staff to take care of the many duties including cowboys to improve your herd, craftsmen to build your very own buildings that only you can use and engineers for the all important railroad line.
I described GWT in my title as a Black and Blue Angus Point Salad for several reasons. One is that is involves bovine beauties known as cattle, and involves all different breeds including Jersey, Dutch Belt, Black Angus, Guernsey, Holstein, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, West Highland and Texas Longhorn, that taste oh so good. The version of deck-building used is very unique and is actually a very interesting part of the game. While not absolutely needed to secure victory (in one of our games Matt won after only buying one new cow!) it does help you to make progress on any chosen strategy as it provides needed cash to buy workers or to build buildings. I also referred to the delicious salad in the game as at its heart it is a “point salad” that allows players to score points from all different angles and ways and in various phases. Finally, GWT will chew you up and spit you out as it is a little unforgiving. Planning is vitally important and if you get too far behind too early it can be very difficult to get caught back up (but not impossible), hence the reference to black and blue!
Before you get into my review, we did an unboxing video here to show you the quality components and I was lucky enough to secure an interview with the designer Alexander Pfister to help us gain some insight into the gameplay, the design process and how it all works! So, let’s see if the game lived up to my expectations.
Game Play Summary
Starting in Texas, the Great Western Trail splits off into various paths that allows players to move their herd of cattle along with the goal always being to end in Kansas City located in the top left corner of the board in order to sell those cattle. The path is not always easy and to vex the players and their efforts, there are hazards such as rock-falls, drought and flooded areas which cost money to pass through. Each turn a player can move his herd along the pathway by up to three steps, each step being counted when a building or hazard that has been placed on the board are encountered. The player can then take actions related to their current location. There are seven neutral buildings that are placed in predetermined neutral building spaces at the start of each game (this can be randomized in order to create a challenge for more experienced players but is not recommended for first time players). In addition each player has a set of ten personal building tiles, which have an A and a B side. It is suggested that for the first game you use the A sides but after this you can choose the sides randomly for one player and then ensure that all other players have the same set available. This ensures a nice level of variety between games.
The buildings themselves allow special actions but you can only use them when your cattleman visits either a neutral building or one that you placed yourself. If you happen to end your turn on an opponent’s building, you only get to do a single auxiliary action (the auxiliary actions are located along the left edge of each player board). Some buildings allow you to collect money from your opponents when they pass through and have a green or a black hand that shouts out STOP and pay me, but the odd thing is that you only pay IF you have the money! I didn’t like this part as it is totally counter-intuitive to me. You crossed over my building, you must pay, even if you don’t have the money. But this did create some very interesting planning efforts as players will try to make sure they don’t have any available coins as they traversed over a building that asked for payment. Really interesting mechanic here!
There is a lot to consider when placing buildings. You can try and place the ones that charge a toll on major routes to ensure that your opponents have to pay you to pass through, creating a source of continual revenue for you throughout the game, or you can build them so that you get major combos when you pass through. You can also take a risk and place them on less well-used paths next to hazards, because these harder to get to spaces offer additional benefits that are printed on the board in addition to the building’s main powers.
When a player reaches the end of the line in Kansas City they sell their cattle, sending these cattle thematically to markets located varied distances down the tracks, such as Santa Fe, Albuquerque, El Paso, or San Francisco to name a few. The distance that you can ship the cattle is calculated using the sum of the breeding values of your unique cattle plus any railroad certificates that you have collected along the trail. So, if your herd value was 8 and you had 2 certificates, you could move up to 10 distance down the rail line or all the way to Albuquerque. Another key is that players can move freely down the track if, and only if, their personal colored train is that far down the track. If not, then you will have to pay a penalty for each crossing that you traverse, which can make it impossible to get to where you could if you don’t have money. The player then returns to Texas and begins the journey all over again.
There are also end game objective cards that players can try to acquire and then complete by the end (that is why they are called end game cards). Each player also starts with one of the starting objectives but if they want others, they must acquire them through buildings. These objectives provide bonuses for collecting a certain type of cow, for having various types of hazards claimed, for trading with the natives, for claiming stations, etc. I found that the objective cards were very important in the overall final score as in our several plays, the winner typically has scored a large amount of points with them. In fact, in our last game, Matt who won by about 32 points received 28 points from the objectives alone! These objectives award careful planning as well as maximization of your actions and the choice of routes along the trail. Of course, as with any game where card drawing is involved, sometimes you are just lucky and the card drawn to refill the objectives just suits your preexisting strategy perfectly!
So, in essence the Great Western Trail is sort of like a rondel that is being continuously changed by players through adding extra buildings and hazards that players can stop at or have to pay to cross over. One criticism that could be brought against Great Western Trail is that once players have developed a good profitable route, by building their own buildings that give them improved actions over the neutral buildings, they can simply focus on following this same route over and over again, pretty much just rinse and repeat. As players move along the trail, it is in their best interest to try and improve their cattle cards (but is not required for victory as buildings can provide lots of victory points) by diversifying the breeds to create higher pay outs when they reach the market in Kansas City. Remember, that you are only paid for the DIFFERENT breeds that you bring into Kansas City, so a hand with 4 Jerseys will only pay you 1 dollar where a diverse hand with a Jersey, a Dutch Belt, a Black Angus and a Holstein will pay you 8 dollars! You must diversify those breeds and collect different types along the trail, continually ridding your hand of duplicate cards by selling them at the various buildings along the route and drawing new cards. This is where deck-building enters the game as you must find ways to get rid of your weak cattle breeds (I’m looking at the 5 Jersey the players start with in their deck of 14 cards) and add in variety with the more valuable breeds such as the West Highland (4 breeding value) and Texas Longhorn (5 breeding value). Each of the various breeds offer end game victory points as well so not only are you rewarded with money during the game, you are building your victory point total for the end game.
In addition to deck-building and set collection associated with the cattle, Great Western Trail feels a little like a race game as you are trying to quickly and repeatedly get to Kansas City but also need to make sure you are building that herd along the way as well as collecting hazards, trading with the native tribes, hiring workers and collecting objective cards that will pay out big points at game end. This is a major decision point that must be made by all players, deciding their personal tempo. Do they move through the trail quickly to obtain the larger bonuses from Kansas City more often? Or does it make more sense to maximize each trip along the trail to get the most out of the buildings? This is a choice that I loved and makes the game very different from other heavy Euros. Progress can slow down considerably as more and more buildings are placed on the game board, although some buildings do actually allow you to move again after completing the actions on the building you land on and taking advantage of the next building’s benefits when you land on it. But don’t fret, base movements can be increased by up to two spaces as you remove disks from your player board after making deliveries to the cities along the railroad or claiming stations.
What I Liked About Great Western Trail
Theme – I love the theme and actually wondered where Alexander Pfister got his idea from as he definitely doesn’t live in the American Southwest and most likely has no knowledge about this cattle drive concept. It is a perfect fit for the chosen mechanics and I am a little bit of a sucker for Western Themed games such as Carson City, Bang!, Saloon Tycoon and Dice Town. Excellent choice and also a very well executed theme that is reinforced in the mechanics (deckbuilding = cattle, deliveries = railroad, hazards = Native American trading, drought, floods, etc.).
Tempo of Game – The really subtle and most interesting part of GWT is that you must think about and plan for the speed you move along the trail to Kansas City. If you choose to move slowly, you are able to utilize more actions on the buildings along the way, gaining more benefits but the downside of this is it will take more turns to reach KC for the big payouts. If you choose to move fast, you may end up with less than optimal cattle in your hand to sell and may lose valuable cash to buy more upgraded cattle and workers on your next turn. You also need to be thinking about how to get your train moving down the track, which stations are the best and offer the most benefit or assist you in completing objectives and which colored disk spaces you will be able to uncover as a product of your shipments. Black disk spaces are usually better and more premium benefits than white spaces but you need both. So this aspect is very different and somewhat unique from the other engine-building Euro games I’ve played where typically more actions/faster movement equates to greater success and victory. Sometimes in GWT, slow and steady wins the race but sometimes it is better to be the hare and race to the end. I love this choice!
Many Paths to Victory – I think another strength of the game is that there appear to be radically different strategies that can win. I have seen victories while focusing on cattle and deckbuilding, while focusing on buildings and while focusing on engineers (although this one seemed a little tougher). I truly think that you ignore areas completely and still do well. This is very unique and a sign of a very well balanced and good designed game. Before we played our first game, I was convinced that cattle were overpowered, until someone (Matt) ignored cowboys completely having only bought one upgraded cow and won going away with a building strategy. We have also experienced someone focused on the certificates as well and scoring points from stations and from getting to the far ends of the rail line. I love that there are multiple paths to victory!
Deckbuilding – I have truly enjoyed the deckbuilding aspect of the game and believe it is very well designed and integrated. While not necessarily critical to victory, the cattle are so tempting and I love to be able to gather up the one or two copies of the upgraded breeds by focusing on cowboys from the get-go. Let me tell you it is very satisfying to be the only player with 3, 4 and 5 breeding value cattle pulling into Kansas City and getting a huge payout of $15! I love the mechanic of getting rid of poor breeds by uncovering the disk space that allows you to “thin the herd” as well. Every good deckbuilding game must have this mechanic (I’ve played some recently such as Clank! that don’t have this as a ready option!).
Strategic Options – “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!” Famous words from a great American forefather Benjamin Franklin holds very true in GWT. Planning your path is truly interesting (and fun) and making sure you strategically place your own buildings to set you up for abusing the combos is vitally important. You must use planning to create a linear and logical order of your possible actions. What I mean by this statement is that having a building located where you can buy multiple cows, before you can actually get the needed cash to do so is utterly useless.
Also, in the very beginning stages of the game all players can pretty much only take the same actions, in the same order due to the predetermined starting locations of the neutral buildings. The neutral buildings are the only option on the trail at this point, so making sure that you get out and place some of your key buildings early, such as the green or black hand buildings that force your opponent to pay you to pass, is very strategic. There are only a few prime locations early on and I have found those that build there tend to do better than those that don’t. The longer the game plays the more private buildings will be placed along the trail which will change the game as players try to avoid certain areas, or choose to take the path where their buildings are located. Your economic engine is different from your opponents and I really like this about the game.
As the number of buildings along the trail increases, players will be able to move less down the trail as each building encountered counts as a movement and may not be able to reach their buildings as easily. You sometimes cannot reach a neutral building or a building of your own within the steps you are allowed to take, but this is hope. This situation requires proper management of your personal player board. Remember, 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 on your player board. One of these improvements is increasing your movement, which solves the problem described above. By removing certain disks, you increase your hand limit (more possible cows to sell in KC), open up new basic actions, or increase the amount of steps you can take during a turn. I love these strategic options that are available to players as it makes the game feel so satisfying as you overcome problem areas or open up new powers that make your strategy more efficient.
Components – I love games with lots of bits and pieces and Great Western Trail doesn’t disappoint in this area. The map is gorgeous and well designed, the art is fantastic, the colors are very appealing and help things to stand out and the wooden bits and player boards are perfect. I love the use of iconography as well, as too many games try to write too much on boards which requires a magnifying glass to read. My only complaint with the player boards is they are rather thin and may not wear well!
Fantastic Player Aid – To me, a good player aid can make or break a game! Players need to be able to refer to something, other than a 20 page rulebook, to remember what the action steps and sequence of play are. I love the player aids in this game and what makes them even better is that they are printed at the top of your very own player board so it is one less thing to worry about.
What I Didn’t Like About Great Western Trail
Repetitive Nature – As mentioned above, once a good section of trail is established by players with the placement of their upgraded and more optimized buildings, the game tends to turn toward simply following that same route turn after turn, performing the same actions over and over again. The true fun in the game is building that optimal route by carefully planning out your building locations (I love to take advantage of the additional action spaces and create multiple combos in a row). I wish there was a way for other players to mess with those optimal routes more! I personally am not a huge fan of “take that” actions in games, but feel like there is more of this needed in GWT. Maybe there is room for a later expansion that introduces events that possibly can slow down those optimal paths by placing additional obstacles in the players path such as dust storms, wildfires, hostile raiders, crop failures, etc. These type of events would definitely require players to be flexible and perform even more pre-planning to overcome. One element I liked in Mombasa by Alexander Pfister was the area control element by moving your companies into the various areas to control resources like diamonds and money. Maybe something like this could be added in the future.
Prone to the Dreaded AP – Due to the multitude of choices in the game with the various strategies and with the point salad nature where everything scores and there is most likely an optimal play each turn, players that are prone to Analysis Paralysis (AP) could be hopelessly doomed in Great Western Trail. AP is not a problem in the early going, although it certainly could be, but seems to rear it’s ugly head in the late game where players are fighting for every point they can. I am not opposed to a player analyzing the different actions, as I also try to do this as well, but just want to point out that pre-planning in between turns is very important and must be done, particularly by those that are prone to AP! You might need to be careful about who you play this game with….trust me!
Options Seem Truly Limited – What I mean by this is that there are two really important points that each player must do from the very beginning of the game. One is they must choose their strategy. Are they going to focus on the herd by buying cowboy workers and then focus on the engineer as a supplement to move along the rail line to better markets? Or will they ignore cows and focus on craftsmen to build the best buildings, creating a path of recurring combos that are sure to lead to victory and once again supplement with engineers? I have yet to see someone focus mainly on the engineers and do very well. Don’t get me wrong, I think you could do well but I just haven’t seen it yet. This is what I mean by “truly” limited. There are only about 3 combinations that a player can focus on because if you don’t buy the workers (either cowboys, engineers or craftsmen, you won’t be able to perform the actions needed to score points via either a herd strategy, building strategy or rail/station strategy). These strategies cannot be chosen if you don’t choose the workers! I don’t really know if this is any different from any other game, as you always have to choose something to focus on, but I wish there were possibly a few other type of workers that were available. I am sure that this is something to be explored for a later expansion but just something I see as potentially (not game killing) concerning.
Summary & Conclusion
I didn’t think that I would really but after playing, I have to say that I REALLY enjoy Great Western Trail…A LOT! It’s a truly heavy Euro game, with lots of little options and rules to keep straight, which is one of the things that I enjoy the most. With that being said, even though it is heavy, each player’s turns really seem to go pretty fast once everyone is familiar with the game and focuses on pre-planning in between turns. You create your path of actions yourself with lots of different choices (although are they really that different?), and then simply race to the end where you take advantage of the offerings in Kansas City. I really liked that at some point during each play, you will realize that it is taking you much longer to reach your buildings, because of other player’s buildings or hazards that have been placed on the board (or removed). Never fear though as you can plan ahead and come up with something that is possible for you to do. I really liked the deckbuilding aspect of the game as it is simply fun, but also really liked the fact that it is not necessarily always needed to win. I love Alexander Pfister’s design and use of a multitude of very fun and engaging mechanics. In fact, I think that Mr. Pfister is quickly becoming one of my favorite heavy Euro game designers. Great Western Trail is a winner with both me and our group and has lived up to all of the hype that I heard about it all of 2016. I am glad that I own it and it will stay in my collection and on the table a lot in 2017. The only question at this point is how high it will come in on my soon to be released Best Games of 2017!