Great Western Trail

Alexander Pfister
2 - 4
12 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Five-hundred head of cattle mill around behind you, mooing, stamping their hooves. The noise is deafening. Ahead of you lies what you remember to be wide, open prairie. Not any more, though. Just a few years ago, the only man-made structure between here and Kansas City was Rosie’s Saloon. Now you couldn’t spit a chewed-up toothpick without hitting a general store, used cow dealer or train ticket office. And the train goes everywhere now, too. All the way to San Francisco, last you heard. Maybe you could go all the way to Canada by train. Now there was a country where civilization didn’t strangle a man’s life.

Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail is a game about making old cowboys sad. When it starts the prairie is still wide open with only a few neutral buildings around. You drive small herds of mangy cattle to Kansas City. And if that cattle goes all the way to Santa Fe on the train then you can say it’s seen the wide world. The more the game progresses, the more buildings will clutter the prairie, the bigger and more expensive the herds get, and the further the cattle will be shipped. What makes the old cowboy sad will be the same thing that makes players happy, because every one of those developments is under the players’ control in their pursuit of victory points.

Great Western Trail is the most elaborate set collection game ever designed. What drives the game is players repeatedly herding their cattle across the prairie to Kansas City to deliver and handful of cattle cards there. The more different breeds of cattle you have in hand when you arrive, the more valuable the delivery is, the further away you can ship it on the train, and the more money you make from it. And then you start over with the next cattle drive.

The Law of the West – The Rules

Nothing's going to slow me down
Nothing’s going to slow me down

Driving your cows to Kansas is the driving force of the game, but most of the interesting things – and there are many of those – happen around it. Even in the beginning of the game, when the prairie is still empty safe for the seven neutral buildings, you take at least three turns to get to Kansas. That’s simple enough, on a turn you may move your cowboy-meeple one to three steps on the board, and you don’t count the many empty spaces where buildings will be added later. If you rush to Kansas, you’ll take three steps. You might take more, if you stop at more of the buildings. And you’ll want to stop at more of the buildings because you may take very useful actions there.

Let’s take a look at one neutral building. We’ll call it the Job Center, because the buildings frustratingly don’t have official names. It offers three actions, and you can take any combination of them if you end your turn here. Two of them are about hiring people from the job market area of the main board. They come in three professions (Cowboys, Engineers and Craftsmen) and cost quite a solid chunk of money to hire. At the Job Center you can hire one worker from the job market at the regular price. If you’re rolling on money – which you won’t be most of the time – you can hire a second worker for two coins more than their regular price.

Full Steam Ahead
Full Steam Ahead

Thirdly, you may discard a white Guernsey cattle card from your hand for two coins. This last kind of action is present on many buildings for different colors of cards. The little income from them is nice, especially early in the game, but they have a much more important use: hand management. Remember that you want arrive in Kansas with different colors of cattle in hand. Discarding one of your white cards gives you a chance to draw a different color when you draw up to four cards after your turn.

Back to the workers, though. They are not workers in the sense of a worker placement game. What they do is improve some of your other actions when you take them from the main board. The Cowboy, for instance, improves your options at the Cow Dealership, where you buy new cattle cards for your cattle deck. Oh yeah, I should have mentioned that: each player has their own deck of cattle cards, and building your deck by adding good cows and removing bad cows is another important part of the game. Having more cowboys lets you buy more cows, better cows, and potentially for less money, too. If you want the best cows, Cowboys are the way to go.

Craftsmen help you clutter the prairie with new buildings. Each player has a set of ten private buildings, and the more powerful a buildings action is the more Craftsmen – and coins – it takes to put on the board. Private buildings have a variety of uses. For one, they have many of the same actions as the neutral buildings, only better and only usable by their owner. They also make the way to Kansas City longer, because all players must count the new building when stepping across it. And they can make you a nice bit of money at the expense of other players, because they have to pay to cross some of your private buildings. In a strategic location, that adds up quickly. If, for some reason, you must end your turn on an opponent’s private building you can not take the action there, but the turn isn’t wasted, either. You can always take an auxiliary action, like exchanging a hand card for another one. Once you unlocked it – see below – you can even use an auxiliary action to remove an unwanted cattle card from your deck.

That's a great cow if I ever saw one
That’s a great cow if I ever saw one

The Engineer works for all your railway needs. We mentioned the railway so far as an abstract thing that takes your cattle away, but moving your little locomeeple along the track is yet another essential part of the game. Moving it forward is what allows you to ship your cattle further away, earning more victory points and other benefits. But that’s not all, moving the locomeeple also lets you build stations. Those are again worth victory points, and they let you place a disc from your player board. Removing discs from your player board is how you get upgrades, because that’s another thing that happens: The discs were covering more auxiliary actions and other upgrades like larger hand size. Getting those tasty upgrades is another thing you want to do.

Those are just the actions related to the different workers, there are still some others. You can take objective cards that, when played, give you a one time bonus but also burden you with an objective you must complete or lose points when the game ends. You can remove obstacle tiles from the board where you’d have to pay money to cross them otherwise. You can trade with the native tribes. And that’s still not all the options. And with every track you make to Kansas you’ll have the choice between more of them.

Speaking of Kansas, what happens when you arrive there is comparatively straightforward. You get money based on how many breeds of cattle you have in your herd. You can improve their value by spending Certificates you gained from, you guessed it, yet more actions. The more valuable your herd is the further away you can ship it. That detail forces you to deliver better and better herds because each destination will only take one delivery from you. And delivering to a new destination lets you remove yet another disc from your player board, giving you even more options for the next track.

Just buff out the dents...
Just buff out the dents…

The Value of Progress – The Verdict

Looking at the description of Great Western Trail the term point salad does come to mind. And it’s not entirely unjustified at first glance, many different things are worth points: Money, high quality cows, completed objective cards, train stations, cattle delivers, some upgrades … . But looking a bit deeper, Great Western Trail differs from the games typically labelled point salad: You won’t get many points if you don’t have a plan and a strategy. Great Western Trail has many options, and they are all connected in some way. Figuring out what is the best order to do things will give you a delightful knot in your brain.

There is no way to do everything you want to, you’ll neither have the time nor the money, but every time you want to do something you’ll come up with some other action that you could do first because it would make the next action cheaper, or more efficient. And that’s still besides the core tension of Great Western Trail: do you rush to Kansas City to push for a quick end and try and make more deliveries than your opponents? Or do you go slow, take more actions, get your upgrades and build your most valuable buildings? There are very few obvious decisions. And your strategy won’t even be the same from game to game, because different selections of private buildings make strategies more or less attractive.

Kansas, ho!
Kansas, ho!

All those options do lead to the usual problem: There will be times when you have to wait for other players to make their decisions. It’s not as big of a problem as it could have been because other players’ action rarely have an influence on your next turn, so you can do your planning while someone else has their turn. Still, you won’t be spending the whole 90+ minutes actively engaged in the game.

But that’s already the biggest problem we could find with Great Western Trail. The heavily interconnected parts of the game make for a very deep game where no turn feels empty or without choices. The different mechanics – hand management, deck-building, selecting upgrades,… – don’t feel at all cobbled together, they make a coherent whole where you’ll have to consider every part to do well. And I’m in love with the escalation in this game. The first time you set out to Kansas, you don’t have all that many options. But every time you make the track there are more possibilities and more dangers. The development is beautiful.  I was disappointed that Great Western Trail only made it to the recommendation list for Kennerspiel des Jahres, not to the nominees. If you’re looking for a strategic game with a lot of depth and decisions, then this is one you want.

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