Train Heist is a brand new cooperative, western themed, pick-up and deliver game from designer Sean Dallas McDonald. Players take up the roles of the heisters, as they attempt to rob from a train guarded by a corrupt Sheriff. Full of loot, horseback riding, a steam train motoring around the desert and playing cards, there’s a lot going on in the game. However, is Train Heist a steal of a game or one that is a criminal offence? Let’s find out!
Straight away even before opening the box, gamers will notice the rather perplexing choice by the designer to include anthropomorphised animals. While they almost feature more on the box than in the actual game, featuring solely on the loot tokens, it still distracts and detracts from the game. The issue is not that they are humanised creatures, other games have done this well, more that it adds nothing to the game other than a distraction.
The theming otherwise all fits the train robbery scene. The best possible setting, in the form of a Western, has been chosen. There is almost an air of Robin Hood to Train Heist, stealing from the rich people on board with the corrupt Sheriff to help the poor towns. This works well to explain the lore behind the objective that the players are set. It might not go as far to explain the very small circular railroad the game centres around but it does a great job of holding the rest together. Perfect, if it wasn’t for those animals…
Putting aside both the great and odd choices of the theming, lets focus on the most important aspect of any board game the gameplay! Players will be taking it in turns to move around the board, boarding the train, stealing loot and delivering it to the three towns, though not inventively, named A, B and C. To accomplish this, players can perform 4 Heist actions per turn and any number of the free actions. Players can move to adjacent spaces or if they are on a horse discard one of their 5 poker cards to move the number of spaces equalling the number on the card. Movement includes if they are next to the train, where they are able to board the train. Depending on the carriage they jump onto on the main board determines where they enter the train. Naturally, horses cannot enter the train. So, after jumping aboard, until exiting the train, movement is restricted to only adjacent spaces along the carriages or their roofs.
Players can loot from a carriage they are in, spending poker cards in their hand that match the requirements of the respective loot tokens. For example, these could be three odd cards or icon-wise two guns and two bags. Players can loot two items at once from the same train carriage. Though once they have looted once, regardless of the amount taken, they must drop it off at a town before looting again. This is very important as dropping off loot at a town is the only way to score victory points. Simply looting is not enough. If you are unfortunate and get caught by the Sheriff or hit by the speeding train you lose the loot you’re carrying. To help the looting process, players on the same space can trade the poker cards, something which can be extremely helpful to obtain two loot items at once. The last main Heist action is to take a bullet token, which effectively allows players to store an action point for later on in the game.
The Poker cards aren’t just helpful for obtaining loot they can also be traded-in in select sets, such as two of a kind, to gain addition Heist action points, switch the track directions or even move the Sheriff. The other free action allows the player to mount or dismount the horse as long as it is on their current space. A maximum of two players can fit on a single horse. Just make sure if two players are on a horse that it doesn’t get hit by the train. Not only will both players discard any loot and lose their next turn but if the horse is ever hit by the train it is removed from the game. So, this really is the worst-case scenario.
Using these actions, players must rob the train and deliver loot to the towns before the train arrives at them. This doesn’t give a lot of time so players will constantly be having to board the train and be trying to somehow claim some of the available loot. If at any point the train reaches a town without loot the Hangman’s Noose token moves down a notch. After three fails the game is over. Another way to fail is if you are not quick enough and the event deck runs out. As the train steams around the board it will pass over Sheriff badge symbols. These trigger events that alter elements of the game. The most common action is that the Sheriff moves one way or another along the train, potentially catching a player out and landing them in Jail. Other actions include adding Cherokee tokens to the game board blocking off spaces or even speeding the train up.
Starting in a 2-3 player game the train has a speed of 2 and with 4 players it starts with a speed of 1. After each players’ turn the train moves around the board by the number of spaces indicated by its speed. At the start this is quite manageable. Alas, as the train picks up speed, events are triggered more often and the train reaches towns quicker, making the whole experience harder. The slow speed at the start almost lulls you into a false sense of security and suddenly the train is hurtling around the board 5 spaces at a time!
The victory condition to Train Heist is variable, in terms of it is completely up to the players. The game itself allows you to choose how many loot bags you want to grab as your goal. Suggesting between 10 and 20. For the first few games I wouldn’t suggest more than around 12. Despite early on it being easy to get those double loot pickups, as the game progresses and the train speeds up getting only one loot token is a feat in itself.
The artwork of the game board is lacking in the visual treat department. It fits the western, cowboy theme but it does little to really standout. Consequently, it fades away to become a rather forgettable board that gets the job done. Aside from the artwork one feature is rather special. Sitting towards the bottom of the board are two magnetic arrows. These are for the speed of the train and to keep track of the loot players have successfully delivered. These are rather memorable as they cannot just be accidentally knocked out of place whenever the board is nudged. Hopefully, other designers will take note of the idea.
The rest of the components are nicely designed. The character meeples look like someone ready for a western shootout and sit flawlessly on the horse pieces. The drawstring bag is a nice touch of class, for shuffling the loot tokens up. This keeps the combinations of cards needed for loot on the train randomised and somewhat limits the ability of players to pre-plan for future loot items. It would be nice to have seen the top-quality drawstring bag a little fuller of different loot tokens but there is enough to get the job done. Finally, it is a theme strengthen touch to have the cards made in a style reminiscent of a deck of playing cards, which often seen in westerns for gambling.
Generally, the rulebook is clear and concise. Alas, after an initial read the rules don’t seem intuitive, they feel overly extensive. The action list is long and it almost overloads new players unless they are used to heavier games. This isn’t helped by the rules recommending playing a mock 2-player game before playing with multiple players. As a gamer whom doesn’t overly like the idea of playing solo this was a bit off-putting.
One reason that the rules daunt those new to the hobby is not only is there a long action list but there are two different sections of map, named main and train, to keep an eye on. This is certainly a more complex train game than the likes of Ticket to Ride or Colt Express. Nevertheless, when players get a couple of turns under their belts things start to become more logical and the worrying about the rules dissipates. When actually playing things flow naturally, without thought or consulting the rulebook. However, it is only after jumping in and playing that everything clicks with everyone understanding what they need to do to win.
There are some rules which are more for gameplay purposes that don’t follow this rule. The Sheriff moving when Wild Cards are played is a prime example of this. Wild cards, almost Jokers in the pack of poker cards, can be played as any number or any suit the player needs it to be. This is a trade off as the Sheriff will instantly move one space on the train closer to that player. While it isn’t as intuitive as the entering, or exiting, of the train it does provide additional challenge to the game. Also, as this is a cooperative game players can always look to use this to lour the Sheriff away from one carriage allowing an ally to swoop in and grab the loot.
Overall, Train Heist is an interesting western themed delivery game, that does plenty to make it different from other train robbery titles. While there are the oddities of the anthropomorphised animals and the lacklustre looking game board, it is the rules that will most likely put some off playing. This is a shame as if you can get people past the barrier of seeing the length of the rules and just start playing there is enjoyment to be had and loot to be obtained! Partially because of this slight issue it might be harder to initially bring the game to the table but it is a barrier worth breaking. Train Heist won’t be hitting the gaming table all the time but it will certainly see the light of day again in the near future.
[Editor’s Note: Train Heist was provided to us by Esdevium Games for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £41.49. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]