Great Western Trail is a deck building, route movement board game from publisher eggertspiele, set in the 19th century American West. Designed by Alexander Pfister, featuring artwork from Pfister himself and Andreas Resch, the game sees 2 – 4 players herd their cattle along a winding route from Texas to Kansas City. Along the way players will purchase more cattle, earn money for sending cattle to cities, construct outposts along the route and hire various workers. However, with so many overlapping aspects is this an experience to get excited about or one that could have been leaner? Let’s find out!
As a general overview players will be moving along the trails, stopping at locations to perform actions. These actions help them gain money, cycle through their deck of cattle to get the best range and eventually deliver cattle from Kansas City – in turn earning money and hopefully some victory points. Players will normally do this around 6 times in a game, each time starting out in the fields of Texas.
Setup for Great Western Trail is as much about randomising the board as it is getting the game ready to play. From the order of the neutral locations along the route from Texas to Kansas City, to the hazards and types of workers available in the initial job market, from one game to the next the process of setup remains the same but the outcome of it is highly varied. Players always get a playerboard with 14 discs to cover up upgrade slots, a cowboy meeple to track their route and a train meeple, which starts on the tracks at Kansas City. They also get 10 personal building tiles. Having both an A and a B side all players must use the same side for all of their buildings.
A turn is broken down into 3 easy steps, with the middle step potentially becoming a large number of triggering actions. First, players must move. At the start of the game players can move a default number of up to 3 locations along the route. They must move forward at least one location, with only filled locations counting, and at times there’s a choice between two routes. Passing over or stopping on tiles with a green/black hand symbol costs money, which is paid to the bank or the player that built it.
The actions available to the player depend on where they stop. If it is a location they have built or a neutral location they can either perform the tile actions or an auxiliary action. If the tile is one built by an opponent or is a hazard/teepee then only an auxiliary action can be taken. Main actions range from constructing buildings, hiring workers, moving their train along the tracks from Kansas, buying new cattle cards to discarding specific cattle cards to gain money. Auxiliary actions aren’t as strong but can still see the player getting a minor benefit, such as a single dollar or paying to move their train forward.
A number of the main actions are impacted by your workforce. Hiring cowboys allows the player to purchase more cattle cards, better cattle cards or the same ones at a cheaper price. Hiring a craftsman means a wider range of the personal buildings can be built. Hiring engineers boosts the number of spaces your train can move, as often the action is to move it forward by as many spaces as you have engineers. Not only are there ongoing benefits, hiring workers can also trigger one time abilities and if enough of the same type of worker are hired victory points are on offer. After the player has performed this step all they need to do is draw up to their hand limit – which starts at 4. Play then continues clockwise around the table to the next player and so on.
Players eventually get to Kansas. This triggers a range of new hazard, worker and/or teepee tiles to be added to the board before the player sells their cattle. Looking at their current hand, the player plays their unique cattle cards. Adding together the values of these unique cards, and adding any certificates they obtained along the way, the value achieved is the number of dollars received from the bank. Note, these cards are discarded into the players discard pile and not removed from the game.
The player must then choose where to send the cattle. The cities along the train tracks are numbered, with any below the value achieved being deliverable to. The player may have to pay money depending on how far along the track their train meeple is, and after this they place a disc from their player board onto the city. This blocks them from being able to deliver to that city again, though it doesn’t block other players. The disc being removed from their player board upgrades their board. It might unlock a new auxiliary action, allow for increased movement or even allow the player to have a larger hand size.
Going to Kansas City means more workers become available, and this pushes the job market token down the market. When this is finally pushed off the board the player gains the token and triggers the end of the game. Each other player then has one final turn before points are calculated. Points are earnt for a range of things and are only determined after the game has ended. From money collected to the stations delivered to, and obtained objective cards, there are over 10 things taken into account. Whoever has the most points is declared the cattle rancher champion.
There’s no doubt that Great Western Trail looks daunting. From the 17 steps of setup and the 16 page long rulebook, to the way every aspect seems to overlap and impact each other. Once a few rounds in though things start to click. Players will realise that for the most part they will want to stop at their own or neutral locations. Combined the neutral tiles feature all of the commonly used actions, with personal buildings just adding variations. The rulebook even has colour coded phases of the turn structure and plenty of examples, which helps the learning process be that bit smoother.
There is still a lot going on though and like many of Alexander Pfister’s designs Great Western Trail isn’t a light game. That doesn’t mean that the rules don’t make sense though, there are just a lot of interwoven aspects. Players aren’t just transporting cattle to Kansas City with splitting routes to travel on. Players have to manage their deck of cattle, purchase buildings and hire assistants. Taken individually these are somewhat intuitive systems that build into the overall experience. As players will be getting points for so many aspects, so it can be hard to look past wanting to fully understand every aspect before making decisions.
Part of this struggle is negated by the real world logic derived from the theming of Great Western Trail, despite it not being the most exhilarating of themes. Putting aside the fact that the cattle are cards, real world logic is applied to a number of situations. For instance, when following one of the routes, a player may pass over a flooded area, having to pay seemingly some locals for help. An action that can be taken is to pay to permanently clear a hazard. Clearing it gains points but it also means that the space is free. Therefore, future journeys aren’t slowed down if that route is taken. Note that this isn’t to say you can look at the game and instantly know what to do.
When it comes to game length there is quite a range quoted on the box, 75 to 150 minutes. Even at two players the initial playthrough, which was full of learning, clocked in at just under 2 hours. Over subsequent plays this decreased as some options became slightly quicker calculated choices. Some will be put off by this initial play or even the general length. If you are afraid this might happen with your game group there are ways to speed things up. For example, those whom had previously played a deck builder or two instantly understood how to cycle through their herd deck, without any explanation needed.
Points are gained for many different achievements, leading to a point salad style game. Whether players are earning money, building out their deck or a whole host of other actions points can be earnt at the end of the game. There is a sense of progression throughout each game, so you never feel like you’ve achieved nothing – even if you are far from the winner’s point total. Part of this stems from the moving of the discs off your player board, opening up new or better actions or passive abilities, such as drawing a larger hand of cards. You might not be able to pull of your grand cattle plan. Yet, you will have at least managed to work through chunks of that plan and earnt points along the way.
As complex as the interlaced elements of Great Western Trail are, it doesn’t feel like a game that is out on the table for an hour and a half. The logical way players progress by gaining better cattle cards, getting a range of unique cattle in their hand and slowly mirandering up to Kansas City has a nice flow to it, which is then repeated multiple times. Variety is certainly a focus of the variable setup and there is a spot of randomness introduced by this and the way the decks are shuffled. It’s more something to work with than have to work against though. This is an easy trade to make though as no two games feel the same. It would be remiss of me not to note that a second edition of Great Western Trail is scheduled to be released later this year. How that version will change things is currently unknown. Players will get hours upon hours of thinky entertainment from this edition of Great Western Trail, with an experience you’ll keep thinking about after playing.
(Editor’s Note: Great Western Trail was provided to us by Asmodee for the review. The game is currently available from local board game stores! Find your local store here.)