Great Western Trail

5 Chits, 1 Giggle

Every now and then, a brilliant new designer pops into our awareness and stuns us with amazing new ideas and mechanics. Alexander Pfister stormed onto the scene with so much force that he won back to back Kennerspiel Des Jahres awards (for those who don't know, this is essentially the board gaming equivalent of the Oscar's 'Best Picture' award) and within a few years, was so highly regarded that he became one of Stronghold Games' ‘Great Designers’. This latest game of his is the 7th in the 'Great Designers' series and may well be Alexander’s most addictive one to date.

Great Western Trail is actually pretty easy to play. Don’t, however, let that fool you into thinking that it is a simple game. It appears that in concocting this, Alexander grabbed his largest mixing bowl, threw in all of the euro mechanic ingredients he found in his fridge, adding a cup of hand management, a sprinkle of deck building, a splash of tile placement and a pinch of worker placement, yet instead of opening the oven an hour later and finding a heaving, steaming mess, Alexander has baked one hell of a good flan.

You play as a rancher trying to herd your cattle from Texas to Kansas City. Along the way you will overcome hazards and stop at the various buildings on the path. Once you reach Kansas city, you will place the cattle that made the journey on a train and send them off to a far flung city. Once you've waved goodbye to Bessy and her friends, you'll go back to Texas and start the process again.

Earlier I mentioned that this was an easy game to play and I stick by that. On your turn you move your rancher one to three places (and sometimes more) along the road, and wherever you land, you can perform the action(s) that that place allows. That’s it. That’s your whole turn, nice and simple. However, as you do this, from turn to turn you will need to buy cows, employ workers, build buildings, overcome hazards, build stations, earn certificates, move your train, sell your cows, etc. The list goes on and on.

At the core of this game, you'll have a deck of cards and these represent your cattle. You can buy and sell cows at certain locations and these will be added to your discard pile, but you then draw back up to your hand limit at the end of your turn. Therefore this is a deck building game, but instead of collecting cows that combo with each other, you're trying to engineer it so that by the time you reach Kansas City, each cow in your hand is a different breed. This is how you earn the most money, as you can only sell one of each type of cow, which is where the hand management comes in. Of course, there are several ways to add or remove cards from your hand on your journey.

As you move along the road to Kansas City, you will see many types of buildings and these let you perform a variety of actions. Through these, you can build your own buildings that only you can use which sometimes cost other players to pass over. You can also buy new cows that will increase the amount of money you can earn at Kansas City. You can employ new workers who will help you to build your buildings, move your train and make cows more affordable. This is the worker placement aspect of the game; each turn you will move your rancher to a new location and once you get there you can perform the action associated with it.

Although this game is easy to play, there are so many decisions, so many options you can take, that you can't help but feel there is a lot of scope to how best to play. A great example of this can be seen on the player boards. You start the game with a series of discs covering certain spots on your own board. Every time you reach Kansas and stop at a station, you can uncover one of these spots. This will then give you more options on future turns; you can either unlock new actions, or improve ones you already have, you can increase your hand limit or even how far you can move on your turn. This is a very clever mechanic that lets you customise and plan the exact way you would like to play. So although everyone’s board will look the same at the start, your boards will eventually blossom into intricate snow flakes by the end and no two will (well, should) look the same.

One last thing. Something I fell in love with about this game is how the final scoring works. There are so many different ways to score points, it’s hard to know exactly which path to take. You score points for the cows in your deck at the end of the game, as well as for the buildings you have built along the way. You'll score point for hazards you have cleared and for the stations you sold your cattle to (although if these cities are too far apart from each other, you won’t score as many points). You can even score points for goals that you have completed during the game. There are so many different paths to scoring, and unlike some euro games, you won’t be punished if you ignore one of more of these paths. Every strategy is valid and if done right can win you the game.

Great Western Trail is easy to play. So much so you can teach it to new players in no time at all and you don’t need to wait too long between turns because the actual turns are so quick. There is a lot of room is this game for careful planning and strategising but if that’s not your thing, you can just take each turn as it goes and see where the path takes you. This has been, by a long shot, my favourite release of 2016 so far, and I really hope we see a shiny new Kennerspiel tucked under Alexander Pfister's arm in 2017.

Review by Ben Miles