Review: Great Western Trail

I’ve got to tell you about this game I tried recently. It appears to be set in the 19th century and it’s about capitalists seeking to make it rich. You move your playing piece around a board, and can pay money to claim spaces. Those spaces can make you money and help you win the game! You might run out of money, but don’t worry because each time you finish a lap, you get some more money. There are also some railroads involved, but you don’t have to focus on those if you don’t want to. What’s with the weird looking guy with the hat, you ask? I have no idea.

One other thing — this game is actually really good.

Until that last part, you might have thought I was talking about Monopoly. As the title of the review suggests, I’m actually referring to one of 2016’s biggest hits: Great Western Trail. This Euro game about nineteenth century cattle driving offers a refreshing take on the ‘move around the board and take an action’ (also known as ‘rondel’) mechanic that was once virtually synonymous with board gaming but has since fallen by the wayside.

While GWT does involve moving around a board in laps, it looks and plays nothing like the games which that concept might evoke in your mind. Movement is based on strategic choices rather than the luck of a die or a spinner. Each turn, players may choose to move 1-4 spaces, and their available second-phase actions are determined by where they land. To increase the array of choices available, the path forks at multiple junctions, allowing players the opportunity to decide which route to take. Rather than a ‘wheel of fortune’ on an infinite loop, the board in GWT is more like a constantly evolving decision tree built by the group and navigated by each individual player.

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True to the style of many Euro games before it, such as Agricola and 7 Wonders, GWT offers numerous ways to score victory points. Perhaps you’ll focus on the deck building element of the game, obtaining premium cattle cards that can fetch a higher price at market. Or maybe you’ll pour your money into developing buildings along the trail, making your journey smoother while accruing fees from opponents. Meanwhile, another player might hire conductors and expand her rail infrastructure, thereby lowering her overhead costs of shipping cattle out west from the Kansas City station.

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Once a player arrives at Kansas City, they ship send their cargo west via rail.

The best thing about these choices is there’s no clear-cut best option, so you’ll be faced with strategic decisions from the first move to the last. At the same time, the rondel mechanic allows the game to feature plenty of possible actions while only presenting players with a handful of options to choose from on any given turn, dependent upon your particular location on the trail. In this way, Great Western Trail is a feast of variability and strategic depth sliced into manageable bite size chunks. Steak tastes so much better with a hearty point salad.

Having multiple paths to victory yields great replay value, as players can try different strategies and face a new challenge each time they play. Replayability is further boosted by the fact that initial setup is highly variable, between the placement of the ‘neutral building’ tiles and the selection of ten ‘player building’ tiles out of twenty.

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Starting player board with ten available buildings and an objective card.

The production quality of GWT is adequate by 2017 standards. The wooden meeples and trains are of good quality (though I wouldn’t have minded seeing some cow meeples!), and the iconography on the cards and board is clear and consistent. The amount of cardboard tiles and wooden discs feels about right – there’s a definite tactile element to this game without being so fiddly that it slows down the flow of play. The rule book is thorough, with plenty of detailed examples and a logical flow.

My main gripe with the production is the box art. The three character images that appear on the worker tokens are fine at that size and level of detail. Blown up on the front of the box though, with the dark background… they look kind of creepy. The image makes the game look more like Haunted Western Trail. It’s a minor gripe and obviously doesn’t affect gameplay, but I think Stronghold Games could have drawn even more interest with cover art that better conveys the feel of the game.

Image credit: Stronghold Games

Conclusion

Overall, I really enjoy Great Western Trail and feel that it has renewed my appreciation of the rondel mechanic. It’s unique, strategically sound, and dynamic. It has definitely become one of my favorite games of the moment, and I think it has the potential to persist as a longer-term favorite. I’m not quite ready to call it the 15th best game in the world, as suggested by its current ranking on BGG, but it easily merits a spot in the Top 100. If you’re a fan of ‘point salad’ Euro games, or even just games with a unique take on a mechanic, Great Western Trail is absolutely worth checking out.


 

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