Tue. May 30th, 2023
Cute cowboy meeples are standard.
enlarge / Cute cowboy meeples are standard.

Tom Mendelsohn

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend take on table games! Check out our full coverage of board games at cardboard.arstechnica.com and let us know what you think.

For some, the term “heavy euro” might refer to a particularly minimal EDM genre that can’t be heard in damp Berlin warehouses until 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but for board players the term has other, if not less intense, connotations.

The price of Euro games is beyond form, placing game mechanics above fluff and theme, but they can sometimes resemble competitive spreadsheets in three dimensions as players push wooden chips over patterned boards to maximize token yields. The heavier the euro, the more loops and interlocking systems there are – and the more it can seem like you’re mimicking MC Escher’s abacus.

But don’t let that stop you.

Great Western Trail, a quintessentially American game set in the Old West, designed by an Austrian and published by a German company, is a pretty heavy dollar. At first glance (and frankly, with every glance you’ve taken before going through an hour’s worth of explainer videos), it’s a bewildering array of chips, counters, tiles, cards, and merry wooden cowboys. And while you might initially think it’s a game of shootings and train robberies, it’s not. Great Western Trail is a game about driving herds of cattle across the Great Plains to Kansas City, then you sell them and go back and start over.

It’s a simple idea, but it brings you a lot of different concepts: you have deck building and hand management while looking after your handsome herd of cattle, tile placement and building management, point-to-point movement and employee management – in addition to all the clever ways such disparate mechanics are sewn together. The interplay between all these loops is where the magic is, but actually learning to play the thing can be a high barrier to entry, a situation not helped at all by a manual that might as well have written in forgotten older runes. can be.

But once you’ve crossed that barrier, Great Western Trail is an absolute delight. What starts out as a jumble of concepts all vying for your attention actually boils down to a delightful series of loops interlocking over a very simple, predictable trek from Cow HQ at the bottom right of the board to Kansas City Central Station. top left . You will have to make tons of all sorts of decisions during any given game, but because they never all come at you at once, something that is overwhelming at first glance becomes a real pleasure.

Join us, little dogs

Collect various cattle cards to sell in Kansas City.  You start with worthless cards like the Jersey and work your way up to more valuable races like the Texas Longhorn.
enlarge / Collect various cattle cards to sell in Kansas City. You start with worthless cards like the Jersey and work your way up to more valuable races like the Texas Longhorn.

Players start with a small pack of worthless Cattle cards. You know the type: junk cows like Black Angus, Green Belt, and, ugh, sweaters. The object of the game is to reach the big city with as many different races as possible in your hand, after which you put them on a train to another city. To get there you follow an easy trail across the board – the Great Western Trail – which in this case is made up of branching trails that slowly fill up with way stations, cattle markets, farms, natural hazards and hostile Indian reserves. At each stop on the route, you can take certain actions, such as selling duplicate cards, building more buildings, moving your locomotive forward (yes, there’s a whole steam train subplot), recruiting staff, collecting objective cards, and buying less embarrassing cattle.

It’s at these stops where much of the game takes place; the trick, or one of the tricks, is to optimize your trip to Kansas City, while enjoying the goods and services provided along the way. Each player has a stack of ten buildings of their own (double-sided for variety), which they can knock down to give them different advantages. Along the way you may encounter rocky outcrops or flooding or Native American tribes, all of which cost money to pass. If you cross certain tiles, you may even have to pay your opponents. And because players build new things as the game progresses, the whole experience starts small and grows into meaningful paths as more options are revealed.

Of course it has its Euro-ticks galore – there are many new abilities to unlock by moving cubes from one room to another – but it always feels intuitive. The throughput of wood is comparable to, but less intensive than in games such as Scythe. In both games, players have their own personal mats to rank up, which are even busier to the untrained eye – a jumble of covered action spaces, future trades and mind-bogglingly mysterious symbols that provide goodies along the way. It is on the mats that your growing staff of cowboys, builders and engineers gather; they are recruited from buildings and help you buy cows (near buildings), build other buildings (near a building) and move your train (in all sorts of ways, most related to buildings).

Speaking of trains, everyone has one. There’s a very quirky mini-game that everyone plays when they arrive in town where they have to decide where they want their furry kids to end up. The farther you send them, the better the potential bonuses, but if your train is too far away because you didn’t use your time on the track to get it moving, it will cost you money to send it there. There’s more to it than that, with the addition of Station Master tiles, players can claim five counters that give them permanent bonuses, and a few extra opportunities to score. The track winds its way down the right side of the board after San Francisco, allowing players who prefer railroad men to cattle herders to gain extra points by presumably making their way to Ecuador.

The trains in action.  Send your cattle to distant cities to score points.
enlarge / The trains in action. Send your cattle to distant cities to score points.

Smart, every time you sell at a station, you get to move a chip from your mat to the board. Each token on the board earns you points at the end of the game, bonuses if you claim adjacent cities that are further away, or fines if you take the easy route and sell to nearby cities. Beneath each token on your personal board is a new ability that allows you to shunt your train a little further, or get rid of a hated Jersey forever, or increase your movement or hand size. Everything is connected, and while the whole locomotive business is a mechanic that caused significant additional confusion for new folks in my playthroughs, once you get the gist of what the train aspect is actually for, it’s another layer of excellent intrigue.

mashup master

Despite the way Alexander Pfister has tried to cram every mechanic he’s ever heard into his masterpiece, the game doesn’t play as slow as you’d expect. Once people get the hang of it, which is usually halfway through their first game, things move on at a disciplined pace (although your first game can be long as everyone gets their bearings). The employee marketplace on the side of the board acts like a strict game clock, and even a four-player game shouldn’t last much longer than the 150-minute playtime suggested on the box, with surprisingly little room for analysis paralysis. If anything, the game ends a round or two earlier than I’d like, which is usually an indication that a game is well-balanced (there’s always room to improve your efficiency!).

The game works just as well with three players, although there is a little more room for buildings and less pressure on the livestock market. The two-player game is relatively short and more cutthroat, but it still works just fine.

Great Western Trail has elements of a “point salad” game; there is no scarcity of victory points, and players can choose to focus on different routes to victory, leaving another important choice.

Finally, it is never openly mentioned that the cattle are brought to Kansas to be slaughtered, so I like to pretend Great Western Trail is a cow travel simulator, rather than an exercise in unspoken carnage. When you arrive in town I can only assume you put them on the train and give them a great time seeing Sacramento, San Francisco or Colorado Springs. It’s a brilliant game, and I can’t recommend it enough for experienced board players who want a deep, mechanical experience and free up an entire evening.

By akfire1

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