Sunday, 18 June 2017

Great Western Trail

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Great Western Trail is one of the more popular games within the past year. It is designed by Alexander Pfister, also a hot designer in recent years. I have tried his other popular games Mombasa and Isle of Skye, but I didn't like them. They gave me the feeling of a mesh of scoring mechanisms bound together. Isle of Skye does have an interesting auction system, but although I find it novel and clever, the rest of the game doesn't grab me. Mombasa has some clever mechanisms, but it also feels like just multiple systems for scoring existing for the sake of scoring. I can't feel the story. There is decent logic, but no emotion. Still, Great Western Trail has been getting high praise, so I didn't mind giving it a go. This time I found something I liked.

The game board has many one-directional routes and many nodes where the routes diverge and converge. The routes start from the bottom left corner, and they all eventually lead to Kansas City at the top right. At the start of the game, the board is already seeded with some neutral buildings (those square tiles with grey edges). What you do repeatedly during the game is travel from the starting point to Kansas City, each time bringing in a herd of cattle to sell. A turn consists of moving your pawn from one location to another, and then performing the actions allowed at your destination. You may use up to three movement points. Moving from one location to the next requires expending one movement point, regardless of the physical distance between the locations. At the beginning, locations are few and far apart, and you can travel long distances every turn if you choose too. As the game progresses, new locations are added to the board, and you will find yourself traveling shorter physical distances due to the more and more locations created on the board. You may need to increase your mobility. All this sounds illogical. I explain it by thinking of the locations as distractions. Each time you pass by a town, you are tempted to take a break. So improving mobility is actually improving your will power to forge ahead resisting the temptations along the way.

It is not always necessary to travel as far as possible all the time. Often you do want to take your time stopping at many useful locations to perform the actions they offer. Let's talk about the cattle herd mechanism. Every player starts the game with his own deck of cards, and a hand size of five. Your hand of cards represents the herd you are handling and bringing to Kansas City. How much they are worth depends on the card values. When you get to Kansas City, you may only count one card per colour. So what you want to do before you get there is modify your hand so that you have cards in as many different colours as possible, and preferably cards with higher values too. This is why you need to perform various actions during your journey. Other than modifying your hand, the locations have many other types of actions.

This is the player board. It keeps track of your abilities. Those white discs currently cover many abilities and actions which are not yet available. Once you move them away, you gain new abilities. Along the top, the three sections A, B and C summarises what you do on your turn. A is for moving your pawn. B is for executing actions. If you stop at a neutral location or a location you own, you may execute the action at the location, or a basic action. Basic actions are listed on the left. If you stop at any other location type, you may only execute a basic action. Section C is for replenishing your hand to the hand limit. The hand limit can be increased.

The central section is for placing your employees. You start the game with one each of cowboy, craftsman and engineer. Cowboys help you buy cattle cards. Craftsmen help you construct buildings. Engineers help you upgrade your train. Sometimes when you recruit a new employee, you gain a one-time benefit.

Everyone gets this same set of buildings. When you perform the construct action, you may directly construct one of these buildings, or upgrade an existing building to a new one. The number of craftsmen needed depends on which building you want to construct, and whether you are upgrading. Buildings have point values, as indicated in the shield icons. The black and green hands on buildings mean you get to charge a fee whenever anyone stops ar passes by. Placing your buildings at strategic locations can earn you some side income.

Everyone has a train pawn for marking his train technology level. Some buildings and actions let you increase your train level. Along the edge of the board, you can see the various cities your herd of cattle is delivered to after you sell it in Kansas City. How far you can sell depends on your herd value. You want to sell as far as possible, because that is more profitable. However in order to deliver the herd, your train needs to be sufficiently levelled up. Otherwise you will need to pay a fee to have your herd delivered. This effectively means you are earning less from the transaction.

Each city can be delivered to only once per player. This creates pressure to keep improving your herd value. If you can't sell to the next further city, you will be forced to sell to a nearer city, and usually there is a point penalty for selling to nearby cities. Due to the pressure to sell to cities further and further away, there is pressure to upgrade your train.

If you look closely at the train track, there are small detours leading to train stations. When upgrading your train, you may decide to take these detours to visit the train stations in order to upgrade them. What you do is move one disc from your player board to the station, thus improving your ability. Each train station allows one disc per player. If you are the first to upgrade a train station, you get a station master privilege. This is a permanent ability for the rest of the game. In this photo we have not started upgrading our trains, so you can still see the small rectangular station master privilege tiles next to the train stations.

Each player can deliver to the same city or upgrade the same train station at most once, so you will notice that the disc colours at each location do not repeat.

The large square tiles with red and blue borders are player buildings. When you visit your own building, you may perform the action allowed by the building. When you visit another player's building, you may only perform a basic action. The tepees represent Red Indian villages. They always charge a fee when you pass by or stop (see the green and black hands). One building type lets you claim tepees from the map. You can make money from such an action (representing trade with the Red Indians). Tepees may also help you complete missions to earn points.

There is a deck-building aspect worth mentioning. Everyone starts with the same deck of cards, and all of them are low valued. During the game you may purchase better cards to add to your deck. When purchasing a card, it is put in your discard pile. So it only goes to your draw deck the next time you need to reshuffle your discard pile. Everyone will need to buy better cards at some point. This is an area nobody can neglect.

The game has a countdown mechanism driven by the frequency of players making deliveries to Kansas City. Each time you arrive, one of the things you need to do is to update the game board. You have options to choose from, and depending on what you pick, you may add tepees to the board, or add hazardous locations to the board, or add workers to the worker pool. The worker pool acts as the countdown timer. As workers are added, a marker advances, and when that marker reaches a certain spot, the game enters the final round. How swiftly players travel, how frequently they arrive in Kansas City, and also their choices in augmenting the board game all affect how soon the game ends. You try to manipulate this pace to your benefit.

The Play

The number of different things you can do in this game is a little overwhelming, but what you actually do in one turn can be described simply. You move your pawn, then execute an action at your destination, and finally, if necessary, you draw cards up to your hand limit. The game is very much about thinking the big picture, and then making sure your tactical decisions consistently help you in your chosen strategy.

The underlying core mechanism is repeatedly herding cattle to Kansas City. That is your basic rhythm. Everything hangs off it. In itself it is not a strategy. It is your platform. In broad brushes, the strategic areas you need to consider are upgrading your cattle cards, upgrading your train, constructing buildings, and completing missions. You do need to upgrade your abilities and employ workers, but the purpose of these is mostly to help you with one of the four areas. Upgrading your cattle cards and train are two areas you must not ignore, since there is a constant pressure to improve your herd value and to deliver to cities further and further away. You have more freedom in deciding whether buildings and missions fit in your strategy. Buildings not only augment the actions you can perform, they also modify the map, making it more difficult for your opponents and also helping you earn some toll fees. Missions can give you some extra points, but if you fail to complete any you commit to, there is a penalty.

At the start of our game, I arbitrarity decided to focus on upgrading my cattle cards. I didn't know what would be important, so I made up my mind on a whim, mainly because I was interested to see how the deck-building worked here. One big mistake I made was neglecting my train upgrades. Each time a delivery was made to Kansas City, the train level was checked to see whether I needed to pay some fee to have my herd forwarded to its eventual destination. When I fell behind in train level, my profit was affected every time I made a delivery. The effect compounded and stunted my growth. Money was needed to purchase cattle cards and to recruit workers. Also I failed to make use of Han and Allen's progress. When upgrading your train (i.e. moving your train pawn along the train track), if there happens to be someone else's train on a spot before you, you get to skip that spot for free. E.g. if I am supposed to advance two steps, but there are two other train pawns right in front of mine, then I actually get to advance four steps in total. It is important to make use of this leapfrog mechanism. When I fell behind, Han and Allen's pawns become too far ahead for me to do leapfrogging. Han focused on train upgrades in the early game. This allowed him to be first to upgrade many of the train stations, getting him the station master privileges. Great Western Trail is a development game. Each time you improve your abilities, they help you to further improve, so there is a snowball effect. The station master privileges were quite handy, and with an overall more efficient play, Han eventually left Allen and I in the dust.

There is a fair bit of forward planning you need to do. The paths on the board are one-way streets. Once you miss or pass by a building, you won't be able to visit it again until the next cycle. You need to think ahead which buildings you want to use for your trip. You also need to think about how urgently you need to complete your current delivery.

Points come from many sources - delivering cattle to the more distant cities, completing missions, cattle cards, buildings, some upgrades on your player board, upgrading train stations. This is very much a point salad game. The two scoring aspects most closely related to your core activities are your cattle cards and delivering to cities. You must not neglect these; and as long as you don't, you will score reasonable points from them. It is a matter of whether you score more or less compared to others. In other aspects of scoring, you have more freedom to decide how to invest your energy. You want to play to your strengths, and be efficient - minimal effort, maximum gain.

The Thoughts

Great Western Trail is a development game. You are constantly under pressure to improve your abilities. It feels good to see how you are steadily building up your little engine. It reminds me a little of Goa. It also reminds me to Russian Railroad, but I wonder whether it's just because it has a railroad track. In Russian Railroad there are a few different general strategies you can pursue. You shouldn't try to do everything, because you will end up being a master of none. You need to be selective. In Great Western Trail, there are some areas you must work on. It is only a matter of sooner or later, and how high you want to go. In other areas, you have some freedom to decide how much effort to spend. Scoring is generally wide, unlike games like Navegador and Goa. In these games, you have to focus on a few areas in order to score high in them, i.e. you need enough depth. Great Western Trail is more about breadth. It is about how efficiently you are upgrading your abilities, and how efficiently you score points from the various sources.

Compared to Mombasa and Isle of Skye, I like Great Western Trail better because I like the central mechanism of repeatedly driving your herd through the map. It has a tempo and it creates a relentless pressure to upgrade yourself. The map evolves and each cycle through the map there will be differences. The players are collectively modifying the playing field. Navigating the map and deciding which path to take are an interesting problem to solve.

Player interaction is indirect. You grab stuff before others do, e.g. being first to upgrade a train station, being first to claim a spot with your building, buying the last cheap worker available. You place buildings to hinder your opponents and force them to pay you toll fees. Generally you can plan a few moves ahead without needing to worry that someone will spoil your plans. Still, you need to pay attention to what others are doing, especially when nearing the end of the game. You don't want to miss out on one final delivery which can be the difference between winning and losing.

Great Western Trail has many rules and details. It is not suitable for players new to boardgames. There is a similar feel to Mombasa and Isle of Skye, in the point salad nature. What sets it apart for me is that central cyclical mechanism. It gives the game character. All the other aspects of the game support and supplement this mechanism. The cycles may feel similar, but they are gradually evolving and you need to adapt.


Unknown said...

from the pics, it seems like you guys missed out the rule on placing an employee tile on the station master privilege spot if you intend to pick it

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Oops! You are right! We missed that rule! No wonder Han completely destroyed us. He had quite many station master privileges. If we had played correctly, he would have destroyed us slightly less completely. :-P