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Subject: The Last Spike - A Detailed Review rss

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Image Courtesy of Grant
This review continues my series of detailed reviews that attempt to be part review, part resource for anyone not totally familiar with the game. For this reason I expect readers to skip to the sections that are of most interest.

If you liked the review please thumb the top of the article so others have a better chance of seeing it and I know you stopped by. If you appreciate the time taken to write and the depth of analysis, please consider thumbing the bottom as it tells me I've helped you in some way. Thanks for reading.

Summary

Game Type - Board Game
Play Time: 30-50 Minutes
Number of Players: 2-6
Mechanics - Tile Placement, Network Building, Stock Holding and Speculation
Difficulty - Pick-up & Play (Can be learned in under 20 minutes)
Components - Satisfactory-Good
Release - 2015

Designer - Tom Dalgliesh - (Bobby Lee, Crusader Rex, Eagles: Waterloo, EastFront, Hammer of the Scots, Richard III: The Wars of the Roses, Wizard Kings)

Overview

In 'The Last Spike', players take on the role of rail barons, seeking to make their fortune by building a rail network to connect a number of cities, but in particular the link that connects St. Louis and Sacramento.

I'm no rail enthusiast but even I can recognise that the title refers to the physical means of securing railway via the use of large metal spikes. The title has added significance due to the fact that a cash bonus can be earned by placing the last piece of track to link the two cities mentioned above.

How the game plays out is something of a combination between a network connection game and Acquire, as stock speculation is also at play.

One final point to note is that this design is based upon a game of the same title from 1976 with Tom Dalgliesh of that design team working on this new edition. Several changes have been made, which constituted a new game entry in the BGG database for this new game.

I'm no train game expert as Ticket to Ride is about as heavy as I get and I'm sure many train game fans are yelling at their screens right now...'That's not a train game!' whistle

Let's meet in the dining cart and hitch a ride to our destination...is this game any good?

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The Components

The Last Spike is not up to the standard modern day Euro production, with their mounted boards and the like. But after some initial nose crinkling on my behalf I was converted somewhat.

d10-1 Board – The board provided is a rather thin cardboard affair that will likely be kinked in the middle when the game is first opened. That said it does have a crease in the middle that allows it to be put right with a simple bit of back-bending. So much so that I am really surprised how flat it sits after the minimum of effort. I really didn't expect it to work so well.

Fans of Columbia Games and other publishers of similar nature will not be surprised or perturbed by the nature of the board. But I think it deserves highlighting because gamers that are used to high quality mounted boards are likely to be disappointed. For me it is not an issue as I was sent the game to review and therefore had no money invested in it. But honestly I've come to actually not mind it at all and I tend to like high quality in my gaming.

The board itself is on the smaller side, which means it will fit on just about any gaming table. It depicts a total of 9 cities in all and spaces where track can be laid to connect those cities. These spaces have a code on them, which denotes which piece of track can be placed in each location. The Rocky Mountains between Denver and Sacramento give the board some visual differentiation from the brown plains of the midwest.

The board also uses a corner to highlight the values of the 3 denominations used in the game and to outline the turn order in brief. Altogether it does the job without inspiring amazement.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-2 Track - The track for the game is created by placing stickers onto black blocks. Stickering is not my thing (although I still wake up in cold sweats remembering that Summer of stickering C&C Ancients) but it was pretty painless and took all of 5-10 minutes to complete...so no big deal.

The reason for this approach is that the players will be holding certain track pieces at different times and by using blocks they can be hidden from the competition, ala Scrabble style.

Each sticker features a track icon to give it that visual effect as well as the grid co-ordinates as to where it can be placed on the board and a monetary value, which denotes the cost to lay that piece of track.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-3 Speculation/Land Deeds - Each city in the game has a number of Land Deeds that can be purchased during the game. These deeds are represented by cards that look a little 'Monopoly-esque' in nature.

Each card features the name of one of the cities and uses a unique colour that matches the colour of the city on the board for easy identification. Each card will also feature a value at the top, which is the cost of purchase and the remainder of the card is given over to how much the 'deed set' will pay out when a route between two cities is completed. There are several possible payouts for a set of Land Deeds based on how many are held by a player.

The cards themselves are of regular size and feature a basic finish, which is in keeping with the component quality overall.


Image Courtesy of Grant


d10-4 Money Tokens - The game comes with round wooden discs in three colours to represent the various denominations ($1,000, $5,000 and $10,000). The colours used are red, white and blue and I assume that is to reinforce the national colours of the USA. These are simple enough but work really well.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-5 Rules - The rules are printed on basic paper and do the job quite well containing examples and illustrations.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-6 The Box Design - The box design reminds me very much of the Bookshelf Game Series' designs favoured by wargamers and companies in the 70s and 80s (perhaps it is still being used today by companies like Columbia Games? I'm not sure). The box is something akin to a pizza-style with the lid that comes down and two wings that slot into grooves. Then a slipcover is used over the top to promote the game and brighten things up with colour.

I thought it worth mentioning as some gamers won't be used to this approach. I actually quite like it. I assume this is Columbia's standard box approach and having several games in this format would look really good lined up on a shelf together.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


Overall it is clear that many production decisions were made to keep costs down with functionality and gameplay being the key principles for Columbia Games over 'blingy' components.

I will admit that I was somewhat snooty when it first arrived and thought, 'Oh boy one of these', but the whole package has actually grown on me and I really don't have a problem with it at all. Perhaps we are getting too used to amazing visuals and sub-standard gameplay when it really should be the other way around.

Just be prepared...if you are used to current standards, this will feel like a notch below that.


Image Courtesy of Grant


The Set-Up

The game is quick to set-up and get into the play. The Land Deeds are set out in piles (one for each city). Each pile should feature the 0 cost card on top and subsequent cards should be placed in ascending order (cheapest to dearest at the bottom of each pile). That may sound involved but really if the game is packed up in this way then it is a simple matter of taking the cards and separating each set.

The money tokens are placed in a supply and each player is given their starting capital based on how many people are playing.

All of the blocks are turned face-down and mixed up. Each player draws one piece of track at random and the player that draws closest to piece A1 becomes the start player. These blocks are mixed back in and all players take 4 pieces of track to start the game.

The game is ready to go.

The Play

It seems that many games nowadays are using a really streamlined game turn structure and perhaps that is to meet the needs of a widening gamer base. Of course it could just be the games I am coming across too. whistle

Turns are taken by the players one after another and a single game turn plays out quickly as follows :-

d10-1 Lay Track -

Image Courtesy of Alice87

A player's turn always begins by laying a piece of track from those in their possession. This action is mandatory.

Because each piece of track is given a code (D2 for instance), each piece can only be placed in a single location. The choice the players do have of course is in which track they choose to lay.

mb Paying - Each track costs a certain amount of money from $1,000 up to a whopping $7,000, which is paid to the bank. However, if a player cannot lay a section of track that is adjacent to a city or next to an existing piece of track, they will be required to pay double the listed price. surprise

mb Cash Shortage? - If a player cannot afford to pay for any of the track they have (because they have spent too much on Deeds and/or not received enough payouts) they will be forced to sell one or more Deeds to raise the capital required. That is painful enough but it gets worse as banks are never nice institutions and they will only pay half what a Deed was bought for when buying it back. This is very much 'pain street' in The Last Spike so the players need to keep a careful watch on their finances.

d10-2 Issue Payouts - If the newly laid piece of track was the final element needed to connect two cities (which will always require 4 sections), then the players will be paid out based on the shares they own in either of the 2 connected cities.

Each Land Deed Card lists how much its city will pay out based on how many Deeds of that city type are held by a player. For example (and in the image on the right), holding 3 Dodge City Deeds will pay out $21,000 when that city is connected to another.

The beauty of holding Land Deeds is that cities can pay out more than once in the game. All cities can be paid out at least twice, some 3 times and the central city of Denver a whopping 4 times. Keep in mind though that the more payouts a city can have, the lower the payout values will be and this keeps things relative.

The payout phase is carried out around the table so everyone who is due, gets additional income. Some players may even hold deeds to both of the cities that have been connected and can collect for both. bag cool

d10-3 Take/Buy Land (Optional) – Only after the Payouts phase can the active player gain access to another Land Deed (more on those implications later). In the early game it is possible to gain a Deed for free or buy them.

mb If a player can place a section of track next to a city and that city still has the $0 cost deed available, they can take it and pay nothing. It acts like any other deed in the game and can help towards big payouts. These are highly prized.

mb If a player places a piece of track anywhere else on the board, or even next to a city but the $0 cost deed has already been taken, they will need to pay for a Land Deed of their choice. Buying a deed is optional but in most situations it is wise to do so (think Monopoly...sorry I had to use that word/name...but the analogy is apt because you won't win without holding deeds).

d10-4 Draw New Track – A player then ends their turn by drawing a new track segment from the face-down supply.

This then ends their turn and the play passes to the next player to consider their next move and how the board has changed since their last turn.

d10-5 Triggering the Game End - The game continues as outlined above until one condition occurs that triggers the end of the game. When any single player places a section of track that connects (via one or more) routes, St. Louis to Sacramento, the game will end at the end of that turn. Payouts still occur and of course the active player wouldn't bother to buy a new deed as this would be a waste of money.

As a bonus the player that places that last segment of track earns a $20,000 bonus from the bank...which could be a game changer.

One point worth noting is that it is quite possible for the supply of track to become exhausted before the game is over. In this instance the players continue to play as per normal until the game end is triggered. Of course they cannot draw a new block at the end of their turn in this case.

d10-6 Winning the Game - After the last payouts are awarded the players simply count up their money and the player with the most cash wins.

In the rare case of a tie, the player holding the most expensive Land Deed is declared the winner. I guess this is because they took the greatest risk or likely paid out the most cash and still managed to tie.

What Decisions and Considerations does 'The Last Spike' Pose its Players?]

Image Courtesy of moonblogger


The Last Spike plays out over a 30-50 minute time frame and the game goes through a number of states in which the players need to be fully aware of the opportunities and the implications.

mb In the Beginning - At the start of the game the players are going to be dictated to somewhat by their starting track pieces, but there are some fundamentals that all players should be aware of.

Placing track next to a city that has not seen any construction yet is vital. This is because the player can gain access to the free Land Deed for that city. In a game where the aim is to earn as much money as possible and equally to spend as little as possible, those free Land Deeds represent the best return on one's investment.

Likewise the thing to avoid in the game is being forced to build track at double the rate because you were forced to build away from a city or had to lay track in isolation to other track. Sometimes this is unavoidable due to the track that you start with or draw from the supply but there are ways to entice other players to build where you want them too (see co-operation below).

mb The Midgame - By the midgame the board is no longer a blank canvass. Certain links between cities and certain Land Deeds have been favoured and the players must really consider each move carefully. The crucial thing to identify here is which links are likely to be completed and to make sure you have Deeds for those cities to ensure that you get a piece of the payout-pie.

This is not always easy and at best the players will have limited information. Holding track pieces to built-up links can give a player a pretty good idea if a link is likely to get completed and pay-out. But sometimes the only thing you can do is to watch which Deeds the other players are buying in the hope of working out their plans and what track they may be holding themselves.

The other thing that players must watch very carefully in the midgame is their cashflow. A disaster in The Last Spike is not having enough money to pay for that next piece of track, because few if any links have been paid out yet. Being forced to sell back a deed or deeds at half their value is a pretty sure-fire way to lose the game. Sometimes it is wiser to forego buying a deed to ensure that you have the capital needed for the next turn or two in case things don't go as you expected.

mb The Endgame - The endgame is very much about maximising your capital - after all it is your win condition. Sometimes that means it isn't really worth buying a deed if there is a decent chance of that city not paying out before the game ends.

Conversely it is critical to force as many pay-outs as possible to the cities in which you hold considerable land holdings. But that also requires some analysis as you will actually go backwards if you force a payout in which you receive $18,000 and a main rival earns $25,000. Sometimes not playing a certain piece of track is the wiser move.

The other key factor in the endgame is in trying to manipulate the placing of track to give you the best chance of hammering 'The Last Spike' and earning that $20,000 bonus, which is significant. That can also be said of laying track in any link, as holding the final piece of each puzzle is quite powerful as you have the power to force a pay-out or to withhold it, but that last Spike is particularly vital.

mb Semi Co-Operation - The design of The Last Spike also calls for some level of co-operation. This is because going after particular land or a link between cities all by yourself really gives no one else much incentive to focus on that part of the map and indeed it could make it hard to complete a connection all by yourself.

Likewise if a player dominates the buying of a particular stock, the other players will do as much as possible to ensure that your stock never pays out. Consider the odds of drawing all 4 sections of track in a single link with 3-5 players in the game and you realise quickly that something of a team effort is required.

mb Picking Your Cities - The game also requires the players to consider the relative probabilities of each city being connected to another and therefore the likelihood of payouts as the game unfolds and how many times each city can payout. The game does a good job here or scaling the relative earning potential of the cities.

For example Denver has the highest number of opportunities to payout as it is linked to four other cities. Also being in the middle of the map, it is quite likely to pay out at least once and possible 2-3 times. For this reason the Deeds to Denver are cheaper but the payouts are also smaller. Cities that feature fewer possible payouts and are not in as advantageous a position are therefore worth more to buy but also have greater payouts on offer.

Sacramento is a particular standout as it only has 2 links that can payout but it is quite likely that it will only payout once, as that first link may be the triggering point for the end of the game (but it doesn't have to be).

mb To Diversify or Monopolise? -[i] Another consideration for players is in deciding how much of a stock is enough and now many 'pies' you want to stick your fingers into. Own too much of one stock and you can be seen as a real threat and that city may not get the network you hoped for. Buy stock in too many different cities and you open yourself up to investing in stocks that never payout and see your capital wasted. This is the soul of The Last Spike and its decision making.

mb [i]A Question of Timing -
The final aspect to highlight is the nature of the game and its timing. The turn structure deliberately places payouts before the chance to buy new Land Deeds. This is done to taunt the players that may hold the final piece of track to complete a link. The question being posed is, 'Do you place that track now and force the payout based on your current stock holdings? Or do you place another piece of track somewhere else, which may allow you to buy another City Deed to the track that you hold?'

It is an interesting dilemma and the answer is not always as obvious as it may seem. This is because placing track somewhere else first may spark a flurry of track building in that area and that may encourage the St. Louis to Sacramento link to form somewhere else which is not as advantageous to you. If that is a real possibility, then it may not be worth the extra few thousand you stand to gain by buying another deed.

mb Calculating the Dividend - Ok I lied...one more. Each set of Land Deeds tends to have a sweet spot in terms of gaining a return on your investment. A good player will look for those returns and try to maximise them at every turn in order to gain a small edge over the competition. Whilst buying a $6,000 Deed for a return of $7,000 (thus making $1,000 overall) is not to be snuffed at, it certainly isn't as good as another Deed that can earn you $3,000 in profit. Of course the trick is to make sure that whatever you buy actually pays out, otherwise the calculations were all for nothing. devil

The Final Word

Image Courtesy of kduke


Time for some disclosure. I was fully expecting to hate The Last Spike. I know I don't fit the classic 'train game fan' profile and games of an economic nature don't really do it for me either. I was seriously worried that this would be far too heavy for me and my group and the mechanisms offputting. I like light to mid-weight Euros and most things thematic. I've only played Steam and Railroad Tycoon once and I've never tried an 18xx game.

Despite these pre-dispositions, I have to say I really enjoyed this game. The goal and the flow of the game were totally intuitive and the theme was pretty appealing on the whole. I have no qualms in saying that The Last Spike is very much a gateway train game that sits in the light to medium category at most. I also really like the thematic accuracy of the game in that track will cost more to lay in mountain regions as it requires tunnelling and for bridges over rivers. It's a small point but one that I can appreciate.

So I can only recommend that you give it a go if that weight of game is something you enjoy. Even if train games are not normally your thing, I think you may well be surprised with this one.

Of course the 'meaty' train game fans may not find enough here to interest them and so be it, unless of course they have a certain game group that is on the lighter side of things.

I should mention that not only did I enjoy this game, but so did my girlfriend and my two oldest boys...all of which I must add, had that look on their face that said 'Why are you making us play this?!'

That is not meant as any slight on the game either...but let's face it a box with a train on it compared to FIFA 16 on the Xbox One is a hard sell. Telling my girlfriend the game involves stock speculation...is hardly going to get her excitement meter zinging off the charts after a long day at work.

All three of them had smiles on their faces by the end and said that they enjoyed what the game had to offer. So what was that?

Well for one the game is so streamlined that we managed to finish in 35 minutes with 4-players and that even included the odd flick to the rulebook. Give us another 2-3 plays and I would fully expect that playtime to get down to 25-30 minutes.

We also liked the fact that each player's turn only takes 1-2 minutes at the most, so the downtime is minimal. But that time is enough for each player to plan out their next best move and take a few seconds at the start of their turn to calculate if the last player's move changes things at all.

We also really liked some of the decisions and longer term planning. Identifying which Deeds to invest in, considering what you are holding in terms of track and the odds of each connection being completed is also fun.

So all in all The Last Spike was a hit in our house and it is a game that I will be holding onto I think, which is a feather in the game's cap as I am at a point with my collection where only good games are retained and I trade things out quite quickly that are not up to snuff.

The game also states that it plays best 3-5 even though it states it can play with 2 and 6. I tried a 2-player game (again my girlfriend was keen to give it a go - yay) and it wasn't bad. I was fully expecting the play to be a little cut-throat but I enjoyed the mental tug of war. It did take a little longer to play because we could focus on the one adversary and that meant more think time. I probably agree with the recommendation though and would stick to 3-5 player games of this one.

How would 6-player vary? Well each player is going to hold less stock and they will also see fewer Track Tiles as a result. I think that can only lead to one outcome and that is less control over how the game pans out. For me I would avoid that experience too I think, but I am untested.

The other factor that may turn some players off The Last Spike is that there is some luck to be had in the game in relation to what Track Tiles are drawn. For some I think that could be off-putting but for me and my personal gaming tastes, I didn't mind it one bit.

Till next we meet may your Deeds rake in the cash and you drive that Last Spike home! greentrain

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Adam P
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Have you felt that at some player counts, first player has an advantage? I think there was a game I played where there were not enough tiles for everyone to have equal tile draws, which may or may not skew the game.
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adamredwoods wrote:
Have you felt that at some player counts, first player has an advantage? I think there was a game I played where there were not enough tiles for everyone to have equal tile draws, which may or may not skew the game.


Hey Adam, thanks for reading.

There will only be a tile discrepancy in the 2 and 5 player games. It occurs in the 2 player game because 1 tile is removed.

I can't remember it being a major issue in the 2-player game but on the whole I think there would be a slight advantage.

Clearly holding tiles over someone who doesn't, means that they (tile holder) has a stronger chance to complete the St. Louis to Sacramento link and earn the $20,000.

That said, it will also cost money to lay that track which is an additional cost that player's without tiles don't have to pay out. So the potential $20K gain will be reduced somewhat.

Going first at the beginning of the game is not always an advantage either if they do not start with a track piece that sits adjacent to a city, and will force them to pay double. This is less likely to happen to a player sitting later in the turn order because they have more laid track to place next too.

So all in all the advantage is probably minimal but it could exist. Truth be told I haven't played enough games yet to give a definitive answer.
 
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