The LAST SPIKE
Designed back in the 1970’s by Tom Dalgleish and published in 1976 by Gamma Two this is a revised edition still credited to Tom but with the hand of his son, Grant, firmly at the helm.
It is a game of very few rules, just one folded A4 sheet printed on all sides allows it to be a game that lasts between 30 minutes to an hour for 2-6 players.
Usually, or at least quite often, when a games rules are as briefly presented as they are for The Last Spike it means there are rules which will arise during play that are going to be open for discussion. This isn’t the case with The Last Spike as the rules are succinct, clearly understandable and have no ambiguous questions about any aspect of play. Even if you don’t like them or disagree with them in as much as you might like them to have been written a little differently, they are clear and defined.
The components are in line with many recent Columbia Games products, being a folded, efficiently designed board which shows a simplified play area comprising a diamond shape of building areas for railway tracks with a diagonal cross of similar building area boxes inserted into the diamond. At every point and intersection sits a major North American town –nine different towns in total, each given a specific colour for ease and speed of identification.
The Railway Tracks that players will build into the boxes are square (but not cubed) black wooden tiles, blank on one side and with an ID number, a visual of a short length of track and finally a $value that is the cost to play the tile (build the track). The tiles are created so they can stand on one edge facing the owning player and be read by that player alone while being kept secret from other players.
The remaining pieces are Blue ($10k) White ($5k) and Red ($1k) money chits (plain wooden counters) and a deck of 45 City cards, 5 cards per city. These cards are rated in $value and are separated into city stacks, face-up with the lowest value card on top and descending through the stack in ascending value.
Each player starts with an amount of money depending on the number of players. Money is deliberately tight to encourage careful budgeting, spending and planning as being part of the game, but poor luck can ruin the best laid tracks of man and railroad baron. The Track tiles are placed face down and mixed thoroughly and each player secretly draws four to make their playing hand. In a 2-player game one tile is withdrawn, also secretly and randomly, from the game and put aside, it’s ID and value unseen.
The game now follows the well tried and tested mechanic of play a tile, draw a tile, with an option between for buying city cards. Players are inhibited as to where they can build by the tiles they have in front of them, rather like the (what now seems like ancient 1964 Sid Sackson/Avalon Hill) game of “Acquire”, as each track tile can only be placed in the space on the board represented by the same Identification Letter and Number. It costs in $dollars the amount shown on the tile to lay it.
Track tiles should now be played either next to a City or next to a previously played Track tile. However if on your turn you do not have such a tile you may place any tile at double its cost. This is something you cannot afford to do very often and should avoid unless you desperately need to play the tile. The first player to play next to a city gets a FREE land Grant – this being the city card with the $Zero value. Four cities have two possibilities and four cities have three; Denver in the centre of the board has four possible starting tracks.
Note that on your turn you must always build/lay a track, it is not optional, which often means you have to pay double to build non-adjacent even if you have to sell cards back to the bank (at half their value) to be able to do so. If you cannot raise enough cash to play you are out of the game. This is a bit harsh but it only usually happens near the end of the game or to a player who hasn’t been paying attention to their tiles. An amount of luck may assist in a player’s failure to have enough cash but this isn’t a game you can simply blame luck on, good or bad; luck plays a large part but so does thought.
Land Grants (aka City/Land cards) can only be bought after a player lays a track tile (possible cause for contention and consternation as remarked on below). As long as the Zero card has been claimed the card bought can be for any city, it needn’t be a city on the line where you just laid a track tile, though only one city/land card can be obtained (free or bought) per turn. There are four track boxes between each pair of cities and once the last of these is placed the line is complete and there is a cash payout. Players who own cards for the two connected cities gain cash to the value shown on the cards. Each City card has its own list of values and rewards depending on the number of cards owned. You always buy the top card from the stack as it will be the least expensive but it will still be of the same value during payout as any later card bought from the stack for which more has been paid.
Sometimes cooperative play may be rewarding for all players concerned but remember that there can only be one winner and sometimes alliances can rise up against you with sharpened long knives.
The LAST SPIKE isn’t a game where it pays to try to hold up play by hanging onto tiles that connect areas unless you aren’t in either of the cities it will connect and you can play more viably elsewhere. There is a frustration factor which still causes groans whenever we play and that is a Line is scored as soon as it is made and not at the end of a players turn. Thus the player who puts the track in to connect two cities cannot then buy a Land/City card before the scoring, only after the Line has been scored, thus they are in fact laying a track that costs them money and for which they get no reward. I can see how this works in an abstract game but The LAST SPIKE is supposedly a strategy game where luck plays its part in the drawing of the tiles, and the game is about being careful and cautious and making money, actually paying out hard-earned $dollars to give money to your opponents makes no sense, especially when you may not get any reward at all. It is frustrating and annoying and is often a move forced onto you by circumstances.
It is quite usual in our experience of playing this game for a large majority of the tiles to be played out. This means that if you have unluckily drawn one or more tiles that connect cities you will have to play them at some stage and thus it also isn’t unusual for a player to hand victory to another and not be able to do anything about it.
The gameplay is fast and fluent. There is very little need for spending much time thinking about your every move for as I mentioned earlier, most tiles will get played out so it is better to get them into play as cheaply as possible, that is try not to leave yourself with tiles that will cost you double to play and have to be played onto City lines where all the relevant city/land cards have already been bought.
You need to buy city cards as often as you can afford them and hope or try to build to that city as soon as possible. The game ends as soon as the Last Spike is played – this being the track tile that connects St Louis to Sacramento by forming a continuous, unbroken route between them (16 track tiles minimum). It is not possible to hold back all four connecting tiles (two to each of St Louis and Sacramento) but it is feasibly possible to hold onto three, though very unlikely. However, holding onto two into one city is not as hard as it seems as you can play off of two tiles (remember you always have a hand of four) throughout the game. It takes skill, thought and a lot of luck to be able to do this but it is possible.
Despite coming from Columbia Games, a company renowned for military and strategy boardgames and one of the best role-play campaign systems (Harn), The LAST SPIKE is more or less a family boardgame, and played as such, amongst family and friends of all ages, it is a game that can be played simply for fun. The regular, strategy, core boardgamers have mostly found it too light on options and perhaps a little too reliant on luck. I think it is slightly off balance, leaning more towards luck and it definitely has a retro feel about it, which isn’t actually a bad thing (my personal somewhat anti-retro gaming stance is against computer and console games graphics and not aimed at older mechanic based boardgames).
The LAST SPIKE is, in my opinion, a good game to use to tempt prospective boardgames players away from the traditional roll and move British-style games. It is easy on the eye and brain, it is playable and it is enjoyable.