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Preview time! Today's game is Great Western Trail, by Alexander Pfister.

So let's set up expectations about this game. This is not a classic euro in the vein of Pfister's (and Pelikan's) KdJ Winner, Broom Service. Nor is it a light but challenging tile-layer like also-KdJ-winner Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King. Nope. Nuh-uh. This is a flexy, intricate-systems modern euro that you would expect from a designer with output like Mombasa. And so I'll start by saying that I am highly motivated to explore this title, mostly because of designer lineage. Pfister's sleek design choices married to solid thematic settings make him a King-among-Euro-designers, in my book. There were a few moments of trepidation as I went through the rulebook the first time - this is decidedly a euro, with points and icons strewn everywhere, like a bad inter-linguistic salad bar...



But if anyone can do it right, it's Pfister. Right? Right?!!

Well, Pfister certainly appears to be doing a lot of things right here in GWT, offering up a modern euro with an underutilized setting (no white Renaissance-European males!), and mechanics that include point-to-point movement, limited economy, deckbuilding, skill trees (of a sort), and some variability. Also, importantly, the game has its own look to it, to freshen everything up and catch my interest.

Let's start with the blurb from the rulebook, since I couldn't do a better job of this myself:


Now, from this blurb, it would seem that the focus of the game will be herding cattle. Don't be fooled. Herding cattle is the kernel of the game, but with the a great number of VPs being awarded apart from cattle, it's better to think of this as a large capitalist ranching venture. This game is more economic than geographic or zoologic! But with that shift in interpreting the theme, describing this game will be easier for me to do, and easier for you to follow.


THE BURGER KING/DAIRY QUEEN

To understand the euro, you must understand the salad. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner. And there are not one, or two, or even three - BUT ELEVEN! ways to get Victory Points! You will get (or lose!) points for:

- saving Dollars ($5 = 1VP)
- building your private Building Tiles onto the game board (1 to 13 VPs each)
- making deliveries to a various cities (-6 to 6 VPs)
- claiming Train Stations (1-9 VPs)
- clearing hazard tiles (floods, rock slides) off the board (2-4 VPs)
- acquiring more valuable Cattle stock into your personal cattle deck
- fulfilling/failing collection-objective cards
- meeting the conditions of Stations Master tokens that you have collected for bonus VPs
- hiring the fifth and sixth workers of each type
- clearing a particular disk space with a 3VP shield above it
- triggering the end of the game by filling up the unhired worker queue

Well, yeah, I mean I did tell you it was point salad all the way. But then again, so are a lot of good games, including my favorite, Agricola (which, incidentally, has 11 ways to score on the score summary card! Howzaboutthat?!). The key to greatness is in the Great Journey to the Salad, usually by enabling a number of different strategies that make a game interesting! So let's start looking at the workings of the game. I'll begin with the board, because it really does offer some visual cues as to the focus of the game.


THE GREAT WESTERN TRAIL



It's a nice board. No bones about it. The visual organization is fairly well done, considering all that is going on in this game, with particularly astute emphasis on the actual trail that the theme evokes. In fact, this visual presentation is so well done that if you keep that image of the board in front of you while I tell you what Phases A and B of your turn are, you will have a decent handle on what you are doing in the game.


THE GREAT WESTERN TRAIL IN TWO-AND-A-HALF-EASY STEPS

This your TL;DR: Every turn, you get a Phase A, where you must advance between 1 and 3 spaces on the map, paying for some of the spaces you pass. Choose your move carefully, because after moving you get a Phase B, where you take the action(s) of the Building or Hazard space that you moved to. Buildings offer various action options, including selling small cattle sets, building private Building tiles, making trades with "Indians", clearing Hazards, advancing your Engine, etc. - many of which award you VPs. Make it to Kansas City, and you can assess your hand of cattle cards that managed to make it that far, possibly scoring VPs by shipping the cattle to City spaces far afield. After all that, you go back to the start space on the board, gather another hand of cattle, and do it all over again, trying to build and move to optimize your routes and cattle sales.




GIT ALONG, LITTLE DOGIES!

The most obvious part of this game, mechanically and thematically, is player (and cattle!) movement. A cursory examination of the board makes this fairly obvious, with a large and varied landscape illustration overlaid with blank location squares that are connected by dotted lines. These lines are the routes that players will be moving along, with routes diverging and converging at various points, but constantly herding your towards, and ending in, Kansas City (likely at the Kansas City Stockyard, a site that was built to provide better prices to cattle owner such as yourself!).

In the first phase of every turn (Phase A), the game mandates that players move forward one or more spaces. You begin with a maximum movement of 3, but you can increase that later if you make that a priority. (In fact, you can increase a lot of your skills in this game, but more on that later in the section on the Player Board.) As a player is advancing their Cattleman merson (is "merson" the singular of "meeple"? My person; my people?), they will come to forks in the road that allow a choice of routes. These choices matter a fair bit because of the Building Tiles and other location tiles that a player could end up landing on. Since where you land dictates what actions you are allowed to take, it is important to have good, complimentary options available to you as you move towards Kansas City. Complicating these decisions is your need to avoid opponent buildings (which you have to pay to pass; weaker action if you end there), and sometimes trying to avoid Hazards and Indian land too (also pay to pass). In the example below, the Blue player either takes the red route, paying cash to opponents, or takes the blue route, paying cash to the game for the trouble of navigating hazards.



At the beginning of the game, the spaces on the board are mostly empty, containing only 7 neutral Building tiles and 7 small tiles (Hazards and Indians). The neutral Building tiles are always placed at set-up on all places where the trails converge to one point (the forks), preventing players from owning forks. They can also be randomized at game start, providing some game-to-game variability. The other 7 small tiles are randomly drawn, resulting in some games with more rockslides, other games with more floods or Indian encampments, which can make certain paths more or less attractive. Over the course of the game, the location spaces will fill up with more buildings owned by players (and more hazards and Indian tipis too!) which offers more options the players, but also makes it more difficult to navigate the map without giving up money to competitors!

If this reminds you of a heavier mashup of Elfenland (route planning with hand management and logistical difficulties) and Istanbul (route planning with conversion and power-up actions), you are not alone. ELFENBUL!

At the end of movement, you activate the Building you landed on, and this is where the game goes full-euro.



Never go full euro.


A REAL BAR-AI-NBURNER

It would be a waste of my time and yours if I tried to run through all the Buildings (and small tiles) you could stop on. There are 7 neutral Buildings, and 20 player Buildings, and each is a mishmash of actions; many of the actions appear on more than one building. If you look at the image below, you will see what I mean!

Suffice it to say that buildings offer between 1 and 3 actions, sometimes offering you a choice between two actions, sometimes allowing you to take all the actions, sometimes both, and sometimes throwing in yet another bonus location action! I'll just run through an idea of what you kind of things you can do on actions, and the large-picture on why you might be doing them, mmk?



Sell/Trade Cattle: Though you want to take a valuable set of cattle cards to Kansas City, there are opportunities to make small cattle sales for cash earlier on the trail. Options include selling a single cattle card for cash, selling a pair for cash, trading a single for a Certificate, trading a single for a Certificate and cash, trading a single to advance your Engine one space on the Railroad Track.

Quote:
Certificates come in two types: permanent and temporary. Permanent Certificates are available on some tiles; temporary certificates are also acquired on some tiles, and are tracked on your player board. Certificates of both kinds are used to boost the value of your cattle set in Kansas City. If you look at the middle (third) tile in the image above, you see an action that allows a player to increase their temporary Certificates by 2 (the black cube).


Hire Workers: Pay cash to hire workers (tiles from main board to personal board). Cowboys offer better cattle (card) acquisition options; Craftsmen are required to build Buildings (tiles); Engineers move your Engine along the Railroad Track. Hiring workers also occasionally gives bonuses. Workers are also required if you want to obtain Station Master tokens (which award bonus VPs for different categories).

Place Building: Requires cash and Craftsmen. Buildings that you build on the board help you and hinder your opponent. You have 10 personal buildings to choose from, and every player has the same set available for placing.

Gain Objective Card: This card gives points if fulfilled, and subtracts points if failed.

Move Engine on Track: Requires Engineers. While you are advancing your engine, you may use an unoccupied turnout and Upgrade a Train Station. (Upgrading Train Stations is couched in this action, but is worth explaining here in the quote box below.)

Quote:
Upgrading Train Stations: Requires cash. Train Stations are located beside the Track running along the top and right of the board. They are worth VP at game end. Each player may upgrade each Train Station once. Requires cash, and more cash for more valuable spots further down the track. The first person to build any of the first five Stations may take that stations Station Master Tile by swapping a worker from their player board for the Station Master Tile.


Trade with Indians: Sometimes requires cash. Remove one teepee tile of your choice from the Indian trade section and place it face up in front of you. Teepees are required for some Objective cards.

Buy Cattle: Requires Cowboys and cash. Having more Cowboys gives the player more purchasing options. (E.g. Having two Cowboys in your employ would allow you to spend $8 to buy two 4-value Cattle cards to put in your discard pile.

Remove a Hazard: Requires cash. Remove one Hazard tile of your choice and place it face up in front of you. Awards 2-4 VPs to the owner of the tile.

Other actions allow: an award of cash and/or certificates and/or etc for certain conditions (number of teepees, etc), advancing your Cowboy extra spaces, advancing your engine, and more.

Auxiliary Actions: When a player lands on an opponent's tile, she can only take an auxiliary action (a player can always take an auxiliary action instead of taking the action on their own or a neutral tile. These actions are marked on the player board and are highly restricted in the beginning of the game. Most of the actions are covered by player disks and can't be used, but over time, if a player chooses to focus on this as part of their strategy, more options for the auxiliary action can be unlocked by the player by removing the disks during Train Station placement.

The auxiliary actions (in total, if they were all unlocked):
- Gain 1 Dollar
- Draw 1 card, then discard 1 card
- Pay $1 and move your Engine backwards, then increase your Certificates by 1
- Pay $1 and move your Engine forward
- Move Engine backwards, then "trash" (permanently remove) from your deck one of your hand cards
Each of these actions has the potential to be doubled in effect if a player has removed both disks from that line, and if a Building/space allows for doubling.


BUILD A BETTER RANCHER

I mentioned that Auxiliary Actions can be made more powerful, but actually players have many options to make themselves more powerful. Or specialized. Or powerfully specialized. Like this guy!


(Illustration by Daryl Cagle, slate.com)



WILD WEST DISK JOCKEY!

No, no. Not this guy...


You! You are the Wild West Disk Jockey!

Though I waited quite a long time to focus on your player disks, those disks you see all over your player board are actually one of the most important parts of the game. (Apologies for low quality. I've contacted eggertspiele about getting a better digital version.) Every disk you remove from your player board (delivering to a city or building a train station) opens up abilities, allowing you to decide how to specialize your approach to the game. What's better: placing the disks out on the main board can also be a source of good VPs! So how do they work?

The left column (with the gear at the top) is the actions available to you when you use an Auxiliary action (or icons that show the Gear icon). So every disk you remove from there gives you more options on an Auxiliary action. (Those actions are detailed earlier.)

The top center-left area is player movement. You start with 3 movement max, but removing disks can allow you to move 4 or even 5 spaces. (With bonus points for removing the second one!)

The top right corner is your hand size for carrying cattle. You start with 4 hand limit, but removing disks can increase hand limit to 5 or 6.

The right-to-bottom right column contains your Temporary Certificate limit. By removing disks, you can up your Temporary Certificate limit to 4 and 6. (Remember, certificates can increase your sale value in Kansas City.)


My thoughts...

Now I have to be honest with you: this sounds like a heck of a game. You have to like euros, to be sure, but this game has the potential to offer a solid and interesting middleweight gaming experience because of the blend of mechanics, VP options, and in-game variability.

Good mechanics are what euros live and die on, and Great Western Trail looks promising. I'm a sucker for deckbuilding integrated into larger games (Lewis & Clark for example) and Pfister seems to have woven in a tight but small deckbuilding mechanism that should require tough hand management decisions. The point to point movement plus action activation is almost a form of limited-options worker placement, which looks solid.

My love for a game usually depends on its variability, and Great Western Trail offers us a decent amount. The neutral Building tiles (the starting action options) can be randomized on set-up, changing the early turn options. The player Buildings (all 10 of them) are double-sided, and are randomized every game by having one player toss/choose the sides each on will be on; once the tiles are set, every player flips their tiles to match the set so all players have the same 10 options. This random assortment will lead to different economic puzzles for players to solve each game. There is some randomization of the Hazards, making some routes more attractive than others.

Thematically, they had me at the idea of cattle driving. But then I read the rulebook and I realized I was more of a ranching capitalist, and I was so. Me no want more economic euros. And then I read the rulebook again, realized the strategic possibility and the promise of itneresting mechanical interaction, and suddenly I wanted to be a ranching capitalist.

With any luck, I'll get a copy soon and be able to write you a review! I am especially interested in a number of things that can't be figured out from a rulebook alone:

- How is it 2p?
- How viable are different VP strategies?
- How specialized can I be in one VP strategy?
- Will the game offer rush and slowpoke strategies?
- Low-value + Certificates vs. High value strategies?
- Rail vs. cattle vs. building vs. Station Master strategies?
- Delivery vs. Stations for disk removal strategies?
- How easy will it be develop a solo-play option?
- How much tension does the cattle deck and hand management provide?
- What about this game would make it last 75 minutes minimum?
- How hard is this to teach to casual gamers?
- JASE or cool euro?
- Interactivity via Hazards and Building placement?

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Bruno Valerio
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Thank you Sir!!!
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Garry Rice
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Also making for tough decisions - the rulebook mentions that you will make the trip 5-7 times in a game...so you will only be removing up to that many discs as well from your player board, so you will need to make sure you maximize whatever discs you remove to make it worthwhile (I believe the discs are only removed when making a delivery - correct me if I'm wrong!).
 
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Jeremy Avery
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garry_rice wrote:
Also making for tough decisions - the rulebook mentions that you will make the trip 5-7 times in a game...so you will only be removing up to that many discs as well from your player board, so you will need to make sure you maximize whatever discs you remove to make it worthwhile (I believe the discs are only removed when making a delivery - correct me if I'm wrong!).


From memory: Disks are removed when making a delivery and when building Stations (which can be done when advancing your Engine, which, in turn, can be done while travelling). So Stations vs Deliveries could be an interesting strategic divergence as well.
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trevor

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...need...game....now....
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Garry Rice
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familygaming wrote:
garry_rice wrote:
Also making for tough decisions - the rulebook mentions that you will make the trip 5-7 times in a game...so you will only be removing up to that many discs as well from your player board, so you will need to make sure you maximize whatever discs you remove to make it worthwhile (I believe the discs are only removed when making a delivery - correct me if I'm wrong!).


From memory: Disks are removed when making a delivery and when building Stations (which can be done when advancing your Engine, which, in turn, can be done while travelling). So Stations vs Deliveries could be an interesting strategic divergence as well.


Ah yes - missed that!
 
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I looked at the publisher's website but couldn't find any info on when it will be released or even available to pre-order. Does anyone know?

I think I'd like to try this game solo using The Solo System.
 
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Jeremy Avery
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lucky henry wrote:

I looked at the publisher's website but couldn't find any info on when it will be released or even available to pre-order. Does anyone know?

I think I'd like to try this game solo using The Solo System.


From two sources, I've heard November.
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Mathue Faulk
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lucky henry wrote:

I looked at the publisher's website but couldn't find any info on when it will be released or even available to pre-order. Does anyone know?

I think I'd like to try this game solo using The Solo System.

It's already available for preorder. CSI has a release date of October, but those dates aren't always accurate:
http://www.coolstuffinc.com/p/228641

Also note that the designer said it will be available at Essen (October), but that doesn't always mean the general release is the same.
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Jeffrey Goetz
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Stronghold's website lists it as a November 23 tentative release.
 
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Thanks for just what a I needed- an excellent review solidifying my interest in the game.
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Tom
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Hey i can answer this one question (and it will i think answer several other of your questions, because they are similar).

- How viable are different VP strategies?
Every Strategy is good, when you master one and succeed at others too in one game your probably the leader. I realized after half of the game i couldnt compete against 1 way to gain VP(i played too much around everywhere) so i switched to Cattles and i went 2. Place at the end of the game (surprisingly for the 3. and 4. place).
So yes you can play several ways and still win the game or get your game going.


BR, Ress
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Nicola Bocchetta
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What about interactivity during the game?

From the rulebook it seems there is no blocking nor on the route to Kansas City, nor on the stations, nor the cities.

It seems seems there is indirect interaction when choosing cards from the card displays (both herd and objective).

As you build buildings other players will have to pay to get past them. The same is true (but neutral, as you have to pay the bank) when placing hazards/teepees.

There's a race to being the first to upgrade a station, as that gives you both points for the station (but you can't block other players) and the "station boss" tile that is worth points at the end.
 
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Phil Hendrickson
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I love Mombasa and Port Royal, and this game looks very interesting. Now that some comments are being posted by players who tried the game at Essen, I saw a few remarks that the game drags on at the end with too many repetitive actions. On the other hand, sometimes a game ends just when players get an engine going and they never get the chance to see it run.

I would like to hear the thoughts of others who have played the game. Does it go on too long? Do players keep making meaningful decisions all the way to the end?

Another way to ask the question: during the endgame is the outcome still in doubt, or does the game overstay its welcome after the winner is obvious?
 
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Thor Larsen
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Played it twice at Essen with 4 players. We all loved it.

Yes it was quite long, no doubt. Second game moved much faster however, people were quick about their actions and because of no VPs awarded during the game, everyone was completely invested till the end.

Honestly I did not reflect on any repetetiveness, I was too addicted to the gameplay to notice. The circular "worker-trailing" is actually interesting and as the game progresses becomes increasingly important to navigate correctly.

replayability is very high, it feels like you are only able to do 30% of what you really want to, mostly because of allthe abilities you can unlock.

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Robert
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Faso74it wrote:
What about interactivity during the game?

From the rulebook it seems there is no blocking nor on the route to Kansas City, nor on the stations, nor the cities.
No blocking, but when delivering, you can pick a hazard and place it in a way to make a certain route less attractive (longer + more expensive) than the other (and you hope to benefit because you have a building on the other route which requires payment devil). Generally, adding a building slows down everybody's movement along that path. Being first at a station gives you a benefit not available to the second player arriving there, but that's usually not critical.

Faso74it wrote:
It seems seems there is indirect interaction when choosing cards from the card displays (both herd and objective).
From my experience there is more competition for the cattle than for the objectives. If an objective is taken, a new one is drawn, but if a cattle is taken, it's not replaced unless somebody uses a cowboy to do so. And that person would rather use the cowboy to take cattle instead of enhancing the offered selection, i.e. it's only interesting to do so if a) the selection of cattle is really bad and b) you have several cowboys in your crew so you can both add cattle to the selection and then take the good one(s). Having more than two cowboys likely won't happen until halfway into the game.
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Robert
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Thorjulius wrote:
Second game moved much faster however, people were quick about their actions and because of no VPs awarded during the game, everyone was completely invested till the end.
Same experience here. Actually even in the first game, once we had all understood how things work (roughly after about two deliveries to Kansas by each player), moves were done quite rapidly.

While this is a game where, on his/her turn, each player has to string together a move and an action (or three ), it actually makes sense to plan while the others move because the chances are high that your plan still works when you're due to execute it. Too many other games (e.g. Colonists) fail in this regard, since they include mechanisms which likely force you to start planning from scratch because of the action from the player before you.
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Phil Hendrickson
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Very pleased to hear these responses. Thanks for sharing. I have pre-ordered a copy through Stronghold in order to get it sooner.
 
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