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Subject: Roelovich's point-by-point review of 'Great Western Trail' rss

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Roel Vaneerdeweg
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In this point-by-point review, based on limited experience with the game, I try to give an overview of what I think are strengths and weaknesses of the game. I hope you find it helpful.

The Positive
(+) The core mechanics of this game are rock solid. I wouldn't call the different mechanics (deck building, point to point movement, some engine building in abilities and personal actions, minor set collection, ...) especially innovative, but they are brought together in an exceptionally good way in order to create an intersting game of which the gameplay feels familiar, yet fresh. The game engine runs smoothly and makes for interesting decision making all of the time. During play the board changes with certain paths for your cowboy moving to the Kansas market becoming more or less attractive. The creation of additional buildings along the path creates opportunities for a few players, but slows others down - which they can mitigate by upgrading their ability to move their cowboy further.

(+) Some will disagree with me on this, but for what clearly is a euro-game, I found this game having its theme sufficiently shine trough its mechanics. This aids in understanding the logic of the game and makes for a fun and interesting experience: while making decisions you feel like you are a cowboy optimizing his herd or finding the best location to invest in a building, not just moving tiles and markers around. It is very thematic that when placing buildings I am making a trade-off between placing it on the main road or on a temptingly short but treacherous path with potential hazards impeding the way. With 4 (to 6) cow-cards in hand you navigate yourself a way to the market in Kansas and along the way you try to make the best of it with the cows you are travelling with (with some (I admit often unthematic) opportunities to optimize your hand before reaching the market). Investing in staff feels thematic: when you invest in cowboys, you get better choices when buying new cows; investing in craftsmen (I call them builders) allows you to quickly build or upgrade to spectacular buildings and hiring engineers will boost your railroad endeavours, allowing you to invest in the most interesting stations.

(+) This game is a point salad in that tons of things score you points (money, buildings, deliveries, stations, removed tiles, cows, goal cards, specialized staff, ...), but it doesn't feel like a 'dry' point salad, as you are clearly building up to things. Different strategies are possible (focus on the right herd and making great deliveries [gives you points and serious income coupled with flexibility during actions], focus on buildings [gives you points, slows opponents down and grants you powerful actions not available to opponents], focus on stations [can get you many points, allows for quick action upgrades and enhances income]). You're in it for the points, but each point scoring act also benefits you in some other way (increased income, engine building on your personal abilties/actions, slowing opponents down, opening new powerful building actions, clearing a path of strategic relevance of hazards, ...). That's why this point salad doesn't have that classic 'point salad feel': more often than not, you are not just doing something only for the points, you are also doing them because they help you in other ways. Of course, this only holds true until about 75% of the game: in the finale the point salad aspects do break through with players calculating the worth of their final possible moves in victory points and the game becoming a bit more abstract and mathematical - but hey, you are playing a euro-game still, and we are loving that, don't we? It is a big achievement that for the biggest part of the game, these mathematical aspects often remain hidden beneath a wonderful veil of theme and a feeling of 'personal progress'.

(+) Players start of weak: few personal actions, no personal buildings, a very deplorable herd of cows, ... While playing, players are constantly improving all those things, which gives a satisfying feeling of growth. For this reason this game has a positive vibe: players can constantly improve themselves. The game engine constantly spawns positive dilemmas: "Do I go for this great upgrade, or do I invest in this potential golden gooze(/cow )?".

(+) Different strategic lines can be followed, and I get the impression it is not necessary to focus on everything (despite everyting scoring points). As a player you are in control, and you are free to make choices on which goals you want to (or should) persue - the game will probably not penalize you (much) for neglecting a certain aspect. After having played, the game keeps you thinking about different things you could have tried and other ways to build up your possibilities. Replayability is guaranteed because of the different set-up each time (which makes assessing the board from the start of the game important!): every game players play with a different combination of buildings, the order in which the neutral buildings come out impact play, some paths may be more attractive than others at the start of the game due to the random distribution of hazards, ...

(+) The game art is colorful and fun. It looks inviting when displayed on the table and the component quality is very good (however, some might say that it is a shame that your personal tableau is thick paper and not cardboard and there is an unfortunate misprint on tile 8B which will be corrected by the publishers - but don't let that scare you off as I'm sure this will get fixed and in 95% of your games you won't be needing this tile).



The Negative
(+/-) Players seeking a healthy balance between well performed stategies being rewarded and some luck-elements to keep things spicy and interesting will love this game as it provides just that: the player who realizes his plans in the best and most efficient way will probably win, but occasionally something unexpected can happen (with a card or tile draw). I'm one of those weirdos who would have liked this healthy balance to have tilted even more towards strategy, but I'm well aware that I will be an exception in this. I will say that this game is slightly more luck-based than Mombasa, the previous design by Pfister and to me personally, that's a shame. Don't take me wrong: this is definitely is a skill-based game, not a luck-based one (as the matter of fact, I have a victory ratio of 100% so far whistle ), but still it can be a little annoying that a wonderfully ingenious plan can not get realized due to that one impossible draw.

(-) The game truly invites players to make long-term investments: empowering your personal actions, buying (expensive!!) sensational cows [who would have thought I would ever write such a sentence on a public forum?!], investing in staff in order to achieve more powerful actions, building impressive buildings, ... There are so much goodies to be had, but this build-up is slow (most of the time you will be investing money into building up an engine and you won't have money left to let it run right away) and before you know it, the game is over. This game had the potential to be a great engine builder, but it is too short to get a truly satisfying experience from running your engine: a lot of your hard fought for investments will only pay off one or two times. I understand this design choice: probably this was necessary to avoid dominant stategies or avoid run-away-leader problems, but still I feel it is a shame that all those beautifull engine building aspects are there, but I can't take that to the maximum due to game length. This makes playing 'Great Western Trail' feel like a great party, but the music stops when everybody is finally on the dance floor.

(-) Gameplay is smooth and quick most of the time, but at times the game is prone to analysis paralysis, especially when a suitable location for buildings must be found or a player with big plans for a sequence of turns runs low on money and tries to find a way to getting his stuff done (calculating expenses and income). This is especially true as the game is nearing its end and the detailed point calculation starts. Still, this is a minor complaint here, because overall turns go quick because most of the time players can prepare their turn while opponents are taking theirs.

(-) The core of a game turn is very simple: Move, perform an action and fill up your hand with cows until you are back to your max hand. Easy and elegant. However, there is lots of iconography to learn and teach about and new players struggle when rules about different ways to score keep coming (especially true with game rules relating to the railroad).


Conclusion
In 2015 we got introduced to designer Alexander Pfister by playing Mombasa, a game I (and a major part of the gaming community) hold in very high regard. As the matter of fact, I like Mombasa so much that 'Great Western Trail' was a sure buy for me at this year's Spiel fair. I haven't regretted that decision for a second, because just like Mombasa, with 'Great Western Trail', Pfister again created a wonderful and clever euro-game which faces players with an interesting challenge to build up towards a satisfying goal, keeping players on the edge of their seat from start to finish. Similar to Mombasa, the possibilities for build-up in 'Great Western Trail' are all challenging and slow - but I would say that 'Great Western Trail' is the ligher of these two games.

For the rest, these two games play out totally differently and they don't feel similar at all. I have witnessed electric discharge above the board of Mombasa due to brainpower spinning out of control, and I don't expect such scenario's with 'Great Western Trail', which also offers much interesting decision making, but plays more frivolously. The mechanics work differently and they each have their own unique flavor and dynamic. Due to the fact that 'Great Western Trail' plays a little more lightly compared to 'Mombasa', but still remains an interesting challenge, I can see this title hitting the table a little more frequently and with a broader spectrum of players.

What I mainly like about this game is the smooth integration of some great known mechanics, creating a dynamic of growth during play and giving the game its own character. It is a positive game full of interesting positive choices. It is a major accomplishment of the designer to have designed an excellent balanced point salad game leaving open enough options for players to persue their own strategic plans, but which doesn't have the dry flavor many other classical point salad games have. This is due to the fact that the game couples nice advantages to point-scoring moves, ensuring the game keeps telling a story other than calculus.

The game offers an appealing toy-box for the engine builders amoung us, but be aware that they should not get their hopes up too much as the game might be over before you ran your engine sufficiently. The game sticks with you in a way that long after playing you find yourself thinking about the best way to navigate through the canyons and what great opportunities lie in getting those buildings out or hiring a different kind of staff next time - and that's all the more reason for me to stick with this game!

The Verdict

8,3/10

Tips for those going in
(*) Money is tight, especially in the beginning of the game. Investing everyting in building an engine you can't put to use due to a lack of money might not be the best short term plan
(*) In my experience, it works well to put some focus on a strategy, and after you got that up and running, usually as a side benefit, you can start investing in a second strategic path. For example: if you invest in your herd (better cows, deck optimization, ...) you will perform well on deliveries, generating points. However, you will also increase your income, which you could invest in hiring the right staff, for example to build better buildings - opening a new strategic path for your game. Don't try to invest in your herd, buildings, train, ... all at once: best take it one step at a time.
(*) Getting your personal actions/abilities upgraded soon is very intersting. You can do this by making an early delivery or by trying to snatch away the early stations (station master tiles gained this way can be pretty yummie!). When selecting white disks to remove from your player board early: I especially love the auxiliary ability to replace one or two cow cards in your hand.
(*) Staff is expensive, but very powerful. In some rare occasions they will be cheaper to hire: when that happens, you will want to be prepared to snatch them away before the others do! You can not hope to perform well on a main strategy (herd+delivery, buildings, stations) without the right staff (respectively: cowboys, crafsmen, engineers).
(*) Timing is important: will the game get rushed by players racing again and again to Kansas city, or will there be more time for you to build things up with players taking more stops in order to enjoy builing actions?
(*) Try to avoid stiff penalties for making bad deliveries: they will eat away your end game score and your income.
(*) Certificates are tactically useful in order to make the most suitable deliveries: they can be used to increase the value of your delivery. This can be important, especially because you can only deliver to the same city once and after playing for a while, you will have delivered to many neighbouring cities on the railroad track. In such cases you will want to avoid being one or two breeding points short of making a delivery to the next city on top of your chain, so you have to drop down to the bottom. Generally: deliver to those cities which make for the best bonusses (chance cards, end game points, ...)
(*) Place buildings which require toll of opponents on strategic places along the path. On the other hand, avoid giving your opponents too many toll fees: it is useless to carry around money you will only spend on paying opponents. In such cases its better to run out of money or choose an alternative path where you have to pay money to the bank in stead of to opponents.
(*) One personal action allows you to trash cards, giving you the opportunity to permanently dispose of useless cards. Know that in this game, you will not cycle through your deck as often as classic deck-building games like Dominion. The ability can be situationally useful (especially early on), but only when coupled with a strong herd-optimization focus (having cows with high breeding value, owning many different types of cows, actively cycling through your deck by playing the appropriate actions, ....). An alternative to this personal thrashing action (costing you a little of your progress on the railroad track) is simply discarding cards and drawing new ones (free, but no permanent removals!). The better your herd, generally speaking, the faster you will want to push the game forward (getting more deliveries yourself and hopefully not allowing opponents to develop their strategies fully)


edit: added some extra strategic tips in red based on feed-back below
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Greg
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Excellent review! I like your evaluations.

We need another term than "engine-building" for this sort of game -- small motor building?
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Frank Hamrick
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Rocky Mount
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Thanks. An excellent review, and I really appreciate the "Tips" offered at the end. I seldom read all the sections of a review (mostly skim through the areas I think are non-essential), looking for the meat of the review. Your review was all-meat! I read it all. Thanks again for your cogent analysis!
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Dundy O
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Milwaukee
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Wow. Great review! So much to munch on in your review, I love it. Not your average bare-bones write-up review.
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David Janik-Jones
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Waterloo
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Combat Commander, Up Front, Julius Caesar, Fields of Fire! The Raven King (game publisher) ... that's me!
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Slywester Janik, awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Polish Cross of Valour), August 1944
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Great review, Roel. Glad this is on top of my Secret Santa list.

(Both 401 Games and Board Game Bliss, great local stores, had a handful of copies (now gone) and I'm hoping my Austrian (?) Secret Santa noticed. Fingers crossed.)
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Michael Frost

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Great review. Lot of good analysis.

But for some reason Pfister's games just don't do it for me. Something to do with the interaction of theme and play mechanisms. Mombasa was just a boring slog, that seemed to promise real multiple paths to victory (e.g., diamonds and books) but which really just involved the stocks. And GWT, like I care about doing the same cattle drive over and over to KC to then ship them off out west?

GWT is just too repetitive. Count the number of times each player goes to KC. So the game is... 1. Start on trail. 2. Follow trail to KC. 3. Go back to start of trail. Do this umpteen times!!! Just over and over and over. Till game ends. And by the end players figure out how far they can move on their turn and what spaces/buildings to land on or avoid. So they hopscotch along the trail faster and faster. Boring. But that is only me.
 
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Robert
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Repetitiveness is in the eye of the beholder...
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ozgur ozubek
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tips:

* delivery to kansas (6 bucks with a cost of 6 VP) is a lie. that's a huge penalty for 6 bucks which you will be making very shortly

* keep 1 or 2 medals for bad times. you WILL NEED them.

* whoever builds the first building will (by carefully placing the building) immediately extort money at turn 1 from followers. so try to spend all your money (at turn 1) before passing from 1st player's heavy toll building. otherwise paying +2 toll to 1st player (4 bucks for 3 players) is OP

* try to benefit from risky paths as they do great job of discarding lousy 1 value cows from hand.

* do not believe in card thrashing (bottom level auxiliary action) Risky paths or draw-discard mechanisms are enough to cycle deck and find that sweet 5 value cow that you just purchased

* do not lose the train race. those extra (vital lacerda smelling) extra bonus VP's are op and train saves you money for high value deliveries.

Quote:
but still it can be a little annoying that a wonderfully ingenious plan can not get realized due to that one impossible draw.


this comment implies that you do not follow calculated paths and/or invest enough thinking over deck cycling mechanism and rely partially on luck to draw nice cards.

by investing draw/discrd mechs (3rd auxiliary action or buildings) you will have no problem to collect all cows you purchased
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Michael Frost

Iowa
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DocCool wrote:
Repetitiveness is in the eye of the beholder...


So very true. Though, just curious, how many times in say the 4-plyr game does each player go to KC?
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Mathue Faulk
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MPMelanchthon wrote:
DocCool wrote:
Repetitiveness is in the eye of the beholder...


So very true. Though, just curious, how many times in say the 4-plyr game does each player go to KC?

You can simplify most games down to that level and call them repetitive. I don't find the game repetitive at all. It's the best euro I've played in at least 12 months and maybe longer. I honestly felt feel engaged from start to finish, and then I find myself thinking about the game and different strategies throughout the day. Fantastic game, and doesn't feel repetitive at all IMO.
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Mathue Faulk
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wintermute wrote:
tips:

* delivery to kansas (6 bucks with a cost of 6 VP) is a lie. that's a huge penalty for 6 bucks which you will be making very shortly

Almost always, yes. There are certain setups where it can make sense to at least consider delivering there at the very start of the game in order to get a huge head start on the engine building because of the influx of cash.


wintermute wrote:

* do not believe in card thrashing (bottom level auxiliary action) Risky paths or draw-discard mechanisms are enough to cycle deck and find that sweet 5 value cow that you just purchased

Definitely agree with this, although I'm open to change my mind in future plays. Deck thinning just doesn't seem as effective since you don't go through the deck as often as other deck builders.

wintermute wrote:

* do not lose the train race. those extra (vital lacerda smelling) extra bonus VP's are op and train saves you money for high value deliveries.

I think this is more situational. In general, it's a good idea, but you can definitely win the game while still losing the train race.
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mfaulk80 wrote:
wintermute wrote:
tips:
* delivery to kansas (6 bucks with a cost of 6 VP) is a lie. that's a huge penalty for 6 bucks which you will be making very shortly

Almost always, yes. There are certain setups where it can make sense to at least consider delivering there at the very start of the game in order to get a huge head start on the engine building because of the influx of cash.


In my group we almost always send our first delivery to Kansas City, and it seems like a good deal to me. It's very unlikely you will get your train past any crossings before your first delivery, so if you ship your 6-value herd to Colorado Springs you are getting only $3, whereas you'd be getting $12 for shipping to Kansas City (similarly for an 8-value herd you'd get $4 vs $14. Is $9-10 at the very beginning of the game when money is most valuable worth -6VP? My sense is yes. The argument that you can just dump cards here and there and get money that way completely ignores the extra cost in turns.

mfaulk80 wrote:
wintermute wrote:

* do not believe in card thrashing (bottom level auxiliary action) Risky paths or draw-discard mechanisms are enough to cycle deck and find that sweet 5 value cow that you just purchased

Definitely agree with this, although I'm open to change my mind in future plays. Deck thinning just doesn't seem as effective since you don't go through the deck as often as other deck builders.


Yeah but once again what about all those extra turns you spend stopping to draw and discard? I agree that trashing cards from your deck isn't the end all be all, but it sure is useful if you have high-value cows in your deck, as you'll want to move as quickly as possible to Kansas City. Having to stop along the way to do whatever is especially costly to a player with big cows.
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ozgur ozubek
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any more tips as food for thought?

@Roelovich: this can be living thread. appreciate if you develop the tips subject with the comments given... of course according to your own interpretation.

thnx
 
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Fabrice Dubois
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La Garenne Colombes
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mfaulk80 wrote:

wintermute wrote:

* do not believe in card thrashing (bottom level auxiliary action) Risky paths or draw-discard mechanisms are enough to cycle deck and find that sweet 5 value cow that you just purchased

Definitely agree with this, although I'm open to change my mind in future plays. Deck thinning just doesn't seem as effective since you don't go through the deck as often as other deck builders.

Interesting.

I don't have the game in front of me but discarding from risky path isn't too expansive given that almost (all?) teepee/hazard tiles are printed with the fee symbol ?
 
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Roel Vaneerdeweg
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wintermute wrote:
any more tips as food for thought?

@Roelovich: this can be living thread. appreciate if you develop the tips subject with the comments given... of course according to your own interpretation.

thnx


Hi Ozgur,

I mainly incorporate tips in my reviews as to give some flavor of how the game works, what kind of decisions play a central role and things I think you should tell people who play for the first time in order to give them a fighting chance. I appreciate your thoughts on strategy, but I suppose they will be found more easily in the strategy section of the forum. I will however add some extra tips based on the reactions here in my first post.

Thanks to all for the feed-back on my review!
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michael humphreys
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... Fight the Analysis Paralysis police!! ... ninja
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gregory churchill
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DocCool wrote:
Repetitiveness is in the eye of the beholder... ;)


indeed

o indeed
 
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Pup Selchen
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Thank you for a very well rounded review that made me, someone who usually skips through reviews, read everything!
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Frank Hamrick
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MPMelanchthon wrote:
DocCool wrote:
Repetitiveness is in the eye of the beholder...


So very true. Though, just curious, how many times in say the 4-plyr game does each player go to KC?


Probably only ONCE the same way! There are basically ten trails to KC. Each trail will have differing buildings, hazards, etc. and throughout the game the ten trails continually change. Each trip to KC require a different choice (or different choices) since your current needs (money, certificates, cattle, workers, etc.) changes.

You will got to KC maybe 5/6 times, but as I said, probably only ONCE the same way! In fact, I find the game extremely interesting because each trip to KC is so different!
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Robert
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MPMelanchthon wrote:
DocCool wrote:
Repetitiveness is in the eye of the beholder...


So very true. Though, just curious, how many times in say the 4-plyr game does each player go to KC?
Tons of great games have X "rounds" with income/deck shuffling/scoring/... at the end of a round. In any given game with a choice of actions, you're guaranteed to do some actions many times in a single game. Does all that make them very repetitive?
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