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This review is part of my series of reviews of how multiplayer games work with just 2. For the full list see My 2 player game reviews.
Rules - how are they different in a 2 player game?
There are no special rules just for 2 players, rather there are various things that change as the game scales from 2 to 4 players - the number of columns available for putting people tiles, and the number of cows available.
Also for movement, you use a different tile for each different player count, giving you a different starting movement amount, and changing the penalty for passing over green and black hands.
All other rules remain unchanged.
How is the game different with 2?
The most marked difference is definitely the movement on the board. Firstly your movement is smaller to start with, so you can't jump through the tiles quite as quickly as in a 4 player game. However, later on, the board doesn't fill up with buildings quite as quickly, so it's less common to get the major building blockages that can become quite common in a high building 4 player game, where if you're not the player building buildings you are forced to step on every neutral building or take a single cog action just to get through the area. This can happen in 2 players, but is much less likely, as there is only one player building obstructions in your way.
Strategy wise all the same strategy options are open to you at 2 player - stations, cows, buildings being the obvious three - the only real difference is competition for the items.
With 4 players there are 4 columns of people available to you, so at the start you tend to get more options as to which type of person you want; this can be more limited in 2 player. However, as the game progresses this tends to switch, and in 4 player certain types can rapidly run out if 2 people are aggressively pursuing the same strategy, making you either pay more for the people you want or switch strategies, whereas in 2 player this tends to happen less often.
Similarly for the competition for stations. In 2 players, and even in 3, you can often be the only person aggressively moving your train, so any station you want can be yours for the taking. In a 4 player game you tend to have to be much more aggressive to get a large number of stations.
Buildings however tend to work differently. In a 2 player game you're taxing just one person, so tactical placement of buildings to maximise tax from your opponent is good. In 4 player you're taxing more people, but often at a lower rate, and the larger number of buildings means actually you often get less income, as either they've spent out already, if your building is late in line, or it works out cheaper for them to go via the disasters and short-cut you. In 2 player, if you're building buildings but not taking disasters, you almost force your opponent to pass over your hands if you place your buildings well, and they're much less likely to have run out of money in advance.
In theory you have the same number of cows per person in 2 player as 4 player, but I do find that in 2 player sometimes the colours you draw of cows is more "skewy", just because you're drawing less cows from the deck, whereas generally in a 4 player game you get a more even distribution across the colours. This can mean that in a particular game it's particularly good or bad to be the "cow" player near the start - if there are few 3s available at the start for example, then it's a long wait for the row to refill naturally. You also don't tend to get the sudden run on cows in 2 player games - in 4 player games sometimes you can be fourth to the cow building, and suddenly find 6 cows vanish in front of you - with 2 players it's definitely more predictable as to what will be there when you're planning your route.
I think overall the major difference between the 2 and 4 player games can just generally be summed up as level of competition for things, whether it be the strategy you've chosen, the cows, the stations, the people - for all of these in a 2 player game there is some, but little competition, as it's not likely you'll both be doing the same thing, but with 4 players you can almost guarantee that at least one player is trying to do the same thing you are, so you'll have to compete with them more aggressively. And naturally, the 3 player game lies somewhere between the two extremes.
The other factor to consider in any game with more players is downtime between turns - in Great Western Trail there is definitely more downtime with more players, and the game does go longer with more players, as it is scaled for you to have roughly the same number of passes through the board at all player counts. I don't find the downtime is usually an issue, as you can do your planning in advance and be thinking while they're moving, but sometimes you get players who have a sequence of things to do, which you have to wait for. The worst downtime tends to come when players are learning and watching everyone else's moves to learn what's going on, rather than planning their next move.
I find Great Western Trail to scale incredibly well from 2 to 4 players, and will happily play it at all player counts.
I play it regularly with my wife and we always have great fun.
I've only played it with 2 and 3 but I believe it's an amazing game with any player count.
Nice analysis! Thanks for posting!
I've played it with 2 multiple times, and 3 and 4 a handful. Probably my favorite thing about the scalability with this game is that it still requires a mixed strategy at all player counts. Different players (including myself) have gone nuts in a one-dimensional (cowboy rush, builder, train) strategy with much less luck than when balancing those in a more tactical approach. A somewhat difficult thing to pull off, but this is a great example of excellent execution, in my opinion.