Great Western Trail Review - Teleporting Ninja Cattle Sold Separately

If you'll excuse me a second, I'm just going to build a wall. No, not that kind of wall, this is purely for self defense. Enough to repel siege weaponry, the use of flight and any sneaky suicidal bomber orc's. That's because I'm looking at a game, which is currently going around the social media pages like it's 2016's holy grail. Whenever hype surrounds a game, it's one I have to check out to see if it's justified or not. It worked well with Scythe (though even as much as I love that game, nothing justifies that level of hype) so who knows this could be another good example. But if it's not, I'm going to need that wall because anything less than perfection in a review is seen as blasphemy.

A lot of the hype is generated because of the Austrian designer, Alexander Pfister whose notable games include some very popular titles as well as some award winners. I'm looking at a list of 7 here from BoardGameGeek and it's a mixed bag for me. I didn't like Zavandor or Port Royal. I was OK with Oh My Goods. I would like to try Broom Service. I have zero intention of setting foot near Mombasa (sorry, but I'm a lover of theme and when the box cover doesn't even tell you what you're doing in the game, that's a red flag I can see from over the Atlantic Ocean). But I really liked Isle of Skye, which I believe to be his best work. Simple, gateway level, streamlined Euro with a Carcassonne-esque map building feel. I've already done a review of that and it sits in my Top 100. Yes it has no theme, but I can deal with that in short, simple games.

And that's probably a factor that will play a part here. I like theme, that's no surprise to many. My favourite Euro's all generally encompass a high degree of theme or immersion. Viticulture, Pursuit of Happiness, Le Havre, Scythe, Founding Fathers, anything by Vital Lacerda to name a few examples. The less theme present, the more the game has to work to win me over especially if it's a long 3 hour plus game. Anyway I think the Dwarfs are signalling that the wall is finished. . . . let's do this.




Designer: Alexander Pfinster
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Age: 12+
Players: 2-4
Time: 150-210 Minutes
RRP: £43.99


Description from the publisher (images credited to BGG):
America in the 19th century: You are a rancher and repeatedly herd your cattle from Texas to Kansas City, where you send them off by train. This earns you money and victory points. Needless to say, each time you arrive in Kansas City, you want to have your most valuable cattle in tow. 
However, the "Great Western Trail" not only requires that you keep your herd in good shape, but also that you wisely use the various buildings along the trail. Also, it might be a good idea to hire capable staff: cowboys to improve your herd, craftsmen to build your very own buildings, or engineers for the important railroad line.
If you cleverly manage your herd and navigate the opportunities and pitfalls of Great Western Trail, you surely will gain the most victory points and win the game.



THIS BE THE FINEST MEAT ON THE RANCH


Certainly from a component aspect, things are off to a good start. You have your own player board with a selection of sturdy building tiles and the board itself has some decent artwork across it. My only problem is that it's very "busy". At first glance it's hard to tell exactly what is meant to be going on with anything because there's a spot and a track for everything. Even during the game it can be a little too busy and the iconography is not that intuitive so learning what each action does will take a while. A small bugbear as providing you can see where the trail itself goes, the rest of it is basically a "track" of some description.

It's very colourful and nothing feels cheap. You can probably get away without sleeving the cards, but maybe for the cattle you may just want to be play it safe given the frequent shuffling. All in all though, Stronghold have done a good job on the production front.



TO THEME OR NOT TO THEME?


It didn't take long for me to realise that the theme here is basically a setting for the mechanics and nothing more. And there's a lot of mechanics, to the point where being taught the rules is going to overwhelm a lot of people. You've got deckbuilding, set collection, player upgrades, money management, lots to contend with. But you'll never at any point feel like a cowboy or a cattle rancher or similar. Even giving the cattle actual names on the cards is pretty pointless when no-one refers to them in that way. It's a minor step above the likes of Knizia or Stefan Feld at least, designers who I really struggle with a lot.

So you need to know this going in, forget about theme, this is playing the mechanics. The deck building aspect is a bit like Concordia - basically there to exist (though at least no-one can buy your cards and screw you from the game here thank god)!Why do your ninja cattle you just bought mysteriously disappear so you can't call on them at will for the market? Why when you reach the end of the trail do you instantly teleport back to the start place? Why do you get gold for removing Indian housing? Why does the guy at this building only like "white" cattle cards? Why can you only sell one of each type of cattle at the market? Why does selling at two markets next to each other grant you a bonus or penalise you heavily? How exactly are you removing the hazards? Things like this will rid you of any sense of thematic immersion, but of course if you don't care about theme, this whole paragraph won't affect you in the slightest, but mechanics tied to a solid them helps the learning process for a game. I guarantee you I can teach something like Vinhos Deluxe easier than Great Western Trail based on theme integration alone.


INTERWOVEN MECHANICS


So ignoring theme entirely, how do the mechanics themselves work? For the most part, actually quite well. The deck building is stapled on, but it's easy to work with, you don't have loads of text to read as it's only the colour of the cattle that's relevant and you'll only have so many cards period. Fine tuning this deck is key to success and deck building fans will love it. The building tiles help to develop the board state over the game and ensure each trail looks different, which is always a plus, though there's very limited variety amongst the buildings themselves to take full advantage of this baring in mind you'll only be able to build half of them if you focus on builders.

The trail portion itself requires effective planning as well. You can choose to zoom around the trail quickly to reach the market, but of course unless you're able to consistently sell good cattle, you'll basically screw yourself out of the game doing that. So you have to take your time, grab those building actions where available and plan ahead, which is pretty engaging. Certainly more so than the train track which is basically for bonus objectives and a discount on "market fees".

There's no direct player interaction, but you do have to be wary of what the others are doing especially if they start sticking buildings or hazards on the trail which hinder your movement and bank account. You can't block someone off a space though so aside from the typical indirect actions of "you took that personnel tile before I could" it's multiplayer solitaire.



ONE LONG TRAIL, BUT VERY FEW BRANCHING PATHS


Great Western Trail feels like a slog throughout, you've got no helping hand here. There's plenty of things on the board to penalise you in some way, especially the market penalties (seriously why was that necessary?) which will almost spell doom by themselves if you end up with them. Bonuses that you can get feel pretty minor and so new players are going to have a tough time especially as if you don't get set up early on in the game, you're pretty much out of the running. However that does make it very strategic despite the fact there is some luck elements present as bad draws from your cattle deck can hose you from time to time as well as the wrong personnel tiles appearing.

You have several options to go for in trying to win, but so far (and I know this differs for some) experience has shown only a couple of paths that are worthwhile. A lot of your ability to do anything in the game derives from the personnel you can hire, builders, cowboys and engineers. So naturally these are your main paths. Naturally you can get a balance and that works just fine. But I regularly see wins derived predominantly from a focus on cowboys or engineers. The bonuses/benefits obtained from these far outweigh the builders which so far have yet to win any game I've played. I tried a focus on these in the first game and it's just not worth the cardboard. Money is really scarce in this game and the points gained from the effort to build and upgrade pales in comparison to other methods like simply buying high price cattle. I hear reports some do well, but it does feel like one of the major paths to victory requires a specific planetary alignment to occur. And now I just ignore them having done far better using the other two types - problem with that is you don't feel different from the other players and lose that sense of personal investment. Anyone I've seen trying some weird strategy will have enjoyed themselves, but ultimately come last.



HOW LONG DO CATTLE LIVE FOR?


Despite what some players who have played this game every night since its release will claim, Great Western Trail is a long game. For most people in the real world you're talking a 3 hour game with 4 players. Without much thinking maybe 2.5 hours, but with new players it's easily 3.5 hours plus. Remove about 30 minutes a player on average, but anyone saying they can play this in 90 minutes I want to see a YouTube timelog video for because I don't believe it for a second. I've not played it two player, but no 3 player game has ever been shorter than 2.5 hours and with 4, you'd best bring a sleeping bag. Setup takes a long time and there's a ton of rules and icons to explain and if anyone ever suggests that you'll pick it up as you go along, fire them from rules teaching duties.

The downtime however isn't the reason why it's long. Because what other players do generally has minimal impact on your game, you have more flexibility to think about your next move during their turns than typically in most Euro's so there is generally a lot of that runtime where you're engaged in the strategy of the game. And certainly I felt for the first 90 minutes each time that I didn't need to entertain myself by other means when it wasn't my turn - good downtime mitigation here.

However after that 90 minute mark. . .problems arise and a lot of that is the lack of immersion factor. Great Western Trail is dry and mechanical so you are basically just playing for points for 3+ hours. That's a long time to focus solely on mechanics especially when it's very rinse/repeat constantly doing a merry-go-round on the trail and back. You build up your engine and usually have it on full throttle between the 50% and 75% completion mark. From that point there's nothing new to keep me engrossed, just keep going and going until the end. The first 90 minutes I'm focused, but once the engine is up I'm checking my watch frequently wanting the game to hurry up and conclude. Now saying that I can see how it's a good thing for some. There are many engine building games out there where it ends before you get to see it in full motion, at least here you get to experience it for longer, but you've already taken ages to get to that stage.

And I find a lot of it is down to that weird timer track mechanic, which could use a swift meat cleaver chop. It's a very fiddly timer to manage and it seems to grind to a halt sometimes when really it should be advancing much faster to get the game resolved. Rather than a sense of escalation it feels like the train has got stiff brakes. Cut off several rows to shorten the game and I doubt you would actually affect any of the balance.





VERDICT ON GREAT WESTERN TRAIL


I've come away from Great Western Trail with mixed feelings. Certainly I'm not blown away by it from all the hype it gathered. It's a strategic brain-burner with some small luck elements that will engage players up to a point, but then overstays its welcome when it reaches a peak and just repeats the same thing over and over and over. A lack of theme is a big factor so if you care about theme, run away. It could use some streamlining and certainly a meat cleaver taken to the length of at least an hour.

It was good though to see that downtime wasn't as bad as expected and at least visually, despite being a bit busy, the game is nice to look at as you play. The board state being different each game is also a plus even if I feel there isn't enough variation in the buildings to take full advantage of it. On that same note, I felt there wasn't enough variation in the paths to victory, with experience so far showing a trend of the same 2-3 strategies winning over and over.

Without a theme to immerse myself with, I can't see myself wanting to play this for 3 hours every time, but it is easy to see some qualities that others will latch on to. If theme is of no concern for you in a heavy, lengthy Euro then you'll likely enjoy it and I can see why it's popular. For me, I'm going back to the Isle of Skye to take cover behind my wall.


 

BROKEN RATING - 5 CATTLE WITH YELLOW FEVER





YOU WILL LIKE GREAT WESTERN TRAIL IF:



You love having a bunch of separate mechanics in one Euro game.


You want a heavy brain burner and don't mind the small luck aspect.


You enjoy Alex's style for game design.




YOU WILL NOT LIKE GREAT WESTERN TRAIL IF:



You want theme in your Euro's - this is a very dry, mechanical affair.


You want a short game - 4 players is going to take up your game night.


You feel that the paths to victory are very limited.

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