Picture the scene:
You, an avid board gamer (the kind who watches YouTube videos about games, has a BGG user account and possibly a growing collection) hear about a new game that everyone is talking about; ‘Great Western Trail’. You buy it, clambering aboard that hype train hoping that it is not a pile of rubbish like some of your previous snap purchases have been…..
Then its game night, you’ve read the rulebook, you’ve watched an online tutorial and maybe even a video of someone playing through a couple of rounds. Your friends look at you as you set up what looks like the most complicated board game ever conceived by a human being and you say; “right guys, so in this game you play a cowboy (no Simon…. not a cool cowboy with guns and a desire for justice) but an ACTUAL Cow-boy, someone whose business it is to buy and sell cows for a profit. Silence descends on the room, you can almost hear one of your friends mentally trying to summon up the courage to ask if they can just play Catan or Ticket to ride instead?
Great Western Trail is a 2-4 player economic simulation game about cow rearing in the United States, and the above scene has played out almost exactly on each of the 10 play-through’s I have done of this game since I pressed the order button. In this review I want to tell you why Great Western Trail (GWT) is not only my favourite game of 2016, but quite possibly is now firmly placed in my top ten board games of all time.
The game is, in fact, quite simple; you must travel along a route towards Kansas City with a starting hand of ‘cows’. Every player starts with the same deck of 4 types of cow. You will have 5 grey cows, 2 white, 2 green and 2 black. On your journey along the trail you will land on buildings (some neutral and others belonging to you or your opponents) here you will carry out many actions including buying new and more valuable cows from a cattle market to add to your deck, or hiring new workers to add to your player mat which make other actions cheaper or more effective.
But the key to the game is simple: when you get to Kansas City you reveal your hand to the table, discard any duplicates to your discard pile and then add up the score in your hand. This number is the amount you get in cold hard cash – profit! However you then have to ship these cows to a destination city in the west. Depending on where your train is on the track, you may lose some of the profit you just made from the cow sale.
GWT is a careful game of balance; you need to work on your deck-building and sell those cows for profit, but you will not get much profit if you don’t move your train up on its track, and then you also need to build some buildings so that you aren’t relying on those randomly placed neutral buildings on the board. Your own buildings also helpfully gain you taxes when opponents are forced to travel over them.
The beauty of the game for me comes from the innovative way the game intertwines mechanisms. Deck-builders are not my favourite type of board game, but when a deck-builder is mixed with movement on a board and a semi-racing mechanic alongside worker hire, building placement and a player mat with countless ways to play each game differently; then ladies and gentlemen I think we have a winner.
It is addictive to try and count your own cards, predicting that if you get rid of one of your low level cards then you are likely to pick up that purple cow worth 5 points, it is an awesome feeling to time your train movement so that you hop over all of your opponents piggy backing into the lead, and it is so very satisfying to collect taxes from your friends as they innocently pass over your buildings.
For me, it is an almost perfect game with a few drawbacks. Analysis paralysis can be a hindrance in the game and it is also rammed full of symbols which need to be learnt. But 99% of the games I have played have resulted in everyone having a brilliant time. Check it out!
– Ben Cook