Friday, 21 April 2017

Great Western Trail Blazing

Friday. With Sally and the boys away, I was immersed in work at home. After 11 hours of reading and writing, my morning plans of watching a movie evaporated at the notion of spending another 2 hours in front of a screen. Instead I broke out Great Western Trail.

I'd spent about two hours looking through the rule book last week and needed to return while I still had any recollection of them. I spent another half hour refreshing/finishing the rules, including this particular bad boy...


...then I was off!

In Great Western Trail you're competing cattlemen, driving your cows across the ranges to Kansas, whereupon they are loaded onto trains and delivered to cities, where - the game doesn't show this bit - they'll presumably be eaten, with pepper sauce. 'Tis a game tinged with sadness.


Your cattleman starts on the bottom right of the board, and on your turn you may move him up to three locations along the trail. Wherever he stops, you get to take an action. If he stops at a building you own (or a neutral building) you take the juicy local actions, or the more arid auxiliary actions. If he stops at an opponent's building, he only gets to take the auxiliary action. It's just as I imagined being a cattleman would be!

There are other places on the trail too - flood lands, gorges and deserts, replete with dangers that you must pay to pass. Or you can pay to get rid of them, and get victory points later.

The local actions are stuff like buying more cows, selling cows, and doing a lot of fun cow-related stuff, like discarding a cow in order to move a train somewhere. Or hiring a worker, who'll either help you move your train, build your buildings, or buy more cows. Cows are really the thing here.


At some point though, you're going to reach Kansas, and this is where the cows you have in your hand get you money. There's a seam of deck-building going on here, because you only ever deliver four cows, and you only get money for each type you deliver. If you have three Guernseys and a Jersey, you'll only get paid for one of each. So really, you want to deliver as diverse a bunch of cows as you can - in the old west they hated having too much of one cow. It's probably to do with breeding - diversification is inherently stronger, come the day of the revolution, etc.

Then, having delivered cows, you rush back to the start in order to drive some more. Except drive better! With more buildings, and more diverse cows, more cowboys, and maybe a station master.

For whatever reason, when you move your train, you can sometimes take a station master and replace it with one of your workers - like a cowboy, for instance. Now you've lost a cowboy to a new career, but gained a station master, who won't help you buy cows, but will give you end-game bonuses instead. Like I said: theme!


As the game progresses, the board fills up with buildings - Dirks, in this case, as I became bovine-obsessed and rarely bothered with construction - and they start to get in your way. If I go to Dirk's Bar, I can't spend the night there. But I can dispose of a cow and get another, or maybe just manifest a coin out of thin air!

Really, Great Western Trail is quite ludicrous. It starts with the theme (cows) continues with the not-remotely-thematic mechanics (collect money because your buildings are next to a forest!) and extends this madness right into the scoring, which is not so much a point salad as a five-metre vegetarian kebab. I even missed something out and had to add it after - it takes a whole page of rulebook to explain the scoring.


All of which makes it sound like I think GWT is crap - but I don't. It's awesome! For one, it looks great. Two, it moves really fast. Turns take literally ten seconds when all you're doing is vanishing a cow, after all. And because cattlemen love to share, there's no blocking here, meaning those AP lulls where someone says "I was going to do that" and stares at the board sullenly for five minutes are completely negated. You can just do it anyway.

Three: the game is really tactical. I sped off into the lead and when Dirk kept building buildings (and hampering my progress into the bargain) I wondered if it was yet another game where you're supposed to forsake those early gains and look for the long-term rewards. But GWT didn't do that. Mainly though, the game has an inherently silly aspect to it - and just as I enjoyed the tetris-loving Vikings of A Feast for Odin, I enjoyed the cattle tomfoolery here.

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