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From Pegasus Spiele, Eggertspiele and Stronghold Games comes an epic adventure set in the heady days of the American wild west. Pioneers led the way for massive cattle droves and eventually the steel tracks for the black smoke belching Iron Horse. The designers have captured not only the flavour of the 1800's in America but also the grit and ruggedness of the men who terraformed the dusty plains into a world of trains. Alexander Pfister (Mombasa, Isle of Skye, and Broom Service) takes credit as the game designer  but it is just as much the graphic design and illustrations of Andrea Resch that sets this game apart from the myriad games that have ridden this bload soaked trail. This is an epic game and it represents the epic adventures of the heroes whose money and muscles helped create the US of A as it is now from the desolate and dangerous lands that it was just a short time, about one hundred and thirty years, ago.

This is the 7th game in the Stronghold Games series list of Great Designers and though it is designed to play with 4 players aged 12+,  it is in our opinion an exceptionally good game for 3 adult aged players. You can find it at your local games store for a very reasonable price, somewhere around the £40.00 mark on average. It is a weighty box with many excellent components in wood and card that are beautifully illustrated and coloured; it is a work of love as well as a work of art and above all else it is a playable intelligent game.

The 16 page rules book gives over just one page to self indulgence as it repeats the fabulous, and one of the most eye catching box covers ever; and who can blame the publishers for power playing us with this wonderful depiction of a major part of life in America in the 19th Century. it's truly worthy of a place on the wall of the American West's Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National gallery of Art. The remainder of the rules book, 15 pages, is, to begin with, heavy reading for it requires deep concentration and mental interpretation by all listening (new) players. For despite it being a game about the American west it was originally written and designed in the German language which has brought about some anomalies in the translation. Obviously most new board games that you purchase are better if you can play your first game with someone who knows the game and if that's not possible you want easy and well laid out rules. GWT has a well appointed rules book but easy to grasp at first read through the rules are not, at least they weren't for us and we are pretty much an accomplished group of core gamers. However, as is often the case, once we got our collective heads around the construction of the rules and realised what we were able to do and what we couldn't do, then the whole mechanic fell into place and turns and rounds sped past faster than the Union Pacific could travel from Iowa to the west coast; it just took us a bit of time for our brains to soak in the information as it is given in text and illustration.

The American Railway system was originally intended to move people from the over-populated East Coast to new and better lives on the West Coast but it was soon seized upon by the Cattle Barons as being the most profitable way to move their cattle across the country to the better more lucrative markets. In GREAT WESTERN TRAIL the players are ranchers attempting to get their most profitable herds to the hub of the American cattle trade, Kansas City, as quickly and as inexpensive as possible. On the board, which shows a map of the route(s) that can be taken from the start space at the bottom right hand corner all the way to Kansas City on the top left side of the map. Apart from Kansas City no other towns or states are noted on the otherwise generic map that displays mountains, rivers and plains as required for the gameplay rather than being any factual route.

All players begin with an identical deck of cards to represent their cattle herd. As the game unwinds you will add new and better cards and also be able to hold a hand of more than the starting four card limit. Your Cattleman, represented by a wooden figure in a Stetson hat, moves along the trail towards Kansas City. Although the journey is basically from point A to point B there are deviations along the route that allow you to aim for different actions and bonuses. Your journey is not just a cattle drove, although your herd is deemed to be with you, it is also an opportunity to build and expand your influence as well as visit cattle markets, dodge and remove hazards before arriving at Kansas City, sending your herd off by train and then returning to the Start space to begin again, this time along a much changed and possibly more hazardous trail. Cattlemen have limited movement allowed to them, shown on the player's personal game boards. They can move up to the value of the limitation, so with a 3 movement the Cattleman can move 1, 2 or 3 locations on the trail, empty spaces are not taken into consideration when moving so each turn the player has something to contend with, good, bad or neutral. Victory points and money can be gained on the trail with careful planning and thoughtful tile placement. Sometimes there are fees to pay to the Bank or to other players. The rules allow you to move over/to these spaces even if you don't have enough cash which often means you get away scot free from having to pay your dues as there is no loan or mortgage facilities in place - as a whole we were in disagreement of this rule as it made a nonsense of the tightness of cash in the game. It basically says if you can't pay you travel for free and that, in our opinion, upsets the balance of fairness. (After playing GWT to the rules several times for review we introduced a house rule where money owed at the end of the game was paid out in Victory Points. This made our players much more aware of the consequences of traveling for nothing).

Money is extremely tight and must be managed carefully otherwise the options available to you are extremely limited. As this is "one of those games" where you want to do more than allowed to or have the abilities to. There are numerous mini mechanisms that could have caused the game to be disjointed but the designer has managed to meld them all together in a manageable if somewhat complex manner. Getting your cattle to Kansas City isn't the end game though, it is when you get them there as to where it is possible to ship them off to - there is a line of City stations (crests) along the edge of the board from Kansas City which have conjoining arrows between each pair and on these arrows are different and varying abilities/actions that are advantageous or give bonus VPs. However, you cannot just arrive at Kansas City first and grab the best City, you also have to be driving the correct total value of cattle (the value of the different cattle breeds are on their cards). Players personal boards show the progress of their Cattlemen, Engineers and Craftsmen, all of which allow you to create passageways/trails on the board for your cattle drive. The rules are long and quite complicated until they fall into place and then the gameplay is actually quite condensed, becoming second-nature and  conventional to core gamers in a very short while.

My overall thoughts therefore are that GREAT WESTERN TRAIL has all the ingredients to become a classic - excellent artwork, great theme, player interaction, quality components  and a variety of options available for each player every turn. If GREAT WESTERN TRAILS has a downside it's probably that there are times when it can go on a little longer than its comfort zone; 150 minutes is a long time when turns can be repetitive or when you have to wait for your turn only to then find that your options have been depleted through the actions of others or your current situation. In our opinion ninety minutes is the optimum game time and three players the ideal number.

 

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015