26th Jun2019

‘Great Western Trail’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


If you asked a room full of serious board gamers what the best game ever made would be, it might surprise you to know that not a single one of them would say Monopoly. Instead, you’d hear a few Pandemic’s, a couple of Terra Mystica’s and maybe, just maybe the odd Great Western Trail.

Great Western Trail is Alexander Pfister’s 2016 masterpiece, and at three years old, it is already quite an elder statesmen. In a market where The Cult of the New is ever present and the physical amount of space that people have to accommodate board games is limited, older games are often culled.

Ageism doesn’t seem to be a problem for Great Western Trail, however. At the time of writing, it still clings to its position as the tenth best game ever made, according to BoardGameGeek users. A recent expansion (Rails to the North) has given it a boost in popularity, but today I’ll be reviewing the base game in isolation, since it is still a compelling game in its own right.

Great Western Trail is a relatively simple game to play, but it has a fairly complex set of ways to assess the board and score points that combine to make it a real head scratcher. Two to four players will each take the role of cattlemen (or cowboys, if you prefer) in the nineteenth century Wild West and the core concept is to drive your herd of cattle from one point to another, then sell them at one of several cities in return for points.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to Great Western Trail than that, so let’s begin with the player boards. Each player has one, and it begins the game covered in disks of their colour, as well as a single cube to indicate any rosette’s that their cattle earn. As events on the main board unfold, these disks will be token and placed elsewhere, increasing the power of the actions that players can take and increasing their hand size or movement speed.

These improvements are all important in their own way, but let’s cover the more powerful benefits first. Some of the spaces on the player board are surrounded by a black frame, whilst others have a white one. The white ones are usually easier to achieve and therefore they confer less powerful benefits when taken, whilst the black ones are only handed out when players complete high scoring cattle routes or similar.

Additional movement (allowing the players to complete their route more quickly) and additional hand size are both outlined in black because of how powerful they are. Hand size is important because players will score points for their herd based on how many unique cow cards they hold.

Six different cows (requiring two hand size upgrades) will result in the highest possible score, allowing cash to be taken to the value of those cows, and for another disk to be taken from that players board. That disk will be placed on a station, which will in turn be worth the points shown on it. Adjacent stations can yield endgame bonuses and penalties as indicated, so there’s another layer of strategy to consider here.

None of this scoring is possible without first navigating through the game world. Great Western Trail has a beautiful board that has a vibrant, exciting layout of dotted lines, hazards and building spaces. Seven neutral buildings (each with between two and three actions on them) are placed during setup (either randomly or as prescribed by the manual) but the board will soon be filled with buildings in the colour of the active player.

Buildings all provide actions of some kind, whilst some of the player owned buildings will have either a black or green hand on them, to indicate that a fine of one or two coins must be paid by the player landing on the space to the player who owns the building. There are also three routes that feature hazards, and a number of Native American tribes that will all incur a cost to pass through. The mid to late game decisions about moving include deciding not only what to pay, but who to pay to optimise a turn.

On a typical turn, the players will simply move and then take the action or actions on the location they stop at. A location might allow the player to hire a worker (either an engineer, a cowboy or a craftsman) to place on their player board, or it might allow them to move their train (which opens up new stations along the train track at the top of the board.)

Some spaces allow players to buy cattle cards, which are added to the players discard deck and can be shuffled in later. Crucially, some other spaces allow players to discard the cards in their hand and sometimes, to draw new ones. Some, powerful abilities even allow players to permanently discard their weaker cards, which increases their chance of drawing an optimal hand.

There’s quite a lot more going on under the skin of Great Western Trail, as though what I’ve already described wasn’t enough. There are the bonuses to construction that craftsmen provide, or the fact that engineers increase the speed of train movement, but can then retire and take over a stationmaster role (removing another disk from the player board.) Cowboys reduce the cost of buying premium cattle.

Almost everything worth doing in Great Western Trail costs money, so the need to balance moving rapidly through the board to deliver cattle fast at a suboptimal scoring location can be tempting and necessary. Knowing when to switch to slower, higher scoring strategies like claiming stations, hiring workers and ultimately managing your hand must all be considered at some point though. Money can even be earned by trading with Native Americans or by clearing hazards, if you choose the right action.

All of these different possibilities and ways to score are what make Great Western Trail one of the enduring classics of modern board gaming. The thought process required to strategise and win is critical to success, yet at the same time, the various strategies that players can employ all feel well balanced.

A new player among experienced ones is very likely to lose, but probably not as badly as they might expect to, thanks to the high intuitiveness of the mechanical loop of selling cattle, improving the herd, then repeating the process. Along the way there are many distractions and diversions (both literally and metaphorically) but the core concept is very clear.

Great Western Trail deserves its position atop many players lists and I fully understand why it is so loved. This is a true connoisseurs game that really rewards repeated playthroughs, but it is never too complicated to teach to a new player. The theme makes sense when aligned to the actions being taken, and the overall aesthetic is very appealing. A true modern classic.

****½  4.5/5

Great Western Trail is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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