As 2016 herded out flashy titles such as Scythe, Star Wars: Rebellion, and SeaFall, Alexander Pfister's Great Western Trail stripped back the shiny exterior of its hyped brethren and let players truly revel in the magic below the surface.
Whilst by no means an ugly game (ignoring the deeply unsettling gaze of the terrifying trio gracing the box), Great Western Trail promotes substance over style. Pfister's elegant design is a humbling reminder that it was innovative gameplay and clever mechanics that drew me into the hobby, not stylised plastic or elaborate stretch goals.
So, it's About Cows?
Great Western Trail sees players taking on the role of 19th-century cattle herders, travelling from Texas to Kansas City with hopes of sending off the greatest variety of cows. Along the trail, your ranchers will visit various buildings, sell the occasional cow, clear hazards - or perhaps hire more workers to construct new buildings, expand the railroads, or improve your ever-growing herd.
How Does it Play?
Your herd is represented by a small deck of cards, with players possessing the same mix of cows at the start of the game. In a traditional deck-building manner, you will optimise the cards in your hand by purchasing higher value cows from markets along the trail, adding them to your deck to draw on future turns.
The cow cards come in nine different colours, with the grey Jersey cows being the least valuable and the purple Texas Longhorns being the most. The catch is that upon delivery you will only profit from each unique cow in your hand. This forces players to sell off any duplicates beforehand at various buildings in return for a small sum of money and the opportunity to draw new cows as they replenish their hands.
But this trail is one way only. You will eventually reach Kansas, sell your cows, and deliver them as far as their value takes them. Selling an impressive hand might grant you 18 or more dollars, enough to place one of your player markers on the high scoring San Francisco, whilst poor herds may result in delivering to cities worth negative victory points.
Turns are short and sweet; move up to three spaces and perform one or two actions as depicted on the tile. Upkeep is similarly slick, occurring only when a player reaches Kansas and requiring just a quick placement of tiles. This makes a refreshing change from many other Euros where strict, predetermined upkeep phases often have a jarring effect on gameplay.
Holy Cow! It Looks Pretty Heavy…
First glances at the game's dense iconography and wealth of components could suggest an unforgiving, heavy game. Yet, whilst it's certainly not a light game, the simple turn-by-turn process gently eases players into its vast plains, dropping key information along the trail and ensuring a good understanding of how the game works upon players' first trips to Kansas.
This elegant flow of gameplay allows players to feel a sense of satisfaction at their mastery of the game's interlocking mechanisms, and their own strategies, making for a hugely rewarding experience you'll want to revisit again and again.
The bewildering mix of deck-building, tile-placement, hand-management, and point-to-point movement somehow never becomes too complex. At times you may feel overwhelmed by choices, but ultimately your actions make sense. Decisions of where to deliver your cows seamlessly lead to more decisions on whether to increase your hand size or your movement points and which actions to reveal on your player board.
Pfister's design is a testament to how new games can continue to refine and adapt familiar concepts, and stylishly highlights the longevity and creativity of the industry.
Why Should I Play?
So many heavy Euros are lacking in accessibility. Not only in terms of complexity but also their cost, or sometimes even their availability. Great Western Trail will more than scratch that Euro itch, without frying your brain or your bank balance, with it commonly retailing at less than £40.
For this price, you get an elegant and intuitive experience sure to remind you of just how clever games can be. Furthermore, Great Western Trail offers a decent amount of replayability to an already addictive game, with its various starting setups and double-sided building tiles.
The components are relatively polished but functional, and the art style injects just the right amount of theme. You can't go wrong with a cowboy meeple and it helps make the game stand out from the arguably overused themes of Medieval building or European trading.
If You Weren't Convinced Enough…
Great Western Trail mimics the freedom and vastness of the old west, letting players choose their own routes to victory. You might be happy with your lowly herd and choose to make a living installing train stations, employing your workers as station masters for end game bonuses. Perhaps you'll move into the construction business, capitalising on the land and forcing players to pay you as they trudge through each of your ten potential properties. Either way, it's down to you.
The way the game pans out is largely left in the hands of the players. Eager for more player interaction? Construct more buildings. Do you want to quickly finish the game before someone else does? Sprint for Kansas! Maybe you need a couple more turns to grasp those few extra points. Make sure you lay down hazards before filling the worker column which acts as the game's timer.
Even refilling the market of cow cards is largely down to players, with this only happening automatically twice during the game.
Final Thoughts on Great Western Trail
If I hadn't sold it enough, Great Western Trail is a truly excellent game worthy of a place in your collection. If you're looking for a slick but meaty Euro game that stands out from the competition, you can't go wrong with this bovine brain tickler. So saddle up, grab a partner (or three), and get on down that trail!
2021 also brought us Great Western Trail Second Edition, featuring new art, better quality components, a mini-expansion, and a solo mode. Perfect for fans of the original or anyone who enjoys some solo board gaming.
Editors note: This blog was originally published on February 15th, 2018. Updated on February 15th, 2022 to improve the information available.