With the driving of the golden spike in 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in the United States but really it was only the beginning of a rapid expansion of railways that would crisscross the entire country.
In Whistle Stop, you make your way west across the country, using your fledgling railroad company to build routes, pick up valuable cargo, and deliver needed goods to growing towns, creating a network of whistle stops that you and your competitors can leverage as you continue to expand your networks. Along the way, you gain shares in other railroads and watch your reputation soar with each successful delivery before making a final push to complete long hauls to the boom towns of the West.
This design is a new twist on pick-up-and-deliver games. As players move their trains west and pick up goods, they can deliver those goods to small towns to gain shares in railroads, or hold on to them for a bigger payout when they reach the west coast. At the same time, they try to optimize their actions (and gain extra ones), lay down new track tiles, block the other players, gather and use valuable whistles for special moves and abilities, and carefully manage their coal resources.
I've never been that bothered about trains in real life. But add a train theme to a game and I'm interested. Be it the classic Ticket to Ride, Russian Railroads or First Class, I have found the theme somehow translates into a rich mine for games! Whistle Stop attracted me from the off with its box art and hex board of spaghetti junction like rails.
Sometimes you just know you are going to like a game, and this felt like one of those times.
The Whistle Stop box is full of punchboard goodness, a jigsaw like board frame that contains the hex map. Some hexes are special, some end space and some normal hexes. End spaces are set-up at the far left of the board, the end. Then a selection of special and normal tiles form a mid way point on the board. After this players will place out the wooden cubes which represent common and rare goods, three of each.
The rounds are counted down by coal tokens being placed on the relevant track, but rather than placing two per player as the rules suggest I put one. This is much less fiddly. There are two more tokens - gold which can be gained for points and whistles which are movement tokens like coal.
Next are the stocks and upgrade tiles which are placed in easy reach, with the stocks being stacked with lowest value on top for each type. Lastly players take turns placing their trains out on the the starting spaces of the board. Initial placement can allow access to resources or a quick path towards the other side of the board.
At the start of each round the starting player gives each player two coal or one whistle depending on the round chart (if you take my above suggestion remember to use the coal on the chart too). Then each player can make up to four moves and/or purchase and upgrade. To make a move you can spend a coal or a whistle, a coal can move you forward one space, and a whistle forward or back up to two spaces. You place the coal or witness on your player board to keep track of movement.
Should you land on a resource spot you take that resource. If you want to move to an as yet unplaced hex, you can place one of three hexes from your hand. If this doesn't result in you being able to stop you play another hex. As well as resource hexes there are also special tiles with the ability to buy stocks (if you have the right resources, if you don't you lose points!), trade, gain coal and so on. Tiles that reward you with point scoring opportunities will also take points away should you not be able to afford the resources.
Players start with up to five trains depending on player count. This sounds like a lot but the number of rounds is limited and you will soon find yourself with difficult decisions to make...
Whistle While You Work...
For a game that is so easy to teach and approachable, Whistle Stop is deceptively thinky. Working out the best route across the board, how to pick up the right resources and when to score a train is just the start of it. Scoring a train early, assuming you can zip across the board, can be advantageous as you get to choose the first scoring bonus.
However, you will then have less trains and therefore less options. Those options include going the resource heavy route, trying to become stock leader in one or more of the five available stock types, blocking others, being clever with your routes to create beneficial loops.
Whistle Stop can create analysis paralysis in some players as they try to work out the best options across their available trains. You can generally plan ahead but other players actions may affect this. This can be through aggressive blocking or simple gaining a shed load of points. I've also seen Whistle Stop get criticised for it's set up time, but through intelligent storage that it's not that bad.
Whistle Stop is a fantastic game, one that has made a great impression on me. It is easily in my top 10 games of all time. The game varies each time because of the hexes and upgrades. Upgrades are always available to buy, even from other players as long as you compensate them. They can increase your coal production, hand size and resource management. This adds another simple but welcome layer to the game.
Components are good, but some of the punchboard in my copy wasn't cut cleanly. To do well in the game you need to be aware of your opponents and what they are doing. This will some of the down time as you wait for your turn.
The theme here is nice, but not too deep. Resources picked up by one train can be used by you freely so you will have to suspend logic on one level. The art work is really nice and gentle with it's pastels, but don't be fooled - Whistle Stop is a game to sink your teeth into.