How good is it when a theme, mechanics, and personal connection all come together in a quality game? Couple these positive attributes with a game by one of the doyens of gaming, Martin Wallace, (London and others) and Tinners' Trail was a certainty for me. Let me explain why.
A few weeks ago my family and I had a holiday in the South West, staying in the West of Cornwall. Dotted along the rugged coast lies the remains of the Victorian tin mining industry. There are pit workings, chimneys and mineshafts all around. The engineers and geologists of that era were an impressive bunch. They recognised the steep-sided narrow inlets they called “zawns” (that is a good word for Scrabble). These are where you find rich lodes of copper, tin, and arsenic.
Just inland they dug deep shafts down into the rock, up to half a mile below the surface. Then, chasing the rich veins of rock, they extended their workings far out under the sea bed for miles. Water threatened to engulf the miners at any time. The deeper they dug, the riskier the investment and harder it was to extract the ore. This was a hard existence. Twelve hours working by candlelight for a meagre income. The mine owners were the ones who avoided the physical risk but they had huge economic issues. The prices of tin and copper fluctuated. The geologists did not always get their surveys correct. If a mine was very wet, you could lose all of your profit just by burning coal to pump water out of the mine.
It’s Not Child’s Play
Welcome to the Tinners' Trail in Cornwall. This game by Alley Cat Games gives you all that backstory and more. This game has real man's drama. The Victorians might have had children chisel off the arsenic from the smelters, but Tinners' Trail is not a kid’s game. It needs thought, planning, and concentration, so ideal for adults and teenagers. The box states 90 minutes but for most games, we would still be at the rock face after an hour and a half.
The game plays on a large map of Cornwall, divided into districts. Each contains some copper and tin. Tiles determine the values and quantities of any ore. These also show how wet the ground will be. This influences the cost to mine and extract any ore. With two players or solo, you use only the districts west of Truro. As more players join, more central parts of Cornwall come into play.
Tinners' Trail is an auction-bidding, economic game with a little worker placement thrown in to spice up your pasty. Players bid for the rights to build a mine and sell the ores collected from it. Profit can buy more land, or you can use it to invest in technologies, or gain prestige.
Every auction will use up time as well as some money. Time is a resource in Tinners' Trail. The game consists of four rounds. At the start of each round, roll dice for the price of copper and tin. This will affect plans for that round. If the copper price has crashed, there is little to make from extracting it. If tin becomes more valuable, it might pay to focus on acquiring land that could yield that instead.
Time Is A Resource
The variable turn order mechanic means that the player who has the most time still available (ie, who is at the back of the time track) always plays first. The most important action is to initiate an auction of a region to build a mine. All players can participate once you have a region - providing they have enough to complete a mine's construction and sufficient “time” left in that round. This action takes two units of time, of the ten available each round.
The player who initiates the auction has the advantage of playing a survey card for that area. This at least lets them peep at the underside of the geology card to see what rich pickings might be had. This might inform their bidding priorities.
Bidding goes around the players until all except one has “passed”. The price must be paid immediately to develop the mine and that successful bidder claims that district and its mineral rights. At this point, the copper and tin resources are added to that area along with the groundwater in the mine. The new mine sits proudly atop these valuable minerals.
Investing For The Future
However, a mine owner needs to extract this ore before he can start gaining a profit. For a single unit of time, the player could choose to “extract ore”. This involves removing a number of copper or tin resources from one of their mines. This comes at a cost, determined by the groundwater already present. A very wet mine is expensive to run and extraction costs will be high. It is possible to boost the efficiency of mine and/or extraction with clever Victorian developments. This is where the worker placement part of the mechanic comes in. Within each round, there are just a couple of opportunities to claim extra miners. These will allow you to take more ore during the extraction phase. With each action to extract ore, the miners dug deeper. The groundwater in the mine increases. This means that subsequent or extraction is more expensive and challenging.
Investing in boats or steam trains can increase efficiencies and improve the yield of a mine. A player might use steam pump technology to remove water from a mine. This will make later ore extraction more reasonable and profitable.
Victorian engineers realised that they did not need to pump water to the very top of a mine. Instead, you only needed to bring it above sea level. They created a series of drainage tunnels called adits. Players can develop adits between adjacent regions. This will remove water from their mines, but allow you to find extra copper and tin during the building of these new tunnels.
Each of these actions will eat into a player's time resource enabling other players “behind them” to play and gain more favourable actions.
Fancy A Pasty?
If a day in the heat of a tin mine was not possible, a player might choose to make some money on the side. Selling pasties takes a little time but does make some money.
Once all the players have completed their chosen actions and used the available “time” on the resource tracker, they must sell all their extracted ore. The price is predetermined at the beginning of the round.
The final phase of each round allows the players to choose whether to invest in future victory points or whether to keep a sizeable cash balance. This will allow an element of fluidity and land purchase possibilities for the next round. The benefits of investing in victory points also change with each turn. If a player is the first to get to the end of the round, they have a more favourable exchange rate of money to victory points than those who continue to extract or and try to make a profit.
After four rounds the only resource that matters is prestige victory points. The number of mines or any ore left in the ground does not matter. It has no value at all. The player with the highest prestige is the winner.
Thoughts On Tinner’s Trail
I ordered Tinners' Trail about 48 hours after visiting a Cornish tin mine. I had the privilege of spending some time chatting with a now-retired miner. Martin Wallace has distilled much of the challenge and drama of mining in Cornwall into an excellent tabletop experience. This game has theme in “spades”.
The box art shows a miner going off to the mine with a cheery smile, pasty in hand, waving to his wife. It sets the scene but the reality was probably a lot harsher. The reverse of the box lists the components with a colourful snapshot of a game in progress. Alley Cat suggests that Tinner’s Trail will take 90 minutes. That could be true for a two-player game, but closer to 2 ½ hours would be more realistic with larger player counts.
The six-fold board extends to show a map of Cornwall. There are no towns named but the inlets of the Fowey River and Lizard peninsula are accurately represented. With the geology tiles laid out, there is excitement. What lies beneath? Will this tract of land north of Newquay bring me riches or ruin? As each region is prospected so the lodes of copper and tin are added. These are represented by simple, coloured cubes. They are perfectly sized. Any larger and they would clutter and take too much space. Any smaller and they would be too fiddly.
Miner Meeples And Quality Chimneys!
The components of Tinners' Trail are very good. Everything is wood. There is no plastic at all, and for that Alley Cat Games must be commended. My family rate the little miner meeples as the “best ever”. The trains, boats, and steam pumps are all lovely wooden silhouettes. Even the adits are half pipe wooden channels, indicating form and function. Alley Cat have given thought to the colouring too. Each of these developments is painted to indicate the additional time to use on the time track. The miners and steam pumps are pale pink coloured, and each uses one unit of time. Placing a train or boat will take two units of time, and both are painted in a light red. Finally, the drainage tubes need three-time sessions and these are coloured dark red. It is these little touches that show some thought in the games planning.
Primary colours are used for the player tokens. Care has been taken to ensure that there is sufficient contrast. Those with colour recognition problems can tell the difference easily between players’ mines.
I have come across plenty of components and meeples over the years. However, I have yet to see such a good representation of a tin mine with its chimney. The Victorians recognised that by changing the shape at the top of these tall chimneys, the draw, flow, and ventilation of the steam boilers and mines could be improved. These little additions are seen by the little ridges on the top of the wooden mining components in the game. Full marks for historical accuracy!
The surveyor’s card artwork is gorgeous. The four regions in Cornwall along with a “wild area” are depicted with some superb pictures.
How Much For That Tin?
Every game is unique with plenty of variability. Firstly, the price of tin and copper will vary according to the dice rolls. This does emulate the volatility of the minerals market. My only slight gripe is that these prices could literally increase fivefold (for copper) or double (for tin) in the space of one round. This makes it impossible to plan ahead for the second, third, or fourth round. With that in mind, we are contemplating introducing a small house rule. One that prevents the value from changing by more than one category for each ore on each round.
During the setup, Cornwall is covered with face-down, randomly allocated geology tiles. There is a clever mechanism that allows the initiator of the auction the right to use one of their surveyor cards to peep under that tile. This would be just like in real life where a little inside knowledge would be so useful and inform the bidding. It also allows a nice rule where players can still get a small reward for the survey, even if they were unsuccessful in the bidding.
A Tortoise And A Hare
The developments add much to the game. Piggybacking some developments with adjacent mines can increase productivity. The time track, with variable playing order, means there is no first player advantage. This allows others to take their time with less competition. It is a little like the tortoise and the hare analogy.
This is a classic euro game with an economic conundrum. For some games, it is clear where the optimal strategy should sit. With Tinner’s Trail players have to get ore, but to rush to dig it out too quickly may mean a player is forced to take a lower price. Waiting until the next few rounds might allow the price to rise, but to wait means a player has less money available to purchase more mines at that point.
Martin Wallace has distilled the essence of mining with the profitability and pricing of extraction. Wet mines [with more water] will cost more. Miners dig deeper and further, encountering more water. I do like this mechanic, that subsequent copper and tin costs considerably more. Unless you pay to develop the mine with technologies.
Tinners' Trail is not particularly heavy. I would suggest it is just medium heavyweight, par with Nusfjord for example, rather than heavier like Agricola. We have yet to get “bored”. The game’s progress depends on the player’s willingness to engage with the auctioning process. This is the crux of the game and where player interaction comes to the fore. There is scope to bluff (if you have surveyed the tile beforehand) and perhaps get others to overbid and overstretch themselves. Similarly, players might enjoy the risk-taking and buying a plot of land on a whim, just because it is adjacent to their existing holdings.
Fancy Some Arsenic?
Cornish tin mining was dangerous enough before the Victorians recognised the importance of arsenic. This was used in dye making, chemical industries, and pharmaceuticals. Purifying arsenic came at a cost. It often shortened life expectancy and caused infertility, but was very lucrative. What other game has an arsenic expansion?
Players can choose to build calciners next to their mines. This is the process of purifying any arsenic. Their time track is shortened for each arsenic ore harvested. This has a permanent effect and reflects the reduced life expectancy. However, arsenic is like a cash crop. It can be sold at any point, in any round, allowing a quick (and dirty) profit, if you do not mind dying young. Unfortunately, the arsenic market can quickly become saturated. The more arsenic that is sold, the lower the price becomes.
Within a few rounds, the Cornwall map looks more overrun than the road to Newquay in summer. There is little space. With water cubes, copper, and tin, there is little room for the developments by the mine.
Players need to remember to refresh and update the mining areas as they dig deeper. I confess, sometimes we can get confused and overlook the mine water mechanic. In an ideal world, I would like the map and board to be about 25% larger. It’s not much, but for a re-mastered game with some room in the box, even a slightly larger board would help.
There is plenty of player interaction. The auction of land means all can get involved irrespective of turn order. This does mean there is very little downtime. So for a game of 90 to 120 minutes, the time flies by. Occasionally we have chosen to truncate our games to three rounds. I would argue that this is to the advantage of Tinners' Trail, making it more accessible (in terms of time) but without any loss of the “lovely euro gaming crunchiness!”
Final Thoughts On Tinner’s Trail
I like games where a theme and a personal connection come together. For me and my family, the realities of tin mining play out so well. This has been magnified by the historical accuracies built into the game. This is what I have come to expect of Wallace’s games. Tinners' Trail does not disappoint.
This re-mastered version has a solo variant but also plays for up to five. I think three, or at the most four, is the optimal player count. This gives plenty of auction interaction, enough competition for development, and not too much time spent between players’ turns. For a medium weight euro, Tinner’s Trail is very accessible. The rule book is clear and the game is almost intuitive. As with many of our games we have added our own personal house rule amendments. This means our game has remained popular and does not overstay its welcome. For us, when we open our Tinners' Trail game, not only do we look forward to a bit of auction interaction, but remember with fondness holidays in a beautiful part of the UK.