It was a combination of the anthropomorphic art style that reminded me of the cartoons I grew up watching, like Darkwing Duck and Rescue Rangers, and the wild west setting which I can't get enough of as an adult that drew my attention to Train Heist. The big 50% off sticker sold it for me though.
Train Heist is a 1-4 player co-op game by Cryptozoic / Tower Guard Games. The local sheriff is corrupt and while riding around on the steam train with his rich and equally corrupt friends, a band of locals decide to rob the train and spread the wealth around the people suffering the most. This is almost like a western version of Robin Hood.
Inside the Box
A board that unfortunately does not share the same charming art style as the box, nor does the rule book add any new art and, while short, relies heavily on explaining rules without many clear visual accompaniments. Four wooden meeples, two horses, five train cars, a bag full of wooden cubes, and a white sheriff meeple make up the main pieces that will be in play.
A modified deck of playing cards that only includes three suits and no face cards. An event deck that creates hazards for the players as the train moves. A selection of cardboard tokens that mostly represent the loot players are trying to steal. Finally, a drawstring bag and two magnetised pointers.
To set-up a game of Train Heist you place each player's meeple in the area at the centre of the board called Crackpot Canyon, and, if you are playing with three or four people, both the wooden horses or if it's a two-player match just one. The sheriff is placed on the train map at the top of the board in carriage B and the train pieces themselves are placed travelling anti-clockwise with the engine starting on the Town A station. There are two track switch tokens that are placed red side up on the top intersection and green side up on the bottom one.
Next, 12 loot tokens are drawn from the bag and placed face up in piles of two in the six seats in the train. The event deck is shuffled and a number of cards are removed based on the number of players, then an event card called 'Train Speed Up' is added somewhere in the top half of the deck and another is added in the bottom half. Five wanted cards are drawn at random and placed challenge side up next to the board. The train speed gauge is set to two and the loot gauge is set to zero. Players then agree on the total amount of loot they need to win, anywhere between 10 and 20, and put the Goal token pointing at that number.
Bullet tokens are handed out or added to the board as needed once more by the number of players. The Hangman’s token is added to the top knot of the rope counter and finally, the poker deck is shuffled, and five cards are dealt to each player. The first player to go? The one that took a ride on a train last of course.
Playing Train Heist
On their turn players have four action points to spend on several choices, or they can save them for a later turn by picking up a bullet token. They can also spend cards in poker sets for free to gain more actions or move the sheriff one space. Mostly your action points are spent moving around or moving a horse by discarding a card and moving the model the number value. One of the most important actions is looting, once riding the train players can rob the rich folks on-board by matching cards with the challenges shown on the loot token and discarding them. One card can pass the challenge on both loot tokens shown in a carriage at the same time and a player can only ever carry two loot tokens at a time.
Once you have your loot it needs to be dropped off at a town. The loot gauge moves up one or two spaces depending how many tokens you dropped off, then you draw replacements from the loot bag and placed them on the station. The train will pick them up when it next passes through the town.
At the end of each player's turn they draw back up to five poker cards and the train moves forward along the track at its current speed. If the engine token passes over any sheriff's badges, then an event card is drawn and its effect is immediately applied. If the sheriff is ever on the same train space as a player then the player is sent to the coal car jail where they lose all loot, bullet tokens, and poker cards. Until they have three key suit cards they are trapped and forced to shovel coal, increasing the train's speed by one, and only able to draw one card each turn.
The game is lost either if the event deck runs out and the train moves off the board, or if it passes through three towns with no loot tokens ready to be picked up, moving the noose token down each time until the players are captured and hung for their crimes.
Mechanically it feels like there is a lot going on in Train Heist; the player turns, the moving train, the event deck, sheriff capturing players, the track switching, making sure the next station the train calls at has loot waiting. But everything that's going on really feels like a distraction from the fact that players don't have much to do. Your options boil down to moving spaces, loot, drop off loot and switching tracks. The game box claims it's for ages 12+ but it would be better suited cutting out some of its parts and being aimed at younger children as the card matching to rob loot would work great to help teach kids numbers.
For adults, Train Heist is slow - there's a lot of downtime as players wait around for everyone else to take their turn. It's also hard to plan ahead as drawing the Train Speed Up card will ruin your calculations. Not only that, but my group quickly found that discarding wild cards to keep the sheriff trapped right at the front of the train was a better option than using them to beat looting challenges.
For its faults I wouldn't have minded if the RRP was lower, but at over £40 on the sticker I felt that this game was promising more than it intended to deliver. The box is oversized and doesn't have an insert to hold the cards once you open them up, the card stock is low and the game board started to bow after sitting on my table for a few hours. The box art that drew me in is totally missing from the game itself which creates a large disconnect from the theme, I was hoping for some animal-based powers from characters you could pick to play as.
Train Heist Conclusion
Though I had some fun playing Train Heist I'd recommend Colt Express over it. There are several nice little touches; the meeples can actually ride on the horses, the magnetic pointers are well thought out and feel like a train gauge, and the micro and macro maps for the game are cleverly done. There are some good old west ideas implemented to riding on the train roof, going through the tunnel means the sheriff can't see players, you get extra abilities when you earn a wanted card, and both the players and their horses can be hit by the train makes it feel like a spaghetti western simulator.
There is, however, a few too many misses for me; the animal theme only shows up on the odd loot card, the poker cards feel included just to form a mechanic for looting, there's a lot going on that could be forgotten during a game. Over all it felt like it Train Heist needed a little longer in development to polish things off, but it’s still not a bad game....it's just not one of the best.