In Great Western Trail, players will compete to rule the Wild West by delivering the finest breeds of cattle from Kansas City all the way out to San Francisco. As their cattleman forever loops around the trail, players will be able to construct their own buildings, trade with the Native Americans, cross or clear dangerous hazards, upgrade stations, improve their trains and much more.

There are not many board games that we’ve played or own that I think about as much as Great Western Trail. Sure, Eldritch Horror often leaves me with nightmares after our investigators are devoured once more, and parts of Pandemic Legacy‘s twisting narrative stay with you just like any good film or television show. But rather than reflect on the game just past, Great Western Trail has me looking instead to the future, considering how I can play it different, or better, or just more efficient.

This isn’t uncommon for a euro-style game, I know, but because of the specific design decision that Great Western Trail takes are exciting to both learn and master. Trail looks far more complex than it plays, and we found that once you’ve got past the card iconography, it’s just as accessible as something like worker placement game Lords of Waterdeep, but far, far more enjoyable and exciting – even at the two player count.

The game revolves around two elements – the journey your cattleman takes up to Kansas City Station, and the value of the cattle you deliver once you’re up there. At the start of the game, you’ll pass by a set of buildings that are present in every game, and allow you to take some basic actions. These can be obviously useful – recruit some employees (craftsmen, engineers and cowboys), construct a building, buy some cows – or more situational, such as gaining a certificate or trading with the Native Americans. As the game develops, however, the journey will take a little more time: you and your opponents will place your own developments, hazards will appear making your path a little tougher to plan out, and there’ll be a greater need to take every opportunity you have of improving the herd of cattle you eventually arrive with at Kansas City.

Each time you reach the station at Kansas, you’ll have to reveal your hand of cow cards, the value of which will indicate how far away you can deliver to. The further you deliver, the more victory points you’ll pick up, and the more money you’ll receive to spend doing things on your next journey along the trail. The trick here, however, is that you can only deliver to each station once – fail to keep improving your hand each time you reach Kansas and you’ll end up having to deliver to cities much closer to home, the prizes of which are either not as good or worse: a straight up deduction of victory points.

All of which is exciting, but is really just the tip of the iceberg with this superb game. You see, Great Western Trail is a sublime mix of deck-building, worker movement, hand management and tile placement that doesn’t throw it’s mechanics in your face like so many other games do. It’s an engine building game that doesn’t have an ego, isn’t constantly shouting out ‘Look how intricate and clever I am, aren’t all my moving parts almost artful?’. Instead it constantly prioritises player experience and player agency, providing you the most basic of tools to form your own ideas and tell your own stories.

I don’t want to go to in-depth of the gameplay of this one, because there is so much fun in exploring the various aspects and strategies available. But I will provide you with an example of how great these different mechanics subtly work together as you move your cattleman around the board.

Take your hand of cows, for instance, that you eventually deliver when you reach Kansas City. You start with a hand limit of four, which can be increased up to six depending on the decisions you make during the game. There are nine different colours of cows, each a little more valuable than the other, but when you reach Kansas you only take the value of each different cow, meaning that if I’ve got four prized purple Texas Longhorns in my hand when I reach the station, I only get the value of one. It’s not the total value of cows in your hand that provides you with a great score, but the diversity of cows you have.

And so the deck-building aspect comes to the fore, forcing you to purchase different types of cows in the cattle market to ensure your deck has variety as well as value. But it’s no use having a diverse deck if you can’t get through it, so you find yourself stopping off at points on the trail that allows you to draw and discard one, two or three cards, ensuring you have the perfect hand again once you reach Kansas.

But working on developing your deck and your hand takes away actions that could be spent doing something else entirely. You could instead focus on having the fastest train, and having the fastest train allows you access to stations that provide consistently better dollars-for-victory-points deals. Slower trains will be stuck spending $5 on a measly one or two victory points, whether towards the end of the track you could be scooping up VP at a far more positive and efficient ratio.

And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy? Well, you could instead focus on hiring craftsmen and throwing a new private building down each turn, a location on the trail which only you can use and which will cost players money to pass through. Private buildings allow for different or more powerful actions than the neutral starting locations, and the better buildings provide their own smattering of victory points.

You might notice that the opportunity to gain victory points are frequent, and that’s absolutely true. This is a game that notes that the term point salad exists and just runs with it. But like the variety of mechanics the game offers, the variety of ways you can win aren’t hard and fast. Sure, you can specialise on recruiting one type of employee and one single strategy, such as those I’ve tentatively called Cow-Lord or Captain Choo-Choo or MasterBuilder, but the combination of actions you can undertake mean that generalists strategies work just as well. You can even focus, once you’ve unlocked the ability to move your cattleman more spaces each turn, to just finish the game as quickly as possible, in the hope that you might come out on top before your opponent’s plans can come to fruition.

Writing this, I know I am not doing Great Western Trail any justice whatsoever. It’s a game that begs to be played repeatedly, and writing down how it works makes it seem more functional than it really is. The stories you’ll tell of these rival cattlemen, stuck on this never-ending loop of sweat and grind, are really stories about you, the players.

Do you find enjoyment in placing buildings in the way of your opponents, potentially forcing them to take an alternate route through flooded plains or searing deserts? Will you leave the Native Americans alone to grow and become valuable trading partners, or will you raid them each time you go past for nothing more than a quick buck? Where are your morals if you decide that the best way to make money is by thinning out your herd, effectively taking those Jerseys ‘out back’ and removing them from the game?

 Great Western Trail stations

There are a couple of qualms, but these are mostly to do with scaling the game down to two players. Clearly, with just two of you, the trail is not as busy as it would be with three or four, and it doesn’t fill itself with buildings as it probably does at higher player counts. I’ve a feeling soon we might bring into a house rule or two to ‘stuff up’ the trail a bit and make it a little more cramped to navigate. There is a lack of competition too in the job market, and I can imagine more tension in the game as you see those engineers you desperately wanted to hire keep going to the employ of an opponent. Just be warned that at two players, there is a little less direct interaction than their might be.

You’d struggle to find a more deserving ‘Game of 2016’ than Great Western Trail, and that’s saying a lot compared to some of its competition. There’s a little something for everyone in this box, and even as a vegan I will happily drive these cattle to the slaughter if it means I can eke out a few more victory points when I reach Kansas. Buy it, love it, then wait in anticipation for the recently announced 2018 expansion, Rails to the North.

Have you played Great Western Trail? What are your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on the game if you’ve played it, or what do you like the look of if you haven’t? Let us know below in the comments!

As pointed out by a previous commenter before we changed to Disqus, one of our pics does show an error – we forgot to put a hired workers in the Station Master spaces! What a pair of buffoons.