Great Western Trail, a Cattle-Crazy Review

The following is a guest review from Adam Wickham, as part of his Fuzzy Llama Reviews series.

Great Western Trail, Game Profile:

  • Designed by Alexander Pfister
  • Plays in 75-150 minutes
  • Accommodates 2-4 players
  • Competitive Game
  • Primary Mechanics: Deck Building/Point to Point Movement (Pseudo Rondel)/Point Salad

Overview of Gameplay

Great Western Trail has players taking on the role of cattle herders, wrangling those beasts from Texas on up to Kansas City. The player with the most points by end of the game is the winner. However, as with other point salad games, there are many, many ways to earn said points.

A typical turn usually has a player moving his cowboy meeple to a particular tile on the board. Once you stop on a tile you can then take the actions listed on it such as buying cattle from the market or manipulating one of the MANY other aspects of the board. Then you refill your hand of cattle cards up to your hand limit (if you used any) and play passes to the next player. Now that sounds SUPER simple, and the typical game rounds are super simple, but it’s the stuff in between that gets complicated.

When you stop on a tile, there is a series of iconography that represents the possible actions you can take. All of the possible actions are represented by iconography, so it may take you a game (or less) before you internalize their meanings. The symbols are actually VERY easy to comprehend and you pick up on them very fast. I was impressed by this as I usually hate too much iconography in games. There’s a lot of different actions depicted on the tiles. Example actions include discarding particular cow cards in exchange for money, moving your train up on the upper track, removing teepees or hazards along the trail, and placing new tiles on the board just to name a few. When placing new tiles, not only is the act of placing them important, but also WHERE you place them in conjunction with where other players have placed theirs is critical. You want to kind of “control” the board in a sense, try to force players to move through your certain tiles so that they end up paying you for moving through them. Placement also impacts a player’s ability to travel where they wish on the board, as you’re only permitted a certain amount of movement each turn.

The Great Western Trail Board and Cattle Market on Display
The main Great Western Trail game board, cattle market, and cowboy meeples (cattlemen)

In Great Western Trail, one of the most important aspects of the game is trying to get as many DIFFERENT kinds of cow cards in your hand as possible before you reach Kansas City up at the top of the board. When you arrive at Kansas City, you add up all the different kinds of cows and calculate the price you get for them. That value determines how far you can ship them by train. The further out on the rails, the more points you’ll earn during end-game scoring. You’re able to manipulate these cards in your hand through the tile actions as you move along on your journey.

There are just so many mechanisms at work here, and good gravy THEY ALL WORK TOGETHER PERFECTLY. I have played a lot of games and I find it rare that a game blends its mechanics so well together. Not a single mechanism in this game that doesn’t work with another or feels out of place. It’s an incredible feat unto itself.

The game doesn’t end when you reach Kansas City though. After the shipping of your cows, your meeple will make its way back to the beginning of the board and start the journey again. This time, hopefully a little more seasoned and ready to better manipulate the tiles for a perfect hand of cows to sell.

Each time a player reaches Kansas City, they add a few “worker” tokens the side of the game board that will slowly push the end game token towards the bottom. Once enough workers have been added and the token pushed off the bottom of the board, the game has reached its climax. Expect to circle the board multiple times slowly, getting more and more seasoned at selling higher-value cattle.

Components/Game Board

The components are decent enough, although nothing to write home about. There are some wooden meeples, colored wooden tokens, and little wooden trains.

The player mats are pretty basic, thin sheets that your wooden pegs will sit atop until used. The turn reference listed on the player mat is handy once you understand the iconography.

There are some cardboard tiles that you lay on the board that correspond to the buildings that you will end up building. These are a nice thickness and have a premium feel to them. I only wish the player boards were this same thickness.

Great Western Trail Cover and Player Boards
The Great Western Trail cover box and player boards

The game board itself functionally works well. The art is okay, again nothing to go wild about, but the gameplay and design held within it is incredible.

There are branching pathways here and there, and spots where more iconography is used to show what can be done in certain instances. The numbered sections on the board when you reach Kansas City is especially useful for new players, helping them to through the procedure of a cattle delivery turn. The train track along the top and side of the board is neat looking but more importantly, it serves a critical gameplay purpose (just like EVERYTHING on this board). So taking a step back, the game isn’t the prettiest, but everything is designed to gameplay perfection here.

The box art of Great Western Trail kind of freaks me out. I like the muted gray colors on the box, but that train conductor creeping over the shoulder of the rancher kind sends shivers down my spine. I don’t know if it’s his hat, arched brows, slight grin, or perhaps his perfectly trimmed, blazing white beard but he weirds me out  *shudder*. Also, after I got the game board unpacked, I flipped the board over to see if perhaps it was double sided and BAM, bearded conductor dude staring deep into my soul.

Close up the train conductor on the Great Western Trail box art
The creepy, ominous train conductor art.

Box/Storage

I already discussed the box above a bit *further chills*. As for the size, it perfectly fits in a standard Kallax shelf and is actually rather thin when compared to most games nowadays.

It doesn’t have the sturdiest box though, and the insert is comprised of a small thin piece of folded white cardboard which is used to just hold the game board and manual up above the tokens and cards.

You will need to bag up everything included, but luckily setup is pretty fast, and there aren’t THAT many tokens to contend with. I could see myself possibly picking up a storage solution in the future though as I plan on playing this more and more.

Visual Appeal/Theme

This is an interesting aspect of this game. Theme-wise, it’s pretty lacking. I mean you are herding cattle. Visually, it’s much the same. The cattle pictures on the cards are okay, and other than the standout train conductor from hell on the box cover, nothing really jumps out at you here.

THAT SAID, the mechanics of the game work in conjunction with the theme and visuals beautifully! This game is a creeper much like that train conductor. When you bring it out to your groups you probably won’t hear ooh’s and ahh’s about the components, but after each trip to Kansas City, you can see the interest and excitement build more and more among the players. The gameplay and mechanics more than make up for the lackluster theme and look.

Great Western Trail overhead shot of the main game board

Rulebook

The rulebook is…not my favorite. It is oversized, which I typically enjoy, and it has a nice visual component list right at the front.

Its layout is also good for the most part, but whoa nelly, that setup page is daunting to look at. Walls and walls of small text abound. Each paragraph is numbered, so it’s easy enough to follow, but I would have preferred greater visual representations and less text.

Other than that, they do a good job of color coding the different sections, and it is easy to read and understand the points they are trying to convey.

The biggest miss for me was there are no round/turn order reference cards. There is turn order iconography listed on the player sheet, but something without iconography printed for new players would be super helpful.

Now, onto the fabled iconography that I’ve mentioned multiple times in this review already. There is a lot of it. The first time you crack this game open, you will be overwhelmed with the variety of symbols. The good news, you pick up on them VERY quickly.

I’ve recently received another couple games that overuse iconography, Mysthea and Batman: Gotham City Chronicles. So, when I opened Great Western Trail and saw symbols upon symbols, I let out a huge sigh. It depressed me to be frank. I hate trying to learn games that over-rely on icons. It’s a battle to have to remember what each one means or you have to keep a reference sheet of the icons next to you at all times when you play. And those two games I listed above, even though both are great games, are just the worst with that. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up on ALL of Great Western Trail’s icons before I was even done playing the first game. During my second game, I understood them all well enough that I was easily able to explain them to new players without even referencing the rulebook. It’s another testament to Great Western Trail’s great game design.

Table Talk/Replayability/Fun Factor

This game creates an interesting player dynamic with the way players can manipulate the board state. By placing your own building tiles down in any open building spot, you not only slow movement in specific areas of the board, but also create more challenging decisions to be made regarding where players will want to move. There are many different branching paths you can take along the trail, with many passing through a hazardous area (water, desert, mountain and uhhh, natives), or through a more traveled area with lots of delicious open area to build. Players can and will manipulate this to their advantage by placing certain buildings along the easy path, causing other players to pay them money when they move pass OR they can choose to go the hazardous route and also pay money, but to the bank.  This is just scratches the surface of the strategies players can employ with building placements.

Needless to say, building placement creates a good amount of table talk with players openly discussing routes and situations that may arise. A lot of times players will place a building and then later on realize the benefits of placing it somewhere else. It’s these instances that REALLY give the game that amazing replayability. There is always room for improvement and with each game you are driven to perform better than your last play.

Negative Final Thoughts

The theme is pretty meh. Cattle herding isn’t something I am super interested in personally. The components are all pretty basic and the box and insert are pretty lacking as well. In general, this isn’t a very pretty game. Although, the board art isn’t terrible. The monster train conductor on the box gives me nightmares. The instruction manual could be less wordy with more visual examples, and included player aids would be nice as well.

Creepy

Positive Final Thoughts

Before I even bought the game, I had heard nothing but good things. But, I still wasn’t jumping out of my chair to get it, because purely on the theme. As I explored the board game hobby more, I found I was making a huge mistake ignoring games because of theme. So, I finally snatched up a copy of Great Western Trail despite the drabness of delivering cattle. I’m so glad I did! I have never played a game where the mechanics all work together in such perfect harmony. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in this game works with something else and nothing is wasted. I TRIED to find just one thing that I felt the game could have done without or was added JUST to add more to the game, and I failed miserably. In a word, this game is “tight”.

If you want a game that will deliver a pure gameplay experience, one that you will WANT to play again and again, then look no further than Great Western Trail.

Purchase Great Western Trail on Amazon

Categories Board Game Reviews

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