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Great Western Trail

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

This game doesn’t need much introduction; since its release in 2016, Great Western Trail (Stronghold / eggertspiele) has won numerous awards and its ranking on BoardGameGeek has been consistently in and around the top 10. Designer Alexander Pfister has a number of celebrated games to his name, and many would argue that this is the pick of the bunch.

But is it the game for you? Well, this is a deck-building action-selection strategy board game for 2-4 players with limited. but still significant, player interaction. You’re a cattle rancher in 19th century America looking to make your fortune. Through the game, you’re going to be making multiple journeys along the trail to Kansas City, each time hoping to arrive with a more impressive array of cattle than before. The trail is made up of spaces which can hold buildings or hazards, and so the board will be constantly changing as players add their own buildings, and hazards come and go. Artwork by Andreas Resch and components are colourful and attractive, with an abundance of icons that might seem a bit daunting at first but are intuitive and easily learned.

Choices and opportunities are modest at the outset so as not to be overwhelming, but they steadily ramp up as the game goes on. There are many actions available, from buying cows to clearing hazards to moving your train further down the track, plus a number of flexible auxiliary actions that can be enhanced as you progress, putting discs out onto stations from your player board to reveal the upgrades. The thing is, everything you can choose to do is good and will help you, whether it gains you money or scores you points or provides you with more opportunities in future: you just have to decide what is best of all the exciting possibilities on offer to you at the time. Just don’t try to do everything though, or the game might be over before you’ve really got started!

Having a long-term plan can sometimes help, but this is not as important as you might expect: you can much more easily go with the flow and see what happens, responding to the changing opportunities as they come and go. After a few games it’s easy to think that a ‘Cowboy strategy’ is the best, but when you see an ‘Engineer strategy’ succeed you’ll think that it is surely the only way to go, and yet at the highest level it seems to be a ‘Builder strategy’ that wins out most often. There’s so much to learn about this game, you could play it 50 times before feeling like you really know it – and Great Western Trail is so good that you’ll probably want to!

(Review by Matt Young)

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