Great Western Trail is a rootin’ tootin’ good time that’ll keep your spurs sharp and your mind occupied as you drive them cattle up the trail.
Jeremiah & Kara
Designer: Alexander Pfister
Artist: Alexander Pfister
Artist: Andreas Resch
Initial Year of Release: 2016
Game Type: Hand Management
Game Type: Point to Point Movement
Age Range: 12+
Expected Playtime: 75 – 150 minutes
Number of Players: 2 – 4
Theme and What is it?
Your trusty steed walks steadily on beneath you. Back and forth you rock as the hot desert sun beats down on your back. Towering cliffs all around you reach toward the sky, caressing the eggshell blue with their coarse red fingers. You’ve driven this trail hundreds of times, but this trip has been especially difficult. Maybe that’s why you chose to chance this shortcut through the canyon.
The thirsty earth around you is studded with the hoof-prints of the thousand bovine you’ve been charged to drive from Texas to Kansas. The herd presses on through the heat, heavy bodies gleaming with sweat – the air around you sounds and smells like cattle. Suddenly, a massive crack splits the stale desert air, and a house-sized boulder careens down the cliffs, crashing into the dusty ground just yards behind you.
The impact shakes the earth and rattles your bones, sending cold sweats shooting down your spine. That was close. If the herd had passed through that section just minutes later – you don’t want to think about it. Finally understanding why no one else uses this shortcut, you urge your cattle to move faster. The sooner you get out of this canyon, the better.
In Great Western Trail, players drive their hand of cattle from Texas to Kansas City. The trail is long and rough, but also rewarding to those who know it! By successfully managing their hand of cows, planning ahead, and utilizing their options, one player will become an “Ace-high” cowboy – known and renowned throughout the west!
During setup, each player gets a player board covered with little wooden circles and cubes, a deck of differently colored cow cards, a stack of building tiles, and a couple of meeples. The main board has a trail studded with useful buildings the players can visit like a cattle market or a trading post.
The goal of the game is to drive your hand of cattle cards from Texas to Kansas City (the start of the trail to the end) as many times as you can, while earning points along the way. While trekking the trail, you can sell cattle from your hand, trade with the natives, aquire impressive new cows, and hire more workers to help boost your industry’s productivity.
At the end of the game, the player who has rustled up the most points is the winner!
On their turn, a player will move their cowboy meeple 1, 2, or 3 buildings up the trail, and activate whichever building they end on. These buildings let players do all sorts of things like hire workers, sell cattle, clear hazards for points, and lots more. The turns in Great Western Trail are sound so simple, but choosing which building to activate on your turn is super important because in Great Western Trail you can’t go backwards – only forwards. So once you’ve passed over a building, you’ll have to wait until your next trip up the trail to activate it! This element of cattle-driving FOMO makes the simple decisions interesting and important.
Once a player gets to the end of the trail, they ship off their current hand of cows. The trick is, only one cow of each color will get you any money; so if you have a hand where all the cows are different colors, you’ll get paid for each cow. If you have duplicates, only one of each color will generate income.
After shipping off their cows, players use one of the circles from their player board to mark the city they shipped to, which uncovers an upgrade or bonus that they get to use for the rest of the game. Then they take their cowboy meeple, place it at the start of the trail, and get ready to do the journey all over again.
Jeremiah picked this game, and by now you know when I say that, it means I wasn’t overly excited about it. When I saw the three grey-sepia men on the box, glowering out at me with their grumpy peepers, I just wasn’t interested. It looked dusty, and drab. “Hi-ho silver – no way!” I thought to myself.
I was really surprised when we opened the box and all this color splashed out – gorgeous red cliffs and lush green valleys; vibrant cards and colorful (albeit still glowering) western characters. The rich colors made me more open to trying the game.
The rulebook was a bit long, but very clear and thorough. Setup also took a little while because there are a lot of different tiles and tokens that have to be placed on the main board before you can play. We got into our first play, and you know what? Despite my initial impression, It wasn’t drab – and it’s never collected a spot of dust.
Game Build Quality
For the most part, the component quality for Great Western Trail is fine. The board and box are both made of nice thick cardboard, as are the various tokens used in the game. The cow cards are made of nice cardstock, and all of the little wooden pieces are nice and tactile. Things are generally easy to pick up, which is really important for this game since you’re constantly picking things up and moving them around.
There’s no insert, which is disappointing, but the game came with plenty of bags to store everything in, which helps things to not slide around when the game is being stored.
There is one major component downside, and that’s the player boards.
The player boards use wooden disks and cardboard tokens to track their upgrades, actions, and effects, and it’s made of thin, flat cardstock. Every time the table gets bumped the disks and tokens scatter everywhere. It ended up being such a big issue for us that we coughed up some more cash to buy fancy cases for out boards. The player boards play a major role in the game, and I wish the publisher had put more effort into making them less problematic.
The artwork in Great Western Trail is gorgeous. The colors are rich and vibrant, but not so overwhelming that they detract from the western feel. All the buildings tiles have unique little illustrations on them that bring extra depth to the theme, and the cattle cards have bea-moo-tiful cow illustrations as well! In fact, the artwork inside the box is so great that I’m not even upset by the grumpy cover anymore!
Great Western Trail runs on iconography. There are icons all over the main board, player boards, and the buildings that tell players which actions they can do on their turns. Some of the symbols are really easy to understand, but unfortunately there are a lot that aren’t intuitive at all. We’ve played the game a dozen times now and we still have to refer to the rulebook to double check what some of the symbols mean.
The sheer amount and complexity of the symbology makes this a very hard game to teach to new people. Be prepared to answer the same questions and clarify the same things over and over again, because many of the symbol meanings just aren’t obvious
Despite the sub-par player boards and the sometimes-confusing iconography, Great Western Trail is hog-killin’ time! (That’s a cowboy term I found on the internet – I don’t actually kill hogs for fun.) I mean, it’s in the BGG top 10, and I definitely understand why. This game is full of delightfully difficult decisions, tummy twisting risks, and heart soaring payoffs.
The turns generally move along at a lively trot, especially when everyone is familiar with the game, but the in-between turns are full of tension as well. You’ll sit there, cards in hand, a massive knot in your throat, staring laser beams into that fancy new cow card you want to buy on your next turn, and you’re just praying an opponent doesn’t take it for themselves first!
One thing that makes Great Western Trail really fantastic is the amount of replayability it has. The starting buildings can be set out randomly and the personal buildings have an A side and a B side. These two things, along with the general randomness of which tokens come onto the board during the game, ensures that each game can be totally different from the next.
Age Range & Weight
The MRA is 12+. I’m on the fence about whether or not a 12-year-old could actually handle this game. On one hand, there are a ton of icons and symbols to learn in order to play the game well, and I don’t know if a 12-year-old could memorize them all. On the other hand, the actual gameplay is really simple – just move your cowboy and do what the building says. On the other other hand, there’s a lot of strategizing and planning involved. I think if a 12-year-old had a patient adult there who was willing to explain the iconography to them, they could probably learn to play the game, and with practice they could probably learn to play it well.
Even though the mechanics in Great Western Trail are simple, the decisions players make can be pretty complicated. The game also has a tendency to run long, especially with new players. We’ve only played a handful of 3-4 player games, and they generally take a few hours.
Despite some shortcomings, Great Western Trail is a rootin’ tootin’ good time that’ll keep your spurs sharp and your mind occupied as you drive them cattle up the trail. Great Western Trail is one of the best western-themed euro games on the market. It’s strategic, rewarding, fun, and satisfying. If you’re looking for a wonderfully satisfying, thinky euro, with solid mechanics and a great theme, Great Western Trail might be exactly what you need!
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