The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, June 22, 2024

GREAT WESTERN TRAIL: Theme and Derivations 

by | published Tuesday, September 5, 2017

I want to start by saying that I think Great Western Trail is a well-designed game with a lot of challenging decision-making packed into a relatively short play-time. The core of the game is the Cattle Deck, which you will have to fine-tune to adapt to the buildings (and hence actions) available. Every few turns you end up in Kansas City, where you turn your current hand of cattle into money; this is probably (but not always) going to be your main source of revenue. Cattle are also worth a whopping cow-paddy’s worth of VP at game’s end. So you want lots of different kinds of high-value cards in your deck.  

BUT, unlike Dominion where you (usually) want to Chapel those cheap starter cows out, in Great Western Trail you may want to keep a few because there are buildings which require you to discard specific 1- and 2-value cattle in order to activate them. And if you want to use those buildings, you gotta have the cows. Interesting… 

When your cowpoke gets to Kansas City you have to ship your cows in hand–which involves moving a disc from your player mat (uncovering powerups) to a destination (most of which you can only ship to once, otherwise you lose points). So you constantly have to be thinking ahead, checking the cattle market, and hoping you can optimise the value of your hand right when you get to KC. Like I said, lots of interesting decisions. And because setup is randomly determined, every game will play out differently. 

The rules are excellently written. The game art (box cover aside) is attractive. It’s got a ton of replayability. When I finished the game I wanted to play again and try a different strategy. As a game it is state-of-the-art, the very epitome of Euro. 

And yet…something about it makes me feel bloated–like I’ve eaten too much after a meal. Let me work this through by starting with a question: 

At what point does the piling of mechanic on mechanic overwhelm the theme of a game? 

Great Western is a “greatest hits” compilation album of different tabletop mechanisms. We’re talking deck-building (Dominion), individually-scored objectives (Ticket to Ride), worker drafting (Russian Railroads), tech upgrading (Scythe), and building ownership and activation (Caylus). There are nine major ways to gain VP. The game is a black hole for Analysis Paralysis. 

Then we have the theme. The rules say players are ranchers, but pardon me if I’m wrong in saying that ranchers historically didn’t build buildings across the West, hire station-masters, drain floodplains, run trains, and trade with natives (they were far more likely to decimate them). If anything, the players represent dynasties such as the Whites of Idaho or Richard King of Texas, with fingers in many pies, both economic and political. 

Like I said the game works and works well, but underneath all the shiny I just don’t have a sense of why the designer (Alexander Pfister) needed to stuff it so full, other than to prove he could. I mean, look at 2012’s Copycat, by the green-haired maestro Friedmann Friese. Friese openly stated he tried to make a game that was a Frankenstein’s-monster amalgam of DominionAgricolaThrough the Ages7 Wonders, and Puerto Rico. He decided the only theme that would suit such a blatant ripoff was the world of political bureaucracy, rife as it is with chicanery, theft, and appropriation. He made it clear the theme came after making sure the mechanics worked–and slapped an Obama-style cover on the box (interpret that as you will). On the other hand, Great Western Trail, like many Euros, pretends the theme is inherently important, but in the end it ends up being about the cleverness of the design.  

In Pfister’s previous designs such as Oh My GoodsBroom Service, and Isle of Skye, he hit that sweet spot; the mechanics serve the theme. But in this case I think he overloaded the game to the point that you can’t help notice the scaffolding. The game is what the French call de trop or what Seth Meyers termed “putting a hat on a hat”. Or in this case, a Stetson on a Stetson. 

And don’t even get me started on the box cover. (See here for some “witty” banter on the topic.) 

It’s really no surprise to me that Great Western Trail has already vaulted into the BGG top twenty and many players’ all-time-fave lists. Gamer cognosceti like their games to be all-stuffed affairs, and don’t always think too hard about the theme or the story that playing the game is supposed to tell.  

It all reminds me of I guy I lived with back in university who was a Deadhead and used to say that the great thing about the Dead was that they could play anything. Jazz? Rock? Reggae? Blues? The Dead could play it all. 

I liked Des a lot, so I didn’t want to harsh his mellow, but inside I was asking, “Yeah, but do they play it well?” Great Western covers a lot of ground and admittedly  covers it much better than the Dead covered Coltraine, but ultimately there’s a disconnect here that itches at me, to the point where I don’t know whether I’ll keep it in my collection or not. At least I know I’ll have a lot of interest if I do want to unload it. 


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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