I’m not really a “train game” type of gamer. I’ve enjoyed some Ticket to Ride and Mini Rails, and once played TransAmerica — but beyond that the scope of crayon rails and 18xx games haven’t appealed to me. (And I suppose if we’re going to consider it part of the rail genre, I do quite like Steamrollers..) Having games that capture one or two thematically appropriate train related ideas or mechanisms in a game seems to hit the spot for me, it seems. When I got Whistle Stop, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but it was just the right mix for me.
Overall, I consider Whistle Stop to be a tile-laying resource management game. Doesn’t sound super train-y, right? Well, this is sort of a Tsuro-rails meets euro-style resource collection/transformation, sitting firmly at a light strategy weight that suits the game really well. Each game will have a random setup of starter tiles on the map, which changes things up a little bit so as to not get too used to a layout like you might on other train game maps. This also goes for the selection of bonus tiles that you’ll be aiming for on the west side of the map, giving you a bit of direction for the game itself and how you’ll travel over the map.
Players spend coal to move their trains along tracks from east to west – and when they arrive at a part of that map that needs to be filled in, they play a tile of their choice from their hand – so you have some agency over what you might encounter besides the starting setup of the map. The Tsuro-esque part is aligning up the tiles so the rails will (hopefully!) take you where you’d like to go in order to collect resources or stocks. If you need to double back on your route, you’re able to spend whistle tokens to briefly travel against the flow of traffic – this might let you change course for other tiles, or come back to reap the benefits of the tiles you’ve just been at.
At its basic core, Whistle Stop is really clean and simple to play – move, maybe play a tile, possibly collect or spend resources. Perhaps use your fun little upgrade tiles before someone else can buy it out from under you.
This is where Whistle Stop hits the sweet spot for me – with the simplicity of actions you can take, it then lends itself to strategizing your movement and planning how best to use resources. At the start of the game, players place their trains out at the eastern edge of the map (in player order) – the gist of this is to take a look at the bits of the map that exist and see where a route might form and be the optimal track for you to follow.
Spread your trains out and it gives you some more flexibility to move around to obtain resources, visit cities to pick up stock and maybe push a couple or a few of your trains forward to the bonus tiles while the others lag and pick up the resource slack. Juggling all of this is a satisfying meal for the brain, without over-stuffing it with choices. It’s honestly a terrific middle ground for train games, as far as I’m concerned!
Yet, I do have one concern – player counts. Well, specifically the high end. I think this is fabulous at 2 and 3, and reasonably good still at 4, but I just won’t play at 5p now. With that many players and trains on the map there’s less flexibility to move around and it just bloats each round a little too much for my liking. As with any game of choices, this could be avoided with folks who know the game well – but I feel that there could always be a slow down with analysis paralysis-prone players because of the mountains of choice in each of the player’s turns. I’ve really enjoyed 2 and 3 player games because you get your full complement of trains and it’s a more interesting spread across the board as you move, and rounds have a decent pace.
One thing that I am still slightly bemused by, as well as many others I introduce the game to, are the graphic design choices. Iconography is clear and great – but I am just not sure where the palette came from for the game. I haven’t got issue with the colours personally, but I usually expect something a little darker and bolder for a train game – and where there is dark and bold in this – that is, the resource cubes – I feel like it stands out too much. Otherwise the look of the game is really nice and clean! And those little train meeples are a nice touch. When I was at Origins, I saw some folks demoing the expansion – Whistle Stop: Rocky Mountains – and was really intrigued. It’s a 3D addition to the middle of the board that adds some travelling challenges to the terrain, which I think is a really fun way to mix it up if you’re wanting something different. It’s on sale at Gen Con and will be in stores pretty soon!
Whistle Stop is a game of rails and resources for 2 – 5 players, lasting approximately 75 – 90 minutes. Designed by Scott Caputo, with art by Jason Boles & Stephanie Gustafsson, the game is published by Bezier Games. Thanks to them for sending us a review copy!