Great Western Trail came out right around Thanksgiving of last year and in just a few months has risen to the top 20 on Boardgamegeek’s global game rankings, a testament to its tight design and the many decisions it offers players across an entire playthrough. The mechanics themselves aren’t complex, but the scoring is, and there aren’t many good games that have this many rules (except for Uwe Rosenberg’s, but that’s kind of his shtick). It’s surprising, given the length of the rulebook and the number of things going on in a game, how well Great Western Trail actually works—and once you get the hang of everything you’re allowed to do, the game presents a challenge with so many possibilities that it never descends to the paint-by-numbers trait of heavier games.
Great Western Trail is a game about cows … sort of. You have a deck of cow cards to start the game, and you move your cattleman meeple along a track to get to Kansas City, its terminus. This is done multiple times over the course of a game. When you get to Kansas City, you can sell your cows, taking money for each distinct cow type in your hand, and then discard those cards, eventually reshuffling the deck Dominion-style. Along the track are other buildings where you can discard one or two cow cards for money or another bonus, hire workers, build your own buildings, take various bonus tiles, and move your train along the railroad track (not the same as the cattleperson track), among other things. You can rack up points in lots of ways, from buildings, acquiring “hazard” tiles, hiring workers and station masters, “delivering” cows to Kansas City, and from objective cards that award two to five bonus points at game end for achieving certain things over the course of the game. Have I mentioned that there’s a lot going on?
The cleverness of Great Western Trail lies in the way it limits your options on any one turn without limiting your strategies for the game as a whole. There’s one building on the board at the start of the game that will let you hire workers—one at a worker’s current cost in the job market, and another one at the cost plus two coins if you want to hire two. Other than that, there are very few opportunities to hire workers. Building one of your own buildings works in a similar way—there’s the one neutral building and then a few rare chances later in the game. Both are important, but workers are far more so, because you need more cowboys to be able to buy better cows, more craftsmen to build more valuable buildings, and more engineers to be able to move your train faster. Some of the open job spaces on your personal board have actions you can take when you cover them with new workers, and you get four points for reaching the fourth and fifth spaces in each of the three rows for workers—potentially 24 points at game-end if you hire everyone you can.
As for the cow cards, you’re playing a little hand management here too, and I dropped the Dominion reference above because if you’ve played that game, you’ll understand what Great Western Trail encourages you to do with your hand. Everyone starts the game with the same set of 14 cards, all worth one or two coins at Kansas City, none worth any points at game-end, and your hand size is four—that is, you will end every turn with four cards in your hand. But you can buy cows worth three, four or five coins at delivery from the cattle market, and because you get paid at Kansas City for each different cow type in your hand, you can discard some of those low-value cows along the track and try to get four different cow cards, preferably with higher values, before you reach the terminus. You can also expand your hand size to five and later six, so in theory, you could end up with a payout of 20 coins with six cards (5-4-3-3-3-2) of different types, before any additional bonuses.
When you deliver cows to Kansas City, you really deliver them: at the top of the board is a track of cities from KC to San Francisco, each with a number underneath from zero (KC) to 18 (SF). You choose where your cows go based on the payout you received, usually choosing the highest numbered city where you haven’t already delivered. You take one token from your board, uncovering some new ability, like increasing your hand size or moving your cattleman an extra space per turn, and place it on the delivery city, and there are still more bonuses up there, from added points to objective cards to penalties if, say, you make a bunch of deliveries to the lowest-valued cities.
That’s not even everything. You can skip the benefits of the building you’re on and use an “auxiliary” action from your board—basic stuff like taking a coin or drawing a new card and discarding one, and less basic stuff like moving your locomotive back one space and trashing a card completely from your hand. You can add “certificates” that you can use to bump up the value of a delivery by one coin apiece. You can trade with Indians (the game’s term, not mine, and not one Paste endorses or appreciates), taking little “teepee” tokens (again, the game’s term) in green and blue, sometimes paying for them, sometimes getting paid for them, and using them to fulfill objective cards at game-end. You will pass over various tiles on the board that require you to pay the bank or pay opponents. And on and on and on. There are a lot of rules here, and I think it might benefit from a companion app that ensures that you’re meeting all your requirements and taking advantage of everything available to you on each turn. If you like vast, engine-building economic games, this is about as tight and well-designed a game in that genre as you’ll find. Just don’t forget the essence of the game: it’s about the cows.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.