Great Western Trail Review

Take up the role of a rancher in 19th century America and herd your cattle from Texas all the way to Kansas City in the Great Western Trail! You’ll face many dangers and challenges along the way, so hire the best cowboys and take advantage of the facilities as you travel. Check out the full Great Western Trail board game review below.

Great Western Trail
  • 2 to 4 players ages 12+
  • Plays in 75 to 150 minutes
  • Designed by Alexander pfister

Brief Overview of Great Western Trail

Great Western Trail Board Game Box

The Wild West theme is most commonly tied to gunslingers, sheriffs and outlaws, and Spaghetti Western movies. The Great Western Trail takes the theme in another direction by making it about herding cattle.

It is one of the finest examples of economic hand-management and engine-building board games, ranked #9 in strategy games and #11 overall on BoardGameGeek

Great Western Trail is a complex game with lengthy playtime of up to 150 minutes. Because of that, it is suitable for experienced Euro game players, but newcomers to the genre with patience to learn will also have a lot of fun.

Versions & Expansions

Great Western Trail Board Game Expansion Box and Art

Rails to the North

The Great Western Trail: Rails to the North introduces a new railway system that adds Chicago, Detroit, and New York City as destinations for the cattle. The business will be more challenging, with additional buildings, station master tiles, and expanded player boards.

Great Western Trail: Rails to the North
  • Package Dimensions: 29.8 H x 7.2 L x 20.0 W (centimetres)
  • Package Weight: 0.78 kilograms
  • For ages 14 and up

Unboxing Great Western Trail

Great Western Trail Board Game Box and Components

The game box contains the following components:

  • 1 Game Board 
  • 54 Worker Tiles
  • 18 Hazard Tiles
  • 22 Teepee Tiles
  • 4 Player Boards
  • 4 Player count Tiles 
  • 68 Tokens
  • 92 Cattle Cards
  • 24 Objective Cards
  • 47 Building Tiles 
  • 5 Station Master Tiles
  • 55 Coins
  • 1 Job Market Token
  • 1 Scoring Note Pad
  • 1 Rulebook

The box itself usually does not spark a lot of interest, but in the case of the Great Western Trail, it has been the source of a lot of controversies. Andreas Resch was the sole illustrator for the game and the person responsible for creating the rather bland box art. 

The Art

A cowboy, train conductor, and presumably a wealthy elderly man take most of the space, with tepees, cattle, and a train at the bottom. Their faces are uncanny and appear as if they were taken from an old video game. The whole scene is washed out and predominantly uses brown and gray coloring. 

This gives the box a generic and uninteresting look, which is why so many have simply glanced over it when looking for something new to play. It is very unfortunate considering just how great of a game Great Western Trail is, and that the art style of the components is quite nice.

Components

The cardboard pop-out components are up to the industry’s standards, and the double-folded game board is very well designed. As for the tokens — there’s no plastic here! 

The 4 cattlemen, 56 player discs, 4 trains, and 4 certificate markers are color-matched for every player and are built out of wood. Even though the discs and markers are basic shapes, it gives the game a better feel than using plain plastic components.

Cards have a nice feel to them, and the most important — cattle cards have 9 unique cattle designs that are adorable. Building tiles feature partial artwork and well-illustrated mechanics. Overall, the components of the Great Western Trail will pleasantly surprise those who might have judged it based on the box-art alone.

How to Play Great Western Trail

Great Western Trail Board Game Box and Cards

The Great Western Trail has many rules and can be intimidating at first, but as long as you take things slow and keep the rulebook close, you should be just fine. Set aside at least 3 hours for the first session, especially if there are several inexperienced players. 

Game Setup

As the setup spreads across two pages of the rulebook and includes 17 steps, explaining it in detail here would be too much to read. The rulebook handles it very well, so take your time and carefully follow the instructions. 

Herd Deck

Card management is an important factor of the Great Western Trail. It represents the herd you’re trying to take to Kansas City. Every player gets the same starting herd of low-value cattle. On your way, you’ll be able to upgrade your herd and score more points.

Taking Turns

There are 3 phases that a player must perform on their turn:

  • Phase A – Move the cattleman to another location.
  • Phase B – Use the action(s) of the location the cattleman has reached. 
  • Phase C – Draw cards up to the hand limit.

To make things easier to follow, player boards feature three boxes at the top explaining each phase. 

Phase A 

Kansas City is the most important location on the map, but any tile placed along the trail will also be a location: building, hazard, or teepee. A tileless space is not considered a location and is passed through without stopping.

Movement is performed in steps, with each player starting with 3 or 4 steps depending on the number of players. You’re not allowed to move backward, or pass over Kansas City. 

Actions on the location tiles have to be executed before your cattleman can proceed forward. Usually, the player has to pay a fee, either to the bank or to another player. If you run out of money, you can continue to move without paying. However, all other costs have to be paid in full.

Phase B

The choice of actions varies depending on the tile your cattleman has landed on. 

Tiles are split into three groups:

  • Neutral buildings or private buildings in possession of the active player.
  • Private buildings of other players, a hazard or teepee.
  • Kansas City.

On the neutral or personally owned buildings, you can perform the local action, or use a single auxiliary action. Buildings most commonly present a choice between two actions, and you can perform each action once in any order. You do not have to perform every action but fees have to be paid. 

Auxiliary action can be performed by skipping all of the local actions. They’re present on the left side of the player board, with two available at the start of the game. Auxiliary actions are the only choice when faced with someone else’s building, a hazard, or a teepee. 

On the Kansas City tile, you’ll have to perform several steps in order. At this point, it is best to consult the rulebook to ensure everything is done per rules. 

Phase C

In phase C, you’ll draw cards up to your hand limit. Initially set at 4, the card limit can be increased up to 6. Once you’ve exhausted the personal deck, shuffle your discard pile and use it as the new deck.

The Main Objective

By moving from location to location, you’ll have a chance to place building tiles, buy better cattle, upgrade stations and remove hazards. You’ll work your way up to Kansas City, and send your cattle away by train to earn victory points. Then you’ll start the process over, reaching Kansas City 5 to 7 times in a playthrough.

Winning The Game

All of the victory points are awarded at the end of the game. Then sum up the victory point symbols on the components of your player board as well as those you’ve built on the board. The player with the most victory points is declared the winner!

Your First Game of Great Western Trail

Great Western Trail Board Game Board and Cards

Playing Great Western Trail is going to be very taxing, so make sure you’re not tired when you pick it up for the first time. If you’re playing with experienced players, try to ride along and use the tips they provide to get accustomed to the game more quickly. If you’ve decided to buy the game, at the very least do a mock game setup before your session. 

Until you’re more accustomed to the game, play the cowboy’s strategy revolving around cattle. Buy at least 2 cattle no matter the strategy, as it’ll increase your income in Kansas City and unlock auxiliary actions. Build a few buildings to optimize your trail and hinder other players, and improve the railway to decrease taxes. 

Income is vital in the Great Western Trail, especially in the early game. Because it’s an engine-building game, the sooner you get your economy going, the more benefits you’ll receive as you go. In the same manner, increasing your hand size will be highly lucrative.

There are a few powerful buildings you can create in the early game to increase your actions per turn and get ahead in the race to Kansas City. I’m not going to reveal them as I’d like for you to find the best strategy yourself, but keep it in mind when planning where to place the tiles. 

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Randomization and variety add high replay value.
  • Games are exciting until the very end.
  • Mixes multiple strategy elements. 

Many engine-building games face the problem of maintaining replayability as players figure out the most optimal strategies. The Great Western Trail tackles the issue through several mechanics.

The locations of the starting buildings are randomized, private building tiles have A and B sides, and through drawing tiles, objective cards, cattle, and so on. Rather than forcing the players into the same moves every time, each game has its own optimal strategy. 

The way Great Western Trail handles card management, engine building, and the race to the finish line is one of the best and rightfully earned its top rankings on BoardGameGeek. Because the winners are unknown until the scoring, games are exciting until the very last turn. 

Cons:

  • Too many rules. 
  • High barrier of entry. 
  • Game length. 

While there’s a lot to praise once you’ve properly experienced the game, Great Western Trail suffers from a high barrier of entry. Even players experienced in the genre will have a hard time grasping the game by simply reading the lengthy rulebook. 

This leads us to the point about the game length. The average playtime is rated at 75 to 150 minutes, but I can tell you with certainty you’re going to cross the 3-hour mark. 

Teaching your friends is going to be a daunting task, especially if they’re all completely new to the game. Strap yourself with patience and conserve your energy throughout the day, because you’ll need it to get them through all of the rules of the Great Western Trail.

TL;DR

The Great Western Trail is one of the best examples of card management, engine-building Euro games currently on the market. It utilizes the Western theme to its fullest, and in a way rarely seen in the entertainment media.

If you’re willing to spend the time and effort to figure out how to play the game, the Great Western Trail will quickly take over a lot of your board game sessions. With an experienced group of players, it can be played in around 2 hours, and manages to be exciting until the very end.

Conclusion: Verdict?

The Great Western Trail charmed me with its theme, as I’ve always been a fan of the Wild West. It always reminds me of the ‘Australia’ movie starring Hugh Jackman as it has a similar premise. 
My friends and I have found the game to be a bit too challenging at first, with all of the rulebook page-turning and figuring out what to do next. It’s a natural part of the Euro game experience and as soon as we’ve gone through it, we’ve started to enjoy session after session.

Great Western Trail
  • 2 to 4 players ages 12+
  • Plays in 75 to 150 minutes
  • Designed by Alexander pfister

The Great Western Trail gets my recommendation with a caveat regarding the complexity and session length. If you’ve enjoyed this review, leave a comment below and tell us why you might decide to try out the game yourself!

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Stats at a glance

Players: 1-4

Ages: 12 +

Hard

75-150 Mins

Publisher: Stronghold Games

Published: 2016