There is a place in my neighborhood that serves a killer salad: bleu cheese crumbles, dried cranberries, and red wine vinaigrette. That’s it. Each flavor complements the other, in just the right proportion. The greens are excellent. It is primarily a cocktail bar, but the staff clearly understands taste. There is nothing in any of their dishes or drinks that isn’t there for a very good reason: because it makes it better.
There is another place around here that serves salads they call “famous.” They’re basically a huge stack of those everything nachos you can get at upscale sports bars but without the nacho chips. They have a million ingredients, which might lead to clashing flavors except the ingredients are all so bland you don’t notice. They are basically a way for you to stuff your face with a salad because that’s what you like to do.
Point salad games can be one of these two things. Guess which one Great Western Trail is.
Great Western Trail is a deck-builder about taking cattle from Texas to Kansas City in the American Old West so that you can sell them at the market and get points. It’s also a tableau-builder about hiring cowboys and engineers to help you do things that would happen in the Old West in the 1880s. It’s also a semi-worker-placement/territory control game where the workers are buildings and you establish control over locations along the trail so that you can do things according to international board game symbology. It’s also a giant stack of nachos.
The central conceit of Great Western Trail lives up to all three words in the game’s name. As you move along the trail, you take actions to build your deck of cattle to maximize its utility. This might be selling cows along the way, or saving up for a large score in Kansas City. There are multiple paths through this Old West depicted on the map, and as they start filling up with hazards, and buildings, you have to make choices about which direction to take, and what you will end up with when you get to Kansas City.
But then Great Western Trail decides that just like in the American West of those days, expansion is inevitable. And so your tableau starts filling with tokens that give you more actions, and workers that give you more benefits, and the train from Kansas City to San Francisco needs stations, and those need conductors, and suddenly you’re not just herding dogies, you’re navigating an economy of poorly themed arbitrary abstract constructs. Hello, Trajan.
There isn’t any central mechanic that breaks Great Western Trail to send it off the rails (I know) but a major defect in the track is that your deck-builder is just about cattle. Oh wait, that’s the theme anchor! No matter how many engineers or workmen you hire, you’re still beholden to the Kansas City cattle market, because the points you score there determine what else you can do! Which is also this deck-builder’s biggest limitation: the “deck-building” only directly drives one game mechanism, which is the value of your cattle herd and thus the Kansas City scoring. Yes, this flows through in one way or another to the rest of the game, but the limited ways in which you can actually use your deck make this feel more like set-collection. You can discard something to get some money. You pick up more to improve your set. You cash in your set. Tokaido?
Maybe because of this inherent limitation, the game then gives you so many ways to end-run these restrictions that the rule book itself suggests that you “specialize” because trying to do everything is a fool’s errand. So maybe you just want to push the train as far as you can, establishing stations that give you extra abilities (and victory points). Or become a landlord, scoring points for buildings. Did I mention that there are objectives, and that you can “trade” with Indians, and that you can increase the value of your herd with ribbons, indicating their prime quality? What haven’t I told you?
I haven’t told you that I wouldn’t mind this if designer Alexander Pfister (co-designer of Isle of Skye) had found a way to overcome the primary obstacle to point salad enjoyment, which is the law of centrifugal theming: as you add elements to your theme, it starts to pull apart. The mechanics that build the trail setting, like the multiple paths and the hazards and the congestion of the buildings, which slow movement as the paths become more developed, don’t have an obvious correlate in the rail economy. So they end up being the equivalents of tracks. Tracks are a great way to both include anything you want in a game, and simultaneously make that element seem artificial and pointless. Wait, tracks and rails? Perfect! Not quite. While you do push your train marker further and further, this unidirectional race becomes disconnected from the theme with the option to place stations, that give you certain actions if you uncovered your ability by placing the token when you delivered a load of cattle. An ability that you can use at one of your buildings. Which you can buy only by landing on a space that allows you to build buildings.
Anyone can design abstract and arbitrary systems of sufficient complexity to force players into non-trivial decisions about how to optimize them in the face of other players trying to do likewise. Caylus was a long time ago. That problem has been solved, and the decisions have gotten much, much more complex. Today’s designers have an unenviable task: evolve your systems without sacrificing theme. Otherwise, why not just play an abstract? I’m playing cowboys, for God’s sake.
In one game, toward the very end, I realized that I had to get the guy to buy the card that would give me the set to place the token. I spent several minutes counting out ways I could assure that on the next turn, I could move my cowboy token to the building that lets me take one worker more cheaply and play this much money to hire him to allow me to take the higher value cattle card when I got to the symbol that looked like I was going to an Eagles concert. Was this building a boarding house? A secret convention of guys in different hats? An interdimensional portal? Yes.
Game design is also the art of knowing when your imaginative space is shrinking even as you try to expand it. The decisions in Great Western Trail are solvable, but only as an interconnected series of puzzles with limited player interaction. Sure, placing buildings changes the rate at which you move, and the limited rate at which the cattle market refills makes some cattle purchases very consequential, but for the most part any conflicts here will jolt you temporarily out of your self-absorbed puzzle-solving, rather than inform any meaningful long-term competition. There are simply too many ways to play, which is something you could never say about a tighter design, because a tighter design would lead to more conflicting play lines between players. Here, you can feel free to play out your vision of the Old West’s cattle economy, free from any encumbrance, including that of theme. The Great Western Trail doesn’t lead anywhere, because it leads everywhere.
I’d much rather eat that plate of tasteless nachos. At least at the end, I’d feel full.