Great Western Trail has a pacing problem.

Nights Around a Table - Great Western Trail - all covers

The board game developed by Austrian designer Alexander Pfister found an audience, some of whom claim it’s his best work, despite its objectively terrible cover. It came under fire for its inclusion of indigenous North Americans, which its rulebook called “Indians” — a term that runs the gamut from “highly objectionable” to “what we actually call ourselves,” depending on which people group you ask. The publisher responded to accusations of cultural insensitivity by releasing a new and improved second edition, which spuriously replaced “Indians” with criminal bandits. PR crisis solved! (?) But the biggest issue we have with the game is that we’re not in any hurry to play it.

Under the Horse’s Hood

It’s a neat game, for sure: it features a “rondel” mechanic where you trot your cowboy up the titular trail using a certain number of movement points each turn, optionally stopping at buildings owned either by no one in particular, or by you and your opponents, to perform certain actions. Each player has an identical hand of cattle cards of different values, and when you reach the top of the trail, you cash in whatever hand you’ve wrangled for cash and prizes. Some of these prizes include removing discs from your player board to uncover additional abilities, a mainstay of Pfister’s designs.

Nights Around a Table - Great Western Trail board

The game’s “clock” is at the side of the board. Each time a player ships a hand of cattle off, new employable workers are added to a grid from top to bottom, and as they file in, they push a token down the board. When the token is pushed off the bottom of the grid, endgame is triggered, and all other players get one more turn to finish out the game.

Nights Around a Table - Great Western Trail clock

Stream? More like a Trickle

We played GWT: Argentina, the second entry in the Great Western Trail trilogy, on the Nights Around a Table livestream as part of Pfister Pfest, a showcase and exploration of Alexander Pfister’s designs. With our past plays of GWT as sage warning, we vowed not to make it a 3 hour game; there was yet dinner to eat, and stuff to do. i’m old enough to have a bed time again. For my part, i was hoping that Argentina tightened up what for me is the game’s most glaring problem: its play length. But by the time we had signed off the stream, the two of us had been playing for five bloody hours.

Granted, yes, streaming adds significant stall to gameplay. You have to interface with viewers in chat. You have to telegraph your moves so the camera operator can switch shots on time. You have to explain what you’re doing, half-teaching the game as you play, particularly for people joining the stream at staggered entry points. And of course, there are the inevitable technical issues. On this particular stream, it was our Player 2 camera refused to charge (again), and conked out early in the process. We switched the camera out, painfully, live on stream, and that ate up eleven minutes.

But let’s be generous and shave off a whopping two hours from that play time. We were still at the table for a solid three hours, rehashing the very thing we didn’t enjoy about Great Western Trail to begin with. Cheryl and i both agreed that it starts out fun, but that fun peters out about halfway down the job board. What remains is a tortuous slog of a game that, like a bad houseguest, overstays its welcome by an audacious amount, and is still rooting through your refrigerator asking what’s to eat long after you’ve put on jammies and snuggled into bed, asking Great Western Trail to please let itself out because you’ve got work in the morning.

Nights Around a Table - Great Western Trail clock editorial

As Long as a Piece of String

So where does the game go so wrong? From a fifty thousand foot view, the biggest challenge is that its play length is elastic. Great Western Trail can be completed in two hours. i’m sure i’ll field comments from outraged commenters claiming even shorter times. Hello there, in advance. i see you. Were you about to yell “an hour and a half?” Do i hear “five minutes!”? Calm yourselves. Of course you can play the game more quickly. Do you truly think that brand new players cracking the shrink on these games and tackling them for the first time will come it at anything close to the play time you’re about to shout at me in the comments section? In an age where there are just so many games to play, a bad first impression can sound a game’s death knell, and it won’t even get a second chance at someone’s table.

The game can be completed by “good players” who “know what they’re doing” and “don’t loudly eat air-fried spring rolls in the middle of the game” in about seven seconds flat. Great. It can also be completed in three hours. It can stretch to four. And, as we demonstrated, you can tease it out to five. Or play the entire day, if you want to — why not? But for grown-ups with stupid grown-up obligations they have to attend to all the time, that’s a huge problem.

If i know i have 3 hours to set up, re-learn, play, and pack a game away, i’m naturally going to reach for something i can all but guarantee will fit into that window. Johnny has baseball practice at 6. Fernando has to leave by dinnertime. And no one wants a board game they’ve sunk three hours into to go unfinished. Some of you might even scan through that livestream and complain that Cheryl and i just play too slowly. Therein lies the rub! It’s not our fault. It’s the game’s. If Great Western Trail was designed as optimally as the strategizing it demands from its participants, the game would not let us play that slowly.

Great Western Derail

There’s tons of stuff you can do in Great Western Trail. You can stop at an outpost to construct buildings. You can stop at a building to hire workers. You can trade with natives/combat highwaymen or, in GWT: Argentina, you can help out farmers with a new strength and exhaustion mechanic. In a 2-player game, you can progress along the trail in leaps of 3, but you could also jog at 2 steps, or positively crawl by spending only one movement point per turn. With seven generic buildings to start and the addition of more wayposts that appear as the game drags on, that’s potentially seven separate turns or per player before delivering your cows, which players typically do 5-6 times per game. And there’s so much to do and explore, why wouldn’t you want to crawl up the trail, milking the buildings for all of the points and advantages you possibly can?

But the only action that pushes that game clock forward is delivering cows at the top of the trail. So if every player bum-rushes the game and zips up the trail as quickly as possible, you’re guaranteed to be home in time to catch Gunsmoke. If one or more players plays quickly, and the others take their time, now your play time has doubled. And if all players at the table pick through slowly, you’d better turn the oven off, because that roast is gonna be charcoal by the time you finally tend to it.

Poor Play vs Poor Design

“But if you go one building at a time,” you say, “you’re not playing optimally.” That’s fine. And indeed, GWT has some incentives to race towards, like train stations that you can upgrade to gain perks. Argentine adds a new set of European cities with exclusive money- and points-earning spaces, to reward players for reaching the end of the trail and shipping those cows. But they’re not enough. Great Western Trail being somewhat of a “point salad” game, where points can be earned for performing a variety of tasks, there’s an equally valid argument for taking your time; the speedy hare player who aggressively ships cows will not necessarily triumph over a methodical tortoise, thanks in part to a deck of end-game goal cards that additionally reward you for combining perks you pick up along the path.

Even if travelling slowly up the trail isn’t optimal, a board game’s “punishment” for sub-optimal play should be fewer points, not longer gameplay – especially since prolonged play affects all players!  Back to the race analogy, it’s like a 500m footrace where all players cross the finish line in a reasonable amount of time, but they have to keep running laps until the player in last place one-armed army crawls his way up the track, stopping in the middle to snap some selfies and write a letter home to Mom. If that were to happen in real life, the other competitors would be halfway home on the interstate, hugging their trophies. Great Western Trail ominously says “Keep running. i’ll tell you when it’s over.”

Nights Around a Table - Great Western Trail goal cards

Great Western Trail isn’t the only game to suffer from this glaring design flaw. Pfister’s other rondel games like Maracaibo and Boonlake take a “go at your own speed (at your own peril)” approach that makes their durations similarly, and frustratingly, unpredictable. (My memory of it is hazy, but i suspect Boonlake may have introduced a design tweak that mitigates the issue.) Games like Terraforming Mars and the mechanically similar Ark Nova both allow players to dither around potentially for hours, gorging themselves on points and building preposterous engines, while barely touching the dials that actually advance the game clock – temperature/oxygen/hydration levels in the former, and a staff coffee break countdown in the latter. The predictable response to this criticism is “play better.” My counterpoint to Mister Pfister, and his defensive acolytes, is “design better.”

The Fix: Play the Game to Progress the Game

One possible fix is to re-jig the game so that all actions — not just selling cows — advance the game clock. This could look like a separate track where you advance a token every time a player takes a turn. Or, advance the clock token every time someone makes a stop along the trail. You could even experiment with regressing the token whenever a player skips over a stop on the trail. But the upshot is that when that timing token reaches the end of its track, the hiring board fills up with characters and the endgame-triggering token moves down, just as it would when someone sells cows the way the good Lord intended. With this kind of adjustment, in-world “game time” would be more tightly tied to real-world “play time,” and every action that happens in the game would contribute to its inevitable conclusion. The game would no longer throw up its hands and say “Player, take the wheel!” relinquishing control of its advancement to players like Cheryl and me, who clearly can’t be trusted with it.

Lessons Learned from Another Train Game

Nights Around a Table - Ticket to Ride Series

Great Western Trail isn’t the only board game series to enjoy multiple, similar versions. The venerable Ticket to Ride series has over a dozen variations, including different map packs. Each Ticket to Ride game purports to bring something new to the table. Ticket to Ride: Europe (my personal favourite of the bunch) adds new mechanics like tunnels and station houses. But crucially, the innovation that Ticket to Ride: San Franciso promises is a shorter game. The decision space is the same, and it plays nearly identically to its larger cousins, but in — say — half the time. And since i already know about how long it takes to play Ticket to Ride proper, i can actually do that math. Conversely, the only way to enjoy a shorter game of Great Western Trail is to play differently. Just as it’s a turn-off when you can fare better in a pay-to-win game simply by paying more money, it’s a design bungle to have a board game where play length varies dramatically depending on your in-game strategy.

Counting on Sheep

Nights Around a Table - Great Western Trail New Zealand

Great Western Trail has one more game to release in its trilogy. GWT: New Zealand will take us down under (and then slightly to the right) where we’ll herd sheep. Smaller animal, shorter game? Just as Ticket to Ride: Europe kept the original game’s mechanics intact but changed up a few of its mechanics, my great hope is that New Zealand will take more of a TTR: San Francisco approach, and offer us a GWT experience with a more predictable playtime that ends while we’re still having a good time.

i Hope They’ve Herd Me

Per the old adage “always leave ’em wanting more,” the best time for a game to end is when you’re still having fun with it. Unfortunatley with Great Western Trail, and even its follow-up GWT: Argentina, that fun dries up at about the halfway point, like a shrinking stream in the San Antonio sun.

GWT: New Zealand promises “more.” i’m just not sure i want any. i have things to do. For busy adult board game fans with limited time, the key to the Great Western Trail:New Zealand truly differentiating itself from its predecessors is actually in offering less.