Great Western Trail is my favorite complex tabletop game, a two-hour affair with a 20-page rulebook that manages to hit all of the right notes in a game of its length and weight. Players take on the role of ranchers in the Old West, building up herds of cattle and a network of buildings to make bigger deliveries of cows to Kansas City. Plan B Games’ Eggertspiele imprint has been working on a new edition of the original that will serve as the first in a trilogy of games, and the first one, simply called Great Western Trail Second Edition, will be out at Gen Con in mid-September.
I’ve tested out the new edition, and while it may not offer enough changes to encourage owners of the first edition to pony up for a new one, it’s a better version for folks new to the game or looking to try a heavier title for their tabletop gaming.
Great Western Trail (GWT) incorporates multiple ideas you might have seen in other modern board games, sometimes called Eurogames, all into one coherent package. You start with a basic deck of cow cards and will buy better cards to upgrade that deck as the game progresses. You also get to hire three types of workers to allow you to make your actions more powerful. You’ll also move your locomotive along a track on the outer edge of the main board, which gets you points, might give you bonus actions, and which allows you to deliver cows farther along the line. The result is a heavy but enjoyable game that offers a ton of decision-making opportunities.
During each turn you’ll move your meeple, called a herder, along various paths on the map, taking actions based on the buildings where you stop. The heart of the game is the deck of cow cards that you attempt to upgrade as the game progresses; by the time your herder reaches the end of the trail (in Kansas City) you’ll get money based on the number of different cows in your hand. You then will add up all of the values on the cards to deliver — one presumes this would mean beef, although the game is not that grisly — to the farthest city possible along the railroad track, culminating in New York City. (The greatest city in the world, natch.)
You have more possibilities to improve your actions or your card-based economic engine than you can possibly achieve in a single playthrough, which is one of GWT’s great strengths. It pushes you to choose a strategy early on. Will you grab the most valuable cows available, hiring cowboys to let you buy even better cows? Will you hire more engineers, so you can move your locomotive more quickly to powerful upgrade stations? Or will you go with a construction strategy, hiring builders to get as many of your private buildings on the board as possible?
This second edition has all-new art, and some of the changes are functional as well as aesthetic. All boards now have two layers with spaces for tiles and discs to sit without sliding, a huge benefit for a board that gets very busy by the end of the game. Some tiles and cards have swapped dark backgrounds for light, which makes it easier to distinguish their icons. Some of the colors on the board are brighter and more appealing, although the private building tiles have more muted colors for no apparent benefit.
By far the best change in the art, however, is the elimination of the white men vs. Native American subtheme from the original. The hazards have gone from teepees to bandits (who are clearly white), and the workers you hire during the game have gone from all white men to a white man, a white woman, and a Black man. Representation matters, and even this tiny bit of visual diversity, combined with the elimination of the notion of Native Americans as the invisible enemy, is a welcome upgrade.
Mechanically speaking, the second edition introduces three major changes to the mechanics of the original version. It adds two new private buildings to each player’s set (so each player has 12 from which to choose); a solo mode; and a mini-expansion with cows that mature, rewarding you for holding them in your hand. There are also some smaller tweaks, notably that delivering to Kansas City gives you only $4 instead of $6 in the original (with the same 6-point penalty, so it’s a less appealing tradeoff to get some fast cash).
The private buildings grant a pair of actions to their builder anytime they land on those spaces, while other players may have to pay a fee to pass through those buildings. They’re all worth points at the end of the game — in the original, from one to 13 points. The two new buildings include a 20-point building that can only be built as an upgrade to an existing structure, and one that gets you coins based on how many engineers you have or how many discs you’ve placed on the board.
The solo mode is adapted from one developed by Steve Schlepphorst, an avid fan of the original GWT, and it functions more like a timer than a true opponent (or “automa,” as such solo opponents are sometimes called). The “dummy” player, Sam, has a deck of 15 movement/action cards that you’ll shuffle and cycle through between your own turns. Sam will move his train quickly around the track, take the most valuable hazard cards, remove workers from the job market, and occasionally grab a cow or two. He places a new disc on the next city on the line every time his herder reaches Kansas City. And he takes a lot of objective cards, all of which score as if completed at game-end. But he doesn’t get in your way very much, which is a mixed bag — it makes the solo mode more fun, but doesn’t replicate the multiplayer experience that well. Sam just keeps things moving so that you don’t get nearly infinite turns before the game ends, and gives you a score to beat. It strikes me as a great practice mode, but perhaps too fiddly to play often as a solo experience.
The mini-expansion introduces Simmental cow cards to the market. These cows come up for sale as calves, with value one, and if you have one in your hand when you reach Kansas City, you can replace it with a Simmental card of value two. The same applies with value two cards, upgrading them to value three, which is their peak. After that, it’s off to the slaughterhouse with you, Bessie. This is a fun little tweak to the game but it shouldn’t substantially change anyone’s strategy, not least because these cows represent a small fraction of the full deck.
One aspect of the second edition that hasn’t improved from the first is the rule book, which remains long, crowded, and difficult to navigate. The explanation of the objective card scoring is buried in the section on gaining those cards, not with the explanation of the endgame scoring, where it probably belongs. The new board doesn’t make the spaces on the railroad track clear — they’re numbered but not otherwise demarcated — which was also a problem with the first edition, and seems like it would have been an easy fix.
If you are at all interested in trying out a heavier game, or were turned off by some of the aesthetic choices in the original, this second edition of Great Western Trail is a much-improved version of what I consider the best game in its weight class, and a welcome return to the North American market. It gets rid of some of the poor art choices in the original without adversely affecting any of the strategic depth that made the original so great. Great Western Trail is a commitment — once you start rustling them cattle, it’s awful hard to stop — but this second edition should bring even more people to the table.
Great Western Trail Second Edition was reviewed with a retail copy of the game provided by Plan B Games and Asmodee. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.