Great Western Trail is one of my top 5 games, after Scythe and Terraforming Mars, before Powergrid and Arkham Horror the Card Game. I can’t really put my finger on why I love it so much except that it’s the perfect combination of simple mechanisms stuck together to provide a suitably crunchy game. Aside from aspects of the first edition which deal with the destruction of Native American settlements, the theme is great. The symbology, once it’s been explained, is pretty easy to understand. Add in the expansion Rails to the North and you get a more complexity but more options. One of the things I do love about GWT is that there are a number of different strategies and, played well, any can be a winner.
Why New Zealand?
I never bought myself GWT because my best friend already owned it. But when a few years ago they announced a trilogy of new games – the second edition of GWT, GWT Argentina and GWT New Zealand – I saw this as an opportunity to buy into the franchise myself (and finally try it solo). Given I live in the land of sheep (Wales, not New Zealand), GWT NZ was the obvious choice for me (Argentina like GWT is about getting cattle to market, New Zealand about sheep). This means I had the longest time to wait, so was the wait worth it?
Before I begin talking about GWT NZ I want to clarify that out of the new trilogy I’ve only played 2nd edition online (it removes the troublesome theme issues and makes a few minor changes to the game) and I’ve not had the chance to play Argentina. So any thoughts or comparisons are really only against the original game with the expansion. From what little I’ve heard of Argentina though, I think I made the better choice.
It’s hard to talk about the game without referring back to GWT – so sometimes I may make assumptions that you understand the original game.
GWT NZ takes the original GWT and Rails to the North and as well as a retheme around sheep adds more complexity. At it’s heart GWT is a simple deck builder – the deck being the cows you are trying to get to market. With New Zealand as well as the cows being sheep you have new deck building cards that give you more stuff. And let’s face it, more stuff are good. Some of these new cards are the same every game and the other four are picked at random from a base of ten. Most of these additional cards can be used and replaced on your turn (usually you draw up at the end of your turn, but with these cards you replace them immediately), but some are additional sheep or end-game scoring objectives (which as per usual GWT rules, if you play and don’t succeed lose you points, but if you keep them in your deck they can clog up your hand). These cards can only be picked up by doing something that activates the symbol, so you can’t just buy them with money.
In normal GWT, the cows have a pedigree value at the top of the card and for those cards that aren’t in your base deck, a points value – which is higher with higher pedigree cards. The pedigree value tells you how much your cows are worth when you reach Kansas. In New Zealand the pedigree value is used in Wellington just as in Kansas. But being sheep, they aren’t just useful for selling at market but also for sheering, so the sheep have a wool value too. You can use sheep for wool at special buildings enroute to Wellington, discarding the sheep and earning money for their wool value. Like with normal deliveries, you can also use this to remove a disc from your playerboard (which improves your playerboard), depending on how much the wool value is. This basically gives you more opportunities to earn money and cycle through your hand, but depending on where the shearing building is (buildings are randomly ordered each game) could mean that you then end up with a rubbish hand for Wellington. But this dual use for sheep make the deck building aspects of the game all the more interesting. Do you buy sheep with high points value, high pedigree value or high wool value? Shearing sheep has been a game winning strategy for two of the three games I’ve played.
Another major difference with GWT NZ to original GWT is it combines the usual train track and the rails to the north expansion together, with a boat travelling to various islands (I believe there were also boats in Argentina but I could be wrong). Moving your boat around the islands can give you access to more profitable locations for deliveries (of both pedigree sheep when at Wellington or wool when shearing enroute). But also gives you access to other locations which can give you more opportunities for points, gaining deck building cards, or removing discs from your player board. It’s easy to forget to sail around the board, but the extra points you can gain from doing so are well worth it.
The labour market
The final major difference is the labour market. In GWT, after you’ve been through Kansas, you have to choose between a selection of tiles to add to the board: these might be potential workers (who get added to the labour market, which ultimately track how many turns there are in the game), hazards (which slow down progress round the board and cost money to pass), or teepees/bandits (depending on game edition) which can be collected for money.
When you arrive in Wellington in New Zealand you have two types of tiles to place out – an A tile and a B tile. The A tiles are hazards and people, just like in GWT. Although the people aren’t used to track the game end but instead get added to a labour market which, like real labour markets, mean that it costs less to get workers of a type that are in great supply, but less for those that are few and far between. The B tiles are used to track the turns, and these are usually special one off benefits. I really like this change in the labour market as it just makes sense thematically. The B tiles are abstract but a really useful way of getting deck building cards and other benefits.
Other changes include the Pathfinder trail, which feels a little tacked on, but can give a useful number of points; and gold, which can be used to buy certain cards and “wild women” as we call them (B worker tiles which are used as wildcard workers). There are plenty more minor differences which I won’t go into detail about here as this post is already long enough.
GWT NZ expands on the ideas of GWT to make a more involved game (on top of an already fairly heavy game). All the ideas from GWT are pretty much taken and expanded into something new. I absolutely love the game and the changes it makes – both minor and major. While it’s tempting to play NZ as you would the original, you need to adapt to the new changes to be able to excel at the game.
However, it doesn’t replace GWT as a game. If I owned both it wouldn’t for a second replace the original on the shelf. GWT is a much more compact game in terms of gameplay (in terms of length, I don’t think there would be all that much difference if everyone were familiar with the game). This isn’t a game where if someone says “let’s play GWT” I’ll say “nah, I’d prefer to play NZ instead”. I would happily play both back to back because both will scratch different itches.
I would say, though, that GWT NZ may well be a Rails to the North killer. I’ve played GWT with the expansion with people who just ignore the expansion bit because it is effectively tacked on. They may well do worse than players who pay attention to the expansion, but they’ll still be able to play the game perfectly well (I love the expansion and it used to pain me to play without). But because NZ takes the aspects of Rails to the North and integrates them far better, I don’t see a reason to play GWT with the expansion again. If I want vanilla GWT then I’ll play the base game. If I want something more then I’d rather play NZ.
I’m not sure if NZ will replace GWT in my top 5 – I think rather I’ll judge the two as a single unit. It’s certainly just as worthy of that number 3 spot as the original. But I’ll always love GWT.