ROLL FOR DAMAGE
ED FORTUNE GUIDES YOU through THE REALM OF TABLETOP GAMING
The railways are a great source of inspiration for board game geeks. Not only do they have a romantic and historical image, they also tend to come with their own maps and layouts, all of which make for great source material for games designers.
So it may come as no surprise that here at the Secret STARBURST Thunderdome we play a lot of traininspired games. Our current addiction is Colt Express, which won the Spiel des Jahres quite recently. (Basically, the SdJ is an Oscar for board games. It’s a German prize, because Germans love their board games almost as much as Americans love their blockbuster movies.)
Colt Express is a train game that draws inspiration from the Wild West. You know that scene in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade in which young Indie is running from carriage to carriage, fighting bad guys? It’s basically that, but you’re all bad guys. As a set-up for a game this is nothing new; James Ernest did something similar back in 2001 with his zombietastic game The Great Brain Robbery. However, whereas James’ game was designed with a tight budget in mind and focused on shambling monsters and silliness, Colt Express is all about the action. The aim of the game is to get as much loot out of the train as possible. You’re all meant to be train robbers who have inconveniently picked the same train to rob. Wackiness ensues.
The actual game board itself is a huge amount of fun. It’s a model train! You have to clip the pieces together yourself, but only once. The box is designed so you can store the assembled pieces safely and they totally encourage you to get into the spirit of the thing. It comes with cacti and other desert decoration as well; these do nothing in the game but they add to the fun. The game cards have a nicely cartoon-like ‘wild west’ theme to them and the whole thing makes it very tempting to utter a ‘yee-haw’ before you even start.
Players place their little ‘meeples’ inside the back of the train and the game begins. Actions are driven by the cards you have in your hand; you pick up loot, shoot other robbers, climb onto the roof, and so on. The actions are programmed; everyone picks their actions and then we all go together. That means your plans to steal all the loot may not always go to plan. Each round is determined by an ‘event’ card that tells you how many actions the round has. It also adds wrinkles such as the train braking suddenly or going under a bridge. These have mechanical effects such as everyone getting shunted forward or certain actions being played face down, because it’s dark. Each player also has a special ability that makes them even more unpredictable. These are little rules twiddles that can really change the outcome of each turn.
Of course, you may want to simply shoot or punch your opponents in order to get all the loot to yourself. This is not a combat game though; all that does is either move the enemy to another room or simply add a wound card to their hand. These slow you down; they take up a slot in your hand of action cards and represent you staggering around as you nurse your injuries. The fact that you can’t actually die does mean this works quite well with kids. Even if everyone decides to gang up on the youngest player (you monsters!), that player can still play and have fun.
It’s not just the bullets of your fellow criminals you have to watch out for; there’s a sheriff on board. This keeper of justice starts the game at the front of the train, where some of the best loot happens to be. Each player can move the sheriff as an action, but as a rule it’s a bad idea. The Sheriff will shoot anyone he can and can knock you on to the roof, where there’s no loot.
Compared to other games that use programmed actions, such as RoboRally or 404: Law Not Found, this is more thematic and much more cartoon-like. It’s in serious danger of knocking another Spiel des Jahres winner from the top spot in the Secret STARBURST Thunderdome.
I am of course, talking about Ticket to Ride. It’s a very different game to Colt Express. It’s all about trying to block your opponents from expanding their railway whilst garnishing your own. It’s pretty much about collecting the right cards and placing the pieces in the most optimal place. I’ve gone on about it at length in the past and mention it now because it makes for an interesting contrast. They also work quite well together with Colt Express being a fun game to start a gaming sessions and Ticket to Ride being a nice one to end with.
It would be massively lax of me to talk about train games without talking about Martin Wallace. He’s one of the world’s top games designers and blimey does he love trains! His credits include Steam, Age of Steam, Railways of the World, and Last Train to Wensleydale.
If, however, you don’t fancy those, there’s always the Ivor the Engine board game...
And finally, I’d like to break the theme of this month’s column to talk to you about penguins. I recently got my hands on Don’t Rock the Boat from University Games. It’s an absurdly simple game aimed at families. In the box is a great big plastic boat, which looks like a pirate ship. It also comes with many chunky plastic penguins. You may wonder why penguins need a boat? Well you see, they are pirate penguins. We can tell this because they all have eye-patches and tiny cutlasses. The ship (which is mostly brown and bronze) balances on a robust looking funnel, which you can imagine is the sea if you squint a bit. The aim of the game is simple; put the full queue of penguins onto the ship without it tipping over. It’s a balancing game and an absurdly silly one. It’s also totally amazing for getting kids into gaming. Maybe it’s the penguins’ piratical nature or the fact that it makes a great mess. I don’t know, but blimey is it fun! Now, if I could only get these penguins to raid a train…