Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 14 August 2015

Rootin', Tootin', Shootin', Stealin' Fun!

The winner this year of the Spiel des Jahres is Colt Express published by Ludonaute. It was up against Machi Koro and The Game and has proved to be a surprising winner given that the themes and actions of Colt Express are not necessarily as family friendly as those of other Spiel des Jahres winning games. This is because Colt Express involves robbing a train and punching and shooting each other… Even so, Colt Express is nothing but fun!

Colt Express is a’ Wild West’, programmed Action game in which several rival bandits—Belle, Cheyenne, Django, Doc, Ghost, and Tuco who will do their utmost to outwit, outshoot, out brawl, and out steal each other! It comes with a very striking play area—a three-dimensional cardboard train that the players will move their bandits along, up onto the roof and down again, all the whilst their bandits apprehend loot, and punch and shoot at each other. This is played out over five rounds, each ending with a random event, the winner being the bandit to leave the train with the most loot.

Before the game begins, the full-colour train requires some assembly. Whilst relatively easy, some care needs to be taken less the cardboard is bent or torn. Once assembled, there is just about sufficient space in the box for the train to remain assembled.

During the game, each player controls a single bandit. Each Bandit possesses a special ability. For example, Belle cannot be targeted by a Fire or Punch action if another Bandit can be targeted instead, Cheyenne can steal a purse from another Bandit after carrying out a Punch action, and Tuco can shoot through the carriage roof at another bandit (either in carriage below or on the roof above). Each Bandit also has a corresponding set of ten Action cards and six Bullet cards. Each Action card allows a Bandit to do one thing: Move (from one carriage to the next or all the way along the roof), Floor Change (climb up to or down from the roof), Fire (at a Bandit in an adjacent carriage or next in line of sight on the roof), Punch (a Bandit in or on the same carriage), Robbery (of any loot available in the carriage), or Marshal (move the Marshal to an adjacent carriage). Some Actions have consequences: the victim of a Fire action receives a Bullet card to add to his hand; the victim of a Punch action must drop a loot token; and if the Marshal moves into the same carriage as a Bandit, not only is the Bandit forced to flee to the carriage roof, he gets shot by the Marshal too!

At game’s start, all of the carriages are seeded with Loot tokens (of a random value) and both the Marshal and the Strongbox are placed in the Locomotive. Four Round cards and one Station card—the latter being for the last round—are chosen randomly. Each Round or Station card shows how many turns it has, how many are played in tunnels, and any special events. Lastly, each player shuffles his Bandit’s deck of Action cards and draws six and puts aboard the rear of the train.

Each Round consists of two phases. Once the new Round card is revealed, the ‘Schemin’! phase’ begins, each player taking it in turn to play an Action card onto a pile that forms the Action Deck. These are played openly so each Bandit can see what the other is doing, or face down and hidden if the Round card indicates that the Action cards are to be played in a tunnel. Once the ‘Schemin’! phase’ is over, the ‘Stealin’! phase’ begins. This involves revealing the cards in the Action Deck as played and their associated Bandit carrying their actions if possible. If a Robbery card is revealed and there is no loot in the Bandit’s location, then he cannot pick up any loot. Similarly, if a Punch card is revealed and there is no other Bandit to punch, then no brawling occurs. That said, if an action is possible and a player has choice of how his Bandit carries it out, he can choose how he does it. So if a Punch card is revealed and there are two or more other Bandits in the same location, the brawling Bandit chooses the target; if there is more than one item of loot in a location when a Robbery action is revealed, the Bandit’s player chooses which to take; and so on. At the end of each Round an Event takes place. These include ‘Braking’, when the train slows and forces every Bandit on the roof to move forward one carriage, and ‘Passengers’ Rebellion’, when the passengers shoot any Bandit in a carriage.

Once a Round ends, the players collect up all of their Action cards—played and unplayed—including any Bullet cards from having been shot by rival Bandits or the Marshal and draw new hands of six cards. This can leave a player with more Bullet than Action cards. Bullet cards slow a Bandit down and mean that he cannot act. Should he lacks Action cards, a player can draw three new cards instead of playing one during the ‘Schemin’! phase’.

Colt Express is a game of planning and consequences. During the ‘Schemin’! phase’ players try to work out the best actions to get the most loot, stop their rivals from doing so, or simply shooting their rivals. In the ‘Stealin’! phase’, these Actions will play out as intended, but often do not often survive contact with their rivals. Great when a plan comes together, but funny, if not frustrating when plans are unwittingly thwarted. Plans can be adapted to rival’s actions as most Action cards are played face up, but deduction is required when Action cards are played face down in tunnels.

A game typically begins with a grab for as much loot as possible from the rearward carriages followed by a frantic scramble to grab the Strongbox or stop another Bandit from doing so. All played out to a flurry of punches (to force loot to be dropped) and bullets (to gain the $1000 bonus for the most bullets fired). At game’s end, the Bandit with the most money wins, probably including the $1000 bonus.

Light and accessible enough for casual play, Colt Express’ quick-playing time offsets its frustrating aspects of plans going awry. The game’s ‘Schemin’! phase’ is its heart, forcing players to plan and think about their proposed actions, the mix of openly played Actions and hidden played Actions—the latter played in tunnels, both aiding and thwarting everyone’s planning efforts. Above all, Colt Express combines great theme and great visual appeal with simple fun.

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