The Last Spike
- Designer: Tom Dalgliesh
- Publisher: Columbia Games
- Players: 2-6
- Ages: 10+
- Players: 45 minutes
- Times Played: 3, with review copy provided by Columbia Games
Columbia Games is not one of the traditional Euro-game publishers, as they are better known for their wargames and block combat games. However, after talking to them at Origins this year, they appear to be starting a move towards starting a Eurogame line. Their most recent release is The Last Spike, a revision of the designer’s game of the same name from 1976.
In the new version, players cooperate to build a great western railway from St. Louis to Sacramento. The cities in the West are arrayed in a diamond shape, nine cities in total. There are twelve possible routes that connect those cities. Each of the routes has four spaces for track connecting them, and there is a set of 48 wooden tiles, each with a sticker on it corresponding to a particular track space on the board.
At the start of the game, each player gets a starting amount of money. A starting player is chosen and then each player draws a hand of 4 tiles from the supply. Each of the cities has a set of five cards, they are ordered in cost with lowest on top and highest on bottom. The cheapest card is in fact free.
Each player’s turn has 3 phases: 1) you MUST play a tile, 2) you may buy a land card, 3) draw a new tile.
Playing a tile
Each track tile has a location on it (a number/letter combination) as well as a cost. When you play a tile to the board in a normal fashion, you must pay the price listed on the tile. By normal fashion, that means that the piece of track is either directly adjacent to a city or directly adjacent to a previously placed track tile. If you cannot place adjacent to a city or tile, you must then pay double the cost listed on the tile.
Note that you must play a tile to the board. If you do not have enough money on hand, you are obligated to sell land cards back to the bank to raise enough funds to play your tile. If you still do not have enough money, you are bankrupt and eliminated from the game.
If you are the first player to play next to any of the nine cities, you immediately receive the free Land Grant card (the top card from the deck for that city).
Finally, you check to see if any payouts are due to players. If a full four tile route has been completed between two cities, all players who hold land cards for those cities will get payouts. The amount paid out is based on the number of cards that each player holds for the two connected cities – you can refer to the chart on the individual land cards to see how much you earn.
Buying a Land Card
Players may then optionally buy a single Land Card. The active player can buy cards from any city that has already had its free Land Grant card distributed. You choose the card that you want, pay the cost on the card to the bank and add it to the table in front of you. While your money can be kept secret, your land cards must always been openly displayed.
You are only allowed to buy one card a turn. If you received a Land Grant card, this counts as your buy for the turn even though it did not cost you any money.
Later in the game, it may be necessary for you to sell land cards back to the bank – you may need to raise money in order to play a tile. If you do so, you return the card to the supply and you collect half of the purchase price, rounded up to the nearest 1,000. This card is now available to be purchased by any player later in the game. (The bank will not buy back a card which has no further possible payouts – i.e. all track to that city is already complete – nor will it buy back a Free Land Grant card.)
Draw a tile
You draw a tile to bring your hand up to 4 tiles.
End of game
The game ends when someone plays the Final Spike – that is the tile which created a full connection from St. Louis to Sacramento. This player receives a 20,000 bonus from the bank. There is a regular payout for the two cities connected by this final completed link, and then the player with the most money in hand wins the game. If there is a tie, the player with the highest value of land cards breaks the tie.
My thoughts on the game
Last Spike is a fast moving game of stock speculation combined with some strategic tile laying. The board itself isn’t that big – only 48 total spaces – so the timing and placement of each tile is important. In the two games that I’ve played so far, nearly the entire board is filled with track as nobody wants to be the player that sets someone else up for the “final spike”. Thus, once the board is nearly filled, seemingly every final connecting route fills up. At some point, whether due to lack of choice or perhaps due to a desire to have a particular link finished, the game comes to a quick conclusion. Given the possibility of a high payout for shares, a player might be willing to give up the 20,000 bonus to his neighbor in order to guarantee that he can score profits for his shares.
The rules themselves are extremely simple, and most turns go by in a flash – by the time that the game has come back around the table, that is usually enough time for you to have figured out which tile you want to play on your next turn. Having to pay for the placement of the tiles can be a little tricky at the start of the game – you might be a bit cash poor until you get some stock payouts – and you may end up trying to play more of the cheap tiles to start out. If you are forced to sell your initial stock holdings back to allow you to play a tile (and stay in the game), this can severely hamper your chances of winning.
Luck seems to play a moderate to high role in the game – through the random selection of track tiles. While it should mostly come out in the wash, I have seen a player do extremely well only because he was able to get a bunch of free Land Grant shares due to his tile draws, and that made a huge difference. Also, if you end up drawing a bunch of the extremely expensive tiles, your expenses are now suddenly more than your opponents for no reason other than luck of the draw. As the entire line of 4 tiles needs to eventually be built, it’s not like any one of the tiles is more crucial to the completion of the line.
Other than that, the game is all about tactically playing tiles and buying shares at the right time – sometimes based on the tiles that you have, you can predict which links are going to pay off sooner – and then move in on those shares. The sooner you buy the shares, the less they cost – and therefore, the more potential profit you have.
Of course, unless you have all the connecting tiles though, it’s really hard to know for sure what will finish and what won’t. In the end, as most of the links will finish, the end result comes down to predicting which cities will have the majority of their connections made. Remember, all the unfinished links do not pay out, so you will get less return on shares of cities that do not fill up their routes.
The components are adequate, but not overly flashy. The game itself comes in a Container Store like box with an illustrated sleeve that wraps everything up. The track tiles are simple wooden squares, and the game comes with a sticker sheet that you transfer to the tiles yourself. The money are plain unmarked wooden discs – that we admittedly did not use and replaced with our own numerated poker chips. Everything is good and sturdy, and looks right at home with a block wargame (which Columbia does as their predominant style), but perhaps a bit lower in production quality than you would expect for a Eurogame.
Overall, it’s a good effort to start into the Eurogame genre. It feels like Acquire – another old school tile laying, stock speculating game – but it doesn’t have the same level of tension as Acquire. I think this is because there is a more pronounced luck effect in the game and reduced ability to make clever tactical plays with the tiles.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Greg S.: I want to like the game, which has somewhat of Acquire-like feel. However, there is SO much luck present, and the $20,000 bonus payout for making the final connection is absurdly high. No one wants to be the person to place the tile to set-up someone to make that final connection, but eventually there is no choice and someone is forced to do so. Ultimately, I found the game quite unsatisfying.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it.
- Neutral. Dale Y, Craig V
- Not for me…Greg S.