SdJ Re-Reviews #37: Colt Express

  • Designer: Christophe Raimbault
  • Publisher:  Ludonaute, Asmodee, Others
  • Players:  2 – 6
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  30-40 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 5 (Plus more on iOS…)


Series Note: Two years ago, we began publishing re-reviews of the 36 games that had won the Spiel des Jahres.  The series introduction, which is now a bit dated, can be found here.  Since I started the project, two more games — Colt Express in 2015 and Codenames in 2016 — have won the award.  This article is my update to the series.  

Bandits Aboard the Colt Express: The Spiel des Jahres heads to the Wild, Wild West….

Colt Express designer Christophe Raimbault met Cedric Lefebvre, co-founder of publisher Ludonaute, at a French game convention in 2009, and the two became friends.  They attempted to design a few games together by Skype, but they were never excited about the prototypes.

Then, in 2013, Raimbault met again with Lefebvre and his wife and Ludonaute partner, Anne-Cécile Lefebvre.  Raimbault discussed a game idea he had with his brother called “West Pirates.”  As Anne-Cécile later wrote in a publisher diary, “We were really excited from the first test of the game: It already looked like a western movie!”

But there was development work to be done, and the Colt Express we play today is quite different from the original prototype.  In the first draft, cards were played into the center of the table as fast as possible, which Anne-Cécile said made the game chaotic.  When they tried the turn-based version, they were impressed by how much it improved the game.  

At first, the game had several more options — disconnecting carriages, jumping, etc. — and the train cars were represented by cards on the table.  But they began streamlining the game, focusing on its core mechanics.  

After Raimbault and Ludonaute met at a game convention in November 2013, they signed a contract to officially publish “West Pirates.”  They hired the illustrator,  Jordi Valbuena, in December 2013, appreciating his cartoon style, which the publisher described as “colored but not childish.”  They asked him to create the characters, some of which were based loosely on movie characters, such as Jodie Foster in Maverick and Christopher Waltz in Django Unchained.  

In January 2014, the designer and publisher met in Paris to simplify the game, and shortly thereafter, they decided to go with the name Colt Express.  

Then, in February 2014, another breakthrough happened: the publishers played the game with Bruno Cathala and Antoine Bauza.  They suggested that rather than focus on miniatures for the characters — which had, to that point, been a possibility — that the publisher should focus on making the 3D train.  After trying several prototypes, the decision was made in March 2014 to go with a 3D train instead of character miniatures.

The train posed logistical problems, but those were eventually overcome.  A first print run of 15,000 copies was ordered worldwide, and the game made its debut at Spiel 2014.  The game immediately garnered Spiel des Jahres buzz.

Colt Express was nominated for the award in May 2015, alongside Machi Koro and The Game.  In giving Colt Express the award, the jury praised the excellent theme, the production value, and the streamlined rules.  I asked Raimbault if he was surprised by the SdJ win, and he said he was in fact surprised by the nomination: “I knew that the ‘Spiel des Jahres’ wanted to be more and more international oriented. However, I think Colt Express is more from the ‘American school’ than the German one. I mean it’s a really immersive game focused on storytelling and chaotic interactions. So I was really surprised, in a good way, that this jury could really see in this game a good family game no matter the type of mechanism.”  He added: “The unconditional love of German people for trains could as well be part of the explanation.”  

Colt Express received a couple of expansions — Horses & Stagecoach and Marshal & Prisoners — since then.  Raimbault described Marshal & Prisoners as requiring significant development work.  (The link above is to a designer diary on the subject.)

Colt Express recently received an iOS adaptation.  And events have started springing up celebrating the game, including a Dutch National Championship.  Colt Express has gone on to become a bestselling game, and it has won several other major game awards.  

[Author’s Note: A big thanks to Christophe Raimbault for answering my questions.  Additionally, this article is based in part on a publisher diary available at BGG, an article I highly recommend.]


The Gameplay

Note: This section is based in part on Dale Yu’s original review of the game.  

Players in Colt Express are bandits aboard a train in the old west.  These thieves are trying to steal treasure, but they need to be careful: there’s a marshal on board, and other players might try to steal their treasure.  Whoever escapes with the most valuable treasure at the end of five rounds wins.  

The game is centered around a 3D train.  Each train car starts with a predetermined amount of loot.  Treasure bags are variable, gems are worth $500, and the strongbox — which always starts in the Locomotive — is worth $1,000.  The marshal also starts in the locomotive.

To start, a deck of round cards is drawn.  These cards will determine the number and types of actions each round as well as any special scoring.

Each player chooses which bandit he wants to be — each of them has a special ability — and takes the appropriate player mat.  Then, everyone is given two decks of cards.  On the left of their mat, they get 6 Bullet cards: these represent your gun.  Each player also gets an identical deck of 10 Action cards.  They are placed on the right of the player mat.

The game is played over 5 rounds – there are 2 phases in each round: Schemin’ and Stealin’.  At the start of the round, the first thing to do is to flip over the top card of the Round deck.  This card will tell you how many turns will happen in this round and whether or not there are any special events.  Additionally, each player deals themselves a hand of 6 cards from their Action deck.

In the Schemin’ phase, players take turns in clockwise order.  You can either play cards from their hand into an Action stack in the center of the table (generally face up) OR you can choose to draw three cards from your Action Deck.  Depending on the round, however, some of the round cards may direct you to play specific cards face down, play two cards together at a time, or even change to order of play from clockwise to counter-clockwise.   The number of actions done in the phase is equal to the number of turns specified on the particular round card exposed at the start of the round.

Then you move to the Stealin’ phase – where you take the actions on the cards played earlier.  The start player of the round takes the Action stack and flips it over.  Thus, the card played first in the round is now on the top of the deck.  Then, one by one, the cards are revealed and the action on the card is performed by the owner of the particular card.  The actions are obligatory: if you are able to perform the action on the card, you must do so.

  • Floor Change: Move from the interior of the train to the Roof or vice versa.
  • Move: Move your Bandit one car (if he is inside the train) or up to 3 cars (if he is on the Roof).
  • Fire: Shoot your gun! You can shoot a Bandit in an adjacent car (but not in your own car) if you are inside.  If you are on the roof, you can shoot anyone in the first car in your line of sight in either direction.  You choose your target in the appropriate car.  Give one of your bullet cards to the target.  Your target must add that card to his Action deck, gumming up his ability to use good cards.  
  • Marshal:  Move the Marshal one car in either direction. If there are any Bandits in the destination car, they all escape to the roof of that car and they each must take a Neutral bullet card and add it to their Action deck.
  • Robbery:  You can take a piece of loot from your current location.
  • Punch: If you’re in the same space as another Bandit, you can punch them and steal a loot token from them.  The punched, the Bandit must then move to the same floor of an adjacent car.

At the end of the round, each player takes all of his cards — the 10 Action cards that he started with plus any bullet cards he has accumulated — shuffles them and then deals himself a hand of 6 cards for the next round.  The next round starts by revealing the new Round card and play continues.

At the end of the fifth round, the game ends.  There is a single end-game bonus of $1000 paid out to the player who has shot the most bullets.  If there is a tie, all tied players get $1000.  Then, you add up the collected loot tokens and see who has the most money, and that player is the winner!

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

Colt Express is a fun game, worthy of the 2015 Spiel des Jahres title, and my family and I have enjoyed our half dozen-or-so plays.  The game is brimming with theme, is generally fast-paced and action-packed, and provides laugh-out-loud fun.  The 3D train gives the game an eye-popping appeal.

I generally dislike programming games — for example, Robo Rally and Mechs versus Minions both fell completely flat with me — but I enjoy Colt Express.  The decision to have at least some of the cards played face-up in turn order adds strategy to the game and prevents the chaotic feeling that plagues programming games.  This can itself feel chaotic, but much less so than other programming games, and that’s why I think it excels in the genre.    

Working the bullets into a deck-building (or deck-depleting?) mechanic was a nice touch.  I also like the asymmetric abilities that the players have, which makes for a “we need to play this again!” feeling.  You can tell that the publisher and designer put a lot of thought into Colt Express’s development: every element works well together.  

And the game is very approachable:  I can teach it in about 5 minutes.The symbology is intuitive, and most players grasp the game with ease.  Our plays last about half an hour, although I have had a couple go longer.  

I’ve seen Colt Express succeed with a variety of different crowds.  That said, the game is light and isn’t particularly deep, so I can see why strategy gamers wouldn’t necessarily be a fan of Colt Express.  But for what it is, this is an excellent, well-developed game.  It succeeds or fails based on who it is played with: Colt Express is much more fun with western accents and a bit of smack talk around the table.

I also enthusiastically recommend the iOS version, which has a decent AI and has animations that really bring the game to life.

Would Colt Express win the SdJ again today?  Like any recent nominee, I think it’d have a good shot: the jury hasn’t changed much in the past few months. The game hits all of the right SdJ notes: family-friendly and approachable gameplay, high-quality presentation, and clearly-written rules.  Plus, this is one of the more original entries into the programming game genre.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (1 play): While I have no problem with the depth of Colt Express – I regularly play and enjoy even lighter games – and I can appreciate Colt Express for what it does, I didn’t enjoy my one play of the game enough to have sought out a second.  The challenge with programmed movement games is typically control – offering enough control to players to avoid frustration, while still allowing enough chaos to appease those who enjoy those aspects of such games.  And for me, Colt Express left me too often in no-win situations, to the point I was grateful when the game finally ended.  Overall, I’ve much preferred most other recent Spiel des Jahres winners to Colt Express.

Tery Noseworthy (4 plays): This is one of those games that I play as more of a social experience than a game. I generally like programming games,  but there are so many random elements that can affect your choices that there isn’t much strategy here.  I’ve had fun at the beginning of every game I’ve played of it, but by halfway through I am ready for it to be over.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  
  • I like it. Chris W.
  • Neutral. Craig V, Tery N
  • Not for me…  Joe H.


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