Design by Scott Caputo
Published by Bezier Games
2 – 5 Players, 1 ½ – 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Really? Does the boardgaming world really need another train game? The market is saturated with hundreds, if not thousands of train-themed games, and dozens more seem to be released each year. I like trains just as much as the average guy, but don’t we already have enough games centered on the iron horse?
Normally, my answer to this query would be a resounding “yes!” However, I continue to be surprised –and sometimes delighted—by the clever and original twists that designers can conceive to make a new train game feel novel and unique. In the past year alone there have been several train-themed games that I have thoroughly enjoyed that were not a simple rehashing of old ideas. Among these is Scott Caputo’s Whistle Stop.
Published by Bezier Games, Whistle Stop has some familiar train game aspects—tile laying, resources, stocks—but is actually a bit of a race game as opposed to a traditional track building affair. Sure, track is built, resources are collected and stock is purchased, but the true spoils come to those who reach the west coast.
The map is constructed as the game progresses by playing hexagon-shaped tiles, each depicting various, often twisting and turning track segments. Some depict towns or special facilities (trading posts, coal yards, whistle factories, etc.) where players can acquire stocks, coal or whistles; make trades; etc. A main goal is to connect track to the west coast, where resources can be traded for big payoffs in fame points. Points are also earned for stock acquisitions and majorities, upgrades, gold and resources.
Players begin with 3 – 5 trains along the eastern edge of the map. Three columns of tiles—east, middle and west—are set in place, with the middle row consisting primarily of the special location tiles described above, and the western column being tiles that award bonuses for surrendering resources or possessing stocks. Players begin with a few coal and whistle markers (which are used for movement), three tiles, and a small player board where they track their actions, store their resources, and place their upgrades.
Players have four movement actions per turn, moving their trains from point-to-point (called “stops” in game parlance) by using coal or whistle tokens. New coal is earned each turn, but it is wise to seek tiles that give the player more, thereby giving one more movement options. When moving, a player must usually move forward or laterally one stop, but playing a whistle allows the player to move up to two spaces, as well as move backwards, if desired. Normally an opponent’s train blocks movement, but a whistle allows the player to leap that train and not count the space it occupies. Naturally, obtaining whistle tokens is a desirable goal.
When a player moves a train, he acquires any resource depicted on the stop. Resources are either common (gravel, cotton, lumber) or rare (whiskey, cattle, steel). These resources can be used to purchase stock, upgrades or fame points. The rare resources can usually be parlayed into more valuable items or points, but of course are scarcer. A player may only possess ten resources at a time, which prevents hoarding.
If a player’s movement will take him onto or through an empty space (no tile present), the player must place a tile(s), which is how the map fills-in. Ideally, the player will play a tile that will allow him to move to desired locations or take advantage of special tiles that award him valuable resources, stocks or options. The special tiles can be particularly valuable, but a player must play them before the game ends lest he lose ten points for each one still in his hand.
There are five companies offering stock, and these are acquired at the corresponding town tiles by surrendering the depicted resources. For example, to acquire a St. Louis Express stock, the player must move a train to this tile and surrender steel and whiskey resources. The player takes the top stock certificate (they are ranked in case of a tie) and immediately earns the indicated number of victory points (10 in this example). More points can be earned at game’s end, however, if the player possesses the majority of stocks in a company. Each such majority earns the player 15 points, which can be quite significant.
Another source of victory points is the Gold Mine. When a player moves a train to this location, he takes a gold token from the supply. These have values ranging from 3 – 5, so there is a bit or randomness here. Manipulating one’s path so that he can continue to move trains to the Gold Mine can yield a substantial amount of points.
Resources can also be used to purchase upgrades. This can be done at any time during a player’s turn and does not require movement to a specific tile. Rather, there are a number of upgrades available (two more than the number of players), each offering a special ability or power. The player pays the depicted resources and places the tile by his board. He may then use the indicated power each turn as applicable. For example, the Mine Cart allows the payer to trade one coal for a gold token each turn, while the Caboose allows the player to spend a coal and take the action of a tile where his train is currently located (normally movement is required). A player may possess a maximum of three upgrades, but does not necessarily control them for the entire game. An opponent can confiscate an upgrade from an opponent by once again paying the initial cost, plus an additional rare resource that is paid directly to the player currently possessing the upgrade. Thus, a particularly valuable upgrade can switch hands several times during the course of the game.
When a player moves a train to one of the tiles on the western edge of the board, he can receive the bonuses indicated by surrendering the depicted resources. These points can be huge. For example, one tile awards the player 20 fame points by surrendering one each of cattle, cotton and whiskey. A few other bonus tiles award the player points based on the number of stock certificates they possess, but then the player must discard one certificate. This is usually a stock wherein the player is not contesting for the majority.
Getting to the western edge has another advantage: the player moves that train from the map and places it on one of the 15 bonus spaces and earns the rewards indicated (coal, whistles and/or resources). When one player moves all of his trains to these spaces, the game ends at the conclusion of the current round. The game will also conclude after a specified number of rounds, which varies based upon the number of players.
As mentioned, a player has four actions (movement spaces) per turn. The way the board develops and the options presented gives a player a wide variety of choices and can also allow for great creativity. Unfortunately, this also can cause a brain overload for some players, as they ponder and consider the many options before them. This can cause the game to drag, which has been a common complaint from some with whom I have played. I understand this, but for me, the options and opportunity for creative and clever play outweigh the downtime required.
As described above, the game ends in one of two manners, and the ending can come suddenly, particularly by having one player move all of his trains to the western edge of the board. This can certainly upset one’s long-range plans, so it warrants being vigilant. If one dilly-dallies too much and forgets that there are copious amounts of points to be earned by racing west, he will likely find his plans short-circuited and end far behind the player(s) who rushed west.
In addition to the points earned during the game, final points are earned from stock majorities, gold tokens, upgrades and remaining resources, coal and whistles. Don’t forget the penalties for remaining special tiles in players’ hands.
The main knock against Whistle Stop is the “analysis paralysis” issue that I addressed above, which can result in the game taking 2+ hours to play. While this is a valid complaint, I find the game’s assets to be so strong as to outweigh this issue. I always enjoy a game that allows the player to be creative and formulate a sequence of actions that give one a satisfied feeling that he has accomplished something worthwhile and clever. Whistle Stop provides those opportunities in abundance, yet it is easy to teach and learn. While it may overwhelm some with the sheer number of choices, to those who appreciate the challenges and opportunities provided, Whistle Stop is a trek well worth taking over and over again.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Dale Y: Admittedly, I have only played once – so take all this with a grain of salt – but my first game did suffer from the AP issue. To be fair, it was the first game for all of us and we were playing a 5P game – and both of those clearly would lead to a longer game time as everyone was grasping with the rules and strategies. So, in that regard, the game was not suited for me. However, I can see the good parts of the game. I liked the building of track and the constant pull between trying to move the train versus buying upgrades, etc. But, it’s definitely a lot to take in. I have not yet had a chance to play it three player, and I think that I will like the pace and overall length better (though it remains to be seen how a smaller player count will affect the crowdedness of the board). Many of the other gamers I have talked to are very positive about the game, so I do want to try it again, and I suspect that with better game experiences, my rating will rise.
Larry: I’ve played this as both a prototype and with the published version and enjoyed all my games. The best thing about it is its different feel, which is quite an accomplishment for a train game. There’s a nice mix of mechanisms, all of them familiar to train game fans, but combined in a unique way. The different tiles you draw ensure there’s a lot of variety. This can also represent a luck factor, but there’s almost always something useful you can do on your turn. The game is thinky without being overwhelming; I haven’t seen anything resembling AP in my games, although I can see where it might be a problem. I would think that having one game under one’s belt would solve this issue for all but the most ponderous of players. Overall, I can recommend Whistle Stop for both seasoned train gamers and fans of meaty games alike.
Dan Blum: I like it but I agree that there is a lot going on – possibly too much. AP hasn’t been a problem in the games I’ve played but I think that’s because everyone has been going with a “do something that seems reasonable” approach (I have, at least). It ends up feeling a bit messy.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it): Greg S., Larry, Dan Blum
2 (Neutral): Dale Y, James Nathan
1 (Not for me):