It’s the heist of the 19th century! You and your gang of infamous, cutthroat, dastardly, no good outlaws just hopped on a train filled with passengers – wealthy ones at that. There’s only one marshal and (up to) 6 of you, so those purses and jewels are yours for the taking. If you get lucky, you might even snag the lockbox filled with gold.
Of course, being criminals (and I don’t know what it is with Criminals) you’d rather have the cash money all to yourself. Why share it with these no-tellin’ bums? So draw your gun and get your wits about you, because the stealin’ and shootin’ is just warming up.
How It Plays
Colt Express is all about pulling off a train heist. Well, the heist is no problem, actually – it’s just a matter of robbing more cash from the passengers than any of the other players. All of this takes place on the beautifully crafted 3D train (some assembly required).
Players take on the role of bandits, each with their own special ability, and with a small deck of action cards. Everyone starts at the back of the train.
The first player reveals a round card, which tells everyone how many actions will be played in the round, how they’ll be played, and if there are any special rules in effect. Everyone then draws 6 cards from their deck.
When players play their action cards, they play their card to a central pool of cards. Most of the time, actions are played face up with each player playing one action in clockwise order, but the round card may have players play face down, play 2 cards at once, or play counter-clockwise. When all action cards have been played for the round, the first player takes the stack, flips it over, and then resolves all of the action cards in the order they were played.
Each action card is tied to a single specific action – you can move up/down or forward/backward, shoot, punch, steal, or move the Marshal. Moving on top of the train is faster than moving inside it (and you’re safe from the Marshal) but it’s easier to get shot from a distance – besides, all the money is down below. When you shoot you can shoot into an adjacent train car, unless you’re on top of the train in which case you can shoot as far as you can see (as long as no one else is in the way). If you manage to hit someone, you add one of your bullet cards to that player’s deck. At the start of a new round those decks get shuffled and a new hand is drawn, so bullet cards tend to clog up players hands with useless cards.
When you punch someone, they have to be right next to you, but you force them to drop one of their tokens, and you can move them to an adjacent car (quite the punch my friend!).
When you steal, you can pick up a token (either a purse, a jewel, or the lockbox) from your current position.
Finally, when you move the Marshal, he stays inside the train to protect the passengers, so he can only move forward or backward. If he moves into a car with a bandit, he adds a bullet to their deck and forces them to climb up to the top of the train.
Since each player has a limited number of each action card, and their decks will soon get clogged with bullet cards, they have the option to draw 3 cards on their turn instead of playing a card, hopefully increasing their options later in the round.
At the end of each round a special effect may apply – players might be moved around the train, or shot by the Marshal below them, or they might even get a little extra cash for being in the right place at the right time.
Then, players will shuffle all their cards back into their deck (including the fresh new bullet cards they’ve received from the Marshal and other players) and draw a new hand of 6 cards to start the next round. The first player shifts clockwise and a new Round card is revealed.
The game ends after 5 rounds. Players count up their cash and any bullets they have left over in their own gun. The player with the most cash wins (and the player with the fewest bullets left in their gun gets $1000 bonus cash).
Bound for Glory?
There’s a 3D train here, people. Three dimensions. They could’ve printed a train on a flat board and the game would “work” just as well, because technically speaking things only happen in 2 dimensions. But they didn’t, friends, they made it 3D.
Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system… let’s talk about the game. There is a game in here, right? It’s not just a fancy cardboard train assembly?
Well, yes, there is a game. Only it’s sort of an odd one. Not because the mechanics are peculiar or there’s a weird twist to the theme; no, this game is strange because it’s rather fun to play but the endgame scoring feels kinda like a big ol’ letdown.
The reason this game is fun is simply this: theme. What other game puts you in the role of train robbing bandits, then gives you an actual train to rob? You even get a supply of extra tokens – desert rocks and cacti and whatnot – that have no other gameplay purpose than to decorate the scene even further.
So you have this set that immediately draws you into the game world. The Wild West is already a fairly romantic theme (not in the sense of lovey dovey romance, but in the sense that it, y’know, captures our imaginations) that is familiar, so it’s a game that would be really easy to introduce to non-gaming family and friends.
Like the theme, the game itself is accessible; the game is not complex, nor does it take long to play, and the mechanics do a great job of capturing the theme. You have plenty of control over your actions – you choose which action cards to play at what time – but you don’t always know how the scene will unfold, since you have to play an entire round of actions without seeing the results. You have some idea, since most of the cards are placed face up, so you can try to extrapolate the actions and goals of other players. But there’s always the unknown – many decisions are made at the time a card resolves, such as how far to move or in which direction, and then you have the turns that cards are played facedown – so it’s very difficult even for an experienced player to control the board. The train, I mean.
You also have the limits of your action cards. You might find yourself with a stroke of luck and end up alone in a wealthy train car – but since you only have two of each action, you can’t just sit there and collect all the goods. In some sense that might get frustrating to gamers who want some serious strategy, but let’s be honest, it’s not that kind of game. It’s chaotic and silly and ridiculous, and often hilarious to watch the events unfold.
And that’s where the game’s strength really lies. Because you play a bunch of cards along with everyone else and then resolve all the actions, you get this sense of a scene unfolding. Rather than each turn broken up by playing a card and then figuring out how to resolve the action, everything just happens one action after another. It’s like watching a western train robbery film. Or, more likely, a train robbery gone wrong. Yes, these villains aren’t exactly cold, calculating masterminds. They’re bumbling bandits who’ve turned on each other in hopes to make the biggest score of their life, only to find their plans unravelling beneath their feet.
Once again, the train only adds to all this flavor. Despite the use of meeples instead of miniatures or even standees, there’s enough to capture your imagination. You can picture the fistfight unfolding on the top of the speeding train, or the bandit firing his gun to cover his back as he climbs down to the train car below. You can practically picture the emotion on a frustrated bandit’s face as they jump into a car to commit some stealin’ only to be headed off by the ever-present Marshal. The game has no flavor text (in fact, no text at all other than names and the rulebook) but it still captures this exciting western adventure.
The game’s “bullet” mechanism is a decent way to avoid player elimination. Getting shot does have a negative effect – it can kill your choice of actions in later rounds – but you can spend a turn drawing cards or just work with what little you have to do something. However…
However, this does lead to something troubling about this game.
As the game goes on, you’d expect the action to heighten into a frenzy as players struggle to get that last purse that might push them over the edge, or empty their gun into opponents for that bonus cash. Instead, because of the bullet cards clogging everyone’s deck, the game tapers off. Players aren’t struggling to get the edge; they’re struggling to accomplish anything at all. The final round is the most likely round for players to draw hands replete with useless bullet cards, meaning they’ll spend more of their limited actions drawing new cards. Even when they do, they rely entirely on luck to get a series of action cards that will be useful. If the Marshal is in the way, you might not be able to climb up, run across the train, climb down, and even have enough actions to snag some cash. Let alone dealing with the possibility that someone might punch you out along the way.
It’s just kind of a letdown. Instead of an exciting climax, you get this sorta awkward thing that’s just ready to be over. It goes out with a whimper.
Then you score, and you realize just how little cash you were able to accrue. Pretty much every game I played, the winner was the player who emptied their gun the most, and they won by a landslide. $1000 is just too much of a bonus for that. The other big swinger is the lockbox, which again adds $1000 into the mix, but it’s easier to shoot a bunch of people and collect a few extra bags of cash than it is to get – and hold onto – the briefcase. Still, it’s pretty difficult to target a specific player with a punch, so the player who gets the briefcase can usually avoid losing it. It’d be more fun if the briefcase changed hands frequently throughout the game, but that just doesn’t happen.
So what could make this better? I have a couple ideas, but I’m not the designer, so I don’t know how well these would work in practice.
What I’d like to see is either more ways to score points, or more control over your actions.
I’d like to see some alternative ways to get cash, so if you find yourself unable to get to the treasure or to punch the lockbox out of someone’s hands, that you can still aim to misbehave elsewhere. Things along the lines of “shoot more people than everyone else” that already exists in the game. Goal cards, maybe? Or, if you simply had a bit more control over your actions. The limitations do keep someone from controlling the board, but they can also get players stuck and unable to accomplish anything. It’s not as much fun if you get stuck behind the Marshal because you don’t have the right cards to get around him – and I’ve seen that happen.
One more idea – what if there were more powerful cards you could gain in some way that let you do a string of actions in a row, such as “move up to 3 cars inside the train and skip over the Marshal” or “steal a purse from an adjacent train car” or “draw 3 cards, then replace this card with any other card from your hand.” Then you could actually do stuff in the last round despite lots of bullets, and the last round would be a lot more exciting.
As you read this, keep in mind that as a reviewer, I play everything with a critical eye. I can’t help but analyze gameplay and mechanics and look for balance issues or flaws. As I said above, this game is pretty darn fun to play, and that’s probably enough for most gaming groups. I mean it only takes 30 minutes or so to play, and you’re probably going to be playing it pretty casually, anyways. You play for the story, for the action, and you’ll have a good time.
It’s just bizarre to me, as a reviewer, that the gameplay is oh so reliant on reacting to the immediate situation and playing what you can, but 4 out of 5 times that action will have very little to do with actually scoring points. The people who get the opportunities to score points will win. To be fair, there are variant rules included to make the game more strategic – basically, you cycle through your whole deck before you re-shuffle, rather than shuffle every card back in every round. This does add a little more control – you can plan ahead for the cards you know you have left in your deck – but it doesn’t really solve the problem of bullet clutter, or give you options when you didn’t get any of your movement cards.
Colt Express does make for a great casual or family game. It looks wonderful on the table, and the rules are easy enough to learn that kids could probably pick it up. There’s a lot of action but it’s pretty hard to target a specific player, so spite will be less of an issue – but, since bad things can stack up on a player, it can be a good teaching tool to graciously accept a loss, or to laugh at one’s own misfortune. There is one caveat; some players might not appreciate the way the female characters are depicted. It’s an odd choice of art direction for an otherwise cartoon-like and family friendly game that seems targeted towards younger players. I mean c’mon, there’s a train. What kid doesn’t like trains? But I’d feel awkward putting the art in front of my 8-year-old nephew, and my wife wasn’t exactly comfortable staring at it either.
So there you have it. Colt Express is a very enjoyable game to play, and it certainly captures the theme of an adventurous train robbery complete with gunplay and fisticuffs. You’ll have a blast and a good laugh as you watch the action unfold on the – I’ll say it again – 3D train that makes up the game board. But the actual scoring feels like it only exists because how else would you call this a board game, and the system could have used some tweaks to really make this game special. At least it’s a decent casual game that will attract kids and non-gamers thanks to that 3D train and the simple mechanics make it accessible to a large number of players.