Well howdy there pard’ner! Glad to see you made it safely here. The train’s jus’ about to leave the station, and ah reckon you’d best get a wiggle on if’n you want to be on board. What’s that, now? Bandits? Well, I can’t recollect ever havin’ any bandit trouble on the ol’ Colt Express. We don’t look kindly on such lawlessness around here. In any case the Marshal will be makin’ this here trip with you. Ah don’t think you’ve got anything to fear. Don’t mind the scuttlebutt – everything around here is right as a trivet. Now get going, y’all – and have a safe trip!
We’ve discussed on this blog before how the Spiel des Jahres is a big deal. If you look at the box up there you’ll see the award for 2015 is prominently plastered onto the front where no-one can possibly miss it. You’ll also see the text is in German, but that’s because it was cheaper for me to buy it on Amazon.de and ship it over to Sunny Scotland than it was to buy it locally. It’s sometimes the case that an especially interesting offering will wander me through the internet until I get my hands on the game. I really did feel I had to buy Colt Express, because look at what’s to be found inside this box:
It’s an honest to goodness cardboard train, with cardboard carriages! They serve as the backdrop to a game that makes spatiality as much a gameplay element as it does the mechanics themselves. For a blog primarily about game accessibility, I couldn’t not take a look at this one. The Spiel des Jahres is just gravy here.
And my, it certainly is a treat for the eyes. It’s almost like Disney made a board game about a hypothetical Old West train robbing animated feature. Hrm.
Mental note. Call Disney. I may have a pitch for them.
Seriously, look at the art-work here – the Disneyfication is threaded all the way through everything. It even has its own roster of princes and princesses. Look at Belle – clearly, life with the Beast didn’t work out and now she’s off robbing trains and looking good while she does it.
And Cheyenne looks like she’d break into song while she was cheerfully slitting your throat. Even the male characters look like the rugged but clean protagonists you’d expect to see surrounded by anthropomorphic furniture. I mean, check out Ghost:
It’s quite a shift in tone from what real world train robbers and Old West icons actually looked like. Colt Express is very safe in how it handles a potentially very violent theme.
And then look at what you get provided for no real reason – for no gameplay purpose. A whole pile of Looney Tunes style fake background that has all the rigidity of a prairie wind. It’s only there to dot around the train to give a sense of place to the abstracted game environment. I repeat – this has zero gameplay purpose and yet they’re giving it to you anyway.
Production values are through the roof here, and no mistake. True, there’s a bit of assembly required but look at what you get when you’re done. When was the last time a game treated you quite so lavishly?
The fun doesn’t even stop there, because once you get Colt Express to the table and start playing you soon find this joyful extravagance extends to the game experience itself. It’s a largely paint-by-numbers implementation of a programmable action game, but the way the mechanics are married to the theme makes it a fast-paced engine for pure anarchic comedy. The physicality of play creates real moments of Chaplinesque hilarity. There’s cleverness too in here, and the game as a result shines all the brighter for its simplicity. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
This is, I think, the first game of its type we’ve looked at here on Meeple Like Us. It might be worth spending a little bit of time talking about how programmable action works as a mechanic. Each player has a ration of actions their character can undertake, and these get ‘programmed’ down according to some set system. Everyone plots out a particular number of these and when a certain point is reached the programming stops and the action is unspooled from player decisions. It’s a mechanic that requires careful deliberation and more than a little foresight. It’s the board-game equivalent of the old video game truism – don’t shoot where they are, shoot where they’re going to be. Occasionally you get a chance to make decisions as the action unwinds but mostly you’re committed to your plan regardless of how badly it goes wrong in execution. As I’m sure you can imagine when done well it’s a very funny system but it does tend to emphasise serendipity over strategy. When a core element of the design is aimed at knocking people off of the true line of their plans, it’s too much to expect that it also merges well with a desire for effective actioning of plan. If it doesn’t sound like it would be fun, it’s probably best to trust your instinct. This kind of thing is really not for everyone.
Within Colt Express, we program out our actions according to stages of the train journey. These give us a set number of slots we need to fill, along with some termination effects, random events, and occasionally secret plays that add a frisson of uncertainty to proceedings. Four of these journey stages get randomly dealt out, and they tell us the shape of the brawl that’s about to take place. To go with these, a ‘journey’s end’ card is added to the bottom to add a little extra spice to the winning condition. They’re revealed one at a time, meaning that you can only ever think ahead one leg of the journey’s worth of actions. Not that it matters, because your plans are never going to be carried out as cleanly as you might like even for the short term.
The most common kind of play is ‘pick a card, play it face up on the pile’. Some slots are ‘tunnel’ actions and are played faced down – nobody gets to see what we chose to do, but correspondingly we don’t know what they chose either. Once everyone has chosen a card for each slot, the outcome of that phase is played out for everyone to enjoy. And enjoy it they will, because Colt Express effortlessly meets the key requirements for a game like this – it’s fun even if you’re failing. It makes use of the passive comedy of restricted options to excellent effect – every stage of the journey is a mini farce that plays out to the delight of everyone.
Everyone is choosing from a set menu of six randomly selected cards, drawing from a pool of six different actions. These give us the basic tools for play – they let us climb up and down carriages, move left to right, shoot and punch and steal, and move the Marshal around the train. Oh yes, the Marshal – he’s a wildcard that forces every bandit in his carriage up onto the roof. He’s a generous chap too – they’ll be departing the carriage with a free bullet to shuffle into their deck. These have the somewhat chillingly Orwellian definition of ‘neutral bullet’, which sounds like something that you’d read in the NRA response to a school shooting. Trust me, they don’t seem very neutral when they’re turning your deck to useless sludge.
Each of the characters has the same deck, albeit with personalised art. Where they differ is in the special abilities the individual offerings have available. Ghost can choose to play his first card of any stage face down, which means all his future positions become impossible to predict. Tuco can shoot through the roof of the carriage, which is something nobody else can do. Django can run and gun, and Cheyenne can punch wallets right out of other players and into her pocket. These powers aren’t well balanced but they add considerably to the comedy of errors that unfolds.
Each carriage gets seeded with some loot (representing passengers laden with cash and jewels), and players are placed in the caboose before play. The Marshal begins in the locomotive with a lucrative strongbox, but he won’t stay there because we’ll be moving him around as suits our own agenda. Or rather, as suits our misremembered agenda in the heat of the action. Nonetheless, he’s a constant malevolent presence that we need to manage to our advantage as best we can.
Perhaps the best way to show how it all works is with a simple example. A round begins by drawing the appropriate leg of the journey we’ll be planning out. At the beginning of play everyone removes their six bullet cards from the deck and places them on the mat. The player that manages to shoot the largest number of these into other players gets a ‘gunslinger’ award that is worth a meaty $1000 at the end. The rest of the cards are shuffled, and six are drawn out into your hand. Once that’s done, we move onto the first phase of play – schemin’.
Starting with the first player, everyone plays down a card of that meets the current action slot of the journey. If there’s no card they want to play the player can instead draw three additional cards from their deck to beef out their slim roster of options. As players accumulate bullets, these will have the effect of acting like sedatives on their character. It represents the bleeding of momentum as much as it does blood, and it’s easily my favourite thing about the game. It’s very reminiscent of the way Dominion handles its victory point except that there’s no upside to taking a bullet. It’s like real life in that respect.
Ghost decides that he’s going to ‘punch’ with his first action. When doing this, he picks someone in his carriage and hits them clean into an adjacent one. In the process, they drop a purse they happen to be holding. You are outright beating their stolen booty out of them. Every bandit starts with one purse – the rest comes from the passengers on the train. But here’s where Ghost is distinctive – he can play his first card face down because that’s his special power. That is exactly what he does.
Nobody else can do that until it’s a tunnel action so now everyone has to wonder – what’s Ghost hiding? Is he going to pick up the purse in his carriage? Is he going to head up on the roof? Is he going to shoot bullets into the peoples? WHAT’S HE HIDING?
Tuco thinks Ghost’s going to grab some loot so he throws a punch of his own. That way he’ll punch the pennies out of Ghost’s mouth and be able to scoop them up himself. Ghost in turn will be knocked out of the carriage, which will make it less likely his plan will execute as well as hoped. That’s what Tuco thinks.
Cheyenne decides she’s going to grab a purse while everyone is presumably busy punching each other. The loot on the train is all placed face down and his random value, but gems tend to be worth more than purses, and the strongbox tends to be worth more than both. She’ll be able to take one at random from the carriage, and will just have to hope it’s a good ‘un.
That’s the first slot of the journey filled. For the next slot, each player plays two actions back to back. They’re both played face up, but at least you can pull off a combo if the stars align – it’s one of the few ways to guarantee that the state that precedes one action is the one you expect.
Ghost decides to move the Marshal and then steal some loot. Tuco decides he’s going to steal loot from what he assumes is going to be an empty carriage, and then shooty shooty someone in an adjacent carriage. Cheyenne decides she’ll climb up on the roof and then run along to the locomotive while Ghost has the Marshal out of the way. That strongbox is tempting – getting that might be worth as much as any four purses.
For the final action, all three decided to shoot. That’ll slow down their foes and bring them closer to that lucrative gunslinger bonus. Plus, it’s totally bad-ass – who wouldn’t want a three-way gun battle on a speeding locomotive? That’s why we became bandits in the first place, right? I mean, in the game. Ha ha. Yes.
And thus ends the schemin’ phase. Everyone feels pretty happy about their plans, knowing that they’ve understood their own place in the grand scheme of things and hopeful that they’ll be rewarded with their just rewards. Everyone smiles. Everyone is happy. It’s all going to work out.
And then the cameras start rolling. Here, phase two triggers – the stealin’ phase.
Ghost acts first, throwing his punch. He punches Tuco so hard that he flies into the next carriage and drops his starting purse in Ghost’s room.
Tuco throws a punch that was aimed at Ghost, but it’s Cheyenne that’s in his current room. Moments like this are the only opportunity players have to steer the course of their own disaster – there are moments of tactical opportunity in the unfolding drama that allow them to make decisions. If there were multiple valid players in the carriage, Tuco could choose. There aren’t, so he has to punch Cheyenne. He chooses to send her towards the Marshal, knowing that Ghost played a Marshal card earlier.
Cheyenne had played a rob action, which is fine because she’s now in a carriage full of tasty loot. She grabs a gem worth $500 – she’s made out like a bandit already, which is very apt. But Ghost calls the Marshal and brings him into Cheyenne’s room. When the Marshal enters, he shoots her as she escapes onto the roof, crudding up her deck with a neutral bullet. She’s now on the roof, at a point she didn’t expect to be. Oh no.
Ghost now picks up some loot in his carriage, as does Tuco. He then fires one of his bullets into Ghost – you can’t fire at the Marshal, but anyone in an adjacent carriage is fair game. One of Tuco’s six bullets is now firmly lodged in Ghost’s deck.
Cheyenne was expecting at this point to climb up on the roof and run across to the locomotive. Unfortunately she was chased up onto the roof by the Marshal and ends up climbing back into the carriage only to be shot again and sent roofwards once more. At least then she’s able to run across to the locomotive, nursing her two free bullets. Then, everyone fires at everyone. Ghost shoots Tuco, Tuco shoots Ghost *again* and Cheyenne points her gun around wildly at empty air. On the roof you can shoot anyone else up there provided they’re not on the same carriage as you are. She was banking on someone joining her up here, but no such luck.
And with that, the round is over. The next leg of the journey is revealed, and everyone shuffles their deck and draws six new cards.
Everyone then goes again, and again, until the journey is over – at the end, the person with the most money is the winner.
And man, it genuinely is funny. People are throwing punches in the air, swinging their guns around wildly at nobody, or climbing back into the waiting pistols of the Marshal. Someone throws a punch meant for one player, only to have it land on the jaw of another. You knock them into the carriage with the Marshal, forcing them up onto the roof and right into the otherwise wasted shoot action of someone else. You move the Marshal only to have your own carriage being the only valid option when it finally happens. People run around like indecisive cat-burglars overwhelmed by their own short-term necessity. Shifting a player one carriage is usually enough to make everything that follows comically undesirable. And it’s all so visually evocative thanks to that cardboard train that you can practically smell the gunpowder in the warm prairie day. There are just enough opportunities to exert control over the unfolding chaos that you don’t feel peripheral. There aren’t enough though to let you slow down your own personal trainwreck before the crash.
It’s markedly different then from how Galaxy Trucker handles its journey phase – with Colt Express you feel actively involved even when it’s a largely passive experience. There is short-term tactical decision making that gives players a chance to make the best out of a bad situation. It really is like assembling an anarchic comedy punch-up using nothing more than stick-figures and good intentions. Your actions might line up in such a way as to permit Django to punch someone into another carriage, and then run and gun into that carriage only to punch them into the Marshal’s carriage. When that happens, it’s practically cinematic. Frantic roof-top shoot-outs are punctuated by swinging yard-arms and braking trains, In-carriage punch-ups are broken up by rioting passengers as random events kick in. The varying value of carriages creates natural chokepoints of attention, which means that the design of the train encourages players to be constantly in each other’s way. Everyone is violently scrabbling for what they can get. There’s enough loot for everyone aboard the Colt Express, and in trying to get it all for themselves players often end up with nothing.
All of this cheerful anarchy is carried out on and within what is basically a toy set. When you’re moving your bandits between the roof and the carriages amidst the cardboard set dressing of the thirties style prop landscape – it’s difficult not to find it joyful. And my bet is that you’ll give in to that. You will find it joyful, and funny, and whimsical. You’ll grin ear to ear as you fulfil hidden desires to be a cardboard Jesse James.
You’ll really enjoy this the first time. And probably the second time. And maybe even the third.
The problem with Colt Express isn’t that it loses steam – almost every game does that eventually. The problem with Colt Express is that it has a fun curve that follows the trajectory of the train in Back to the Future III.
Fundamentally, every game of Colt Express is exactly the same. All that changes is the name of the people involved. Cheyenne is chased up onto the roof, throws a punch at Tuco and end up hitting Doc. The next game it’ll be Django that is chased up onto the roof, throws a punch at Doc and ends up hitting Ghost. And sure, that’ll be funny too – but the joke wears off quickly. Very quickly. And once that happens, you start to realise that the jokes are pretty much all there were.
Once the initial novelty of a game wears off, attention inevitably moves on to the mechanics that support the experience. The best games seamlessly blend experience and expressiveness into a package where each part complements the other. Once you’re finished playing Concordia, you don’t think ‘Well, what does it have other than this amazing theme of trading silk in the Mediterranean’. The best games get richer with repeated play, and that’s not true of Colt Express at all. There just isn’t enough you can do to build mastery for it to thrive on its gameplay alone. After you’ve played it the first time, you’ll be raring to play it the second. The third time might be a harder sell – there are rapidly diminishing returns on the experience.
Fundamentally game-play is too unmanageable to encourage repeated play. It’s not even that we have the usual tension here between missed plays and misremembered plays – there are moments of hidden information that invalidate almost any attempt to predict outcome from action. You are reduced at those points to guessing intention for every other player, and while that creates for rich comedy it doesn’t create the context for satisfying gameplay. Each stage of the journey needs you to build a model of where everyone is and their suspected motive. The success of the stealin’ phase is tightly coupled to how accurate that model ends up being. Usually that’s ‘not very’, and that’s great the first few times and frustrating after that. It’s not at all surprising I’m sure to read this – historically Meeple Like Us has been very critical of games where we feel luck, as opposed to skill, is the key differentiator of success. It’s not quite that here – luck actually plays very little role in play. However, what it relies on is a serendipity of game state that is often indistinguishable in real terms.
So much in Colt Express has been invested in the aesthetics that very little has gone into the sustainability of play. Random journeys create some difference, but not enough difference. In the end, you’re just shuffling the same set-piece moments of a brawl and having them carried out in a different order. That’s a shame, because it didn’t have to be that way – the symmetrical decks for example make heavy use of the slowing mechanics of Dominion, but don’t try to take advantage of the adaptive flexibility offered by deck-building as a mechanic. Special powers that offered a peek at hidden information would give a lever to deal with the fundamental unknowability of plans at the cost of activity. It would add a new balance that would allow the game to become more interesting with familiarity, not less.
In the end, Colt Express is a seven out of ten game that became a six on its eventual way to a five. There’s more than enough reason to give it a go if someone has it handy, but less of a reason to invest in buying the box yourself. When a game lives on novelty, you’ll need to be constantly introducing new people to the experience to get the most out of it. I suspect few of us have enough game-playing friends that would enjoy Colt Express enough to make it a sound investment for your library.
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