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A Deckbuilding Lite Look at Great Western Trail

One of the most popular games of recent years is Great Western Trail (2016), an intricate resource-management and set-collection game … that also has a relatively minor deckbuilding component. But, as it turns out, that deckbuilding includes some pretty innovative aspects, and so is worth discussing as part of my overall series on deckbuilding mechanics.

ThreeFour Generations of Deckbuilding

I’ve typically classified deckbuilders as falling into three generations — or three degenerations if you prefer, as each moves further from the original precepts of Dominion (2008), now a decade old. These generations aren’t entirely separated by time, but instead by the maturity of the mechanic.

The first generation of deckbuilders cleaved so close to Dominion that even if they evinced some originality, they still mistakenly incorporated some of Dominion’s specific design decisions, such as the ability to purchase just one card a round, as core elements of the mechanic. I’d classify Penny Arcade (2011), Resident Evil (2010), Tanto Cuore (2009), and Thunderstone (2009) as first-generation deckbuilders.

The second generation of deckbuilders remained pure deckbuilder games, but reimagined what deckbuilding did rather than just blindly copying the design decisions of Dominion. Obviously, different people would draw this line in different places, but I think Ascension (2010) was one of the first game to (barely) cross this line, with its randomized purchase cards, its dual currencies, and its strong “suits” all showing very different design decisions. DC Comics (2012) and Lord of the Rings (2013) deckbuilding games similarly stand on this border. Arctic Scavengers (2009, 2013), with its array of actions; Nightfall (2011), with its chained card play; and Star Realms (2014), with its focus on combat, all show that this generation can go even further beyond the simple card management of Dominion — though they sometimes maintained some of Dominion’s specific design assumptions as well.

After the second generation of deckbuilders, the mechanic was also spun off into other components like the dicebuilding of Quarriors! (2011) and eventually the whole bagbuilding subgenre.

The third generation of deckbuilders recognized deckbuilding as a mechanic rather than a category of play. That allowed designers to incorporate it into games that had other mechanics, making it into a part of a larger whole. Eminent Domain (2011), a role selection and 4X game; A Few Acres of Snow (2011), an area-control wargame; and Copycat (2012), a worker-placement game, were three of the first. The worker placement of Don’t Turn Your Back (2015), the area control of Tyrants of the Underdark (2016), and the co-op play of Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour (2017) are more recent examples.

And that brings us at last to Great Western Trail. Like the third-generation deckbuilders, it incorporates deckbuilding as part of a larger whole, freely mixed it with other mechanics, but unlike those games, the deckbuilding is really a small part of the whole. It’s a handy way to manage one particular game element (the cattle that you’re selling), and although that’s vitally important, it’s not a very loud, attention-getting mechanic. So call it a rare example of a fourth generation of deckbuilding play, which deckbuilding has become not just a mechanic, but a relatively minor mechanic.

Despite its minimal footprint, the deckbuilding of Great Western Trail is still intriguing, and something that could easily be an influence on other, more fully featured deckbuilding games (as much as they still exist).

The Art of Deckbuilding

So what does the deckbuilding in Great Western Trail look like? It’s generally what you’d expect. You get a starting deck with a variety of cards, and you can make new purchases over the course of the game, giving you both better game resources and victory points. You can also choose to filter cards out of your deck, to maximize its potential.

What might be surprising is how minor the deckbuilding actually is in Great Western Trail. A player’s deck contains the cattle that they’re trying to sell each time they finish the trail, but they typically only improve their deck one time through the whole (long) game board. The rest of the time they’re hiring workers, constructing buildings, and raising funds.

The cattle cards: a small part of a big game.

Mind you, it’s still integrally connected to everything else, which is the first nice element of the game’s deckbuilder design. You need those workers and that money to buy cows; you need to accomplish other goals if you want to become able to filter your deck; and you often need to play cows to earn money.

However, it’s the game’s set collection, required at the big round-up at the end of the trail, that really innovates its deckbuilding play, because that expands the deckbuilding to … handbuilding.

The Art of Handbuilding

The standard model for hand management in deckbuilders is that there isn’t any: you draw cards at the end of the round, you play them the next round, and you discard anything you have left. The occasional deckbuilder allows players to hold cards from one round to another if they want, to support some longer term strategy, but even then it’s usually better to play as fast as you can.

Great Western Trail totally uproots this model. Not only are players able to hold over cards, not only are they encouraged to do so, but it’s actually a core part of the game. That’s because the ultimate goal of the game is to have a hand containing an unlike set of cattle when it’s time to sell. That takes not just careful building of your deck to have a diverse set of cows available, but also diverse building of your hand, so that you actually get those different cattle into your hand by the time you reach the end of the trail.

Supporting this requires not just the ability to keep cards from turn to turn, but also the ability to play some of those cards, in a constrained way, when and if a player decides. This in fact is built into the entire game system: whenever a player has the option to play a specific cow in order to earn money, he’s also getting the opportunity to build his hand to his specifications. There’s also a totally new mechanic, the “hand cycler”, which gives a player the ability to discard and redraw cards.

The cycler (gear 2) and the remover (gear 5) can both help build your hand.

Not only does handbuilding provide a new level of tactics for deckbuilding play, but it also introduces interesting strategic questions: do you use sacrifice parts of your set to earn money? And conversely, do you sacrifice your momentum to improve the set of cards in your hand?

Conclusion

Great Western Trail is intriguing for a deckbuilder because of how much it does with so little. The deckbuilding is a pretty small mechanic in the overall game, but it’s still a critical part of the overall game, tightly entangled with everything else.

Great Western Trail also introduces a great new mechanic, where players are building not just their overall deck, but also what’s in their hand, working toward sets at specific points in the game.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples