Designer: Christophe Raimbault
Artists: Ian Parovel, Jordi Valbuena
I can see why Colt Express was a surprise awardee for SDJ. It has all the right elements for a fun family game even though the presence of cartoonish violence might make some parents cringe. The game has equal amounts of chaos, luck and hoots of laughter – all the ingredients that make SDJ juries sit up and take note. I can see some past SdJ winners share similar qualities with Colt Express with the same feel, weight, thematic immersion and luck. Camel Up, Niagara immediately comes to mind.
There is no doubt that the most eye catching feature of Colt Express is the 3D locomotive and the train cars. Once assembled, the train looks mighty impressive especially with all the complementary cardboard terrain and scenery standees. I’d argue the game wouldn’t be the same without the train pieces as the theme really calls for it and the mechanism actually benefits from a 3D replica of the train since bandits must crawl across the train cars and on the roof. Unlike some minis and gimmicks in other games, the train replica here serves an important function.
At its core, Colt Express is really a programming game. Unlike a blind programming game where players individually select and simultaneously reveal their actions, in Colt Express, players program their actions in sequential order to a common pool of action cards which will be resolved in reversed order at the end of each round. This way, the programming of moves is not entirely blind as you can see, or try to recall, your own moves and those made by other players. It helps that you can visualize movement of all players in your head as you can predict their moves and react accordingly. However, this information is not perfect as in some rounds, players will play their cards face down and one can only guess where the bandits may end up on the train. There is some room for creative play here as you can throw someone off the track by playing something unexpected. At the end of each round, as cards are played out in reverse order, you get this turn-based movement for each bandit and it feels like watching a highlight reel of a train heist in progress. Very thematic indeed. If you have played Uwe Rosenberg’s pizza baking game called Mamma Mia, then you will be familiar with this mechanism of sequential programming. It’s a good mechanism that is underutilized in the board gaming world.
So why are bandits moving around the train cars? To grab loot bags and gems of course! Each train car comes with a random assortment of booty and they are different for each train car. The game comes with 6 train cars which you can mix and match depending on player count. As bandits crawl between train cars with movement cards, they will need to play loot cards to pick up the loot. Gems are worth $500 apiece while money bags are worth $250-$500. There is also THE briefcase which is worth $1000. Each game starts with one briefcase guarded by an angry Marshall all the way upfront in the locomotive. Because the Marshall cannot occupy the same space as the bandit, the Marshall needs to be lured out from the locomotive by playing a Marshall movement card before the briefcase becomes accessible to the bandits.
There are ways to make bandits cough up previously acquired loot…. by resorting to violence. If you play a “punch” card when another bandit is in the same location, you get to choose a loot that is dropped on the ground which can be subsequently picked up with a loot card. There is some frustration here as sometimes, after the punch, the bandit that lost the loot can simple play a loot card to reacquire the loot before you get a chance to do so. This is certainly a flaw of a “turn-based” action sequence. Not quite sure how to get around that. It’s just a matter of luck whether the player on the receiving end also happens to have a loot card. Now, there is also gun violence in the game. Players each have two revolver cards in their main action deck and if you play them, you will get to shoot someone in an adjacent car or roof of the car. You then give a bullet card – which you have six of them side aside – to the player being shot at. In the subsequent rounds, these bullet cards are reshuffled into the main action deck and clogs your hand as they useless. That means you have fewer action selections if wounded – again, incredibly thematic. If you are at the receiving end from multiple bullet wounds, your actions can sometimes be severely curtailed and you might need to spend a precious turn drawing more cards from your main deck (3). Apart from shooting to disadvantage another player, the bandit that was on target the most is also crowned the fastest gunslinger and awarded a $1000 bonus (by who exactly? The Bandit Consortium?). This $1000 is no joke and can be a huge factor in determining who wins the game. At higher player counts the $1000 plus a couple of loot bags might just be enough to win the game. So focusing on being the sharpshooter is also a viable strategy.
All this turn-based chaos lasts a grand total of 5 rounds, with each round featuring a pre-determined number of cards played as depicted in the “round” cards. Each round card also feature an event that happens at the end of the round that is often quite thematic. So, it adds more flavor to the game. In all, there is no doubt that Colt Express wins the day for being one of the most thematic games I have played. I mean every single mechanism or action of the game is tied very well to the Wild West theme and that of course, includes the 3D replica of the train. Even the round cards that feature the different action slots feel very much tied to a movie script. For example, playing cards face down is associated with the train passing through a tunnel. There are also action slots where each bandit gets to play two back-to-back action cards to string along an action sequence. It just feels like when I play the game, I am replaying a movie in my head.
That said, Colt express is a mixed bag as I have seen comments about the randomness and chaos of the game from my Geekbuddies. I mean this is inherent in many programming games where your actions are tied to others and sometimes, things happen outside of your control and you do not have the right cards to counter a a particular action. This is part and parcel of Colt Express and broadly speaking, most programming games suffer from the same issues. The closest game I compare this to is probably Camel Up, another SdJ winner. You have to go in with the right mindset. There are just games where you must accept the chaos and roll with the punches (god…even my puns are thematic). Otherwise, there is really no point in feeling miserable when playing the game. Avoid playing Colt Express with players that take every stat and every number seriously, and where board gaming must always be an intellectually and competitively satisfying experience. It doesn’t always have to be that.
There are tons of expansions and add-ons to the award-winning game, none of which I have tried and have no intention of trying. The base game is satisfying enough and I do not intend to play this game that frequently, though my kid might have something to say about this. As it stands, this is a good family game, violence not withstanding, and I think deserving of a the Game of the Year award.
Initial impressions: Good
7 years 5 months: I suspect that whether you buy or play Colt Express will depend on whether you can accept the level of cartoon violence in the game. Don’t get me wrong, I did think about this for a good while too and didn’t bring this out until recently even though I knew my kid could probably handle the game play mechanisms at a much younger age. This is not true for all games as I started playing a few scenarios of Macromicro: Crime City and decided to pull it out from her rotation. She was just not ready for the game. There is both gun and physical violence in Colt Express and I think parents must individually decide when or if they want to purchase the game. No right or wrong answer about it. When I see my kid playing this game, the violence is glossed over in the same way that all violence she sees on screen is glossed over: she just doesn’t pay much attention to it. I think that’s because the idea of violence and death probably doesn’t register strongly with her…. yet. Heck, I mean as adults, violence often fades into our background consciousness as well. We don’t, but perhaps should, react more strongly toward it. I feel comfortable enough at the present moment for her to play Colt Express as she already gets exposed to cartoon violence (Disney movies have plenty of it). Game play wise, she loves it. No doubt, the theme is attractive to kids. However, the key skill she hasn’t yet fully acquired is the ability to track and predict the movements of all the bandits simultaneously. I don’t think its because she can’t do it, as her memory skills are on par if not better than her parents, but its because I think her lapses of concentration causes her to lose track of the movements. Consequently, her actions sequences are sometimes out of order and she is not always competitive in the game. So, there are some useful cognitive/memory skills that can be absorbed from playing Colt Express that I recognize as very different from playing your standard Knizia numbers game. This game requires a fair bit of focus and attention to hold in your working memory not only your own bandit’s movement, but that of others in order to play well. For that reason alone, I think the game is a pretty good kid’s game.