Tuesday, November 3, 2015

GJJG Game Reviews - The Last Spike - By Columbia Games

The Last Spike
Designer: Tom Dalgliesh
Publisher: Columbia Games
GJJG Game Reviews - The Last Spike - By Columbia Games

Game Overview:
Train games...  It seems like there are a ton of them out there.  And The Last Spike by Columbia Games is yet another.  But The Last Spike is unlike many other train games out there.  Yes you are building railroads, but the game is stripped down to just bare essentials to create an interesting strategy and speculation game for 2-6 players.

The Last Spike was originally published in 1976 with the same name, but in 2015 a reprinted and slightly modified game was successfully funded on Kickstarter.  The new version removed a roll-and-move mechanic that dictated much of what players could do on each turn and changed the map's geography from Canada to the United States.  I haven't played the old version of the game, but from reading the descriptions online it sounds like it was 99% luck with a strong feel of Monopoly.  Let me tell you, the new version is definitely different and worth anyone's attention.  The Kickstarter campaign was successful (127% funded) and now The Last Spike is available for purchase for $39.98 from Columbia Games.

Components & Packaging:
Columbia Games is doing something interesting with their game packaging.  Most, if not all, of their games have pretty much the same form-factor.  They all seem to come in a 9"x12"x2" box.  When I received my copy of The Last Spike I found out why.

The actual box for The Last Spike is just a generic corrugated cardboard box, printed black with the Columbia Games logo on it.  The pretty artwork that you see is actually a slipcase for the box.  This means that Columbia Games packages all their games in the same basic box and just adds the appropriate slipcase.  That's got to be pretty cost effective.  It doesn't detract from the look of the game on the shelf and it seems pretty sturdy, but it does lost a bit of elegance that I think most gamers have come to expect from their games.
The Last Spike, like other Columbia Games titles, comes
in a generic cardboard box with a nicer box sleeve.
All the components fit in the generic box and generic tray.

The components, however, are another story.  Again, there are cost cutting measures prevalent in the game components as well.  The one component that didn't feel like it was made to cut costs (not made of premium materials either, though) is the cards that come with the game.  They're standard playing cards.  Nothing fancy, no linen finish, not even black core or anything, but they're not used for shuffling or heavy handling, so they're just fine for this game.

The track tiles are nice enough, but you can see from this
picture just how thin the game board is.
All the coins and track tiles are nice wooden components.  The track tiles did need stickers placed on each of them, but the stickers were nice foil stickers.  Engraved tiles would have been really nice, but that probably would have been cost prohibitive.  The coins, however, I felt were cutting corners just a bit too much.  All the coins are simple round wooden discs.  There are white, red, and blue discs to represent $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 denominations.  There is no imprinting on them at all.  So I'm torn.  The wood feel is very nice and I like that more than cardboard chits, but they just seem so plain.  Even stickers for the tokens would have been a bit nicer, but then again, I'm not sure I would have wanted to put even more stickers on stuff.  So, although the wood tokens were nice, and it doesn't really affect the gameplay, they are a bit of a letdown.

The biggest disappointment though is the gameboard.  The artwork on the board is fine.  Nothing spectacular, but it's functional and looks nice and thematic.  But the board itself is pretty chintzy.  It's only chipboard, not even a real game board.  While playing it serves its purpose and doesn't take away from the gameplay, but it is the first thing anyone comments on when I pull the game out.  It really feels like corners were cut on the gameboard more than any other component.  I can excuse the box (it's kind of a branding thing) and the money tokens (they're functional and the wood is nice), but the game board really should be a real gameboard.
The game board is about as thick as standard tiles in any other
game, and thinner than premium tiles in some games.

Score: 4/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
The longest part of setup is turning all the track tiles face down and mixing them up, especially if you are sure to sort the land cards when cleaning up the previous game.  And the rules for The Last Spike are very simple.  The game can be explained in 5 minutes, or even less.

Basically on each turn you will have a hand of four track tiles to choose from.  You'll play one tile in its corresponding place on the board, pay its fee, check to see if any cities are newly connected and if they are pay out rewards to landowners of those cities, purchase land, and draw a new tile.  The process is even explained right on the game board.  The game ends when St. Louis and Sacramento are connected by a complete track.  The winner is the player with the most money; that's all that counts at the end.
All set up and ready to play.

Probably the most complicated mechanism in the game is how the land cards work and how they pay out.  But even that isn't too difficult.  Any time someone plays a tile they can then purchase a land card for any city that already has at least one track tile adjacent to it.  If a player is the first to add a track next to a city they get a free land card for that city, otherwise they can purchase one from any city that's already had its free land claimed.  When a track between two cities is completed (i.e. all four tracks that connect the cities are placed) those cities pay out.  Each player who owns land cards for those cities receives the amount of money designated on the land cards for the number of cards they own.  For example, if St. Louis and Omaha are connected and I have one St. Louis card and 3 Omaha cards I'll earn $36,000 - $12,000 for my one St. Louis card and $24,000 for my three Omaha cards.

Score: 9/10 x2

Playing The Last Spike is fast, simple, and strategic.  While the mechanics are deceptively simple, the depth of strategy is astounding.  You end up playing the other players as much as you are playing the game.  It's a very interesting blend of cooperative and competitive gameplay.  The game can't end until everyone builds the transcontinental railroad together.  And you can't get paid out until two cities are connected.  Different cities have different land values, so you'll want to pay attention to the board and speculate on what's probably going to get completed, however you don't want to get too greedy because then other players won't be too keen to help complete those tracks.  It's a fine balance between encouraging others to work to help you to your goals and at the same time make enough money to win the game.

I've played the game with kids and adults and everyone has had no problems picking up the mechanics.  The strategy behind the decisions though is much deeper than most people realize.  If you have one of the tiles that connect to Sacramento or Saint Louis there's a good chance that you can control when the game ends.  But too often I've seen players delay the end of the game in the hopes of collecting a few more payouts while someone else that was previously behind pulls out the victory.  You really have to pay attention to what your opponents are doing.  Sometimes ending with a lower score (money) gives you a better chance at winning than just holding out as long as you can.  It's an intriguing dilemma since most people are conditioned to just grab as many points as they can.
Each tile has its unique spot on the board
and a particular cost to play.

The Last Spike is very similar to the classic Acquire in many respects.  Instead of buying stock in hotels you are speculating on land in cities.  Instead of expanding your hotel empire you're building railroad tracks.  But The Last Spike takes everything that is good about Acquire and strips it down to its bare essence, making The Last Spike a very streamlined, fast playing, strategic game where who you are playing against is just as important as the game itself.

Score: 9/10 x3

I've played the game several times now and I've enjoyed it every time.  It does play best with 3-5 players (2 feels a bit sparse and 6 is a bit crowded), but it's still good with 2 or 6.  The mechanics are pretty simple though, and I can see where it might start to get boring if you play it a ton.  It is the same game every time and if you are playing with the same people it's easy to fall into a comfortable strategy that gets repeated every game.  But it is definitely a solid, quick strategy game that's great to introduce new board game players to that I won't ever turn down.
As the tracks get laid out the importance of decisions increases.

Score: 7/10 x1

General Fun:
The Last Spike is quite a bit of fun.  It's a nice balance between casual and thinky.  There's a bit of luck in which tiles you draw, but not too much luck.  This makes it very accessible.  The game doesn't outstay its welcome either.  It's fun with a group because you are playing both the game and the other players.  It's not a rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud game, nor is it a highly thematic adventuresome game, but it does encourage player dialog through some mild cooperation and provides for interesting gameplay.  Everyone I've played with has enjoyed it and said they would like to play again.  The Last Spike is going to become a staple for the Family Game Night I host at my FLGS.
Playing at Family Game Night at my FLGS.

Score: 7/10 x2

Overall Value:
At $40 the component quality is what kills this game.  A $40 game should not have corners cut in component quality the way The Last Spike does.  It's not like there are a ton of components in the game either; 45 cards, 48 track tiles, a game board, and a few dozen money tokens.  If the components were top quality I'd expect the game to cost around $35, at most $40, but with the cheaper components I'd value the game at $25.  And that's a shame, because the gameplay rivals any other $40-$60 game on the market.

Score: 6/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
I really, really like The Last Spike.  And what's more, my wife liked The Last Spike a lot, and she was prepared to hate it since the generally doesn't like train themed games.  If component quality and overall value were not factored in this game would have received a, 83/100 score, but unfortunately those drop the score into the 70s.

The Last Spike has become a family favorite for its simple, yet strategic gameplay.  It's a great game to introduce new people to board games, but quick enough and just meaty enough to satisfy even experienced gamers.  I'll be bringing the game to my twice-a-month Family Game Nights at my FLGS and I'm sure it'll get quite a bit of play.  I'm also looking forward to playing with my parents, who played a TON of Acquire when I was growing up.  I think they'll really enjoy it as well.
He won the first game against my wife
and I and we all immediately wanted
to play again!

So if you're looking for a great strategy game that's easy to play, fun for all ages, and great for all gaming abilities, check out The Last Spike from Columbia Games.  It should definitely be getting more notice than it has.

Overall Score: 76/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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