One of my all-time favorite games is Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s awesomely thematic and corny, capturing that delightful B-movie flair perfectly. However, the game is far from perfect. Whenever I teach Betrayal to a new player, I let them know upfront that the game can be super unfair. It may be that you just can’t get the rolls you need. It may be that the house is too big/small/oddly-shaped for you to win the game. It may be that the scenario is just lame (Cats scenario, anyone?). Whatever the case, I just like players to know what they’re in for. I want them to be in the right mindset, because if they go into the game expecting it to be this grand strategy game, they’re going to be disappointed, but if they go into it expecting a silly, thematic romp through a haunted house, they’ll have a grand old time.
Colt Express is very much the same kind of thing.
Colt Express (Christophe Raimbault, 2014) was the surprise winner of the 2015 Spiel des Jahres. It is a family game for 2-6 players that plays in about 45 minutes. The game is a Wild West train robbery, where players are trying to punch, shoot, and steal their way to riches. Its central mechanic is card programming, where players select a number of actions to be executed, and then all selected actions are resolved in the order they were selected.
The visual appeal of Colt Express is top notch. The game doesn’t have a traditional board, but is instead played out on this amazingly gorgeous 3D cardboard train, complete with a locomotive. Each car has two stories: inside the car and on the roof, because, come on, a train robbery wouldn’t be complete without the bad guys running along the roof. The game even comes with scenery standee pieces that have absolutely no purpose other than chrome and decoration. Overall, it looks great on the table. As soon as you set it up, players will be interested.
Inside each of the train cars are some number of loot tokens: gems (value $500), purses ($250-$500), or the strongbox ($1,000), which begins in the engine car, guarded by the marshal pawn. Each player begins with a $250 purse token. Everyone also receives a deck of action cards, from which they draw a hand of six, as well as a set of six Bullet cards, which will be given to players when they inevitably get shot. The player’s pawns are placed in the two rearmost cars, and the game begins.
Each round, a card will be drawn indicating how many cards each player will program, and how they will be played. Then, beginning with the first player, each player will select a card from their hand and play it, usually face-up. All these played cards go into a single stack, meaning that the second player plays their card on top of the first player’s, and so on. Players play as many cards as indicated on the round card, and when they have finished this, the entire stack of cards is flipped over and resolved in the order the cards were played. The actions players can choose include:
– Move Left or Right: If you are inside the train, you can move one car left or right. If you’re on the roof, you can move up to three cars.
– Move Up or Down: If you are inside the car, move to the roof, and vice versa.
– Punch: Punch an opponent in your current location (same car, same level). Punching makes the target drop one loot token, and the target is moved to an adjacent car.
– Shoot: shoot an opponent not in your current space, within line of sight. The shooting player gives the target one of their Bullet cards. (Bullet cards are kind of like Curses in Dominion, where they are useless cards that just take up space in your deck.)
– Grab Loot: Pick up a loot token in your current location.
– Move the Marshal: Move the Marshal pawn one space left or right. The marshal never goes on the roof, and if he enters a space with any other pawn, that player immediately received a neutral Bullet card and must escape to the roof of their car.
A single round of actions may go something like this:
– Player A is in the same location as players B and C. Because Player B has a lot of loot, Player A decides to punch him to make him drop a loot token. This moves Player B to an adjacent car.
– Because he was just punched, Player B decides to retaliate. He shoots Player A (a legal move, since he is no longer in the same location). He gives Player A one of his Bullet cards.
– While Players A and B are fighting, Player C decides to grab the loot token that Player B dropped when we was punched.
– Player D wants to get to the strongbox in the locomotive, but he first needs to move the Marshal out of that car. Thus, he plays the Move the Marshal action, moving him one space. It just so happens that the Marshal moved into the space where Player B landed after being punched, so Player B has to take a neutral Bullet card and escape to the roof. (It sucks to be Player B.)
In a given round, players play several of these actions cards. This means that they have to try to anticipate where their opponents will be and what they will do on their turns. If you and I are alone in the same car and I see you play a Punch action, I can safely assume I will be getting punched, thereby being moved one space and dropping a Loot token. If both adjacent cars have loot tokens on the floor, then, perhaps I can play a Grab Loot action, because whichever direction you punch me, my new location will have loot to pick up.
Thus, programming the cards becomes an exercise of keeping track of where everyone will be when the cards are resolved. If you’ve never played a programming game, it’s hard to explain why this can be so challenging, but if you’ve ever played Space Alert, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
To add to the insanity of programming, sometimes cards will be played face-down, or the order of play will temporarily reverse, or players will play two cards at the same time, instead of the normal one per turn. All of these make the programming aspect even more challenging. As long as the cards are face-up, you usually have some idea of what players are trying to do, but as soon as a card is played face-down, anything goes. If you and I are in the same location, and you play a face-down card, I have no idea what you did. Did you move? If so, should I try to shoot you? Did you move the Marshal? If so, should I try to run away? Did you pick up loot? If so, should I punch you so you drop it?
In case you couldn’t tell, this game is ridiculous. By nature, card programming lends itself to chaos in games. RoboRally and Space Alert can be maddening. You have everything planned out perfectly, and then you realize your friend forgot to charge the gun on turn 3, or you thought you would wind up in one space, but you actually wind up in a completely different space, making you fall in a pit and die. Often, in this type of game, one tiny little misstep can absolutely destroy your plans. However, Colt Express manages to mitigate this a bit, though I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Let me explain.
In RoboRally, you program a number of movements and resolve them all. You might do Move Forward, Turn Left, Move Forward 2, Turn Right, and Reverse 1. When it comes time to resolve these actions, they are locked in. You have to move forward, you have to turn left, etc. If you make a mistake, sucks to be you, you have to finish all your movements. But that frustration is a lot of the fun of RoboRally. Colt Express is much more “Do what you think will be the best move, and figure out how to best use it when that move is resolved.”
As an example, when I play a horizontal Move card, I don’t have to decide right then whether to move left or move right. I can choose how to move when that card is resolved. Similarly, if I play a Shoot action, I can decide who to target when it’s my turn to resolve that action. Maybe I was originally planning to shoot you, but by the time I’m resolving my Shoot action, you are not where I thought you’d be, so I wind up shooting someone else.
This makes Colt Express extremely tactical. I won’t say there is no strategy in the game, because there is. A little. You can make educated guesses as to what you should do, but the card resolution probably won’t go the way you thought it would, for better or for worse. There’s also always the possibility that you just don’t have the right cards in hand to do what you want to do. (I should mention that, instead of playing an action card into the stack, you can instead draw three cards from your deck, but missing an action can be a big setback, so I only do this when absolutely necessary.)
If you measure Colt Express by how strategic it is, it falls flat. If you measure it by its originality, it is mediocre. There is nothing too groundbreaking here. But if you measure it by the sheer amount of laughter at the table, Colt Express is a smash hit. The game is HILARIOUS! Every round is chock-full of “screw-you” moments; take this, take that, I shoot you, you shoot me, I move the Marshal to you, you pick up the loot just before I can, I run away so you have to punch the other guy instead of me… these are the kind of interactions you’ll have in Colt Express. What the game lacks in substance it makes up for in humor. At 45 minutes, it’s short and sweet, leaving you wanting to play again.
Like I said in the beginning, you need to go into it with the right mindset and expectations. You need to understand that it’s silly. You need to realize that you’ll get screwed at every turn. You need to know that there is not a lot of “game” here. It’s just silly, ridiculous, chaotic fun. Colt Express will certainly be staying in my collection. I recommend this game to gamers who enjoy silly fun. If that sounds like you, check it out! Thanks for reading!