Buzzworthiness: Colt Express

Time to review last year’s Spiel des Jahres winner:

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Colt Express was designed by Christophe Raimbault and published by Ludonaute.  The game is for 2-6 players and takes around 30-40 minutes.  Players are bandits attempting to rob a train in the Old West.  You’re not a team – everyone just happened to show up at the same time with the same goal.  The game features programmed actions and a 3D train.

This game comes with 10 Action cards per player, 6 Bullet cards per player, six Bandit meeples, six character sheets, a Marshall meeple, 15 neutral Bullet cards, 17 Round cards, 18 Purse tokens, 6 Jewel tokens, 2 Strongbox tokens, 10 Terrain elements, and all the pieces to make a six-card train and a locomotive.  These are assembled by you before your first game.  But then you have a playing surface that looks like this:

image by BGG user ludo naute
image by BGG user ludo naute

There will be one car per player, plus the locomotive.  Each player takes their 10 Action cards, 6 Bullet cards, and character sheet.  Each player’s Bandit is placed on the train, in either the back or penultimate card, depending on player order (odd numbers in the back, even numbers in the penultimate).  Each car is also loaded with loot based on the indications on the floor of the car.  The Marshall and a Strongbox are placed in the locomotive.  Four round cards are drawn randomly and kept in a secret pile, and a final station card is drawn and placed at the bottom of this deck.  At the start of each round, a card will be drawn from this pile.  This will indicate how many cards are to be played, how the cards are to be played, and possibly a special action that will occur at the end of the round.

image by BGG user radiofyr309
image by BGG user radiofyr309

For example, on the bottom right card, you see four card spaces, meaning that four cards will be played in the current round.  The second space is black with a tunnel icon, meaning that the second card of the round will be played face down.  The final space shows a circular arrow, indicating that play order will be reversed for that card.  And there’s an image of a train car following the card spaces, indicating that at the end of the round, there will be an event (this one is called Passenger’s Rebellion, where the passengers are toting guns and will shoot anyone inside the train).

image by BGG user JackyTheRipper
image by BGG user JackyTheRipper

Each round, you’ll draw six cards into your hand.  Each card has an action (unless you’ve been shot and draw bullets, in which case there is an X in the corner to indicate that there is no action).  Players will take turns playing one card into a common pile, one on top of the other.  Unless otherwise indicated, cards are played face up so everyone sees what you’re doing.  The possible actions are:

  • Move: You can move from one car into an adjacent car if inside the train.  If on the roof, you can move up to three cars away.
  • Change Floors: Move from the roof to the interior of the train, or vice versa.
  • Robbery: Pick up the Loot token of your choice from the floor where you are currently located.  If there’s no Loot, tough luck.
  • Punch: This causes a Bandit to drop on of their Loot tokens (puncher’s choice), and knocks them into an adjacent car.  If there’s no one to punch, nothing happens.
  • Shoot: You cannot shoot someone in the same car as you.  If inside the train, you must shoot someone in an adjacent car.  If on the roof, you can shoot anyone else on the roof as long as there’s no one between you.  If you shoot someone, give them one of your six Bullet cards, which goes into their discard pile.  If there’s no one to shoot, nothing happens.
  • Marshall: Move the Marshall one car.  The Marshall only moves on the interior of the train.  If he’s ever in the same car as a Bandit, they take a Neutral Bullet card into their discard pile and flee to the roof.
  • Pass: You can choose to NOT play a card and instead draw three more cards.  This is especially good if you have a hand full of Bullets.

Once all cards have been played, the first player flips over the common pile, then starts drawing the top card and resolving it.  This continues through the entire pile, with all players resolving the cards they played.  Once all cards have been resolved, players shuffle up their entire deck (discards included) and prepare for the next round.

After the fifth round, the game ends.  The player who has fired the most Bullets gets the Gunslinger award (worth $1000), and the player with the most money overall is the winner.

image by BGG user henk.rolleman
image by BGG user henk.rolleman

COMPONENTS: The most noticeable component in this game is the 3D train.  You have to assemble it yourself the first time, but once it’s together, the train can stay assembled.  The insert in the box is designed with compartments for all cars.  And that’s a nice touch.  I often give games a hard time for poorly designed inserts, and this isn’t the best – all the other stuff just gets dumped into one of the train car compartments – but it at least was well thought out enough to have a place for each car.  The train cars are good quality cardboard.

The game comes with little set pieces intended to evoke the setting, but they have no real purpose in the game.  And for that matter, the train could very easily have been printed on a board, or even on cards.  But I think the fact that Ludonaute included so many different physical ways to evoke the theme is a plus for this game.  Sure, it’s a little awkward getting the bandits in and out of the cars, particularly is you have big hands like I do.  But the 3D aspect of the game is part of what makes it fun.

As for the other bits in the game, they’re all good quality.  The cards are well printed with different character art that evokes what the actions are.  The bandits and Marshall are cool little cowboy meeples with their guns drawn.  The loot tokens are a little small, but that is partially in services of the limitations of the train cars.  The only thing that they did that I really wish was different was to tie particular player colors to particular characters.  A lot of people tend to play the same color every time, partly out of superstition and partly out of making it easier to remember who they are from game to game.  If you always play green, for example, then in Colt Express, you will always be Cheyenne.  Since every character is different, I kind of wish they had gone the Tokaido route and allowed players to somehow mark their characters with their color.  Other than that, I like the components in this game a lot.

THEME: The theme here is really strong.  It feels just like a botched train robbery to me (the botched part is not stated, but what else would happen if six separate bandits all decided to rob the same train at the same time).  The 3D train and set pieces add to the theme, as does the art on the cards.  This is one of those rare board games that I think would actually make a good comedy-action movie – maybe with the cast of The Thrilling Adventure Hour as the various bandits (Paul F. Tompkins as Doc, Paget Brewster as Belle, Hal Lublin as Tuco, Marc Evan Jackson as the Marshall, and so on).

MECHANICS: Colt Express features a simplified action programming mechanism where players are playing their action cards into a common pile.  The difference between this game and most other programmed action games is that, for the most part, actions are not selected in secret and they are not selected simultaneously.  There’s a bit of a memory element because you need to try to remember what the other players have done, and of course the tunnels throw another monkey wrench into your plans.  There’s still a great chance that your plans will be blown completely to bits, but there is a little more known than in most programmed action titles.

As for the actions themselves, there are only six and they’re fairly easy to understand.  There’s a bit of confusion between the consequences of the punching and shooting – punches make you drop loot and knock you out of the car, while shooting only gives a bullet card to the opponent.  But movement, attacking, and the picking up of loot are all fairly intuitive, and make sense with the theme.

STRATEGY LEVEL: You have to expect a certain amount of chaos in a programmed action game.  You can try to plan out a strategy, but there’s a thousand different factors that will screw you up.  So there’s a lot of tactical decisions to be made, and the fact that you know what others are up to means that you can work around them.  Of course, they also know what you’re up to, so watch out.  There is luck in the cards you draw, which is mitigated somewhat by being able to pass your action for the turn and draw instead.  This is particularly helpful with a hand of bullets, or to look for an action you don’t have.

ACCESSIBILITY: Colt Express is not complicated to play, and I think it is a great example of a gateway game – a really good introduction to programmed action games, and some nice eye candy to go with it.  Because your action choices are limited, the game tends to play very quickly, and the fun theme will help all levels of gamer get into it.

SCALABILITY: You can play this game with 2-6 players, but I think that should be 4-6.  The more the merrier.  More players means more chaos, and in a game like this, that’s a good thing.

REPLAYABILITY: Some might find this game to have limited playability as there’s not a whole lot of variation in the box.  Sure, the round cards will be different every time, but beyond that, it’s going to be a similar game.  I think this is a game that will be made or broken by the group you’re playing with – if you’ve got players who can embrace the craziness, you’re going to have fun every time; if you’ve got players that demand order in their gaming experience, or who suffer from severe AP, it’s going to be kind of miserable.

INTERACTION: Because action selection is not simultaneous, you’ve got to be able to react to what the previous players have done.  Face down actions make things interesting.  Punching and shooting is the most direct way to interact, but there’s also the moving of the Marshall and the grabbing of loot from under someone else’s nose.  Also, it’s amazing how much the player before you can mangle your plans through one card play.  So I find it to be a quite interactive game.

FOOTPRINT: To play this game, you need room for the train (which doesn’t take up as much room as you’d think) and the players sitting around the table.  Even with six, I think this game is playable on a medium sized table.

LEGACY: Colt Express won the Spiel des Jahres in 2015, and I think it’s probably one of the best winners that award has had in a while.  It’s a good family game with a fun theme, and I think it will lead well into other programmed action games like RoboRally.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Absolutely.  This was my new-to-me game of the year for 2015, and I look forward to playing it more in the future.  I highly recommend that you check it out.  Now, I just need the Delorean expansion and I’ll be all set.

image by BGG user kainarchy
image by BGG user kainarchy

Thanks for reading!

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2 comments

  1. A strong theme is one thing but… the 3D train sort of makes this look and feel like a children’s game or a toy, doesn’t it? If we are trying to break into the mainstream and gain credibility with this hobby, shouldn’t we be more concern about the image of “adults playing with toys”?

    • It depends on what you want the hobby to be. If you want the hobby to be ultra serious, with no-nonsense adults thinking critically and making important decisions, then yes, this would a little too silly. But I prefer the hobby where adults can have fun too. It’s not like you’re driving the train around the table saying “choo choo”, you’re using it as a game board. And there’s an actual game there, which does separate it from a lot of the toy games out there. I think there’s something to be said for having a game that is visually distinctive enough to bring people to the table in the first place, and has enough game to tell them that there’s more out there than just Hungry Hungry Hippos or Crocodile Dentist.

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