Train Heist: Review

Today, Fairway and his regulators mount up to right some wrongs by robbin’ some trains. That’s right, in Train Heist, the good guys rob the trains and the bad guys are trying to stop them.  So find out if Fairway and his crew are good at do-gooding, train robbing in this review of a Kickstarter delivery from Tower Guard Games. Train Heist was picked up recently by Cryptozoic.

He’s included a bonus video of his kids “teaching” the game at the end. He thinks it’s hilarious.

Train Heist is a two- to four-player, cooperative game in which players take on roles of “bandits” that rob a train in order to grab its cargo and return it to the town. They have to do this all before time runs out.   There is also a versus mode, but we’ve never played it so this review focuses on the core, cooperative game.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The art and components are all very nice. There’s a nice big board which includes a clever, magnetic speed and difficult gauge.
  2. The cowboy meeples (cowbeeples?) can ride the meeple horse! That’s worth a mention on its own.
  3. The mechanics of the game are very streamlined and clever. The train advances around the board and through tunnels on the board. There’s a profile of a train in which you can move through or on top of.  It’s all incredibly clever.
  4. Setup and game play are quick and easy to learn. Since it’s a cooperative game, you can easily teach new players by just diving right in.

Game play ^

In Train Heist, you and your compatriots are the bandits. There is a lot to this game, but your objective is to take goods off the train and return goods to the various towns scattered around the tracks.  The game ends in three ways with winning only if they return enough loot to the towns.

At the start, players each get a bandit meeple and five poker cards. The players all begin in the middle of the board along with a horse meeple (or a few depending on player count).

Players then take turns taking up to four different actions: moving (themselves or horses), switching track tokens, futzing with poker cards, and picking up and dropping off loot.

Much of the game, players are moving their cowboy meeple around the board. The choices for travel are on foot, on horseback, or by catching a ride on the train.  While on the train, players meeples are on the clever train-portion of the board. They can move through train cars or, in classic-cowboy style, jump onto the top of the train cars to avoid capture by the dastardly sheriff who patrols the train and guarding the loot.  Players can also discard their poker cards to move the horse (without a rider) which is a helpful catch-up mechanism.

The players are tasked with collecting the “loot” from the train and returning it to the townspeople. To take the look from the train, the player must collect a set of poker cards that match the loot on the train.  They discard the cards and pick up to two of the loot tokens.  The player then must drop the loot off at one of the train stops.

Dropping off loot is one of the paths to victory. The flip-side is that if the train passes a town without loot, it advances the “hangman’s noose.” If the noose reaches the bottom, the game ends and the players lose.

Players can also manipulate the train by flipping switches on the tracks.  During the game, the train moves around the track according to the train’s speed.  There are two places on the board that players can cause the train to essentially change direction by flipping directional arrows.

As the train moves around the track, it’ll encounter sheriff badges which causes the players to draw an event card. The event cards do a lot of things, including making the train go faster. The faster the train the more frequently you trigger events and the sooner it arrives at the town.

In addition to moving meeples around, the game is chock full of other thematic things: earn special powers by claiming wanted cards, jump from the top of the train onto a neighboring horse, “take a bullet” token if you want to save an action for the next turn, if you’re caught standing on the tracks you get hit by the train, travel through the tunnel and sheriff can’t see you, get caught by the sheriff go to jail… and on and on.

On the Green ^

Train Heist is a refreshing take on the Western-themed board games and it’s particularly well done.

Components.  The components alone probably deserve their own post. The designer/publisher made some fantastic choices.  Illustrative of this is the magnetic needle attachments that track both the difficulty and train speed. These cardboard pieces are magnetically attached to the board and turn like real gauges. It’s a fantastic idea.

Similarly, the cowbeeples can actually ride the horse meeples, a cute little gimmick in its own right.

And, of course, the game has train pieces that move along a track. That too is a great little touch.

The board.  In addition to the board being made of nice cardboard, it too has a very interesting design. It’s use as a board to move around in the macro (along tracks, through the crackpot canyon, to the town) and in the micro (on the moving train) is clever. The spaces and movement on the board itself make sense and is intuitive. And featured great cowboy tropes like bridges and tunnels (don’t want to be on top of the train when going through a tunnel). Planning routes and intercept points is a great part of the strategy but also a lot of fun.

The Theme.  The game is an creative twist on standard Western-theme fare: you’re train robbers trying to do the right thing and return the loot to the citizens.

Wanted Cards.  Okay, so these little side quests are quite fun in their own right and reward players with special powers for less-than-obvious tasks like getting hit by the train.

Cooperative.  There’s a lot to do in this game. This factor helped Train Heist be less susceptible to the problem of one-player solving the game for other players for a couple reasons. First was the fact that individual players’ turns were long and often complex. Players were planning their own turn while others took turns. You have to account for train movement and loot locations. So if you were busy worrying about other players, then you weren’t taking your turn properly.  Second was a result of so many player choices.  There was a bunch of ways to accomplish a task. So while a player could suggest a particular outcome, most players took it upon themselves to figure out how best to do it.

Simulation?  In some ways this game attempts to be a Spaghetti Western simulation replete with all of the gags and tropes you’d want. I put this in the plus category for mere audaciousness. The consequences of turning more simulation like show up in the complexity of some things, discussed below.

Where it comes up short ^

I take issue with only a few things about this game.

Sometimes (Needless?) Complexity.  There is a lot going on. The rulebook itself is evidence of this. There are lots of little things to think about and, frankly, to miss when playing the first few times. The rules themselves cover many of the conditions that pop up, but it’s one of those games where you ask: “what happens if I do _____?” There’s usually an answer, but these small rule facets permeate lots of the game from train movements, to Wanted cards, to where and how much you can move.

Card Collection.  So one of the key mechanics to winning the game is set collection based on the poker cards. Of all the things in the game, this one little mechanic just doesn’t fit the theme for me. How is it that having certain set of poker cards lets me steal loot from the train? .

Animal cowboys? I mention this only in passing, but the art and box all feature animal cowboys and sheriff. Other than in the flavor art in the rule book and box, this idea doesn’t really appear anywhere in the game except in the occasional passenger you rescue. There’s nothing wrong with the art, or even the idea, but it’s just peculiar pairing that doesn’t actually impact anything in the game.

In the hole ^

Train Heist is a terrific addition to a game library for anyone who enjoy Western-themed games. The game is full of terrific game play choices and is both deep in strategy and fun. The game incorporates all of the great Western tropes you’d want in a game: horses, trains, jumping on horses from trains. You know, that sort of stuff.

Train Heist is in the hole for a Birdie. ^

Owen & Lisette Play Train Heist ^

Awhile back, I recorded my kids doing a parody “play through” of Train Heist.  I think the results are hilarious.


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