Give Me Coal, Give Me Gold, Give Me That Which I Desire - A Whistle Stop Review
Trains. Track gliding, coal devouring, smoke billowing, good delivering trains. I’ve been hooked on their oldworld locomotive beauty as of late. Recently, I’ve been praising the 18xx series for its complex blend of route building and stock trading. In fact, it only takes a moment’s glance at my recent top 35 games to see how much I love 18xx. However, I’ve been wanting to explore these locomotive machines in a new lighter game format completely distinct from 18xx. Enter Whistle Stop and its new Rocky Mountain expansion, a medium-light Euro game designed by Scott Caputo and published by Bezier Games where players race westward across the States to accumulate fame points in various ways in an attempt to claim victory over their opposition.
The Learn and Teach
Whistle Stop proved to be a fairly straightforward and easy rulebook to digest. I read through its entirety once and then proceeded to watch an instructional video on YouTube to solidify my understanding of the game. I was up and running with about an hour’s effort. However, it is important to note that I did occasionally encounter a rules question that wasn’t entirely answerable via the rulebook. In a situation like this, Board Game Geek proved to be a useful tool. I was delighted to see the designer’s continued support on BGG where he actively answers player questions.
Whistle Stop’s teach is an easy one if your group is into board gaming. The rules overhead is minimal and the entire teach shouldn’t take longer than ten to fifteen minutes. You simply do four action points worth of moves on your turn by spending coal or whistles to move your trains or by spending resource cubes to obtain or steal upgrade tiles. Once you understand how these two primary actions work and what each unique tile does, you’re nearly ready to play. However, I would not recommend it as an entrypoint into the hobby, but instead as a “next step” game for those willing to dig deeper into board gaming since I do find the concepts here to be slightly more advanced than something like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne, which are oftentimes hailed as pinnacle gateway games. Even as a self proclaimed heavy gamer myself, I found Whistle Stop’s addictive point scoring pick-up and deliver system to be compelling and well worth my time.
Art and Components
Upon my first glance of the board, I immediately notice how aesthetically pleasing this game is. Light shades of green, blue, and grey fill my field of vision. Even the player colors are soft pastel blues, greens, pinks, yellows, and oranges which I very much enjoy. However, I would imagine that some of these player colors or the colors of resource cubes could be challenging to tell apart if you are colorblind. Whistle Stop puts forth minimal to no effort in accommodating color blindness. Thankfully, this was a non issue for my group, but it is something I try to remain cognizant of, as I find it to be important.
I found the smooth and calming color palette to be a superb complimenter to the clean art style and graphic design. The board state is simple to read at any moment during the game and the train tracks are simple to follow. The component quality is great. No complaints there either.
Whistle Stop manages to feel like a train game as you glide from track to track delivering goods across the countryside as you work your way westward. Creating a system to gather coal to feed your literal engine is key to individual success, which I find to be quite thematic. However, the stocks in the game feel completely abstracted. You simply deliver goods to special tiles to receive stock in companies. Whomever owns the most stock in a company at the end of the game gains fifteen fame points while everyone else with that stock gain zero points. This creates a fun tug of war competition between players during the game, but does so unfortunately at the expense of producing a thematic portrayal of the stock market. Perhaps this was a design choice to maintain a lower complexity ruleset, which I find reasonable. Nevertheless, if the stock mechanic was less abstracted and more fleshed out, Whistle Stop would have won big I think.
In Whistle Stop, your focus will be divided amongst finding a way to consistently produce coal or whistles (which will provide movement to your trains), gathering resources of common and rare varieties, delivering goods to score points and collect stocks, mining gold for even more points, and racing to the end of the track to retire your trains for instant rewards and to threaten end of game. Comboing actions together to complete more than one of these aforementioned goals on your turn is addictive and rewarding.
On your turn, you can spend resources to gain an upgrade tile from the general supply or steal an upgrade tile from another player (in which case you’d have to give them a rare resource in exchange). These upgrade tiles score you fame points at the end of the game while also providing you with game breaking powers. From my plays of the game, it seems clear to me that not all upgrade tiles are created equal. In most games, some upgrade tiles would be stolen back and forth because of their power while others would never be touched. The Coal Car upgrade token seems especially powerful, since it provides you with an incredibly effective way to maintain a steady production of coal, a key resource in the game. I’ve noticed if one player holds this tile for too long, they will most likely win the game. Thankfully, other players can steal this tile, which helps to balance the game. The Compass upgrade tile allows you to look through the stack of facedown tiles when drawing back up to your hand limit at the end of your turn. In theory this sounds like a great tile (and perhaps it is if you have the patience), but it requires you to shuffle the entire stack of board tiles everytime you do this. I’m not sure if you’ve ever shuffled thick cardboard tiles before, but it’s not the easiest task to complete when there’s a substantial amount of tiles to shuffle. Thankfully the tiles are variable on setup, so we no longer play with this tile.
As players take turns scoring points, they will shoot past each other on the fame track struggling to maintain their precious first place spot. Most of my games were close up until the last turn with no clear runaway leader, resulting in tense decisions closer to the end game where I worked hard to maximum my efforts. This is always a welcome sight in board games. However, a more experienced player does have a solid chance to trounce a newbie, which in my opinion is never a bad thing for a strategy game.
Perhaps the most egregious end game scoring design choice is the subtraction of ten fame points for each special stop tile left in a player’s hand at the end of the game. I assume this rule exists to encourage players to play special tiles early in the game to keep the board state interesting, but due to random tile draws, players can really get screwed at the end of the game if luck isn’t in their favor.
Playtime and Player Count
Turns are fairly quick, which leads to snappy games that will play anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half depending on player count and experience. Actually the only time I feel that the game drags is during setup. Sorting through and shuffling the hex terrain tiles and placing two coal per player on each turn of the round track continued to be an exercise in fiddliness game after game and an occasional reason why I might opt to pull a different game off the shelf when I’m in the mood for a medium-light Euro game.
I’ve only had the opportunity to play Whistle Stop at the two and three player counts. Both player counts worked quite nicely with three players getting the slight edge due to heightened competition for stops and stocks. I suspect four player sessions to also work well.
Replayability and Variability
The base game of Whistle Stop possesses enough variability upon setup of the modular board and variable upgrade tiles to keep you busy for quite some time. However, if you find yourself wanting a little more after three plays of the base game, I highly recommend the Rocky Mountain expansion. This is a rather small expansion that adds—you guessed it—the Rocky Mountains to the game, which makes traveling more expensive once you reach them. It also provides rewards for laying track down in the mountains and provides a new way to receive gold, which was less common in the base game. I found the Rocky Mountain expansion to be the perfect amount of new content to keep the game entertaining and exciting throughout without adding any new complexity and I highly recommend it.
Whistle Stop is a delightful “next step” Euro game that pairs a calming aesthetic to an addictive action comboing system. It is usually a close and tense race for first place up until the last turn of the game. The pick-up and deliver mechanic is well executed and watching the board fill with track is an enjoyable sight. Unfortunately, the stock mechanic is too abstract for my tastes, but at least it results in an engaging tug of war between players. The upgrade tiles can also be hit or miss. However, even when considering these minor complaints, I find Whistle Stop—and especially its expansion—to be a great experience worthy of your table’s time.