In any form of entertainment, the difference between good and great often comes down to a willingness to innovate. It’s easy for an actor, a writer, or even a game company to find a niche and ride it to success. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but exploring boundaries and taking chances can create some extraordinary opportunities. Columbia Games has long been a maker of quality block war games, including their 2015 hit Victory in Europe. Yet The Last Spike broke away from their standard formula to explore the world of trains and investments, where players complete the U.S. transcontinental railroad by connecting St. Louis to Sacramento. The end result is that gamers end up being rewarded for Columbia Games’ gamble.
What’s inside the box may not seem particularly groundbreaking, as nearly all the components are done in the traditional Columbia Games’ style. You’ll get a set of finely made wooden blocks, a Columba Games staple, that depict different sections of railroad. Also included is a massive amount of wooden poker chips that are the game’s money. These are just as great as the blocks and stack just as nicely as actual poker chips. There’s also 45 land deed cards, five for each of the nine cities on that map. But I did say “nearly,” so it’s not all good. I have yet to own a Columbia Game that has a great board, but this one is below even their standards. It looks fine, but it is flimsy. Considering the Kickstarter edition was to include a “deluxe mounted board,” it’s disheartening to unfold a thin cardboard map that fails on both Kickstarter goals. You will almost certainly need to lay some plexiglass or something over it to get it to lie flat in your first few plays.
The rule book is short and precise. You’ll have no trouble picking up the game’s simple premise. Each player receives wooden railroad blocks that have a letter-number combination that corresponds to a position on the board. Each block also has a cost that must be paid to lay that particular track. After playing a track, each player has the option to buy a card representing one of the cities on the board. The first card is free and goes to the player that lays the first track by the city. The value of each ensuing card increases. When all the track has been laid, the two cities that have been connected generate income for each player that owns at least one card from those cities. The more cards you have from those cities, the more income that is received. When the last block is placed that connects St. Louis all the way to Sacramento, the game ends and that player receives a $20,000 bonus. Everyone then tallies their chips, and the player with the most money wins. The rules are easy to sum up in a short paragraph, but the game’s strategy is anything but shallow.
The cards for the two end locations, St. Louis and Sacramento, will be gobbled up fairly quickly since the railroad must go through those locations. After that, no other city is guaranteed to be part of the transcontinental railroad. Grabbing all five cards of Dodge City may not be the best strategy. After all, there’s little motivation for one player to lay a railroad block on a line that’s going to give a hefty payout to another player who has monopolized a particular connection. This fosters some player cooperation to see that cities get connected while insuring that everyone gets their cut.
The game is much more than just throwing cash around. Some tracks, especially those crossing rivers or forging tunnels through mountains, are particularly expensive. If a player is stuck laying a track that’s not directly connected to a city, the price to lay it doubles. Also, the land cards get pricier as each city’s deck gets snatched up. It’s quite possible to run out of money in the game, forcing a land sale at a fraction of what you paid for it. Sensible buying is essential to staying competitive in the game, as the winning baron is liable to have overflowing coffers.
The game isn’t without a luck factor since railroad blocks are drawn randomly, but this is easily overshadowed by the planning and cooperation needed to compete. Still, the luck factor helps add to the replay value of the game. A different hand of tiles will result in different strategies being employed. The game also scales particularly well to a different number of players. A full game table can lead to a poker-like atmosphere (making the poker-style chips fitting) as players try to outwit each other on what cities they want to complete. Even at just two players, the game is engaging due to one minor tweak. In a two player game, one tile is removed, unseen, which creates tension as two players build connections without knowing which connection is impossible to complete.
The game may be a departure from Columbia Games’ normal offerings, but the general concept isn’t new. The Last Spike’s gameplay has been compared to Avalon Hill’s classic Acquire, a game of investments. The concept may be versatile, but The Last Spike definitely stands on its own merits. Sure, the theme could have involved laying property or purchasing stock, but the train theme works very well. As blocks get laid, it’s great to see the connections appear. A game will last no longer than an hour and doesn’t even feel that long, as the gameplay and theme mesh beautifully to create a extremely smooth experience.
This is nothing short of a fantastic game. The Last Spike is easy to learn yet contains the depth to keep you coming back again and again. This combination also makes it a great crossover between family gamers and gaming groups. The game rewards those that have a solid strategy and good cooperation. If branching out results in games of this quality appearing in their catalogue, then I’d love to see Columbia Games continue to expand the variety of their games.
The Last Spike
Designed by: Tom Dalgliesh
Published by: Columbia Games
Ages: 10 and up
Time: 45-60 minutes
Mechanics: tile placement, stock holding