Silas: Yeeee-hawww! Hello, pardners. My name is Silas McCoy and I’m here to tell y’all about Colt Express, a game of action, danger and the free life of a train-robbing outlaw. Yeeee-haw!
Brendan [exhausted]: Ah. Ho. Ho boy. Hi, everybody. I hope this man didn’t frighten you. This is Silas, a fictional character I invented when I realised I was going to be late for the review. I sent him ahead with his horse, which I also created. Such is the power of the board game journalist. Phew. But now that I have arrived, I can-
Silas: Stick ’em up.
Brendan: What? Hey, that’s my wallet! No, Silas! Come back here, or I swear I’ll… Hey! Stop riding around on that thing. And stop firing your gun in the air, it’s irresponsible. Don’t make me invent a sheriff, Goddamn you!
Brendan: All right. Colt Express is a 2-6 player game set on a three-dimensional train. Yes, you read that right: a train in THREE dimensions. Your meeples will actually hop from carriage to carriage, bustling down the aisles or crawling out onto the roof to jump from car to car, like little wooden action heroes. It is a very toy-like game. There are even twee cardboard cacti, bones and rocks that you can set up around the train that don’t do anything in game terms but are simply props to add a sandier flavour to your Western, like the dash of salt you toss across your jerky.
Here’s how it works. Everybody starts in the rear of the train, as if you have all just jumped aboard. Sprinkled at your cowboy (or girl)’s feet will be a collection of goodies – these can be purses containing a hidden amount of cash or they can be precious jewels. Each player has a handful of action cards, allowing them to do things like move up or down the train, pick up some loot, punch another player, climb out onto the roof, or simply fire their six-shooter.
Brendan: Quite. Players take turns to place down an action card, face-up. Once done, you all might have some idea of what you are planning to do and what your opponents are up to. You can see red is moving somewhere, while green is making for the roof. But hold up. Nobody moves their piece just yet. This is just the first step to programming your cowboy. The rest of the turn will depend on what the track ahead of you looks like. This is shown on the “round card.” Say it shows five spaces – that means there are five turns to this round, so five actions each. But some of these spaces are darkened. That means the train is plunging its way through a tunnel on that turn, meaning you all have to play your action cards face down. This is where the robbery gets messy. Now, you can’t see exactly what the other outlaws are doing or where they plan to move, you can only make an educated guess and re-work your own actions to catch them off guard.
This leads to some very silly Wild West antics. When the round ends, all the actions play out one after another. You see Django clambering up a ladder in a panic, trying to avoid being shot. Meanwhile, Doc starts filling his boots with rubies from the floor. He goes into the next room and is promptly punched in the face by Belle, who was actually hoping to hit Ghost. Lucky for her, punching someone means they drop a piece of loot. Belle uses her next turn to grab the jewels and clambers up to the roof, while Django climbs back down the rear car’s ladder like the most indecisive, insecure madman in the West, only to find the best loot is now long gone. He is then shot by Cheyenne (who was aiming for Tuco).
It’s a clumsy melee full of second-guessing, third-guessing and fourth-guessing your fellow robbers’ moves. Inevitably, there are slip-ups. All of it is made more complicated by the individual powers of each character. For instance, Tuco can shoot through the roof or floor of the carriage he is occupying and Cheyenne can immediately nab a purse from anyone she punches, without using a turn. In our game, this would lead to me, playing Tuco, walking around on the roof like a crazed bandido, blasting bullets through the floor at Quinns and Pip as they scrambled about on their hands and knees, scraping for the dollar they needed to become the richest, winning player.
Being shot in itself is not a mortal danger. In fact, nobody can actually die in Colt Express.
[BANG BANG BANG]
Silas: Perfect for families! Yeeeee-hawww!
Brendan: That’s giving me a headache. Anyway, being shot only disadvantages you in terms of your action cards. Every time you are hit, the offending player gives you one of their six bullet cards. These are then shuffled into your action deck, increasing the likelihood of you drawing a useless card at the start of the round. Effectively, being shot slows you down, has you staggering and wincing your way through each compartment. You will also want to empty your revolver into as many of your dastardly friends as possible, because the person with the least bullets in their gun at the end of the game is known as the “Gunslinger” and gets a bonus. A $1,000 bonus.
Silas: Incentivisation of the workforce! Wooooooo-eee!
Brendan: Nnnrgh. That does it. Sheriff?
Sheriff Ludlow: Can I help you, stranger?
Brendan: After that man!
Sheriff Ludlow: Darn bandits. Giddy-up!
Brendan: That’s another thing about Colt Express. You can also get gutshot by the Marshall. This little yellow meeple hangs out in the locomotive, guarding a strongbox with a ton of money inside. Every player holds an action card with the Marshall on it, which allows them to move him one carriage in any direction. Being caught in a car by the Marshall means you get shot with one “neutral” bullet (slowing you further) and forces you out the window to the roof. This adds an extra element of caution to your moves. You want the moolah but you don’t want to get caught. In our game, the lawman wandered up and down the train for about twenty minutes, as if confused by all the commotion and maybe slightly deaf, always entering a carriage just after it had been cleared out. Only later, when we started getting more daring (or when our hands became less malleable, thanks to all the bullet wounds) did people start using the Marshall in earnest, as if he’d finally found a pot of coffee.
Sheriff Ludlow: C’mere you varmint!
Silas: Restrictivity of the proletariat! Yeeeeee-hoooo!
Brendan: Goddammit, could you please keep it down! [sighs] Colt Express is a funny game. It certainly has moments, like Space Alert, when you look at the outcome of all your machinations only to see your plan unravelling in an embarrassing jog with lots of useless flailing – a gunfight with thin air while your foe hoovers up all the cash in a carriage right below you. Often, the round card will include other events (a swivel arm on the roof that knocks all bandits back onto the caboose, the train braking suddenly, shunting all cowboys forward) that screw up your plans even more, forcing you to predict how everyone else will also react.
Brendan: Nnnrgh. The bullets-as-slowdown is also a clever feature. The more you are shot, the more your options start to dwindle. You can always skip a turn to pick up three more cards from your small action pile, essentially taking a breath behind a passenger seat while an opponent runs past, but ideally you want to avoid being hit altogether. Those bullet wounds quickly add up. Anoth-
Brendan: Another thin-
Brendan: JESUS. Excuse me. Silas! SILAS.
Silas: Yeee-haw! What’s happening, hombre!
Brendan: I’m sorry but this can’t go on.
Silas: Whatcha talkin’ ’bout feller? I can do whatever I please! Hooo-haaaaw!
[BANG BANG BA-]
[SPEEDING TRAIN. SPLATTER]
Brendan: Ugh. As I was saying, another thing I should mention about Colt Express is that, while it is funny and very toyish, I wonder how much you might get out of it. It is a very vivid game. The first time you play, you are able to envisage the brawling, bumbling and cartoony shooting spree as it occurs. Each round is like a little animation that plays out along this trailing play-thing, soliciting giggles, face-palms and fist pumps. The art style certainly helps. I mean, just look at that train. Look at the little dinner plates in the dining car, look at all the luggage stacked up in the caboose. These are the kind of tiny details that really help it come to life, even if they are just flattened scenery.
My only concern is that I worry how many times you can watch such a similarly-themed animation, even if the outcome is different each time. Can we recommend it? I’d say, yes. Conditionally. Perhaps it is a game to bring out infrequently. Think of the times you might play Robo-Rally – Colt Express is a good substitute. Alternatively, it strikes me as a great game for younger players who might want to move on from simpler games to something that needs a little more thought but is also still obviously blessed with the fun of having a a plain and honest shoot-out. And that… well, that’s all I really got to say about it.
Sheriff Ludlow: That was some mighty fine work there, pardner.
Brendan [spits]: Yup.
Sheriff Ludlow: Mighty fine.
[You have been watching TOMMY LEE JONES as BRENDAN CALDWELL in A SHUT UP & SIT DOWN PRODUCTION]