Colt Express.

Colt Express won the 2015 Spiel des Jahres prize as the best moderate-level boardgame of the year, beating out Machi Koro (which I think should have won) and something called The Game, which was apparently named by designers who wanted to be sure no one could ever Google their product. Asmodee, the publisher of Colt Express and now owner of the boardgame and app publishing studio Days of Wonder, has just released an app versionof the game, and it’s a solid adaptation with a couple of major frustrations built into it.

Colt Express pits players against each other as bandits in an old-fashioned train robbery, with the twin goals of collecting as much loot as possible while also shooting as many of your opponents as possible; the final scoring rewards the gems and purses you collect, and gives a bonus to the ‘best shooter’ who’s discharged the most bullets. There’s a marshal on the train as well, and if you happen to run into him, you get shot and forced up on top of a train car.

All movement and action takes place via cards that are played to the table at the start of each round, most visible to all players but some hidden when the train passes into a tunnel, but not actually enacted until all cards for that round have been played – it’s a two-phase process, playing all cards, then going through the pile and letting players act on those cards. Cards allow for movement along the train, movement up to the top of a car or back down into one, punching an opponent (which forces him/her to drop one item), picking up an item from the floor, shooting at an opponent, or moving the marshal one car in either direction. If you’ve been shot, you also get a neutral, useless bullet card in your deck, which just reduces the options in your hand for your turn. You can also pass on a turn to draw three more cards from your deck if you’re looking for a specific card. A round can involve as few as two card plays or as many as five; sometimes the order reverses, sometimes you’ll get to play two in a row (very valuable for sneaking up on someone and poking him in the snoot). Some rounds end with a special rule, such as any character on top of the car that contains the marshal draws a neutral bullet card.

The entire strategy of Colt Express involves guessing what your opponents are likely to do and planning out your cards to anticipate those moves and/or give yourself flexibility to react on the fly, once the cards are played but before they’re used. When a player plays a card at the start of the round, that player doesn’t have to specify, say, how far they’re moving or in which direction, or who the target of a shooting or punching card would be, so you need to see what’s played and keep track of the tree of potential decisions from that. The only random aspect of the game is the card draw, but there’s a ton of luck involved in the guesswork – you can plan well and still whiff because another player did something unlikely or unanticipated.

The app version looks great, as all Asmodee and DoW apps have, with strong graphics and bright colors, and it ran smoothly on my iPad Pro. (I just upgraded from a five-year-old iPad 2, which couldn’t run a full game without crashing.) The app allows you to play in Classic mode with any number of the game’s pre-set characters – each of whom has some special ability; I think Cheyenne’s is the best – and has the potential for you to play with some variants, although those aren’t immediately available.

There are two real flaws with the app, one easy to fix, one less so. The app comes with a story mode that includes five short missions for each of the five characters, and completing all five missions for a character unlocks a variant for you to use in the base game, such as having the last car on the train detach at the end of a round. I have never liked this concept in app design, where certain aspects of the game are inaccessible unless you complete something else; Catan made this mistake and it is one of the main reasons I don’t recommend that particular app. If you pay for the product, you should get the whole product up front. I completed the stories for two of the characters, but the missions generally are more like puzzles than full games, because you’re often ignoring what the AI characters are doing; you’re completing one or two tasks, while the AI characters are playing the game normally. Just make the variants available from the start and use Achievements to reward players who complete the stories.

I’ve also found the AI players to be a little dumb, at least in terms of card choices. Obviously, you’re playing a little blind, not knowing what other players will play or do over the course of a round, but there are certain cards that you know you won’t be able to use, or are maybe 5% likely to be able to use – for example, punching another character when there won’t be anyone in your space, or picking up an item from the ground when the ground is empty. The AI players tend to do that a couple of times per game, in total, and there’s no excuse for it; AI players have the advantage of calculating every possible set of moves in a game this limited, and moves that are 5% (or less) likely to work should be discarded.

There’s one technical glitch that could also have been user error (meaning I may have screwed up). When you play a card to shoot or punch another character, you have to select the target, and sometimes you have more than one choice (e.g., you’re in a car with two other characters). Choosing the right target is occasionally tricky when you’ve got several characters bunched up together in a car. Twice I thought I clicked on one target but the game selected the other one, so either 1) it was not clear which selection button attached to which target or 2) I just did it wrong.

The app is $3.99 for iOS devices or $4.99 for Android; I have only played the iOS version. I think the game itself is enjoyable enough for a $4 price, but I think you’d get more out of it if you use the online multiplayer feature instead of facing off against AI opponents.

Comments

  1. Christian Orton

    This one, Camel Cup and Jamaica are gold star games for our family. Me and three kids ages 6, 8 and 10.

    Colt Express is probably our favorite of the three even though it feels the most random. Camel Cup is the choice if we want a more outwitting style game.

    Great review Keith.

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