Do you remember that scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, when Clint Eastwood hops a train and starts stealing loot from the passengers? And then Lee van Cleef punches him in the face and Clint flies into another carriage where a marshall is waiting; and the marshall shoots Clint, so Clint escapes out the window and onto the roof. But then he forgets what he was doing so he climbs back into the carriage and gets shot by the marshall again, so Clint has to climb back out the window and back onto the roof. And then he pulls out his gun to shoot somebody except there’s nobody there so he puts his gun away. But then Eli Wallach climbs out of the carriage and punches Clint so hard that Clint flies onto the roof of the next carriage and drops the loot he was carrying.
You remember that, right?
So that’s not exactly true. But it would have been true had Clint Eastwood been playing Colt Express, Ludonaute’s Incompetent Bandit SimulatorTM. In Colt Express you and your friends move little gun-slinging meeples up and down a three-dimensional train, stealing loot and shooting each other. You do this for four rounds, after which the bandit with the most money wins. And there’s a lot of money to steal: not only is the Colt Express filled with purses worth various amounts, it’s filled with valuable diamonds. Lots of diamonds. They’re just lying on the floor. And at the front of the train is a Marshall who’s guarding an even more valuable strongbox. But you don’t just get money for stealing loot; the player who does the most shooting gets a bonus at game’s end. So it’s in your financial interests to shoot your friends.
In each round of Colt Express you draw a card which will show the number of turns each player gets, events that will happen and any special features in that round. So one turn might take place in a tunnel, which means nobody knows what anybody else is doing. A turn might consist of players taking two actions instead of one. This keeps things interesting: each round of Colt Express is unique.
Play then goes clockwise round the table, with each player choosing one action to play each turn. You can move your bandit. You can punch another bandit in the face — punch him so hard in fact that he drops his loot and flies into an adjacent carriage. You can shoot another bandit. You can pick up loot. Finally, you can move the Marshall around the train.
This probably all seems straight forward. But it’s not really. In Colt Express, actions are programmed rather than carried out immediately. This is how it works: at the beginning of each round the players draw a hand of six cards from their personal deck of action cards. These cards look like this:
When you choose an action you put the corresponding card face-up in the middle of the table. The next player plays her first action card face-up on top of it. You go round the table like this until everybody has played all of their actions and you have a communal deck of action cards. The player who started the round takes the deck, turns it over and reveals each card in turn. It’s at this point that players get to carry out their chosen actions.
Suffice to say Colt Express gets very silly, because programming your actions is exactly what makes this a game of incompetent bandits. Rather than reacting to events, you have to plan everything — you have to think four or five actions ahead. But you’re also weighing up what actions other players are going to do; and some of those actions will no doubt interfere with your own. Somebody could punch you into another carriage, which means that your carefully crafted actions will happen in the wrong place. What starts as a tactical master-plan degenerates into farce. You were going to pick up some loot; suddenly you’re in an empty carriage scrabbling round the floor. Somebody moved the Marshall into your carriage, which means you get shot and have to climb onto the roof. But your next action was going to move you onto the roof; so now the action makes you climb back into the carriage where the Marshall shoots you a second time and you climb back on to the roof. There’s nothing you can do about it now; you can’t rescind an action once you’ve programmed it.
So Colt Express is as much about double-guessing your opponents as it is about working out what you’re going to do. Is the player to your left going to use the punch action he just played to punch you or another bandit? Is he moving the Marshall into your carriage or a different carriage? Are you going to play your action on the assumption you’ll be somewhere else when you get to do it or will you take a chance and hope you’re left in peace? What happens if you get it wrong?
But what about all the shooting? Let’s be clear about one thing; nobody dies in Colt Express — this is a family game — but people are going to get shot a lot. Of course they are, shooting a lot of people gives you a chance of getting a $1000 bonus at game’s end. But shooting players is also a way to slow them down, to make life more difficult. When you shoot another player, you give her one of your bullet cards. Bullet cards have no effect on their own, but they get shuffled into the player’s deck of actions. This means that the more times she gets shot, the more her deck is going to get swollen with useless bullet cards that are going to reduce the number of actual, useful actions she can do. I mean, just look at this:
Colt Express has some other neat thematic features. Some rounds feature tunnels, in which for one turn players get to play a card face down and nobody knows what anybody else just did. Did the player to your left just swipe that loot that was on the floor or did he punch you? And there are the round’s events. At the end of a round a water tower might swing round and knock any bandit on the roof back to the caboose. Or the train might slam on its brakes, and everybody lurches forward a space.
Characters also have their own unique abilities. Doc gets to draw seven cards into his hand every round instead of six; Cheyenne gets to steal loot when she punches a bandit. Belle can’t be punched or shot if another bandit can be punched or shot instead. Ghost is interesting; Ghost plays the first action of every round face down. Nobody knows what Ghost’s up to except Ghost; and whatever he just did made his player chuckle.
All of this adds up to a nicely balanced Wild West caper. The nature of the programming means that players can sometimes pull off incredibly competent strategies, but more often the group will be left laughing as bungling bandits scrat around the floors of empty carriages, shoot at people who aren’t there and swing wild punches at the air. It means that Colt Express never gets too strategic. It’s too chaotic. It’s too silly. For all the theme and flavour, at heart it just wants you to have a silly time. So it’s good for families. It’s good for people who don’t like heavy strategic games. Sure, you can work out all the permutations if you want. You can make all the calculations and spend time optimising strategies, but those strategies will likely be left in ruins the moment you get a fist in the face. So it’s more fun if you embrace it and go with the silliness. Play some cards. See what happens. You might accidentally do something brilliant.
Number of players: 2-6
Playing time: 30-40 minutes
Designer: Christophe Raimbault
Appropriate soundtrack: Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly soundtrack: