by Harvey Mossman
Publisher: Columbia Games
Designer: Tom Dalgliesh
I must admit that I was not the original reviewer for this game and it came back to me when that person could not meet his deadline. Now, I am a hard-core historical, hex and counter gamer so The Last Spike was not exactly something I was longing to review. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Columbia Games’ eurogame treatment of land speculation during the great era of railroad building across America.
In the game, players compete to accumulate money from land speculation out West where railroads are due to be built. This differs very much from the railroad building genre popular in eurogame circles where building the rail line is paramount and moving commodities is profitable. In this game your goal is to buy the land where the railroad track would be laid and profit when the track is actually completed between 2 cities. There is no product to move and no cargoes to be managed.
The Last Spike fits a certain niche of games that can be broken out in a group of up to 6 people, learned in less than 5 minutes, played in half an hour yet providing enough entertainment value so that people immediately ask to play it again
The game rules are printed on a 5.5 x 8.5 folded sheet of paper meaning that there are simply 4 small pages of rules to read before you can get started. Literally you can take this game out and put it in front of people and be playing in 5 minutes.
The game requires 2-6 players and the 11 x 17” hard mounted gameboard is hardly taking up much space on a convenient card or coffee table. The gameboard is a little disappointing graphically but nonetheless very utilitarian and clear for what it needs to depict. There are 9 cities in the map and you are trying to complete (by putting in the last spike) a rail line from Sacramento to St. Louis. Intervening cities such as Ogden, Laramie, Omaha, Denver, Yuma, El Paso and Dodge City are intermediate waypoints where track must run through. Between each city there are 4 lettered and numbered spaces corresponding to wooden railway tiles that represents completion of one portion of the track.
Each tile is printed with our building cost representing the difficulty of the terrain it is being built on. During the game, these 48 railway tiles are mixed together facedown and drawn randomly so you never know for sure which tract you will be able to complete. And therein is the rub! You must buy land grants which payout only when a given portion of the track is completed between 2 cities. However, you have only partial control over which tracks will be completed and must rely on other players to help you build your segment.
Each city is associated with a deck of land cards, per each of the 9 cities. One Land Grant card is obtained for free by the player who lays the first rail adjacent to the city. After that land grants must be bought and they progressively become more expensive as the cheaper land grant cards are purchased. The trick is to own the land when a given segment of track is completed between 2 cities because that’s where you get paid off.
The victory conditions are simple. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.
Game turns are easy. You first lay one track tile on the map and pay the cost, collect any payouts do you for completed sections of track, optionally by one land card and finally draw one new facedown track tile at random. Each track tile contains a unique letter and number corresponding to the space on the board where it can be built. Since you are picking the tiles randomly, you never know beforehand which segment you will be helping to complete. Tracks must be played next to a city or next to any existing track tile otherwise the cost is doubled. Track costs vary to reflect the difficulty of terrain where the track is being laid. Whoever lays the first tract adjacent to the city gets to free land grant for that city.
After building your track tile, you have the option to buy one land grant for a given city. There is a lot of strategy as to where to buy your land grants. As you can see from the description above you would like to get a land grant where track is almost completed because then you get a payout when it is finished. The more land grant cards you have for that city, the bigger the windfall when you get a payout. Although payouts for a given city are the same, the cost of buying land for that city varies. Players who get the cheapest land by buying early will garner more of a profit. Buying up all the land for a given city is usually not helpful as players will tend to avoid completing the track knowing that you’re going to get a big payout. Cooperation is key and allowing other players to profit with you is usually a good strategy.
The extremely simple rules belie the more complex strategy that evolves from them.
Certain cities have more track segments attached to them and therefore more likely to have a rail segment completed. For example, Denver can pay out 4 times if all 4 routes get built. Yuma can pay 3 times and St. Louis can only pay twice. All this factors into your decision about where to buy the land grants.
Players must manage their cash flow with care because they must lay a track tile each turn and if they cannot afford the cost they must sell land to the bank for half of the cost. This is a quick way to lose the game.
The game ends when the last Spike has been played. This is the track tile that forms a continuous railway from St. Louis to Sacramento. The player playing the last spike receives a bonus of $20,000 from the bank so there is a lot of decisions regarding when and where to build your tiles.
As you can see, the extremely simple rules belie the more complex strategy that evolves from them. You must decide where to buy your land grants based on the progress of railway track segments. Choosing who to cooperate with to help you achieve the best payouts is also crucial. Real estate decisions about how much of a given city’s land you will buy is fundamental to good play as you do not want to scare off other people from completing your rail lines. You have to know how much you can let others profit without them overtaking your income. There can be a lot of wheeling and dealing over the course of the game as you try to convince other players to help you complete the track. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism for selling land to others or trading land grants or railway tiles; in fact it is strictly prohibited perhaps to keep the rules simple.
The Last Spike fits a certain niche of games that can be broken out in a group of up to 6 people, learned in less than 5 minutes, played in half an hour yet providing enough entertainment value so that people immediately ask to play it again. As such, it is more of a game of social interaction rather than a simulation of the railroad tycoon a year. It excels at being the go to game when friends come over after dinner or playing at a local club after finishing a more complex game., While the rules are extremely simple, they still lead to interesting strategies and decisions, making it one of those games to have on the shelf when company comes over.
So as a hard-core historical gamer I will confess that I like this game and will keep it in my library to play when the motive is to just have a nice entertaining, social evening while being less hard-core and historical.