Game designer Tom Dalgliesh has re-worked a design that he and collaborators Ron Gibson and Lance Gutteridge had originally published with Gamma Two Games in 1976. The original game – The Last Spike – was a Monopoly-like experience, based on the building of the Trans-Canadian railroad. Players rolled dice, and moved around a board, taking advantage of available options to lay track along the Canadian map at the center of the board, purchase land and be victim or beneficiary of a series of random events. When track’s been laid connecting the two relevant oceans, the land purchases were evaluated to determine a winner.
The update (complete remodeling, actually), published this year by Columbia Games, changes the feel of the game from a Monopoly-like experience to an Acquire-like experience, albeit with a little less than half the tiles. The scene has shifted from Canada to the US, from connecting Vancouver and Montreal to connecting St. Louis and Sacramento.
Basically, Mr. Dalgliesh (and collaborators) have taken most, though not all, of the luck out of the game. You’re drawing random tiles, so that factor hasn’t been completely eliminated, but in the latest version of The Last Spike, there are at least a few decisions to make. As with Acquire, the new game expects to you match your randomly drawn tiles to specific spaces on the map; 48 tiles, total, divided into 12 letters (A,B,C,D,E,F,U,V,W,X,Y & Z), each with numbers 1 through 4 (Acquire features 109 tiles; 9 letters with numbers 1 through 12). There are nine cities, connected by spaces for these tiles. Each pair of adjacent cities can be connected by four tiles (A1 through A4, for example, connects Omaha to St. Louis).
Each tile bears a usage cost; when you place it on the board, you pay the relevant cost, unless the tile you choose to play is not next to a city, or a previously-placed tile, in which case the cost is doubled. If you are the first to place a tile next to a particular city, you receive one piece of ‘free land’ (a standard-size playing card) for that city. After you have placed a tile, you are able to purchase ‘land’ in any of the cities, which, at the time of your purchase, have already had their ‘free land’ distributed. Beyond that ‘free land,’ costs to purchase land in a given city increases, $1,000 at a time (the cards available for purchase are stacked in ascending order from the ‘free’ to the most expensive).
When a set of four tiles connects any two cities, ownership of land in those two cities is evaluated and owners are allotted a payout, dependent on the amount of land (number of cards in player’s possession) owned in that city. Play proceeds until there is an unbroken connection of track between St. Louis and Sacramento, at which point, the player who laid the ‘last spike’ making that connection receives a $20,000 bonus. Money is counted and the player with the most, wins.
It’s obviously a quick game, because of the limited number of tiles available for placement. Playable with between three and six players, a game featuring six players will only afford opportunities for the six players to play eight tiles each. With three, that number, of course, jumps to 18. In Acquire, the full grid of available tiles never makes it to the board. The game is over before that happens. With The Last Spike, the chances are good that you’ll use pretty much all of the tiles to make the St. Louis to Sacramento connection. There are four routes of 16 tiles (one third). The longest route takes 32 tiles (two thirds). You would think that given this fact, all games would end without placement of a minimum of 16 tiles and a maximum of 32, if the players are lucky enough, in consort, to draw and place all tiles necessary for one of the shorter or longer routes to be completed, but it rarely happens that way.
The fly in that quick-finish scenario is that a good many of the available four-tile slots connecting any two cities, are going to spend a lot of time unconnected; whether because a last tile (say, A3 is missing from the A1 to A4 group) is still undrawn, or a player in possession of that missing tile chooses not to play it, perhaps because he/she doesn’t have the money to place it (if you don’t have enough money to play any of the tiles in your possession, you’re forced to sell land that you’ve purchased, back to the bank, for half price, rounded up).
A peculiar phenomenon of this game is a player’s tendency to not recognize what needs to be done, before it’s too late. You merrily work your way through the game’s opening minutes, which are defined by the early placement of tiles next to cities, which earn you a ‘free land’ card. Since players can only purchase land in a city that has already distributed its free land, you’ll start out purchasing the same land. As the number of cities, next to which there is a tile, increases, your land purchases will become more diversified. You’ll attempt to make guesses, as to which of the multiple routes available will be the one that connects St. Louis and Sacramento, and in so doing, you’ll sort of cooperate with your fellow players.
“Okay,” you say, “it looks as though one of the direct, 16-tile routes is going to be the one, so given my tile-laying choices (you have four tiles to choose from on your turn), and the land I own, I’ll pick the one that adds to that route.”
Frustrating this plan is a player’s desire to play a tile either next to a city or an already-placed tile to avoid doubling the cost, and a desire to place a tile connecting two cities, in which he owns land, generating income. Placing a tile next to a city gets you that free land, too, so there’s incentive there, as well. What you end up with is tile placement all over the board, more or less simultaneously, fueled by a variety of motivating factors, none of which is necessarily about your goal of being the player with the most money at the end.
A word, here, about that money. It’s multi-colored, round wooden chips; white chips representing $1,000, red chips representing $5K and blue chips, representing $10K. They’re serviceable, just not very elegant. Players in our group were tempted to grab their games of Acquire and use its paper money, instead. The slightly-thicker-than-poster-board map on which this all plays out is flimsy, though not any serious impediment to game play. Having to place the identifying information on the 48 tiles with stickers is a bit of a pain, but again, no impediment or reflection on the game itself.
It’s a good one. Easy to learn and get up to speed with, a multiplicity of choices at every turn, and a short playing time. Hints provided in the rules are good ones: Players get the cheapest land by buying early. The payout system encourages players to cooperate in track laying. Pay attention to a city’s potential for multiple payouts (Denver can pay out four times, if all routes to it get built, Yuma – three times, and St. Louis only twice) and watch your cash flow.
Too soon, really, for meaningful response from the BoardGameGeek community, although with 52 ratings to date, it has a better rating average (7.30) and overall rating numbers than its predecessor (6.41 average, from 35 ratings). It’s received quite a few more positive comments at the top end of the rating scale than the 1976 version.
The Last Spike, designed by Tom Dalgliesh, with artwork by Karim Chakroun, is published by Columbia Games. It is designed for play with 3-6 players, with a suggested age range of 10 and up. It takes between 45 minutes to an hour to play. Suggested retail on the Columbia Games site is just under $40, with slightly lower prices available through some on-line game retailers.