2-6. I would never play with two players because there is too little chaos. Best with 5.
40-45 minutes. This is a fixed length game of five rounds. The game should not take long to set up.
Programming, Variable Player Powers
The Board Game (With) Bandits
Colt Express is a game made specifically for me – at least, I like to think it was. In this board game, Bandits are running through a train trying to punch, shoot and steal from their opponents as much as possible while eluding retaliation, with the richest Bandit crowned winner. Any game involving Bandits is obviously going to get my attention, and the fact that it won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2015 certainly made this a must buy for me. Over a dozen games later (and a few on IOS as well), I can say that this is an extremely fun, challenging game with high replayability, a game that definitely earned its award.
Colt Express is a programming game where players will take turns playing cards in succession without resolving them; cards are resolved in order after all have been played for a round. Therefore, what was planned will not necessarily be what is executed. In order to understand how to play Colt Express, one must understand the difference between Round Cards and Player Cards.
The game takes place over five rounds, which are chosen from two sets depending on the player count. With two to four players, round cards are longer whereas round cards for five or six players can be as few as three player cards per round. Each set has seven cards from which four are chosen; the cards are chosen randomly and are unknown to all players, particularly their order. The final round is chosen from a set of three, which is only revealed when that round begins. Round cards will have a specified pattern for how players will play cards, consisting of any combination of cards played face up, cards played face down, double action cards and turn order reversal.
Players have cards in their hand that can move vertically, move horizontally, punch a Bandit in the same car, shoot a Bandit from afar, grab a bag of loot or move the Marshall. Colt Express is played on a series of 3D trains with two floors – movement on the bottom floor is car to car while movement above is one to three cars; vertical movement cards move players between the two floors. When a Bandit is punched, the offender chooses one of their loots to be dropped in their current location and the Bandit is moved to an adjacent train car. Loot cards allow players to pick up one piece of loot in their exact location; bags are worth a variable amount of $250-$500, jewels are always worth $500 and the coveted briefcase is worth $1000. Shooting a player places one of your bullets into their deck, where it takes up coveted space since players normally have a hand of six cards and bullets do nothing but reduce your options; additionally, any players tied for the lead with shooting the most Bandits will earn a $1000 bonus. The Marshall card moves the Marshall one car along the bottom row; any time a Bandit shares the same space as the Marshall, they receive a Neutral bullet and will be forced to the roof.
As I stated earlier, what is planned may not be what is executed successfully. A player may get punched into another car, trying to grab loot that does not exist in that location. A player may secretly move out of range of a bullet, or a player may unintentionally walk into the line of sight, blocking the original target. The Marshall may force one Bandit to the roof and, instead of moving to the roof, the Bandit moves back to the floor, only to be shot by the Marshall again and moved back to the roof. Hilarity ensues. One player character, Ghost, always plays his first card of a round face down, greatly increasing the chance for unpredictability; furthermore, all players will play cards face down when indicated by the round card.
Many players find Programming games to be random, with the task of planning ahead impossible; while this is true of many games of the genre, I do not find this to be the case with Colt Express. The game smartly limits the options of cards that are in an individual player’s hand. Since there are only two ways to score points – grabbing loot and shooting the most bullets – the game provides inherent direction by emphasizing those two cards. The rest of the game becomes a challenge of implementing that strategy through the execution of short term goals. Since there are so few options, and the cards, even when face down, are played sequentially, players can predict what the possible outcomes are and choose the one most insulated from risk. The game also allows players to draw three cards from their deck any time they would ordinarily play a card, allowing them to recover from multiple bullets and plan more effectively. The structure of Colt Express greatly limits the unpredictability while still having unpredictability as a factor, allowing experienced players to always feel in control while never letting them be in control at the same time.
As with many of my other games in my 10x10 challenge, Colt Express features a high degree of modularity that greatly affects the gameplay, thereby increasing its reliability. Unlike other games with modular states, order absolutely matters in this game, so permutations of cards must be considered, not just the combinations. For each player count configuration set, there are 840 (7P4) permutations of round cards; when combined with one of the three final round cards, the total comes to 2520 different game states.
But do the individual rounds make much of a difference? I would argue that they absolutely do.
The number of cards to be played differs from round to round; long rounds offer much less certainty than shorter rounds; shorter rounds also make drawing less appealing, since the hand is reset at the start of each round. Whether or not some cards are hidden makes a tremendous difference in the effectiveness of your planning. If the turn order is reversed for the final card, players may have the chance for opportunities that otherwise would not be available, such as drawing a punch card and using it before another player has a chance to move out of the way; since points are so scarce, any action that directly affects the scoring is very powerful. The double action cards are also potent because they enable actions such as move and punch, or move and dodge, or any other combination of actions that will blindside opponents. The order in which these cards appear also makes an extreme difference since players will likely want shorter, more predictable round cards later in the game. There are also end of round effects that can enhance or completely undo the events of the previous round, such as forcing all players on the roof to the back of the train. Round cards may also introduce a second briefcase, allowing another option for scoring in a game in which scoring opportunities are limited.
Additionally, there are six trains to be used depending on the player count, which are placed in a random order and will influence how many bags or jewels will be in the game. This can make scoring even harder, particularly if the more lucrative trains are placed closer to the Marshall.
Colt Express also draws a lot of replayability from the six characters who each have their own unique ability. There are three categories of abilities: Disruptive, Offensive and Defensive, and I find all abilities to relatively balanced and enjoyable, if used properly (I know many will disagree about Django, but I have dominated using him and seen others do it as well). For Disruptive abilities, Ghost’s first card is always face down whereas Django’s bullets push a Bandit to the adjacent car; both abilities can unexpectedly change the game state and completely derail a player (or players) plans. The two offensive players are Tuco, who can shoot up and down through the roof of his current car, allowing for an increased chance of hitting someone, and Cheyenne, who can grab a bag dropped by anyone she punches (not jewels of briefcases, however). Finally, in the defensive category, Belle can only be targeted if she is the only valid target of an action, whereas Doc always has an extra card in his hand, making him more resistant to bullets than most. In fact, Doc can draw three cards for his first turn and have access to all his cards should he not have any bullets. If players play to their character’s strengths, these abilities will be game-changing.
There are other factors that will make Colt Express an appealing game for many. First, the game looks beautiful, having highly decorated 3D trains with a great physicality and table appearance. The game is also short and proceeds to a finite conclusion; Colt Express is always five rounds and each round is also of a fixed length. The final round is very exciting, as each card adds a unique End of Game effect that provides direction or incentive, while players are frantically trying to shoot their remaining bullets or grab as much loot as possible and run away from their opponents. Finally, shooting an opponent can be crippling since each bullet really clogs the deck of cards, which adds to the fun of being a gunslinger and shooting all your friends. Overall, Colt Express is a game that never drags, has lots of excitement, has enough variability to keep the game interesting for a long time and offers a lot of difficult decisions to make – everything I am looking for in a game. Also, you get to be Bandits and shoot people.
It's worth nothing that this game contains two disappointments for me. I was really looking forward to the IOS app, but I rarely play it because the animation makes the game take a long time and the AI is simply not very good; there are several occasions where it will move and punch/shoot an opponent who could not possibly be in that location, at a point where the preceding cards were completely visible. Additionally, I think the game’s expansions are counterproductive. Having fewer options streamlines the game and provides direction, particularly with a hand of six; increasing the number of factors of which to keep track in a programming game seems like a mistake to me. I would be interested in the additional round cards, as well as the new character, but that is hardly worth the price, which is how I generally feel about most expansions. Instead, I believe Colt Express to be very good in its current, self-contained form; I will acknowledge that I haven’t played the expansions and might be wrong about them, however.
If you are looking for a challenging game with a high degree of fun and confrontation, consider playing Colt Express. It is worthy heir to the Spiel des Jahres award and definitely earned its place on my 10x10 challenge.