Happy Trails to You

That's a tree!

Ryan Courtney tends to design games that I want to like more than I actually do. Pipeline was good for a few sessions before it began to feel solved. Curious Cargo was curiously burdened by confounding scoring. In both cases, these were games about arranging curlicue routes from a pile of mismatched tiles, except the routes themselves played second fiddle to underwhelming bookends.

But then there’s Trailblazers, Courtney’s upcoming title that should hit Kickstarter next month. I have a bit of a thing for Trailblazers. Probably because the routes are finally front and center where they belong.

The wooden animals really are quite lovely. They were in the prototype I was sent, anyway.

Aw! Animals!

Trailblazers is one of those games that almost explains itself. Just look at it. There are things I could tell you. About how it’s played over four hands. About how the first three of those hands will see you adding a camp to the table. About how the rest of its duration is spent in contemplative and even soothing agony, arranging and covering paths to create loops. About how there are animal pieces, one of those optional rules that’s really mandatory, that can increase the value of your loops. About how the game uses some mild drafting, everybody passing cards around the table, claiming two at a time, being constantly foiled or relieved or just surprised by the new cards passed your way.

I could tell you all that. I could go into detail. But why bother? With a glimpse, Trailblazers shows you what it’s about.

Mostly by making the person on my right TAKE ALL THE GOOD RIVER BENDS.

A handful of shared goals add focus to the proceedings.

Oh, there are a few minor details to keep in mind. The animals I’ve already mentioned. These can be placed on any trail card that shows them somewhere in the background. They’re optional. That’s important, because an animal on a card means you can’t ever cover it up with another card. Not a camp, not another trail, not even partially. In a game that gets you praying for the right bridge or loop to appear, forgoing the ability to pave over a past mistake is no minor sacrifice. So you pick your animals carefully. You want variety, is the thing. Hikers and bikers and kayakers soon grow bored of seeing nothing but moose. Each loop grows more valuable in proportion to the variety of wildlife along it. That and its length, of course. Plus a few scoring cards, because what would a modern game be without variable scoring. I’m being slightly sarcastic there, but they fit right into Trailblazers. They provide a shared focus between players, a reason to value the same types of paths. As with everything else in this design, they provide nested considerations. It isn’t just about finding cards that work. It’s about finding cards that work in two or three ways simultaneously.

It’s relaxing, but not necessarily low-stakes. The interaction is muted, but it does exist, usually in cursing another player for somehow finishing a loop before you or nabbing a sought-after black bear. Even just admiring the way somebody’s camp comes together can be worthwhile. My mother-in-law didn’t like having mismatched segments in her map. Her final score was abysmal, but you’ve never seen such a tidy forest. One of my friends gets so absorbed trying to make every card fit that he forgets he was only allowed to claim two cards from the current hand, leading him to swiftly dismantle his recent progress whenever we ask when he’ll be finished. My hangup is usually that I play it like a press-your-luck game. I’m so determined to make marathon loops that I spend the back half scrambling to bring my campers home. When it pays off, it pays off big. It doesn’t pay off very often.

Apart from that one person who spends so long on a set of cards that they have two upcoming piles log-jammed next to them.

Seven players share a session without any real downtime.

I don’t often worry too much about technical details like optimal player counts or minimum ages. Trailblazers makes those details seem noteworthy. That’s probably because it takes the same amount of time whether you’re playing with two people or eight people, apart from an extra aggregate minute spent dealing a few extra cards. It plays well with kids, too. Since it’s about spatial reasoning more than mathematical optimization, there’s nothing preventing a ten-year-old from figuring it out. They’ve spent their whole life preparing for this moment. As my kids get older, suddenly that matters more.

All in all, though, what I like most is how it feels. It takes what I liked best about Courtney’s previous route-builders and puts it front and center. There are still complications and considerations, things to score, goals to chase. But they’re either subtler or more refined here. I’m not sure which. Possibly both. Trailblazers prunes the branches that made Pipeline and Curious Cargo such scratchy journeys. What remains is a well-marked trail. I plan to hike along it many more times. It seems Ryan Courtney has finally learned how to lay pipe.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A temporary prototype copy was provided.

Posted on July 19, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I never played Pipeline; it didn’t catch my interest. I did play Curious Cargo, and I was befuddled from start to finish. I like your take on this, and you have piqued my interest.

  2. Marceline Leiman

    As someone who very much has enjoyed Curious Cargo with their partner, possibly our favorite 2p game, and agrees with your criticisms of it—I’m so excited for Trailblazers! Ryan has does something special here. It really has those aspects of a breezier, chiller game you can play with your family, but still has that head-scratching pipe-laying that got me to love CC to begin with. The variable goals really create that additional layer of tension, not just as a race, but to encourage you to do more challenging things with your tiles, if you so dare!

    I think you hit on the most important point that this is the only of the three in the pipe trilogy that can be approached by gamers of fairly any level and be enjoyed in so many different ways.

  3. Liam Burns (Handsome Monkey)

    I feel very similar when it comes to play style. Why win with mediocrity when you can win in style! Or lose in a giant fireball as your plans spontaneously combust.

    I like the theme, and I’m looking for more games to play with my kids, especially if it has replayability like you say.

    Great article as always!

  4. I enjoyed Pipelines and have yet to get it to the table enough to experience some of the known cracks in the system.
    This looks lovely, scratches some similar itches in a cute little package.

    • I can’t speak to how the final product will look, but the prototype included this precious little clamshell case for taking it on the go. If that doesn’t communicate the game’s intent and ease of entry, I don’t know what will.

  1. Pingback: This One’s a Bear | SPACE-BIFF!

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