Colt Express Review
A perfectly normal passenger train ride to New Mexico goes sideways when a group of bandits hijack it in pursuit of riches. In Colt Express by Christophe Raimbault and Asmodee, two to six players will act as the bandits, robbing riders, fighting bandits and evading the marshal. The immediate allure of the game is that the whole thing eschews a traditional board for a model train. This approach scores high marks for presentation, but is this game as fun as it looks?
Before you can take part in this madcap train heist, you’re going to have to build the locomotive, six train cars and the 10 pieces of scenery. Well, you don’t have to build the scenery, though it’s a nice touch for the first playthrough. If you’re going to break this out at a game night, make sure to build the trains beforehand, as the process is going to take you about an hour. Thankfully, once everything has been built, you’ll never have to take them apart, as the box is designed to house everything without reassembly.
Once the stage is set, players will battle each other for loot. This is done in a two-phase process. In the Schemin’ phase, players will take turns playing action cards face-up into a central pile. These action cards will let players move between cars, move to the roof of a car, throw a punch, fire their gun, loot a passenger or move the marshal to a different car. Next, in the Stealin’ phase, all of the cards are resolved in the order they were played in. At this point, you’ll move your meeples around the train, gather any loot you might score or take a bullet card if you get shot. After five rounds, the player with the most money is declared the winner.
At first glance, getting to see most of the moves as they’re played can be somewhat off-putting, especially since you end up seeing them cycle through twice before the round is over. However, most moves can have varying levels of ambiguity to them. For instance, unless you’re on an extreme end of the train, a move action could land in one of two things if they’re inside the car, or in one of six different things if they’re on the roof. Getting hit with a punch can knock you into one of two different cars, which means your additional moves could get thrown out of sync from your original plan.
Furthermore, Round cards that are drawn at the start add some variability to the way actions are sequenced. For example, the round card might dictate a moment where the train goes under a tunnel. When that happens, all of the cards in that turn are played face-down. This is a great opportunity to throw your opponents off. If the train speeds up, each player gets to play two cards in a row, allowing you to execute multi-step sequences that may not have worked otherwise. These round cards are a great means of giving the action some variety while making thematic sense in interesting ways.
There is definitely a toy-like charm that comes through when playing this game. Since the mechanics are so tightly woven into the theme of bandits robbing a train, it’s very easy to get sucked into that world and giggle as you move your meeple around and shoot people. If you’re looking for this to be a deeply rewarding strategy experience, this is certainly not it. What’s here is fun for what it is, but it’s not particularly complex and prone to randomness. The very nature of the gameplay opens the door for a single moment to completely break any strategy you had within any given round or even decide the outcome. As an example, if someone punches you in the face and you drop the briefcase in the process, you’ve just lost $1,000 and probably can’t get it back this round. That’s more than enough to drop someone out of first place, if not sink someone from first to last.
Having said that, watching plans fall apart as people punch nothing but air or surprisingly steal something very valuable is a big part of the fun. In fact, Steff and I prefer to play our own “Night Train” variant where every card is played face-down. This way, you try and game plan for how you want the entire round to go with no idea how anyone else will behave, then watch very kooky things happen. It’s even more random than the standard game, but we think it’s actually more fun that way, as every turn is a complete surprise.
Whether you play it straight or by our house rules, you’re probably in for a good time if you’re in the mood for a light strategy game with a wide buffer for the unpredictable. However, I highly recommend avoiding this game if you only have two players. In it, the rules change so that each player manages two different characters in an attempt to loot the most money as a team. The problems here are two-fold. One, the number of turns in a round don’t really give you enough time to do much when managing two characters. Also, the rules suggest the removal of duplicate action cards, limiting your options even further. With this particular configuration, it undermines what makes the game fun in the first place.
Overall, Colt Express is a charming and novel tabletop game that will probably score high marks with casual players. It’s very easy to immerse yourself in this experience, as it feels more like an organized form of playing with toys. Serious gamers looking for something with a bit more depth may be disappointed with how much the game can swing in one moment, though it doesn’t really try to be that to begin with. As long as you know that and stay away from playing this with just two players, this is a neat Wild West experience.