Gen Con Review: End of the Trail

Disclaimer: This review is from a reviewer’s copy of the game that was provided by Elf Creek Games to Open Seat Gaming, but opinions are our own based on several plays of the game.

Game: End of the Trail
Publisher: Elf Creek Games
Designer: Mike Hinson
Artists: Royce Banuelos, Peter Wocken
Main Game Mechanisms: Hand Management, Set Collection, Bidding, Bluffing, Press Your Luck, Memory
Number of Players: 1-4
Game Time: 20 – 40 minutes

Description: Players vie for the best gold prospects in the foothills, canyons, and mountains of Northern California in End of the Trail. Everyone is dealt a hand of multi-use cards with poker ranks, suits, special abilities, and dollar amounts on them. By the end of the last round of prospecting, you want to build the best poker hand in order to get a last, extra, claim.

The board is set up as a grid that has a variable set up every time you play due to how many tiles are in the box and how you mix them up before setting them up. One side describes the landscape and the other shows the amount of gold to be found there.

So, how does it work? First, everyone gets dealt 6 cards and they put one card, face down, as their “hole card,” which starts their end game poker hand. Then, after that happens, the dealer puts out sets of 3 cards on the table, equal to one less than the number of players. These are the cards that you’ll be bidding on to add to your hand – and you bid using the dollar amounts on your cards. The dealer starts bidding, and whoever wins has to discard cards from their hand equal to or greater than (no change!) the bid you made. You add those cards to your hand, and the remaining players continue bidding until there are no more sets of cards on the table. At that point, the player who didn’t get a set of cards gets the dealer chip, and the next phase begins.

In this phase, you choose 2 or 3 cards that you’re going to use in order to start prospecting for gold. Up to 2 of the cards that you use will be added to your poker hand after this phase is over, so be sure that you keep the hand you’re building in mind. Everyone reveals at the same time, and the person with the highest dollar value on the cards that they are playing that round gets to go first, and then you work down from there. They put their prospector meeple on the turn order track and then the round begins.

You choose which of the cards you already chose for the round to play first, and, in turn order, start prospecting. At that time, you can choose to claim it with a tent (which can be moved or shared with other tents based on some cards’ special abilities), claim it with a camp (which can’t be shared or moved), or you can just leave your prospector there and choose to push your luck. If you do push your luck, you have to remember where you have been and how much gold is there. If you want to be successful at this game, you want to be cognizant of where things are, because if you move to a different claim and the amount of gold there is less, you have busted and must take the lower value tile. 

When you lay a claim, you are done for the round. When everyone has staked a claim in a round, the round ends, everyone adds up to 2 cards to their poker hand, the dealer deals cards to each person so that their hand is back up to 5 cards, and then a new round of bidding begins.

The game ends after 3 rounds of this. Then, you take the cards that you put aside into your poker hand, build the best hand and compare. You are awarded gold based on the type of poker hand you have, and then the person with the best poker hand gets to place their fourth claim. You reveal tiles, add up the gold, and whoever has the most wins!

Review:

Marti: Wow. When the Kickstarter was live, we backed at the $1 level because I wasn’t completely sure how much I’d like the auction part of the game. We got to try the game at Origins this year (with Brent, the owner of Elf Creek Games – he’s a cool guy that you should meet!) and fell in love with it. The auction part runs quite smoothly and there are so many other mechanisms that it’s just a minor part of the whole thing.

The fact is, one of the reasons that I really love End of the Trail is because it is just so unique. I’m someone who is constantly comparing games in my head because it gives me context – there is no context here, and it’s quite refreshing. The auctioning is fairly basic, the memory aspect can bite you in the rear end sometimes, and the multi-use cards are something that I’m all about.

It’s a big balancing act. Balancing what you want to play, what you’re looking for, how you want to win auctions and how you want to build your poker hand is a constant balancing act that kinda feels like you’re one of those people that spin plates on top of poles. It can be so tough if you were hoping to get 2 of those cards that you planned to play that round into your poker hand, but you find a 5 gold spot and that decision is so wonderful.

My only complaint is that I felt like the 2 player version of the game was not as intense or vibrant as the 3 and 4 player versions. It was fine, and totally was a way to implement the mechanisms, but the board was almost too tight and the auction phase wasn’t as strong or competitive as it was at 3 and 4. I’d definitely still play it at 2 – but, if I’m playing multiplayer, I definitely prefer the game at the 3 and 4 player counts.

In short, End of the Trail is filled with intense decision making in an easy-to-learn game. Keeping all of the metaphorical plates as balanced as possible is fun and engaging and, it kept us coming back for more of the game.

Scott: End of the Trail is one of those games that surprised me. I’d recently played a different game that involved poker plus other mechanisms, and I was expecting this to be similar to that, but it’s a completely unique game that uses poker in a very different, and fun, manner. The poker hand is really only used at the very end. The multi-use cards give you a plethora of options to use when you’re looking for the tiles of the highest worth and I think they did a really good job of balancing all of the different aspects of the cards: from special abilities to monetary worth to poker value.

There is a minor amount of “take that” in the game (you can move other people’s pieces with a few cards) but, if that’s not your thing, it’s easily ignored and doesn’t detrimentally affect the gameplay or enjoyment. I really enjoy the push your luck aspect of the game. You can try to gather information but, if you bust then, you have to pick lower value tiles and it creates a really interesting and thinky part to the game.

Sarah: End of the Trail is a really enjoyable game based around an engaging historical theme, the California Gold Rush.  The push your luck involved in looking at or staking claims is the heart of this game. The decision to take the gold value that you have found or to hope for better prospects on the other tiles is the crux of the game. The different phases of the game help to set up the prospecting and card play. The only way to get a card into your poker hand at the end is to use it in the rounds of play.

Figuring out how to get the cards that you need into your poker hand while being able to search the tiles for as much gold as possible is a constant struggle within the game.  The building of your poker hand throughout the rounds is an excellent touch and great way to determine who gets to place their fourth and final claim. I wasn’t sure how I would like the auction phase of bidding for more cards to get into your hand, this part of the game worked excellently with three and four players, but wasn’t quite as rich in the two player game.

The component quality and production value of End of the Trail is flat-out phenomenal for a first-time publisher. The art is very well done, across the board; from the tiles, poker cards, screen printed meeples, and both the inside and outside of the box. The border tiles for the grid make a panorama both on the horizontal turn order tiles and the vertical oxen, mule, and horse tiles. The box cover art is outstanding, looks like it is done in an old tyme manner, and has a diverse set of characters prospecting for gold. The player aid is double sided and very detailed, gives you all the information you need to play the game. Lots of research, love, and care went into the making of End of the Trail and it shines through.

Try, Buy, Deny: We have really enjoyed End of the Trail and had a lot of fun playing it together! If you enjoy anything that we talked about up there, especially press your luck and a little bit of memory, then End of the Trail is definitely a buy. If you find that you like a lot of games that we at OSG call buys, you will most likely enjoy End of the Trail.

It’s so unique that it’s hard to compare it to anything that is currently on the market, so even if you’re on the fence about some of the mechanisms, I recommend that you try it – you may be surprised like Scott was! If you are primarily playing your games with 2 players, then it’s also a try.

Gen Con Information: Elf Creek Games will be sharing a booth with Thundergryph Games in order to sell End of the Trail at booth, #2862. They will also have some of the deluxe upgrades from Kickstarter available at the booth, including the awesome cloth playmat, deluxe components, and their Outlaw promo. If you’re interested in demoing the game, they have a number of events running so that you can try it out as well.

Game On!

Marti, Scott, and Sarah

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