Train Heist: Designing the Ultimate Western Board Game, Part 1

By Sean_McDonald

Editors Note: This blog ws generously written for us by the creator of Train Heist, Sean McDonald. It is the first in a two part series discussing his creation of the game we are publishing. Train Heist will be in stores this Summer, if you like what you see, don't forget to pre-order at your FLGS.

I love racing games, both in video game and board game form. When designed with a good catch-up mechanic, there’s an extra thrill when you can compare yourself directly to the other players in terms of placement—knowing it could still be anyone’s game—and see how close you truly are to the end of the game. I get a rush from it. Some non-racing board and video games can make it hard to figure out the player in the lead until the points are tallied up at the end, whereas racing games present it front and center. 

I find all board games are a race in some sense … a race to a certain goal; so, in a way, racing is at the heart of gaming. So, when I had the idea for Train Heist back in 2012, I had already dabbled in a few design ideas, most of them racing based. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a cooperative racing game. I felt chasing a train with the intent to rob it cooperatively was a great idea to build upon. The game organically grew out of this concept.

Train Heist started as a deck of tiles and player pieces, with no board. The concept of cowboys riding on horses was there from the beginning. Each train car and the surrounding landscape were represented by 7 or 8 tiles from the deck. The players raced on the tiles alongside the train (a train graphic drawn on the tiles), and could board it. When a new tile was drawn, it was placed in front and then pushed back the row of tiles (and the players on the tiles), causing the last tile on the opposite end to be discarded. This gave the game a sense of forward movement, as players had to keep moving; plus, it freshened the landscape with new obstacles and features. Any player caught on the last tile was given some sort of negative effect, and then placed back in the game area, thus motivating them to press forward. 

While a neat mechanic, something about it felt empty. I personally felt that a game about robbing a train with no other western elements felt shallow, since part of the adventure of a train robbery to me was working together and planning beforehand, finding shortcuts to catch the train at the pass, and moving about a less linear and more thematic western world. I also didn’t want to make another little game card or tile game, as my designs all tended to be. I wanted to make the definitive western board game experience! To do that, I felt it was time to put the “board” back into my game designs.

The ideas continued to grow from there. I wanted to create a board that allowed the train to travel in multiple potential directions, but at the same time I didn’t want the game board to be so gigantic that it became an unplayable, confusing mess. The train’s path should be predictable in the sense that you could see the tracks it could travel down, but the way it was traveling could possibility change. This allowed the player to plan without getting too comfortable, requiring you to adjust your plans or routes on the fly, without things feeling too frustratingly random. In choosing to use a board, I knew it couldn’t be a one-and-done train robbery, but perhaps a continual effort, therefore allowing players the fun of moving about the board to try to predict the train’s movement as a core aspect of the game. The vision of using a board to create this spaghetti western playground would be wasted otherwise. Eventually the board became something like this:

From there, the game started really to take shape. While I had only one path for the train to move, it could change direction mid-game via drawn Event Cards. This was my attempt to simplify the idea of the train’s movement. Originally, I had players return loot gained from the train to the center of the board, which operated as the headquarters of the bandits. They’d fulfill Loot Cards placed on the train, gain little pieces of gold or kegs, and bring them back to the center. Gold would always have the same value in terms of victory points, but the value of kegs would fluctuate based on the “market” determined by the randomly drawn Event Cards. As the train arrived at the four different towns, fresh cards could be added to the train to represent new passengers boarding.

The Event Cards were placed on the train’s engine space. While functional, it still did not have players exploring the board, as they had no need to go beyond the center area. Also, because of the four towns, the Loot Cards were changing far too often since the train was constantly in a state of arriving at a town; it became frustrating as your plan to loot a certain card had to change fast, since you couldn’t arrive in time.

In the next iteration of the game, adjustments were made. One town was removed. The kegs were removed to lessen any complications or extra randomizing. I had the bandits returning the loot to the three towns rather than the center of the board, encouraging players to move around on the board. I created a Robin Hood-esque story of stealing from the rich to give to the poor to tie things together, as I didn’t want players to feel bad while playing the game; plus, it seemed to fit well with the new mechanics. I needed motivation for players to visit all the towns, not just the closest one available, so I came up with the additional mechanic that encouraged players to return loot to towns that did not have any loot currently. When the train arrived at the town, the loot was returned to the train, motivating players to try to loot other train cars while the previous ones were empty. If there was no loot at a town when the train arrived, it was as if the Sheriff (riding the train) had come to town to collect his “taxes” and they had none to give, thus putting them in dire straits. A townsfolk meeple at the top of the board was removed to represent the negative effects and show that players were a step closer to losing the game. 

I also wanted more action during gameplay, so I added more Event spaces and created new Events, such as a train junction switch, which forced the train to leave the map and caused an early end of the game and a loss for the players. Having the game end potentially so quickly did not leave me with a good feeling, however.

Eventually, these train junctions grew into the train taking multiple paths, going down one railroad and coming out on the opposite side of the board. The Event that caused the train to change direction suddenly was removed, as this new mechanic seemed to erase the need for it, and seemed far more thematic and fun. The train direction card stayed to prevent confusion.

Next on the agenda was dealing with the looting of the train. To loot the train initially, certain players with unique specialities simply had to be present on the train car they wished to loot. Looking back on this mechanic now—with more experience under my belt—I occasionally do a facepalm. Basically, I had players go to a train car and wait for the other required players to arrive to loot it. This was a big no-no. I quickly discovered a cooperative game that relied too heavily on other players without any real degree of individuality for each player was a mistake, as players were often sitting around doing nothing on their turns. I later switched to the idea of dice being rolled to fulfill the requirements, which allowed individuality while still encouraging a cooperative element, as the more players were present, the greater the odds were that you’d be able to roll the required dice. I eventually had terrible flashbacks of playing Risk, as I realized players would potentially be stuck in a certain train car for far too long by simply never rolling what they needed. It was far less fun to plan an amazing strategy to get to a certain destination only to be bogged down by unlucky dice rolls. I eventually had the idea of using cards, poker cards specifically. Each player would be dealt a five-card hand and they could use and exchange these cards to meet the goals on the loot, allowing more control and planning of your moves and time spent.

The game continued to grow from using cards as loot to using tokens, and giving players more looting options by having two per train car. From here, I eventually fleshed out a snazzier prototype, even having my machinist friend help create plastic, metal, and wood cowboy and horse meeples. After years of spending my spare time developing this game, I was getting closer then ever to having a finished product.

To hear the conclusion of the story behind the creation of Train Heist, come back for the second part in a few weeks!