As interest in board games continues to rise, so too does the interest in exploring new ways of playing those games. One such way is through digital ‘ports’ of those games – translating them PCs, consoles, phones, and tablets.
While digital versions may not exactly replace the feeling of a physical board game, many add subtle tweaks that such as for solo play, campaign modes, online competition, or simply as a more portable way to enjoy the game. This is new territory to explore. Welcome, to the Pixel Provinces.
Colt Express packs a fun Wild West theme, a rather adorable 3D train playing board, and plenty of chaotic six-shootin’ action. It garnered enough attention and accolades to secure the illustrious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in 2015. But how does such a tactile game translate to app form? Does it keep its appeal, or fall flat? Let’s check it out.
If you haven’t played Colt Express before, it doesn’t take long to grasp the basics. Up to six bandits jump onto a train, and the bandit with the most money at the end of five rounds wins. Your job is to collect loot, which is littered around the various train cars, but the other bandits will make life difficult for you. So you’ll also need to fire off a few shots and loose some punches to keep them from getting ahead.
What makes the game tricky is that you plan all of your actions for the round before the actions are resolved via card programming. I play an action card for my bandit, then you play an action card for yours, and so on, for however many actions are available in a single round. Then they’re all carried out in order. Which means that if you’re not paying attention – or you guess wrong – you’ll end up trying to grab a loot purse that isn’t there or sending a punch through empty space.
This process is complicated by a few factors. For instance, some rounds contain tunnels, where you don’t get to see the cards that other people are playing. Others have special events that happen at the end like adding a new piece of loot or moving the bandits. And there’s the Marshal, who’s out to shoot as many bullets into the bandits as he can.
It’s all pretty chaotic and unpredictable, but you can use your memory and planning skills to get ahead.
The first time you start up the app, you’re treated to a tutorial that teaches you the basics of the game, as well as the particulars of the app. You’ll learn the objective of the game, the actions on each card, the effects of different actions, and how to make it all happen by touching the corresponding icons.
It’s all rather simple; during the Schemin’! phase, you drag a card from your hand into the middle of the screen to plan your action. During the Stealin’! phase, you’ll see buttons appear on the screen that indicate where you can move, who you can attack, which items you can loot, and so on.
That’s really all there is to it.
The tutorial also informs you that each bandit has a special power, but it neglects to tell you any of them (other than Tuco’s, which you make use of during the tutorial). If you want to see what they are, you’ll need to check out the rules in the settings menu or tap through the available characters when you start a new Classic game.
Surprisingly enough, the Colt Express app includes a story mode. Instead of simply facing off against other bandits, you need to complete specific requirements. For example, you’ll need to get the Marshal and your bandit to the last car in the train by the end of the fourth round so you can detach the car and send the Law on its merry way. Or you’ll need to grab two strongboxes from another bandit and make it to the locomotive to stop the train before it careens off a cliff and puts you six feet under.
In essence, you’re trying to solve puzzles. Each character has five stages, and the earlier ones are solved by playing a few cards in the right order. The later puzzles are more challenging, requiring that you pay close attention to what the other bandits and the Marshal are doing – if you aren’t absolutely sure where your target is going to be, you’re going to miss your punch or come down in the wrong car.
As part of this mode, each story stage contains a bit of a story pertaining to your bandit. They’re incredibly cheesy, and the dialogue is so bad as to be cringe-worthy. The comic pages that you unlock are similarly banal. That said, learning to solve those puzzles will definitely help you become a better player.
The Classic Mode is what you’d expect for a traditional Colt Express experience; you select the number of bandits you want in the game and may take on the AI or other local players. However, the AI in the game isn’t especially challenging. In my first game against it, with limited prior experience of the Colt Express, it was pretty much a blowout; I won with $2550, and the second-place AI player had a mere $1250.
The app also includes a number of variants to play with that become unlocked as you complete the different characters’ stories. They change the way you play, creating new and interesting challenges. These combined with the different modifiers present at the end of each round add a pleasing amount of variety to the game.
Classic Mode can also be played online with other players from around the world. Just as in the physical game, you can play with 3-6 players, with each count having a different feel. Playing with four seems to have the best balance between planning and chaos, but six is a lot of fun, as nobody ends up doing what they expected.
Unfortunately, in the times that I’ve looked for games online, there have only been a handful of available players to partner up with, despite the online option being cross-platform and the recent addition of a multiplayer lobby. This may simply be a case of the game growing an audience, but whether the app’s popularity increases to a point where it’s viable to quickly find users outside of prime times remains to be seen.
If you’ve played the tabletop version of Colt Express, you’re no doubt wondering if the app is as fun as its physical counterpart, especially since part of the game’s appeal is moving your meeples around the 3D train. Can that aspect of the game be recreated with the app?
The short answer is no, it can’t. Yet instead of trying to recreate it, the app replaces it with fun, goofy art. Each character is adequately represented by what looks like a 2D cutout that’s more visually interesting on screen than a simple meeple. The animated ways they move and interact is an amusing treat for a while, though once you’ve gotten past the novelty, the game does feel a little slow because of it.
On the other hand, the train and the speeding desert and tunnel backgrounds add something that the tabletop game lacks: a sense of motion. Colt Express is all about grabbing the most loot from a speeding train, but the “speeding” component is sorely missing in the tabletop version. The apps side-scrolling animations definitely fix that.
Beyond the fun visuals, the rest of the app stands out as interactive and simple to use. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for in the menus and to get games started. The interface during the game is likewise intuitive; all you need to do is drag a card from your hand upward to play it, and every time you take an action you’re presented with buttons showing you which actions you can take.
Getting and playing online is pretty simple as well, though there is one major flaw: when you lose your connection and get kicked out of a game, there’s no way to rejoin it. You’re out of luck, even if you only lost your connection for a moment.
If you like the tabletop version of Colt Express, there’s plenty like about the app as well. While it doesn’t provide the same tactile pleasure, the core of what makes the game fun is well executed, and the app is very easy to use.
On the other hand, if you’re not already a fan of Colt Express, paying five bucks might seem like a stretch. If you’re looking for something highly strategic, you’ll want to look elsewhere. This game is best for when you want to play something a goofy, clever, and fast: Classic games against the AI usually take around 15 minutes.
Overall, this is a great port of an enjoyable game. Like the tabletop version, it’s fun, light on strategy, and humorously chaotic, all with the feeling of a puzzle in motion. The Story Mode, variants, and online play also keep the experience fresh, though there is admittedly room for improvement in the latter most case. If you think you’re up for some high speed train robbery, it’s currently available for $4.99.
Dann Albright is contributing writer with an enthusiasm for games both physical and digital. He can be best reached via Twitter.
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