Settle the Wild West by connecting the St. Louis gateway to the shores of the Pacific in this unique cooperative take on the railroad game.
|The Last Spike||Columbia Games||Board Game|
In The Box
The packaging for The Last Spike is relatively DIY, befitting its small-publisher source. The board is printed on a single piece of cardboard that folds for easy storage, and shows the available locations throughout the western United States. We’ll assume this is set in the late 1800s, when transcontinental railway became a reality. Destinations on the map create a diamond-shaped grid connecting nine cities, with St. Louis and Sacramento defining the East-West corridor, and El Paso and Laramie defining the North-South routes. There are 12 total lines between the nine cities you can connect, but the game ends once a continuous track is in place between St. Louis and Sacramento.
The actual rail tiles are wooden squares you’ll need to decorate with the included sticker sheet. Wooden chips in three colors are currency in the game, paid out as you complete routes or sell land during the game. The included cards reflect different investment levels in each city and represent property you can own as you build your railroad empire. Even though this is a lean game in terms of production values, the wooden components are durable and will hold up. The track tiles will be as neat as you make them, and we liked that after the first game it was easy to set everything up and play without having to manage a huge amount of components. If we could have had any upgrade it would have been track tiles that came prepared, but as long as you have a Type-A sticker master in your gaming group, things should come together nicely.
How It Plays
The first thing to know about The Last Spike is that it’s a co-op game, with a twist. Up to six players can participate, but the recommended number is between three and five. The basis for having more players is that it keeps distribution of land more interesting, and creates a more strategic game overall. The co-op piece comes from the requirement to build track between cities. Tiles are distributed among players, so it takes a contribution from each person to actually build connecting routes between cities. The strategic piece comes in when you realize that the payout for connecting two cities will vary based on how much investment you have in each location, and also when you realize that the cost is different to lay each piece of track. Balancing the two agendas (completing routes at the lowest cost while investing smartly in cities) will ensure your success as the player with the most cash on hand once “the last spike” falls into place.
The early stages of the game are all about using your initial cash to invest in track tile placement that will result in two connected cities. Remember that diamond-shaped grid mentioned earlier? Because of some critical junctions it is entirely possible to be paid out more handsomely in central cities, and to find that a game ends with one or more cities never paying out at all. Of course each player will have a different agenda based on what tiles are randomly drawn, that will guide which cities are prioritized. Purchasing land is a strategic decision. Because all land purchases are public knowledge, they tend to telegraph your intentions. You’ll be required to put a new stretch of track in place each turn, which requires investment. As long as your eventual payout when cities are connected is greater than the amount you spend to lay track or purchase land, you’ll be well on your way to winning.
We found The Last Spike easy to learn and teach to players even younger than the game’s recommended minimum age of 10. The thematic side of the game makes it something we could imagine using in a classroom, but it’s plenty of fun even without the historical context. Walking the fine line between a purely cooperative game and a competitive one isn’t the easiest trick to pull off, but Columbia nailed it.