This last year I’ve been on a programming game stint in hopes I could finally lock down my feelings for this genre of play. Ever since my first game of Robo Rally I have been torn between wanting to like this kind of game while just not liking this kind of game. I have still been unable to pinpoint what the particular threshold is for me, but I have discovered that I am very polarized to these games (i.e. I really like them or I really, really don’t.)
Colt Express is a game that does programming right and I have really enjoyed my experiences playing this one. As the capstone to my programming reviews, let me introduce you to a game that has redeemed a mechanic I’ve almost written off.
The first thing everyone will notice is this “board” game utilized cardboard in my favorite kind of way. The playing spaces are 3-dimensional train cars linked together to provide our arena, and it is a very satisfying playground. I was initially drawn to this game, not because of a particular mechanic but for the refreshing atmosphere I found to be unique. The rest of the components do not disappoint and we’re even provided some scenic cutouts to complete the experience. I cannot stress enough how well these components suspend disbelief and draw you into the setting. The last time I was drawn by something like this was when Pirates of the Spanish Main had those credit-card punchouts that made little ships. Super fun.
While most of the box is dedicated to storing this fantastic diorama, the box maintains a standard size on your shelf and the insert, although very basic, functions perfectly for the components.
It’s apparent that the game’s mechanics center around a programming structure. Each round, players draw a hand of cards from their available action deck and take turns programming their character’s actions by playing cards. Most are placed faceup while a few are hidden and played face-down. Most rounds are 4 to 5 cards per player and end with a round effect for all players.
Nothing new so far, right? Well, there are a couple of pieces to the game that add just the right ingredients to make this programming outshine its peers.
There’s not a lot of actual deck culling or management, which is great for a guy like me, but the game does utilize the negative effects of deck building. Your pool of drawn cards will start getting clogged with useless bullets as you and your mates unload your lead, providing a subtle way to cripple your opponents without eliminating them from the game. This is nicely balanced with the option to draw extra cards in lieu of playing a card if you don’t like what’s in your hand. Neither of these options are ideal for the player getting shot or missing a turn, but they are options and options are good in programming games.
I’ve mentioned the simplicity of one-dimensional movement in programming games before. It’s one reason I feel this and a game like Walk the Plank is more approachable and less fiddly. But Colt Express spices the 1D with a little classic platforming. While still maintaining a linear playing field, we get a pleasant throwback to the side-scrolling video games that resonate deep into the heart of anyone that grew up in the 80s and 90s. Colt Express has seamlessly integrated a two-tiered platform game into its makeup without reinvention or IP inspiration, and it ends up making sense.
Ultimately, everyone is running around and grabbing loot of various values that act as points for endgame scoring. The lower valued tokens are more randomized with hidden values while the larger scoring loot is discernibly different. At first, I didn’t think anything of this but I’ve noticed in plays that those larger scorers attract at least a couple of players during each game and provide a nice little narrative to our train hopping gunfights.
All these mechanics are leading me to what I usually begin with. Theme is a very important part of a game and I typically consider theme on its integration. Colt Express is a game rich with theme integration, where any other theme would not have worked as well. From the crippling effects of getting shot to the chaotic and platforming nature of a train heist, there is no hard line between theme and mechanics. It is particularly enjoyable when a new group begins narrating the story halfway through the game as they take on the mantle of their characters. This is a game that makes it easy to get caught up in robbing the Colt Express. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any take that beyond the game and turn to a life of crime… yet.
“Colt Express is a subtle throwback to the side-scrolling video games”
Although my feelings are torn with programming games as a whole, I don’t feel torn at all about Colt Express. This is an instant buy after a single playthrough and a great game for the uninitiated and experienced gamer alike. It’s simple enough for anyone to catch on and engages every player at the table in both gameplay and theatrics. Overall game length is short enough to keep it approachable yet the tension within that time is satisfying, especially considering the simplicity of the mechanics. If you can, play it first, but I’m almost sure you’ll end up buying it in the end. Or at least looting it from a train heist.
Try this game if you like:
- Walk the Plank
- Robo Ralley
- Mario Bros. (NES)