U.S. Telegraph from Super Meeple
Marcel-André Casasola Merkle
ages 10 and up
Video review at the bottom
A different type of outlaw
We all love building things. And board games give us the key to construct marvels in a short space of time with just a little sprinkling of brain power. Spaceships. Empires. Cities. Farms. While you are building whatever it is your building, you'll be building a score, hopefully larger than the other's sat at the same table as you. It is very rare for this type of to have any other reason to build, but meagrely to get points.
But what about building to win a race...?
This is exactly what you will be doing in U.S. Telegraph. You are building an enterprise that is trying to be the first to connect two cities with your new technological innovation that will replace the Pony Express. No points. No scoring. Just a race to be the first. And being first will make you the winner. Simple, yes! The game shines with simpleness from it's rules, game play and theme. But does that simplicity help or hinder the game?
This town ain't big enough
Every player takes control of a telecommunications company in the old wild west, as marked on their chosen coloured player board. Plus a number of building tokens, that are shuffled and placed in four stacks, face down. All players have the same building tokens that correspond to the images on their player board, which are grouped in different conglomerations of various amounts. Like four building connected to the railway industry or two buildings that relate to farming. None of that has any reference to the game, so having a ranch will not effect the blacksmiths business. It's merely there to create a chaining combo for those groups when built.
Each of the buildings of your colour connect your telegraph wire across the vast deserts that filled John Wayne's career. A number of hexagonal tiles, depending on the number of players, are placed in the middle of the table. With a number cities placed around the outside of this dust filled plain. These cities are the objective for the players, creating a continues line of their coloured buildings that connect one city to another.
How the west was built
Each building is going to require resources before they can be constructed. Some are scattered around the tiles that were places randomly. Other resources will come from a deck of cards, that players will receive in limited quantity, depending on the turn order. More cards can be gain in the game by sacrificing parts of your actions. There are two of these to chose from on your turn, making game play fast and fluid, like your favourite gunslinger. Due to the limited choices, the game is simple for the average player to slip into, like drawing your weapon. But knowing how to and when to use it is the dilemma in the game.
To draw or to construct are the choices available. It may not seem like much but as the game goes on, every action has consequences for you and the other players. The beginning of the game is a calm affair as you will be mainly drawing from your face down tiles, to see what you can build. This you can preform up to two times. If you decide to draw less than this amount, you get to draw a resource card. For example, you draw a tile and a card or you don't draw a tile but draw two cards. The latter is not really a good idea with this action, that you will see later...
The moment you draw a tile, you'll have to place it either on your player board in the allocated
area or you build it. Building requires you place it on an empty space, paying the resources from either your hand of cards or more practically, from the resources marked on the board adjacent this building. This is the start of your settlement and the commencement of your telegraph road. Starting a settlement somewhere else on the board will be a little more expensive, as you have to pay an extra wood, brick or whatever you wish, to do so. Connecting is cheaper and maybe free. If you build your viaduct (tile 61) next to your already constructed bridge (tile 60), you pay nothing.
The second action is to build. This is where you can place building that have already been revealed and placed on your player board, onto the main board. Again, resources will be paid or not, depending on the buildings you build and where you build them. A simple arrow system on your board shows the flow of which building can be built for free if place next to them. And this action you can preform three times on your turn. Which make more sense with the draw resource card option that I mentioned earlier. You could build one building and draw two cards for the actions not completed or simple play the wild card and take three cards straight up. And every time you build something, you'll place a marker down on it's image on your board, like playing Bingo. Completing a collection of the same group of the same coloured buildings will give you a worker to use on your turn to extend you actions. Utilizing a worker when you want will allow you to draw or build more times than normal. Playing them at the right time can be a life saver that will keep you in the game or help on the final sprint to finish the game.
wanted dead or alive
You will make enemy's in this game as they steal that space you wanted, while you block entry to a city, so they have to go around. If possible...
There will be times where there is a Mexican stand-off. The map has been divided into slices as you route of buildings start a one city but can't make it to another. This can be frustrating at times, as you have lined up a row of building that you could have placed on your next turn, but a border from another player cuts off you chance. And with the main board being one size, space becomes limited quickly, forcing decisions you didn't want to take at that moment of the game. But there is hope.
If on your draw action, you remove the last tile from a pile, you immediately get to add a hex tile to the main boards. Placing it wherever you wish, creating a trail that will permit you to build around this road block. Making the map bigger and giving other more growing space too. Strategically placing your buildings or settlements and joining them up at the key times to win is a trick that everyone is trying pull off. Because of the nature of these hex tiles, they fit nicely together like a tiled mosaic. Until you realise that the cities are a small space that creates a connection problems, like a horse shoe in a line of wagon wheels. Trying to build around the back of a city becomes interesting when the tile doesn't connect symmetrically but obscurely. Leave only one space touching another, limiting the route into the city. Creating another puzzle for you to solve. Timing and placement locations are part of the fun, but you won't be able to stop being get drawn into the Bingo frenzy. Drawing tiles until you have a full set of buildings, then gaining a worker. Helping to get your route complete.
But the west was not won just this way. Sometimes a stalemate might make you switch tactics to the second way to win the game. By being the first to build all of your buildings, filling your boards, like a Bingo card. Doing this makes the game a little longer and not always the first path to victory that is viable, but it's there.
Lucky Luke and the Dalton's
The drawing of tiles, some may see as a big luck factor. Considering that everyone will be drawing at the same time, the quick draws of matching groups can pay off. But it doesn't take much to take that lucky player off their tracks with just one well placed building. And the more players there are to gang up on that leading player, the more chance you will hold the reigns on their horses. Again, you may have to sacrifice an action ahead of it's time due to pressure place on you and you alone.
In fact, more players leads to a more intense race, as players are planing routes to different cities and you're never sure which they are. The free resources get eaten up more quickly and players settlements sprawl everywhere. Leaving a lot more of information for you to deduce their strategy and hiding route that you didn't see. The keen observers in the group will flourish.
Get off your horse and drink your milk
So, we have simple rules that lead to interesting and sometime difficult choices. But it's not all plain sailing, even with rules that are this straight forward as these, errors can happy easily as well. Forgetting to cross off your already constructed gold mine could cost you your game. Forgetting that have chosen the draw actions on your turn, because you build directly and therefore continue your turn as if you had taken the build action. These types of little error happen frequently with new players and, time to time with experienced players too, throwing the game into debatable territory. Or just making you win or lose in a non satisfying way, so a rematch is scheduled. Not that it's a big problem for most players, but disgruntled players may carry a chip on their shoulder until one of you gets to Boot Hill.
Not seeing your coloured tiles on the main board is another bug of the game, as the drab tile colours do nothing to pop out on the sandy tiles. Blue and green tiles are more distinct than the red and brown ones, that also share the same pallet as the buildings on these tiles. Where other games get around this by using bright, non thematic colours and 3D components that help locate you pieces, this feels like a missed opportunity. As this is just a re-theming of an older game Attika, and it looks like the same game. Although there is an art overhaul.
All in all, with those minor quibbles of easy mistakes players can make that could upset your game, it's a smooth and fast fun racing game. Without the racing theme. A family game that will have you replaying because you were so close to winning the last game. Simple in it's execution of actions but with a diverse number of choices for you to make after your third or fourth turn. Not only do you have to out-smarting your opponents, but be a “down right, dirt player” at the same time. 2 players is just a back an forth rodeo. You stand on their toes, they stand on yours. Where more players bring out a more interesting challenge. And as your pulling tiles off your piles, that sensations that your surrounded by hundreds of elderly ladies, with their heads down in silence, only to be broke by you, shouting “BINGO!”
the video review
Technical score 9/10
My BGG score 8/10
Combined score 8.5/10