Full disclosure: A preview copy of Highways & Byways was provided by Pangea Games. Some art, mechanics, or components may change between the photos seen here and the final game, as this is a preview of an unreleased game.
Whew, been a busy month, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Done a fair number of previews, already, so I figured I’d hit up a couple more, starting with Highways & Byways from Pangea Games, publishers of War Co. from a while back. I reviewed two of the six decks, if I remember correctly.
In Highways & Byways, you’re angling to have the greatest US road trip of all time, which is tough but doable. You’re gonna pick some destinations, get in an older car, and hope it doesn’t break down on you as you travel coast to coast (unless your ambitions are a bit less grand). Will you be able to complete your trip first? Or will you break down before you get there?
As with most large board games, I find it easiest to lay out the board first, since, well, you know, it’s there.
Next up, have each player pick a player color and take all of their pieces of that color:
Have each player choose one of the six car types:
They have a variety of effects, as well:
- Ancient One: Ignore Accident and Repair Events
- Rustbucket: Move three spaces whenever the Construction cards are shuffled
- Cowboy: Ignore Weather and Traffic Events
- Stationary Wagon: When you use the Discard Action, you discard two Events and draw two Events.
- Five-O: When a Positive Event is drawn from your hand, you may move one extra space
- Soccermobile: At the end of your turn, you draw two Events and keep one
More on that later, but I wanted to point it out here. Shuffle the Construction cards, and put them aside:
Next, shuffle up the Event cards:
For the last bit, you’ll want to shuffle the Red Byways:
Also shuffle the Blue Byways separately (they’ll be in separate stacks):
Have each player put their home token on one of the Starting Spaces (they’re stars), deal each player 5 Event cards, and you’re about ready to start! There’s a bit of “setup” that I’ll explain along with Gameplay.
So, as I mentioned earlier, this is a game about having the best road trip. Your goal is to go out and make it back home before any other player. If you do, you win! The only problem is, as of right now, you don’t know where you’re going! Let’s fix that. So there are three types of spaces in the game. There are white Highway spaces:
Those usually have spaces on them with letters for reasons I’ll explain later. There are also Byways, which come in both blue:
Red byways are typically more difficult, as they’re either inconveniently located or they’re very long. So let’s plan that road trip, first.
Choose one player. They’ll draw two Red Byways, take one, and place one of their Trip Markers on that byway (anywhere is fine as long as it’s clear). They’ll pass the other one to the next player, who will draw one and choose from those two. Continue this pseudo-draft until every player but one has two Red Byways. That last player just takes the last Red Byway. (Note, if you find this cruel, you can also [player count dependent] just let them draw an extra Red Byway and then choose one of those. Up to you.)
Do the same thing with the Blue Byways until each player has 10 Blue Byways. You should have a lot of the board covered, at this point. Now, you probably had to take some Byways that you didn’t want, and that’s okay!
Each player may now remove either 1 Red Byway or 2 Blue Byways from their plan. Remove the Trip Markers from them to indicate that you’re not going that way anymore. Sometimes you gotta adjust the plan to be flexible. Be smart about this, as well. When you finish, the board should look like this:
Either way, whichever player got stuck with choosing last now goes first for the actual game.
The Actual Game
So, during the game proper you’ll attempt to move your car along these routes and re-claim your trip markers. In order to claim your Trip Marker for a route, you must move along the route’s complete length without any detours. This means if you leave a Byway before you complete it, you must start over. But how does a turn work?
- Construction Phase (FIRST PLAYER ONLY). Each time the Start Player takes their turn, they must first flip over a Construction card into the rightmost available slot. That dictates which highways aren’t open this round. If you’re on one of those spaces, you lose your turn! So … don’t do that. Flip the other Construction cards face-down. If all 5 Construction cards have been revealed, reshuffle them and flip a new one. If this happens, all players pass their Event cards to the player on their left. Isn’t that fun? Now they have all your Events. Why does that matter? Well, let’s check the next part of your turn.
- Play an Event. So now, the player on your left draws an Event card from your hand (randomly) and plays it on you. This Event can be one of 5 types:
- Repair. Something’s wrong with your car, for sure. These events usually slow your movement (or stop it) until you can get them patched up.
- Accident. Well ,if something wasn’t wrong with your car, it certainly is now! These will also slow your car down, or worse, they might make you lose some of your Events.
- Weather. Weather is happening all over the country. Sometimes, in the specific region you’re in. If the weather is too bad you might not be able to travel as much as you wanted (or at all!).
- Traffic. Something about the traffic has forced you to reconsider your route! You may have to end north, south, east, or west of where you started this turn. Hopefully that’s in the same direction as where you wanted to go!
- Positive. These are just good events! Congratulations. That’s always nice when that happens.
- Move / Discard. If you can still move (you’re not on a space under construction and an Event didn’t ruin you), you may move up to 6 spaces on this turn. Spaces must be connected by a line, and as previously mentioned, you can complete a byway as long as you hit every single one of its spaces without detours (you may have to backtrack, sometimes, and that’s okay). I find it’s helpful to move the Trip Marker to the next space you need to go to so that you know which way you’re facing. When you complete a Trip Marker, remove it from the board. If you remove all of your Trip Markers from the board and make it back to your Home space first, you win!If you’d prefer not to move (or can’t, due to Construction) you may instead take a Discard action for each point of movement you end up not using. This lets you discard an Event card from your hand and draw a new one.
- Draw Event. After you’ve used all your Movement / Discard actions, you draw another Event to bring you back to 5 in total.
Play continues with Construction events happening at the start of each round until one player makes it back and wins! If you’d like, you can keep playing for placement after one player wins. Up to you!
Player Count Differences
There’s an interesting balancing effect in play at higher player counts in that players are more likely to try and specialize (and focus only on one or two regions), meaning that they’re less likely to take cards you want. At higher player counts there’s a slight tendency for that to happen, so even though there are more players, the games are a bit shorter. At two, you’re just trying to spite each other by forcing the other player to move all around the country. No strong preference, though I’ve had a lot of fun playing at most player counts. The one thing that will increase slightly is downtime (especially if that clustering doesn’t occur), since there’s not really much for you to do when it’s not your turn, other than draw some events.
- Try to cluster. If at all possible, try to make sure that as many of your routes as possible are fairly close together. The smaller the total area your paths take up, the better chance you have. Just remember that even if you have to take a couple bad paths, you can still make up for that by discarding two Blue Byways or one Red Byway.
- Use your player power wisely. As with all games with Variable Player Powers, you should be leveraging it all the time. If you’re immune to certain Events, you should stack your hand with them — if someone draws them, they don’t hurt you, but passing them to another player can hurt a lot. Typically, if I play the player immune to Traffic Events, I try to keep my hand full of those. I find them specifically pretty painful. Just make sure you don’t pass a hand full of positive Events to another player if you’re playing as The Five-O. That’s nice of you, but probably not the best strategic choice.
- Pretty much never stop on a Highway space. This obviously doesn’t apply if that type of Highway space has already been drawn on a previous round, but if it’s still a potential option you should not take that risk. Losing an entire turn can be an absolute killer in this game. I’m generally pretty risk-averse anyways, but that’s a really bad thing to have happen to you. If it’s already been drawn, though, knock yourself out. There are often Events that punish players who start their turn on a Byway space, so you may want to hide out on a Highway until that’s been drawn from your hand so that you can avoid those, for instance. Really, all I’m saying is don’t lose the turn.
- Hand management is pretty key. This takes some special consideration because of all the ways in which hand management is important for this game. For one, you can try to get Events drawn that let you pass Events to other players to either make their hands worse or pass them good cards that they’ll eventually have to pass to you. This is a great way to keep hold of some really nice cards, especially if that player isn’t getting another turn. You’ll also want to try to (as previously mentioned) hold on to Events that are good / neutral for you, if you can. Finally, look at your opponents’ abilities and try to make sure you’re passing them Events that can really mess them up. What regions do they still need to go to? Make sure they hit some weather, there. Are they immune to Weather? Pass them Accident and Repair cards only. A lot of your focus should go toward making sure that you’re explicitly hurting your opponent’s future turns by poisoning their Events with your terrible cards. Just make sure you don’t get stuck with them. This may require you to occasionally take some Discard actions, especially if you have very good Events in your hand. Get rid of them before your opponents get them and actually manage to use them!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Pretty light. Though it’s about an hour, at times, this is very easily a game you can talk over while playing. The mechanics are pretty straightforward and it’s not that mentally taxing to play.
- The event mechanics are pretty interesting. I’ve never played a game where you draw a card from someone else’s hand. It lets you make the game into a bit of a bluffing game, if you want, by suggesting to your opponent which of your cards they should draw. Doing this will probably not make you a lot of friends, so, uh, live your truth at your peril.
- The art / aesthetic is very good. It’s bright and colorful and vibrant and I’m really into it.
- The nostalgia of certain roads and road trips makes the game feel very endearing. It’s nice to draw roads that are near your hometown or that you’ve driven before. For someone who’s lived their entire life in the United States, it makes the game feel more personally grounded, and I imagine that it has that effect for many people. That’s part of what makes it different than Ticket to Ride, for instance — setting trains isn’t as personal of an experience as actually driving certain scenic highways. It grounds the game a bit in your own personal experiences, which can be a powerful thing for a player to get to have in a game.
- For the same reason, picking routes at the beginning of the game is a lot of fun. It’s just fun to see your options and watch other players build up their routes, as well. Probably one of the funnest setup phases of a game I’ve played in a while, if I’m being honest.
- The board is pretty busy. The regions help break apart the board into logical sections but there are a lot of paths. It helps when you notice that the cards all have the correct path on them along with other nearby paths. It helps you find where you’re supposed to place stuff.
- The pseudo-draft at the beginning is odd. It’s sort of like a draft, but you have a random card draw each time so you’ll end up passing around a “bad” card if you can. You might get lucky and get a very good card, which means you might never have to take bad cards if you’re lucky. I’m kind of interested to see how this would play out with a like, multi-draft (each player has their own hand, 7 Wonders-style, and then draws new cards after a certain point).
- It can feel pretty random. This seems tweakable, in that you draw a card randomly from the deck that might help or hurt you and you get Event cards drawn randomly. You could imagine changing those as I said above, with a different drafting variant or by having an Event Queue in which you add (and then can use Discard Actions to modify) cards at the end and they work their way to the front. Not suggesting these are better, just different.
- It can be easy to see if a player is going to win or lose fairly early on, depending on the cards that you draw. I’ve played several games where one player (especially new players, unfortunately) cannot win from the get-go since they’ve gotten very unfortunate luck with card draws. Their routes are split across the US and they’d have to drive coast-to-coast if they want to come close to winning. I’d love to see some tweaks to make it so that players have roughly equidistant routes or something that forces every player to take at least one route in each region. The nice thing is that the game seems like it’s got room for a variety of variants, so I’ll see what the backers come up with or if there are expansions / additional modules that come out over time.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I like Highways & Byways! I think part of it is that the aesthetic is evocative of that road-trip Americana thing that I’m fond of, but I’ve also appreciated the feelings of nostalgia for road trips of the past when I draw certain routes. It’s based on real places, so it might not be a bad way to jokingly plan out a road trip (or at least see if your idea makes more sense than your friend’s). It feels fairly unconstrained (sometimes in some ways that feel like they lack polish, but, honestly, I get that from a lot of Kickstarter games), but I think in this case that that’s not bad — it means people can discover what they want from the game system that’s provided. It also means that I think you’ll see some interesting variants come out of the game system, which seems kind of cool, as well. I think it’s a nice, light family game; something people can talk about or over while they’re playing or having a drink or just winding down after a long day. It’s nice, in that way, and if the idea of road-tripping coast-to-coast appeals to you, Highways & Byways might be worth checking out!