Full disclosure: A review copy of Trails was provided by Keymaster Games.
This one’s fun! A new game from Keymaster! It’s another game in the Parks series, which I previewed a while back. I’ve since played the new version and had a great time with it! Still need to try the expansion and the Memories games. Will do that in the near future. This one in particular is neat, because it’s a new, lighter title, and it’s the debut of a new logo! Logos are fun. Anyways, let’s hit the Trails! Is that a thing people say? Let’s play the Trails? Here are the Trails? Whatever.
In Trails, you’re going on a hike! While the parks appeal to you, you might want to get your sea legs first before you actually go out camping. So why not hike a few trails? There’s a lot of things they have in common, and you’ve found some ways to get some cool badges for doing certain activities outside! That’s exciting. With your trusty camera and some friends to compete with, you’re going to see how far you can get! There’s a lot of North America to explore, so which trail will you make your own?
To start, build your trail! Place your Trail Head and Trail End tiles first (they’re double-sided, based on your player count), and shuffle the remaining Trail tiles, placing the five tiles between the head and end:
Shuffle the Badge deck, next, placing two badges face-up next to the Trail Head and the Trail End. Then, deal a Badge card to each player; each player keeps the badge in their hand private.
Next, shuffle the Photo deck:
Set the Wildlife Token on the center trail tile:
And place the Wildlife Die nearby:
Place the various other tokens; the Sun Marker goes above the rightmost icon on the Trail End and the Bird Trophy goes below the Photo Action space (the Golden Gate Bridge):
Give each player a hiker in the color of their choice. They all go on the Trail Head, facing towards the end, except in a four-player game. In a four-player game, the first and last players put their hikers on the Trail End, facing towards the head.
Give them a canteen in the same color:
And give them a token in each color. The remaining tokens can be placed below their respective spaces:
You should be ready to start!
A game of Trails takes place over several rounds, as players move back and forth between the Trail Head and Trail End taking photos and accumulating resources. As the sun sets, you’ll be able to get a few more resources than normal, but once the sun sets fully, the game ends!
On your turn, you can move your Hiker 1 – 2 spaces forward in the direction your hiker is facing. If your canteen is face-up, you may flip it face-down to move ahead any number of spaces. Hikers must stop on the Trail Head or the Trail End. Landing on a space will usually give you resources or allow you to trade a resource for a Photo Action.
To take a Photo Action, you can draw two cards from the Photo Deck and choose one, or you can take the top card of the Photo Deck discard pile. If you run out of cards in the Photo Deck, flip the discard pile to become the new deck; don’t shuffle.
If you land on a space with the Wildlife bear, you take the Wildlife Action as well! To do that, roll the Wildlife Die and move the bear to the space with the indicated symbol. You may then take that action. If you roll the bear face, you may move the bear anywhere (including leaving it in place).
At Trail Head or Trail End, you can potentially buy badges! You may spend resources equal to the pictured resources on any of the badges on that side of the trail (or the badge in your hand) to purchase them, playing purchased badges face-up in front of you. If you buy the badge in your hand, draw a replacement at the end of your turn. If you buy badges on the end of the trail, replace them at the end of your turn.
Moving to Trail End means a few things happen. First, turn your hiker to face to the Trail Head; your hiker will move that way on subsequent turns. You then gain the Sun bonus, or whatever space the Sun marker is currently pointing at. Then, move the Sun marker one space to the left. If the Sun marker leaves a space that isn’t the Trail Head or the Trail End, that space flips over to its Night Side! Then, you can buy badges.
Moving to Trail Head means that your hiker turns to face the Trail End, and you can flip your canteen back to face-up. Like with Trail End, you can also buy badges.
When your turn ends, make sure you have a Badge Card in hand, there are two Badge Cards by the Trail Head / Trail End, and that you have a max of 8 resources. If you have more than 8 resources, discard down to 8 (this means you can have more than 8 during your turn, as long as you discard down to 8 at the end).
The game ends when the Sun Marker would be moved to the left of the Trail Head. When that happens, that player takes a Photo for free and places the sun in front of them. Each other player gets another turn, and then the game ends. Every player reveals their Photos, and the player with the most Birds from Photos and Badges gains the Bird Trophy! Tally players’ scores from Badges, Photos, and the Bird Trophy, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
I think I prefer Trails at the lower end of the player count spectrum. With most games, I enjoy scenarios where I can expect certain outcomes based on planning and etc. The place where this matters in Trails is that players are usually buying a fair number of badges, and planning which badges you can get is a pretty critical way to strategize. More players means more badge churn, as players will be moving down the trail to buy badges at either end (in addition to the badges in their hands). This leads to what feels to be an uncomfortable level of inter-player competition, as you may end up with a bunch of useless resources because you had no way to expect that the other players would buy all the badges that you were aiming to buy. It’s probably my least favorite part of the game: that tension, unfortunately. I think it would be better if there were more badges face-up, since it’s very difficult for players to buy more than two badges in one turn. That said, I assume if you had four face-up badges, someone would figure out a way to buy five at once, which would just mean that the problem is still here, but worse. Trade-offs happen in design, and this is why I’m not a game designer. The actual structure of the game isn’t too bad at higher player counts, as players are moving back and forth enough that the Sun Marker is still moving back towards the trail head and flipping tiles. There are just more spaces for the Sun Marker to move towards. All things considered, if you’re looking for more planning in your games, keep the player count low, and if you’re okay with high chaos, keep the player count high! Or, just try to steal more people’s badges at lower player counts. Live your life.
- Watch out for the sunk cost fallacy, when you’re going after certain types of badges. It’s real! Going after a badge because you’ve already invested so much time into getting those resources, that is. It’s a real psychological response, especially if you’ve gone back and forth a couple times to get it, but there are times where you should just pivot and get a badge that’s more relevant to your needs, if one suddenly becomes available.
- Additionally, try to make sure you can always get the badge in your hand when you hit one end of the trail. If you can guarantee that, you can usually make at least some progress on your back-and-forth trips. If you don’t, you run the risk of effectively being dependent on the end-of-trail badges sticking around by the time you get there, and your opponent can really mess you up that way.
- If you’re getting badges that incentivize having the most birds, make sure that’s reflected in your photography choices. Certain badges give you birds and photos, but Observer is worth an extra 2 points if you have the most birds at the end of the game. If you’re going for that, make sure you’re also trying to get a bunch of photos with birds so that you can lock that down. Also, similarly, get badges that play to that! Birdwatching, Seeker, and Photography all give you additional birds or photos (Shutterbug especially; you get two extra Photo Actions!). So working on getting more of those will help you kind of line everything up.
- Choose photos that best set yourself up for success. If you’re not going for birds, taking high-value cards is pretty much the best way to go, right? There’s one 3-point card that’s very helpful. Either way, you’ll often get pairs of cards where one card is just, absolutely better than the other (1 point + bird, compared to 1 point). The harder challenge is when you don’t! Just figure out what goal you’re going for.
- Collector Badges incentivize badges of a certain type; otherwise, just kinda go for it. Generally, I’d just recommend prioritizing badges that are high-value or aligned with your strategy, rather than just going after badges of the same type. You have no real guarantee that you’re going to get a Collector. If you do get one, though, the Science Badges are particularly helpful, since they count as every type of badge for that (and some other effects). Cheap badges will also help, but that’s mostly if you’re trying to combo them into something else.
- Look for ways to chain collecting badges, especially if you’re going for Collector. It’s theoretically possible to buy three badges at one end of a trail or the other, just by buying the one in your hand and the two on that side of the trail. You can often do that with badges that either decrease in cost (Research), badges that get you other badges for free (Astronomy), or badges that can earn you additional resources (Sunshine, Cartography, Navigation, First Aid, or Recycling). This can be a really easy way to get additional badges quickly, which will also help you if you’re looking to get more badges of the same type.
- Rappelling is a great badge if you can get another high-value badge. Generally, I try to get Rappelling and Collector, and then invest in Collector so that Rappelling goes up, as well, but you can also mix this with Climber. The ideal is Astronomy to get Climber for free, and then Rappelling to duplicate Climber. Basically a bunch of points for very little cost! Or, at least, a reduced cost. They’re still pretty expensive.
- You can mess someone up if you try to anticipate which badges they’re going after and get them first. I wouldn’t recommend making this your like, strategic goal, because it sucks, but it’s worth keeping in mind that another player can do this to you, even inadvertently. This may mean that you need to occasionally flex your canteen to jump ahead to a trail end to swipe a badge that you absolutely need.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the new art! There’s 11 new pieces of art! I think, at least. Either way, there are a few excellent new pieces. I’m particularly partial to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but you know, that’s likely partially due to my proximity. I love pretty much all of the night scenes, as well; Daniel Danger’s work on Olympic National Park is particularly compelling, but they’re all beautiful. Unsurprising, given the work that was done on the previous game. That said, I also really like the badges? They could have been generic, but they look like actual Scouting badges (and come in color variants!).
- I really like the idea of getting badges for random tasks, so this game appeals to me. I just enjoy the reward aspect of getting a badge for accomplishing something. That’s probably what kept me in Scouts for so long, honestly. Certainly wasn’t backpacking. Sheesh.
- I like the wildlife token adding some variety to the trail movement. It incentivizes players to move to spots on the trail that they might not otherwise have considered, which is nice. There’s also a 1 in 3 chance of you getting to go to the space that you want at any time, which are decent odds! I wouldn’t rely on it, but I like the slight random element as a way to potentially change things up.
- Very portable! It’s small enough that you can put it in a bag, though I’ll freely say that the game takes up a fair bit of space. It’s a game you can easily take with you, but I’m not sure you can play it anywhere, you know? Depends on if you want all the badges visible once you’ve purchased them.
- Having only three types of resources is a decent way to simplify most of the resource play in the game. There’s less complexity there, which is good. It means that everything costs some combination of the three tokens, and that’s a relatively low number of things to keep track of. I’m not as sold on the resource limit, but I understand why it has to exist, practically.
- Turns tend to be pretty short and low-complexity. You move to a space and take that action. The busiest turns are when you hit each end of the trail, and that’s largely because of the badge-buying. The game’s much shorter than Parks, as a result, as I mentioned previously.
- I like the postcard that comes with the game, as well, but I’m also a sucker for the Appalachian Trail. I’m currently assuming that everyone gets the same one, but I have no way to verify that. If you get a different one, that’s also cool! But the Appalachian Trail is a very pretty one, and I grew up in the Appalachians, so, I’m partial to that particular location.
- The tile-flipping thing is neat (and I love that the back sides of the tiles are all night scenes), but it is occasionally annoying to have to flip a tile that’s got tokens on it and is in the middle of your trail. This section is mostly reserved for nitpicks, and here some are! It’s not a big deal; it’s just something that’s very occasionally mildly annoying.
- There are enough badges of enough different varieties and abilities that it may be worth flipping through the rulebook once to briefly familiarize yourself with the various badges. This one is a bit more specific; there are a wide enough variety of badges that you should be roughly aware of what types exist before you start the game. Otherwise, you might end up seeing an unexpected badge come up that changes your strategy, but in a less-fun way.
- It’s also odd that the “Exchange Resources” space doesn’t get … better when it flips to its night side. Often, I need two of the same resource, not one of each. It’s just an odd change, honestly, because it can end up making your strategy more challenging to implement, rather than simpler. Just strange! I assume the change was because the other spaces all generate more resources, so you may have more than you need (and the resource limit being in place makes getting more resources not necessarily helpful). Just struck me as odd every time I played.
- I gently wish the Photographs had been unique art, rather than pieces of the locations. This is also me just being a bit petty. Art’s expensive. I just like the art in the game, a lot, so I selfishly crave more of it. You know, like a normal person.
- The game’s slightly heavier than I expected, cognitively. I think it’s positioned as a “lighter” Parks, but I wouldn’t exactly call it much lighter. Now, I’m not the best judge of this sort of thing, since I’m already “very immersed” in the whole board games thing, but I’m trying to find the people who I could convince to play this that I couldn’t talk into Parks, and I’m struggling to think of where that overlap is. I think the main simplification of Trails is that it condenses a lot of the skills and abilities down to badge abilities, rather than having you keep track of Canteen cards (as they did in Parks). It’s also pretty significantly shorter (I’d estimate about half the length). I can see these things, which is positive, but I’ll be interested to see how it lands.
- It can really mess up your planning if another player beats you to a badge you were planning to take, particularly within the resource limits. I recall this being something that could be vexing in Parks, as well, but here it can be infuriating, especially if you go all-in on Climber or something on the more expensive end. It’s frustrating because you end up getting saddled with a bunch of resources you can no longer use, which makes those turns feel wasted in an otherwise tight, efficient game. It’s usually a result of bad luck and / or not keeping an eye on what resources your opponent has, but it can junk up your game pretty aggressively.
- The photography / bird elements feel lightly disconnected from the main trail elements. It just feels like a separate race happening in a side game. Certain things you get can boost you up on that front, but the photography element doesn’t really connect back to the badges; the badges just help you on photography. It’s not a huge deal, but the disconnect feels odd.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Trails is fun! As I implied in my Pros / Mehs / Cons, I prefer Parks, as the original title is a bit closer to what I’d call a “Gateway+” game, or a good title for folks who are interested in getting into board games or already have some experience with modern hobby gaming. I think, considering Trails in that context, it’s attempting to make space for itself as a true gateway game, as it boasts a shorter play time and a lower complexity than its older sibling. How does it succeed? I’m a bit mixed. I think the game, taken on its own, is fun! When I compare it to Parks, I do find myself thinking that there’s a pretty significant overlap between the audiences for these games. That said, I imagine that if you discovered them in the opposite order, Parks might be a pretty nice step up in complexity? I’m not entirely sure. But let’s dispense with a comparative analysis, since that’s not really doing me any favors. On its own, there’s a lot to like about Trails. It’s small enough to be pretty easily fit in a backpack or bag. The art continues to be fantastic, and is itself probably my favorite thing about the game. There are some new locations, in this one, and they are absolutely incredible. Still some of the best art I’ve seen in a game. I also particularly like the idea of the badges, though I’ll admit that the full implementation of the badges is occasionally vexing. There are a lot of different types of badge abilities for an otherwise-light game, so it may behoove players to take a look through all of them before starting, especially in a two-player game where you’ll likely experience less cycling (fewer players buying badges means not as many badges will cycle through during the game). And, if another player manages to snatch a badge you planned to get out from underneath of you, you can get pretty messed up, depending on what else is available. The art on the badges is incredible, though, as it’s extremely evocative of certain outdoorsy youth organizations and the various emblems you can get for accomplishing various tasks. I like that. I think this game will most likely appeal to folks who are into the theme and looking for a lighter title to play that gives them a sense of exploration with the joy of badge collecting. If that’s you, or if you just like games in the Parks series or games with great art, you may really like Trails, as well!