PLAYlist 12: Whistle Stop

Sep 20, 2017 By Austin Trunick
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Trains rule. People naturally love ‘em. That’s not only an opinion, but backed up by numerous neurological studies. And it’s not just kids – many adults have never grown out of playing with trains, judging by the thriving communities centered on building miniature train landscapes, as well as the hobbyists who dedicate time and money to building far less miniature train sets in their back yards. And besides, except for commuters on the Long Island Railroad, who doesn’t enjoy a train ride? If the enduring appeal of trains is reflected anywhere, it’s certainly in the table top gaming community, where “train games” are considered a genre of their very own.

And so, in an industry where it feels like dozens of train-themed titles are released every year – and that’s only counting Ticket to Ride variants – it takes a lot for a game to stick out from the crowd. It’s the reason why we were excited to play the all-new Whistle Stop from designer Scott Caputo and Bezier Games, which not only attempts something new with the engines, rails, goods, and stock certificates we see in so many games, but does so with a soothing color palette that almost guarantees it’ll set itself apart from any other game on your shelf.

Two to five players take command of their very own railroad companies in Whistle Stop, which generally plays out in a little over an hour. Players start by taking turns positioning their engines along the right side (or “east” side) of the modular game board. Your goal, more or less, is to move your trains to the far left side of the board (or “west”) before time runs out, while picking up as many points as you can along the way.

The board itself is pretty interesting: it starts out as a (mostly) empty frame made up of four connecting border pieces. (Imagine you’re putting together a puzzle, where you’ve done the sensible thing and assembled all of the edges first.) It’s designed to fit hex-shaped tiles, which will eventually fill out the empty frame so that you’re looking at less and less of your bare tabletop. At the start of the game, you shuffle a set of end bonus tiles and line them up randomly down the leftmost column of the frame. (The box includes more than you’ll use in a game.) In the center column, you’ll line up a random assortment of designated tiles, forming a wall of special bonus tiles everyone will have to pass through to get to the far side of the board. Finally, in the rightmost column – next to where you’ll start your engines – you’ll shuffle and lay down some normal train tiles. This highly-randomized setup ensures no two games of Whistle Stop will be remotely close to the same, offering a ton of variety and replay value out of the box.

During their turns, players will put down additional hex tiles from their hand, gradually building out Whistle Stop’s tracks. These tracks curve, double back, and overlap each other in wild ways – the end product looks more like a bowl of spaghetti dumped on the floor by a cranky child than an actual train line designed by an engineer, but the absolutely nutty paths that unfold are part of the fun.

Players use coal – a scarce, slow-to-replenish resource – or whistle tokens – an even scarcer resource – to move their trains one or two stops, respectively. On these stops you’ll pick up wooden resource cubes, representing goods like lumber, steel, and whiskey. (Whiskey!) When one of your trains lands on a town hex, you can trade a designated selection of resources in for points. BUT – look out! – if you don’t have the goods requested by a town hex, the population apparently riots and starts tearing off pieces of your train as you choo-choo out of town. (In other words, you lose points.) So, carefully charting the path you’ll take across the board, hitting up the resources and towns that help you and avoiding the ones that won’t, is key to winning the game.

There’s a lot more nuance to Whistle Stop, too, than just picking up and delivering resources. Each time you deliver goods to a town, you’ll earn a stock certificate of the same color. (Having the most of a stock at the end of a game is worth big bonus points.) You can collect gold pieces with differing point values that you hide from your opponents. There are also train upgrades – which you can buy from a store early in the game, or from your opponents later on – which grant a player special powers, from movement bonuses, to resource conversion, to using your trains to block opponents’ movement. These upgrades are also worth points at the end, and are randomly arranged at the start of a game, bringing yet more replay variability to Whistle Stop.

All in all, Whistle Stop is a pretty great game: easy-to-grasp, but with a lot of strategic depth that’s slowly revealed on subsequent playthroughs. It’s on a higher tier of complexity than Ticket to Ride, yet still very accessible, making it a great next step for gamers just getting their feet wet in the hobby. Skilled gamers, too, should find plenty to like in how the game features a good deal of direct interaction, between blocking your opponents’ paths or stealing their upgrades.

And guess what? I’ve recommended the game, but haven’t even gotten into my most favorite-est thing about it! I’ll admit this is about as superficial as it gets, but the color scheme in Whistle Stop is just wonderful. The wooden train tokens you push around are done up in sugary-sweet pastels, as if they were painted using PAAS egg dye kits. The board itself is a soft, pleasant green, from which your pieces will brightly pop out like candy nestled in a basket of Easter grass. (My niece pointed out several times how much the wooden scoring discs resembled Smarties candies, and now I'm tempted to eat one.) This is all a welcome change-up from the green, blue, catsup-red and mustard-yellow tokens that always seem to be found in the grand majority of other games, and – this could just be with my play group, but I’ll swear to it – the color scheme adds a strangely calming effect to the game. (The tranquil aesthetic doesn’t apply to the game alone – just look at its box, which is almost clinically white and more resembles an Apple product than something you’d find in a hobby store.)

For this column’s playlist, we have a collection of songs for you where the whistling never stops. Ever since humans first figured out how to just put their lips together and blow, whistling has been mankind’s #1 musical instrument. While whistling usually takes the back seat to songwriters who prefer to show off their vocal prowess or other instrumental chops, there’ve been plenty of times where someone’s made good use of a whistle in a pop song – either as an accompaniment, or in the form of a sweet, sweet whistle solo. We have over an hour’s worth of examples for you here, running the gamut from Guns ‘N Roses to Otis Redding. Enjoy!  

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Previous PLAYlist columns: Caverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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