The Last Spike
by Tom Dagliesh
age 12 and up
Every once in a while an established game publisher that has a well-defined swim lane decides to hesitantly stick its toe into something new and bold and interesting. Columbia Games has done that from time to time since their inception, way back in the early 70s. When I mention “Columbia Games”, most of us wargaming geeks think of Fog of War style boardgames with lavish maps and big block components that hide essential information from our opponents. Or if I mention Columbia Games maybe obscure role-playing types instantly envision the City State of Harn (ya got me; I’ve never seen it nor know how it’s played). In my mind, Columbia Games makes block-based historical games, of medium to high complexity and playable in a few hours. They’ve done a pretty good job at it, too, for the last 40 years.
A picture of the ancient 1976 version of THE LAST SPIKE (Gamma 2 Games)
Sometimes, however, they step outside the swim lane and try a Euro style game. I think that was the impulse that created the hockey card game SLAP SHOT, and a game I recently discovered, THE LAST SPIKE. The Last Spike dates back to the Gamma Two phase of Columbia Games’ existence, and was published in 1976. It is a “cooperative” stock-holding and tile placement game that simulates the land speculation that accompanied the expansion of the railroad across the North American continent in the 19th century.
The Last Spike, NEW version. These are CITY CARDS (more on this later)
The components are up to the standard Columbia Games has maintained for decades; big wooden blocks (that you have spend time stickering), a lovingly detailed, yet abstract, map; and other component bits of generally high quality. The track cubes being placed on blocks (vice counters as in version 1) is a nice touch; it ties in with a necessary random draw mechanic and also with Columbia’s “block wargame” brand. The rulebook, oddly enough, is very short– basically a double sided piece of paper.
So How does it play?
Players are cast in the roles of rail barons in the Old West. The goal is to collect as much money as possible from payouts on land speculation, before the last spike is laid. The Last Spike is the signal to end the game. Ostensibly the players are cooperating to build a continuous route from Saint Louis, MO to Sacramento, CA. The map itself is a departure from all that loving calligraphy in CG’s historic wargames– there is no movement, so no need for hexes.. just track placement areas between cities where the players lay their track tiles.
Detail on the new map board (Laramie to St. Louis). Pretty, not exactly accurate, but pretty
As stated, the game is played with a map with spaces between cities. The players have a chunk of cash (depending on number of players) represented by handy painted wooden chips in red, blue and white. There are CITY CARDS (see picture above) that represent investment in the rail line between cities– in game terms these are like stock certificates or property cards in Monopoly. Once a city is connected, the players that own these city cards get paid out depending on how many city cards they have.
The map depicts 9 cities and the track routes between them. Each track route has four spaces between them in ascending order– A1-A4, etc. Each turn begins by a player playing one track tile next to a city (and paying the bank the cost), or next to any existing tile– or pay double cost to place it anywhere. If the player is the FIRST player to place a rail tile next to a city, he can get the first card for that city for free. The City Card has higher payouts based on the number of cards you have, and that is indicated on the card (see picture, above) .
Two player game, first or second time, I can’t recall.. early in game
The game is touted as being cooperative (kind of) because the goal is to create a railroad that crosses the entire country from St. Louis to Sacramento, but I would call it semi-cooperative, as each player competes to make the most cash from payouts before the Last Spike is driven– there usually is a clear winner since the player that lays the last road tile gets a bonus of 20K.
Honestly, I didn’t think I’d be a big fan of The Last Spike on first glance.. it seemed overly simple and anything that involves stocks and railroads always gave off the vibe of watching paint dry for entertainment purposes. I have to admit, I had it all wrong. The Last Spike is more like a “historical themed Euro/family game” than a straight historical game, but I had to admire the guys at CG– the big outline of western railroad expansion is there– sort of. If you squint a little. This is not a perfect game by any means. Two player play loses something. Knowing what tiles YOU have and knowing there are a finite amount of other tiles generally gives you a lot of information that is hidden in games with more players. Five or Six players is possible (I didn’t try it) but my guess is that would seriously drag the game. Three or Four players is just about perfect. Despite the theme, I found the game to be a ton of fun, because it builds on the anticipation and tension of the hidden placement of tiles. Add to that the fact that the game plays absurdly fast once you get the hang of it, is easy to teach to just about anyone who wants to play, and delivers good entertainment for the money, and I’m sold. I ended up liking and playing a railroad game! Trust me, I’m not going to put on a Puffing Billy hat, but it was a fun time, and I’ve played it a few times now and liked every session. I’d recommend it.