Board Game Soapbox: The Problem with Great Western Trail (Second Edition)

A friend recently gave me Great Western Trail Second Edition for my birthday.

Now, I could talk at length about my friend’s generosity and the thoughtfulness of the present.

I could write paragraphs ruminating (pun absolutely intended) on the excellence of Great Western Trail Second Edition with its ungulate-ing paths and chattelled cattle. 

I could discuss the differences between first and second editions or the possibilities for the upcoming sequels.

I could cover the inclusion of a more diverse roster of workers, the varied skin tones of the herder meeple with their adorable cowboy hats, and how, whilst the removal of Native Americans from the game is a positive step in light of their earlier discriminatory portrayal as little more than hazards to be dealt with or avoided, equivalent to floods, droughts and rock falls, their exorcism from Great Western Trail Second Edition entirely displaces a people who would have been present in the game’s landscape, both in the form of settlements encountered by the travelling herders and in the form of some of those same herders.

Hell, I could even applaud how it’s right and proper that the game presents Hereford cows as the best type of cow. Because they clearly are, irrespective of whether I’m from Herefordshire or not.

But I’m not going to do any of that.

Instead, I’m going to tell you why, despite its commendable stance on the relative value of the Hereford cow, I don’t want to play Great Western Trail Second Edition.

It comes down to one simple thing: the box insert.

This sounds ungrateful. After all, not all games come with an insert included, and few of those included inserts are as pretty as this one is when everything is in its right place, all neatly arranged and organised. See:

Hear that? That’s the contented sigh of a game well boxed.

The trouble is, it’s likely to stay that way unless I bin the insert, something I’m reluctant to do because it’s both a waste of plastic and so nice to look at.

Let’s have a closer look:

See that portion there along of the top of the photo, the spaces filled with carefully arranged tiles. See the bags in the bottom left? Care to take a guess where those tiles go during the game?


At the start of the game the number 1 tiles are all put into the number 1 bag and mixed up. I’ll let you extrapolate what happens with the number 2 and 3 tiles and bags. At the end of the game all those tiles are collected up and placed back into the insert.

This process – the getting out of tiles and putting back of tiles – takes ages. Longer if you want to reduce set up time for the next game by organising the tiles by number before you put them back in the box. Longer still if you knock a tile over in a part-filled insert space and have to spend a moment standing it back up again before slotting the remaining tiles in place. And even longer if your fingers struggle to hold the tiny stacks of tiles with just the right amount of correctly directional pressure to keep them together without the centre tiles popping out and scattering over the table like cardboard confetti.

It didn’t need to be like this. There’s absolutely no reason not to keep the tiles in their numbered cotton bags, except that the insert doesn’t fit properly if you do.

Far from being helpful, it makes setup and teardown take longer, by a few minutes each time. You could read this article twice in the time it takes me to put just those little numbered tiles away properly.

I’m used to (i) games with no inserts, (ii) games with half-arsed inserts that are little more than space dividers, and (iii) games with inserts that don’t work, failing to hold components in place if the box is tipped or jostled.

Here, though, is an insert that’s had time, care and money put into it, an insert that technically works – everything is held in place however the box is stored. Yet it’s a bigger hindrance than any of those three previous options. If I were an addict with a baggie habit I could halve the set up/tear down time by throwing the insert away and using plastic bags.

Barenpark – terrible insert variant 2. Credit: Piet Notebaert.

The insert puts me off playing Great Western Trail Second Edition. There are plenty of other great games that I’ve not played enough, why would I choose a game with an insert that hates me?

And all this is before you hear that the card holders in the insert aren’t deep enough to hold all the cards. And I’m no over-eager sleever with a fever either – my cards are nude and they still don’t all fit.

Why is this box insert so rubbish? How was it allowed to go into production?

I have a theory.

We’ve all seen board game boxes that are too big for the games inside. Splendor springs to mind – Tom Franklin’s 3D-printed box for Splendor is a quarter of the size of the original. It’s another game with a poor insert too, although in Splendor’s case the insert doesn’t actively sabotage the enjoyment, it just doesn’t work as a tool for holding components in place (terrible insert variant 3).

Credit: Frank D.

Why is the Splendor box so big? For advertising and money, of course. The publishers want to grab your attention as it sits on the shelf in your local game store, they want you to feel like their game is worth the price point.

So why is the Great Western Trail Second Edition box insert so impractical despite all appearances? For the same reason that the Splendor box is too big – a pretty portrait of precisely placed pieces in promotional pictures pleases the picky punter, persuading them to pay precious pounds to purchase this (im)perfectly packaged paragon of our prestigious pastime. Sales overcomes practical usage any day of the week.

Show me a game that looks as good in the box as it does out of it and my money is yours… unless the consequence of that in-box glamour is tired irritation from a terrible design.

Publishers take note: there are enough barriers to playing board games as it is, don’t add to them with your beautiful but shoddy insert just for the sake of promotional photos. And especially don’t do it when you’ll be trying to sell me an expansion and the Argentinian and New Zealand sequels over the next two years.

Of course, I could be wrong about the reason. Perhaps instead the insert was designed on a computer by someone who’s never had to go through the laborious process of setting the game up and putting it away. But surely that wouldn’t be the case, no one would be that stupid… would they?

Would they?

Still, at least they got the part about the Herefords correct.

THE BEST! Credit: CQ.

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About the author

Andrew Holmes

Andrew Holmes is a husband, father, scientist, poet and, of course, gamer who lives in Wales, works in England and owns a Scottish rugby shirt. He has never passed up a challenge to play Carcassonne.


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  • Feel the same way about the insert in Vindication. And what about those static mini’s? You’ve inspired me to toss the insert. Then maybe I can squeeze the expansions into the box. All in all though, I do like Vindication.

    • I’ve (sadly) never had an opportunity to play Vindication, although Mark and Will have both sung its praises in their reviews of it for Meeple Mountain so I should look out for it. Sad to hear that the insert is more frustrating than useful 🙁 I agree with you Gary, static minis are about the worst type of board game component!

  • Well I like the insert, and it works just fine for me! And all the cards fit just fine if you sort them right. Yes, it’s all a bit fiddly maybe, but I reckon less so than ditching it and using baggies for everything.

    • I’m really glad to hear the insert works for you Bert! For me the cards don’t fit no matter how I’ve sorted them – they only just fitted when in shrink and after using them once they never did again. I actually did some internet searching before this was published to check if it was just me and found others who had the same issue. My main frustration though is that the numbered tiles don’t need to be kept anywhere but in the provided cloth bags – the insert actively extends setting up and putting away time by a few minutes and whilst I’m probably clumsier than most, the tiles are small enough that its an awkward and unnecessary process. The article is slightly tongue in cheek – of course I’m still going to play the game – whilst also pointing out that a poorly designed insert can sabotage a gaming experience. Its a great game but those feelings of satisfaction at the end of a game are tempered by having to stack those tiny tiles ever so delicately instead of just putting them in the bags they’ll end up in at the start of the next game anyway. First world problems!

      • It did take some thinking to make it work, and I’d certainly agree it would have made more sense to simply have somewhere to put the full token bags!

        As you say though, first world problems!

    • I agree with so much of this article. I did end up ditching the insert for baggies. Now each player’s starting stuff is in its own baggie and ask the other components are sorted with an eye to setup. I did feel guilty about ditching the insert but it is a terrible piece of design.

      Also, while the extra diversity in the components and design is very good, the overall graphic design has taken a backward step. It’s tougher to see which cattle types are used by each building and the cowboys and outlaws look way too similar.

      This game, which is one of my favourites, is ever so slightly harder to play since the redesign. And that’s a shame.

      • I absolutely agree with you Andrew that spotting the difference between the cattle type icons is really tricky, I always have to look twice to make sure. Redesigns should make things even easier to play, not make additional barriers. Whilst each individual issue is only tiny, they definitely add up.
        Glad you’ve ditched the insert and don’t seem to look back in regret. Gives me courage to do the same thing! 🙂

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