Trailblazers, a new tile-laying game from publisher Bitewing Games and designer Ryan Courtney, is unspeakably pleasant. This presents a bit of a challenge for me, a reviewer, who must speak of just how pleasant it is. What are you supposed to hold onto when you have to write 750 or so words on a game that has no edges?
I’m Lost in the Woods
The basic idea of Trailblazers is the creation of national park trails. Whether playing the base game or either of the expansions that come in the box, you will be building long and winding hiking, biking, and kayaking trails that run a circuit from and to the camp of the appropriate type.
The gameplay quickly falls into a lovely rhythm. All players—the game can support anywhere from one to eight—are dealt a hand of tiles. They all simultaneously choose two, pass the rest, choose two, pass the rest, choose two, and discard the final two. That process is completed a total of four times, and then the game is over. Easy, breezy, beautiful.
At that point, players score. Every successfully closed loop is worth one point per path segment. There are also four challenge tiles. Two are in-game challenges that players race to accomplish, while the other two score at the end of the game. These challenges drive the only real decisions in the base game of Trailblazers. Some are rudimentary, calling for things like the longest hiking trail. Others seem, frankly, impossible, like the challenge that calls for players to have two paths completely circling other campsites. I’ve played about ten games now, and it seems like you would have to dedicate your entire play to achieving that while simultaneously getting lucky with your tiles. I’m not sure it’s worth it.
I knew I wasn’t going to love Trailblazers the moment I started reading the directions. There are precious few games I love where actions are simultaneous, since that often presupposes a certain level of non-interaction. That held true. Trailblazers feels more like a puzzle than a game, since your head is almost always looking down at your own map.
I suppose it’s possible that players could reach the point where they are looking at other players’ boards and choosing their tiles based on that, but the return on that investment seems very low. Trailblazers gives every indication of being a pleasant game intended for a pleasant time, and it succeeds in that.
Content Dictates Form
The production is astonishing. This is a game about the woods, about nature. The art enhances that, as one should expect. Artist Seth Lucas has done inspired work here, particularly the eight sets of player tokens, any one of which I would be happy to frame and hang on the wall.While that sentiment is a bit of a trope in gaming, please know that is the first time I have ever said that about any board game art as far as I can remember.
More remarkable still is the way the packaging itself has been designed to enhance and serve the theme of the game. Not only does the base game come in a beautiful and rugged case for easy transportation, that case includes a carabiner. I would make more of a deal out of the fact that the container is also water resistant if it weren’t for the fact that the cards themselves are waterproof.
You could take your brand new set of Trailblazers on a hike and play it in the middle of a monsoon if you wanted to. These cards will not get ruined. They might blow away, but they won’t get damaged. I blew a child’s mind during setup by dumping several of the cards unceremoniously into my water glass. Between the carabiner and the water proofing, the game travels, and it travels well.
Up to a point, at least. My girlfriend took Trailblazers in her carry-on for a work trip. She was pulled aside by TSA and her bag was opened. It turns out they were looking for Trailblazers. My guess is that, filled with all that plastic, the case looks so dense in an x-ray machine that they had no idea what it was.
And It’s Time to Leave the Woods
To some extent, Trailblazers comes to feel like its theme. The rhythm, the light decisions, the lack of a particularly competitive environment, the way you can space out and look at the drawings, is not unlike the feeling evoked by a pleasant hike. Trailblazers is a wonderful product, and a pleasant game. Whether or not you want to take the hike for yourself will depend on how you like the sound of that.