You don’t need to head to a National Park with your favorite outdoor gear in the back of your SUV to appreciate an ingeniously planned interlocking series of hiking, biking, and kayaking trails. These are the three activities front and center in the card-laying puzzle game Trailblazers and it proves darn challenging to lay out your trails in an optimal pattern. The game supports a number of different types of play and supports 1-8 players. There are two expansions in the box, Animals (with cute animal tokens) and Adventurers, and solo mode offers three distinct challenges. The game’s designed by Ryan Courtney, the terrific artwork is from Seth Lucas, and it’s published by Bitewing Games.
To get the hang of the game, I have been playing the standard solo mode, a thinky puzzle that eschews all the additional complexity of the expansions and just focuses on optimal trail placement to create the longest possible hiking, biking, and kayaking trails in your park. It’s not easy. In fact, it took me a half-dozen plays to break the base score of 50 points, the ostensible gateway for moving on to the additional solo expansions. Like all good puzzle games, Trailblazers is deceptively straightforward too, a game that, in standard solo mode, almost seems like a print-and-play.
SETUP FOR TRAILBLAZERS: SOLO MODE
The core solo game consists of 135 trail cards and three camp cards. That’s it, and they’re all waterproof cards too! The core solo game is played in four rounds, with the first three consisting of placing one of the camps, then choosing 2 from 8 cards, then 2 from 6, then 2 from 4. The fourth round plays the same, with the exception that there’s no fourth camp. In total, you place 24 trail cards and your goal is to create the longest possible paths in total. Want to just focus on hiking trails? You can do that, but it’s almost impossible to hit that 50 point goal with just one type of trail.
Shuffle the trail cards, lay 8 out face up, then choose one of the three camps – hiking, kayaking, or bicycling – and place two cards adjacent:
In the above, you can see the six cards I didn’t choose – they’ll all be discarded in a moment – and the two cards I have placed, along with Kayak Corner, to begin creating river trails. These two cards fit nicely together but notice the lower portion is blue on the left card and brown on the right. That’s a broken trail and there’s no way to avoid them. To count towards your score goal, trails must start, run continuously, and end all on the same camp card. A kayak trail that ends in the bike camp? Useless. And how many cyclists want to deal with kayakers anyway?
AS THE GAME PROCEEDS: BIKE SHACK
A bit further along, I’ve played the Bike Shack on the top right and you can see that there are eight cards played; Round one plus the first two cards of round two:
At this point, it’s mostly a vision of the future map, with lots of potential trails, though there is one relatively short completed kayak path looping at the top of Kayak Corner. Each trail landmark counts as a point, so with kayak trails, it’s rapids. The above loop is therefore worth 6 points. Notice that there’s also a moose along the kayak trail! If I was playing the Animals variant, that would score points and I could place one of the excellent critter tokens:
Left to right, they are Eagle, Moose, Bobcat, Bear, Bison, and Wolf, and they’re really cute. They are not, however, part of the Standard Solo Mode, so they are not added to the map nor will those animals count towards final points.
Back to the game…
At this point, I have just placed the third camp, Hiking Gear Shop, and now have to decide at this halfway point whether I want to keep building out my epic kayak trail, create a wicked cool bike path, or start creating hiking paths. Remember, the cards are always “N choose 2”, so I can only play two of the eight cards shown. Each card, I should note, can be played in any orientation and can overlap other cards, as long as they are connected to the main board along at least one side.
I decided that I really want to complete that kayak trail and the biking trail and am going to ignore those hikers. I mean, honestly, why do they get a store while everyone else just gets a base camp?
THE LAST MOVE
A few more cards further and I’m down to the last choices: Choose 2 from the 4 cards drawn, place them, and the game’s over. A close examination of the map will reveal something alarming, however:
The kayak trail is done and it’s a beaut, but the monster biking trail is broken, on the right side one part bends upward, but the adjacent card is a water bend, so it’s a mismatch and the trail is not complete. That’s a lot of points.
Fortunately – phew! – one of the cards has a small biking (orange) straightaway, so I can place that over the water bend and close that trail, a critical move that lets me attain my desired 50 point score. Here’s my final map, with the three types of trail scored on the handy scorepad:
You can count up the points yourself. Remember, every curve, every straightaway, every bridge is each worth a point. The result is that I have a measly 2 points on hiking trails (the tiny loop with the moose just to the right of Hiking Gear Shop), but a robust 24 points worth of both cycling trails (thank goodness for that final straight path card!) and kayak trails. In total, 50 points.
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
I really enjoy puzzle games that require you to plan far ahead, and Trailblazers is a great addition to the category. The multi-player game brings an entirely different set of challenges, including various expansions, and the alternate solo games are also engaging, but there’s something appealingly elegant about the core solo challenge that keeps it coming back onto my game table. It’s deceptively simple, but I’ve played it again and again trying to beat my high score, and enjoyed it each time.
This is going to be a favorite with many gamers, and the Kickstarter “Super Travel Edition” and “Deluxe Edition” even include a travel hard clamshell case. It’s perfect to play at work, during a break at school, while traveling, or even camping. Trailblazers is a keeper. Run down that hiking trail, sprint along the bike trail, and paddle furiously along the kayak path to get a copy of Trailblazers for yourself.
TRAILBLAZERS from Bitewing Games. 1-8 Players. $34 Super Travel Edition, $49 Standard Edition, $79 Deluxe Edition (as shown in this article), all available thru Kickstarter, then at bitewinggames.com/trailblazers/.
Disclosure: Bitewing Games sent me a Deluxe Edition of Trailblazers in return for this review. Thanks, guys!