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The Last Spike (2015) Board Game Review and Instructions

We would like to thank Columbia Games Inc for the review copy of The Last Spike used for this review. Other than receiving the review copy we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation. Receiving the review copy had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.

How to Play | Review | Final Verdict | Comments

How to Play

Objective

To have the most money when a single continuous route is formed between St. Louis and Sacramento.

Set Up

If this is your first time playing the game you need to apply one sticker to each track tile.

The Last Spike uses colored chips to represent money with white chips being worth $1,000, red chips being worth $5,000, and blue chips worth $10,000. Each player gets money to start the game based on how many players there are in the game.

  • 2 Players-$60,000
  • 3 Players-$50,000
  • 4 Players-$40,000
  • 5 Players-$35,000
  • 6 Players-$30,000

Separate the land cards by city and sort them with the cheapest cards at the top of each cities pile.

All of the railways tiles are placed face down and shuffled. Each player draws one tile to determine who gets to play first. Whoever draws the tile closest to A-1 gets to go first. To determine whose tile is closest to A1, figure out whose letter is closest to A and then go by the number. For example A2 comes before B1.

All tiles are put back into the pool and shuffled. Each player draws four tiles standing them up in front of them so no other players can see what tiles they have. In a two player game one of the tiles will be removed from the game without anyone seeing what it was.

Game Turn

On a player’s turn you follow three steps and then play passes clockwise to the next player.

  1. Laying A Track Tile (required)
  2. Buying a Piece of Land (optional)
  3. Draw One New Track Tile (required)

Laying A Track Tile

To begin a player’s turn they must play one of the four tiles in front of them to the board. Each tile has a letter/number combination and a value on it. The letter/number combo tells you where the tile has to be played on the board. For example the A1 tile must be played on the A1 space.

While playing a track tile next to a city or another track tile, the player has to pay the bank the cost printed on the tile. If the tile is not played next to a city or another tile the player has to pay twice the cost printed on the tile. If you cannot afford to place any of your tiles you will be forced to sell land to raise enough funds to place a tile (see Selling Land section). If you play the fourth tile between two cities completing the connection, land investments in those two cities will pay out (see the Land Payout section).

Playing Tiles in The Last Spike
To start the game this player got the four tiles pictured. Each tile can only be played on the corresponding space on the gameboard. Since the B3, F2, and E3 tile can’t be played next to another tile already on the board or next to a city they will cost double to place.

If you are the first person to play a tile next to a city, you get to take the free land card for that city. Taking the free card allows players to start buying land cards in the city the player played next to. If you get a free piece of land on your turn you can NOT buy another piece of land on the same turn.

Getting free land in The Last Spike
This player was the first player to play next to Dodge City. They get to take the top Dodge City land card for free. All players can now start buying land in Dodge City.

Buying A Piece of Land

This step is optional.

After playing a tile a player is able to buy one land card in any city that has had a tile placed next to it (the free card for that city has been taken). Players can only buy one piece of land and they must pay the cost printed on the top card in the corresponding pile. After purchasing the card the player places it in front of them so all other players can see it. All players are allowed to see how many cards each player has of each city.

Buying Land in The Last Spike
To buy this piece of land the player will have to spend $7,000.

Draw One New Track Tile

This step is pretty self explanatory. At the end of their turn each player takes one tile at random from the bank and places it next to their own tiles that they have yet to play. This guarantees that a player will always have four tiles in front of them until all of the tiles have been drawn.

Land Payout

When a player plays the last tile between two cities, those two cities will pay out to all of the people who own cards from that city. For example tiles A1, A2, and A4 were played on previous turns. When a player plays tile A3, land in Saint Louis and Omaha will pay out. All players will collect money if they own land in either city even if they played no tiles in that connection.

Connecting Cities in The Last Spike
All four E tiles have been played to the board connecting Denver and Dodge City. All players owning land in Denver and/or Dodge City will receive a payout.

To determine how much money each player receives from their land investments they need to look at the number of cards they have in the two cities that are paying out. Let’s look at the above example where Saint Louis and Omaha pay out. A player has two Saint Louis cards and three Omaha cards. The player would look at the charts to determine how much money they would get from each city. In this case they would look at the second row on the Saint Louis card which is $20,000 and the third row on the Omaha card which is $21,000. This player would receive $41,000.

Payouts in The Last Spike
One player owns the cards pictured on the game board. The player owns three Denver cards which would earn them $15,000. They also earn two Dodge City cards worth $14,000.

Players keep their land even after it pays out. If another connection to that city is completed, the player will be paid once again based on how many cards they own of that city.

Selling Land

If you ever run out of money where you can’t play any of your tiles at the beginning of your turn, you are forced to sell some of your land to make enough money to place it. You sell all land back to the bank which will allow other players to purchase it in future turns. All land is sold to the bank for half of the cost that you paid to acquire it rounded up. A piece of land that you paid $5,000 would sell to the bank for $3,000 since there are no $500 chips.

The bank will not buy land if all of the possible payouts for that land have already been paid out.

If necessary players may have to sell multiple pieces of land. Land received for free sells for nothing and is discarded from the game. If after selling all of your land you still can’t place a tile, you are eliminated from the game. All land that wasn’t free, all money, and all unused tiles are returned to the bank.

End of Game

The game ends when the last tile is placed that completes an uninterrupted route between Saint Louis and Sacramento. The player who played the last tile gets a $20,000 bonus and the last land payout is made.

End of game in The Last Spike
A connection between Saint Louis and Sacramento has been completed. The completed route includes Saint Louis, Dodge City, El Paso, Yuma, Denver, Ogden, and Sacramento.

Players count up their money. Land cards have no value in the calculation. Whoever has the most money wins the game. If two players have the same amount of money, players count up the value of their land cards. Whoever has the highest land value will break the tie.

Review

In 1976 the original The Last Spike was created by Tom Dalgliesh, Ron Gibson, and Lance Gutteridge and published by Gamma Two Games. The original Last Spike was based around building the Trans-Canadian Railroad from Montreal to Vancouver. Almost forty years later The Last Spike was redesigned and launched to a successful Kickstarter.

After 40 years a lot of things have stayed the same but a couple things have changed. The game’s setting has moved south from Canada to the United States as you are now trying to connect Sacramento and Saint Louis. The more important change involves the elimination of the dice rolling mechanic that appears to have been pretty prevalent in the original game. The new version of the game has streamlined a lot of the mechanics from the original game making the game more strategic since it removed a lot of the luck that came from the dice rolling. While I have never played the original game I have to say that I think the changes were for the best.

While I wish the game had better components and relied less on luck, The Last Spike is a fun interesting look at land speculation in the age of railroads.

Let’s Speculate

At its’ heart The Last Spike is a game about land speculation. While you are building a railroad, the key to the game and the only way you make any money is to speculate on where the railroad is going to go through and purchase land in those cities before the railroad is completed. If you don’t buy any land you don’t make any money and have no chance at winning the game.

The basic mechanics in the game are pretty simple. Play a tile, buy some land and draw a new tile. The instructions are only about three pages long and are easy to read and understand. You can teach the game quickly to new players and it should only take them a couple of rounds to fully understand it. The game has a recommended age of 10+ which seems right. Younger kids could probably understand how to play the game but may have some troubles with the strategy elements of the game.

So how do you know what land you should buy? The simple answer is that you don’t. All you can do is make educated guesses based on the tiles you currently hold and where you think the other players are going to play tiles. Generally there are two main approaches to the game with varying degrees between them. You can diversify your investments and buy some land in every city which guarantees that you will get paid for pretty much every connection. You won’t get paid a ton but you should always have cash available and probably won’t go bankrupt. You could also choose to go all in on a couple cities but this is high risk since you need to make sure the railroad goes through the cities you invested in. If the cities you invest in aren’t Saint Louis or Sacramento (since at least one route has to go through both cities) you are taking a risk of earning nothing from your investment or earning a lot of money.

Based on one play I don’t know if either strategy is superior to the other. I ended up winning the game with a strategy where I invested in a bunch of different cities but the players that focused on a couple cities weren’t that far behind. This is actually one of the things I really liked about the game since no one fell way behind and everyone was still in the running at the end of the game. If a couple of plays had been made differently I think any of the players could have won the game. The game really went down to the wire since there were only three tiles not played when the game ended.

Every game won’t go down to the wire like our game did though. We ended up stalling for as long as possible in order to maximize payouts and delaying moves that would earn money for the other players.  The Last Spike is the type of game that can vary significantly with regards to length. Our game pretty much ran for as long as it could and it took around an hour to an hour and a half. I could see the game going really quickly though with it ending in around a half hour.

The Last Spike has this continual back and forth between the players where you are trying to figure out where a player is going to play next. Since you have to buy land ahead of time you can get some information out of the other players by looking at what land they bought on previous turns since they might be stocking up since they plan on completing that route soon.

The Threat of Bankruptcy

You wouldn’t think that there is a lot of strategy in a game where you just need to guess where other players will place tiles. There is a lot more strategy to the decision than you would think though. A lot of your decisions can come down to your wallet. You only get so much money so you have to be careful when and how you use it.

Since you have to spend some money on every turn you can’t just sit back and wait for someone to complete one of your routes to get more money. Especially early in the game you have to make some of your decisions based solely on money. Early in the game bankruptcy is a real concern (less so later in the game). You can’t spend wildly before you get your first payout or you will likely go bankrupt and be kicked out of the game. There might be a piece of land that you really want to purchase but you have to wait to buy it since you might not have enough money to pay for your next tile.

The lack of money might make you do something that you otherwise wouldn’t want to do. You might have to play a tile that completes a route that earns another player a lot of money either because you will get some money which you desperately need or that tile is the only tile that you can afford to play. You really want to try to avoid having to sell land since you lose half its’ value. In our game no one ended up having to sell land but there were several instances when players were one turn away from having to.

The Components

If I had a big complaint with the game I would say that the components could have been better.

While I always like wooden components, I think The Last Spike made a mistake using money “chips” instead of normal play money. You get used to the chips over time but I don’t really understand why paper money couldn’t have been used. Paper money would have been cheaper and it would have been easier to use.

The money saved on using paper money could have been used to improve the quality of the game board. The cardboard that the game is made from is kind of thin. The thinner cardboard used doesn’t hurt the gameplay in any way but I would have preferred a thicker board. While I wish the tiles were engraved with the text, I didn’t have an issue with using stickers since it probably saved quite a bit of money which reduced the cost of the game.

While I wish the components were a little better, that is not unexpected from a smaller game publisher like Columbia Games Inc. The bigger publishers have access to materials at cheaper prices so they can provide better components for a cheaper price than smaller publishers can. These issues with the components are also only cosmetic and have no impact on the gameplay itself which is quite good.

Other Quick Thoughts

The decision of what cities to invest in is pretty interesting. Some cities have two connections, some have three and Denver has four connections. The more connections a city has the more chances that city has of paying out. In exchange the cities with more connections don’t pay out as much. The two most interesting cities are Saint Louis and Sacramento. Since the game doesn’t end until these two cities are connected, these are the only two cities that have to pay out at least once. Therefore investing in these cities guarantees a payout but likely only one payout and you might have to invest a lot of money in them before they eventually pay out.

Being able to claim the free land cards seem to be a pretty big advantage. Especially early on in the game money sometimes gets tight. Whenever you can acquire land you probably want to. Getting land for free saves you money that you would have otherwise have had to pay for.

While you have control of your fate in the game, the game relies pretty heavily on luck mostly with the draw of tiles. You need to rely on other players to play tiles that you need played since you are unlikely to draw all of the tiles that you want. As a matter of fact you regularly will get a bunch of tiles that don’t help you at all and instead help the other players. Other than some early tiles I think I rarely ever got tiles that actually helped me make money. I also kept drawing 2 and 3 tiles which meant that I had to pay double cost a couple times in the game which hurt. I wish the luck of the draw had a little less impact on the outcome of the game.

Final Verdict

The Last Spike is a good game but it probably won’t be for everyone. I had quite a bit of fun with the game. I liked that the game was easy to learn and play but still had strategic decisions that had to be made. The Last Spike fits perfectly in the light to moderate strategy genre that I really like. The game is simple enough that people who rarely play board games can understand it but it has enough strategy for people who get bored with simple roll and move games.

The Last Spike only has two issues in my opinion. The game relies too much on luck at times when it comes to drawing tiles. The other issue is that I think the components could have been better. The quality of the components is just a cosmetic issue though and doesn’t affect gameplay.

The Last Spike is a game that is right on the cusp of being great. It is still a good game and after additional plays the game might reach the status of a great game. I had a very hard time deciding on the rating that I should give The Last Spike. I was debating between a 3.5 and a 4 for a long time. If we gave out quarter stars here at Geeky Hobbies the game would have gotten a 3.75. I eventually ended up deciding on the 3.5 due to the components. After more plays though the game could easily be upgraded to a four.

If you don’t like games that rely on luck and what actions your opponents take, you might not like The Last Spike. Also if you only like highly strategic games, it won’t be for you either. If you are looking for a light to moderate strategy game though and are looking for a train game that relies more on speculation than laying down tracks, I think The Last Spike could work for you.

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