Books and Board Games: Yee Haw Little Doggies

In the last year and a half, board games have become a relatively large part of my life. My boyfriend Jake was into board games before we met and he’s gotten me into games as well. Since the beginning of 2022, we’ve hosted at least one game night a week with friends. I’ve also started doing collection development for the children’s board game collection at work (another blog post on that coming soon!).

One game we’ve been playing lately is Great Western Trail, checked out from the adult game collection at the library where I work. I recently stumbled across the picture book Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler and illustrated by Jonathan Bean and I knew I had to start a new blog feature: Books and Board Games.

In this post you’ll find both brief reviews of a Real Cowboys and Great Western Trail. Like many of the blog features that I’ve come up with over the years, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make more posts like this, but if it’s something you’d be interested in reading more of, let me know in the comments!

Real Cowboys

Real Cowboys is a picturebook that works to reframe the work of cowboys in a way that challenges the macho tough-guy stereotype that is presented in the Western Genre. One of the things I love about this picturebook are the colors. Most spreads are dominated by one color that works to establish time of day or a mood for the page. The cowboys and cattle are distinct in some spreads and ethereal in others.

This spread showcases the way that Bean uses color and composition to create mood and setting

One of the spreads I like the most is in the aftermath of a stampede where the text reveals that “Real cowboys cry” when thinking about the cattle and the cattledogs that they’ve lost. The tannish hue is reminiscent of a dust storm and the single silhouette of the cowboy with the buzzards at the bottom of the recto is very effective at creating a lonely scene and the proportion of land to sky feels so much like the prairie to me.

My favorite spread from the book

There are a few inconsistencies for me. It talks about cattle drives to “places called Stillwater or Red Town.” Stillwater to me immediately brings to mind Oklahoma, and the only place I was able to find anything close to Red Town was Redtown Texas or Redtown Ohio. Texas feels more likely and with these geographic references being touchstones that are mentioned twice in the book it felt a little offputting me me when there was a scene that referenced the mountains and was covered with snow. While Texas does have the Guadalupe Mountains, and it does snow in these mountains (and also in Texas and Oklahoma in general on occasions), this scene felt very out of place compared to the rest of the book. I would have rather seen a prairie thunderstorm that also would have fit a little more with the rest of the color palette used in the text.

The contrast of this white spread didn’t work for me in the context of the rest of the book

While this book could ostensibly be set in modern times, there is the inclusion of one car on a highway, a flashlight on the cover, and one outdoor light near a house, I do wish this book felt a little less timeless and a little more timely. Other than these small nods at modernity, Bean’s illustrated cowboys still feel distinctly of the past to me (there’s even a chuckwagon which feel very outdated to me), and unless someone who is reading this book to kids brings up these touches, that might fly right over the heads of children. I wish we saw cowboys with cellphones, and a truck and trailer to haul the horses. I wish there was a four wheeler sitting outside the house. While I love the colors and the art style and the way they portray the cattle and the landscape, I feel like they contribute to the “old timey feel” of this text in a way that might have been different had a different illustrator been selected.

The smallest hint of modernity

Overall though, I like this book. For me, it ranks right up there with Patricia MacLachlan’s Prairie Days in feeling like it actually represents the rural prairie landscape well. There’s not a ton of picturebooks out that that feel like they successfully do that.

Great WEstern TRail

This game has two editions. I’ve included an image of the first edition because that’s the one that the library has.

I am the one who insisted we play this game the first time. I saw it on the shelf, saw it was about cows, and checked it out. The premise of Great Western Trail (designed by Alexander Pfister) is that you are a cowboy, driving your cattle north to Kansas City where you will then sell them to ship off by rail to various destinations. You get points from shipping cattle and in various other ways throughout the game.

This game is not for the faint of heart. The first time Jake and I played it, we spent a total of five hours on it including reading the instructions and set-up. We’ve gotten it down to about three hours in successive plays with friends, but it’s still a time commitment.

The game board, because I forgot to take pictures while we were actually playing the game

I’m into this game because of the cows and I often lean into a cow-heavy strategy (give me all the Texas Longhorns), but one of the great things about this game is that it’s got a few varied strategies. It’s both an engine building game and a deck building game so while you’re collecting advantageous cows (building your deck), you’re also hiring staff and placing buildings that give you extra actions (building your engine).

A sampling of the cow cards

A few things that are frustrating about Great Western Trail are to me largely in the details. I would have rather seen the trail end in Dodge City or Abilene rather than Kansas City, because cattle drives didn’t have to go as far as Kansas City to arrive at a railhead except for in the earliest cattle drives in the 1840s. In fact, the trail that went to Dodge City was often called “The Great Western Cattle Trail” which is basically the name of the game. The railroads also shipped cattle east, not west (though that does get changed in the second edition of the game). I also take offense at the fact that many dairy breeds of cattle are used in the game, when dairy cattle likely weren’t part of cattle drives (as far as my knowledge goes).

I genuinely enjoy playing this game, and I know that it’s one Jake and I will eventually purchase so that we don’t have to check it out from the library every time we want to play it.

Are there any board games you love that you’d like me to try out and pair with a book? Let me know in the comments if you like this feature and would like me to try it again!

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