Growing up, my family and I would go camping at Yosemite every summer. We’d have a blast swimming in the river, enjoying the outdoors and hiking up waterfalls. While I haven’t been to Yosemite since my late-teens, I’d always wanted to eventually make it back and try some of the more difficult trails.
The John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite, is a trail that runs through the Sierra Nevada for 211 miles and passes through several national parks in northern California. Instead of taking weeks to hike the strenuous yet picturesque trail, you can traverse it in the comfort of your own home by playing Trailblazer: The John Muir Trail, a game available on Kickstarter by Mariposa Games.
(Full disclosure: Mariposa Games provided this review prototype copy, and I received compensation for proofreading services for its rulebook.)
In Trailblazer, players have 10 days to hike the John Muir Trail — rain or shine! Players must have enough supplies in their backpacks to make the trek, while also gathering resources to collect Field Guide Cards and Destination Cards, which go toward end-game goals and victory points.
Each player has a player board that represents their backpacks, which fill up with up to 12 items and also has space for a limited number of natural and personal resources. These resources are vital to making your trip across the trail, as represented on the main playing board.
Each day has three phases: sunrise, daytime and sunset. During sunrise, players draw and play a Trail Card, which will allow you to place items into your pack or “activate” them. Activation comes into play later for increasing your elevation. When you complete a row of items in your backpack, you collect the bonus depicted on the board. The sunrise phase also determines the weather everyone is having that day. Sunny skies mean no extra resources are needed to move on the trail, but other weather conditions require something extra.
During daytime, players use their Tracks Tokens to take an action on the main board. Players start out with 3 Tracks Tokens but can gain up to 2 more as the game progresses. One action is hiking, moving at most one space per day if they fulfill the hiking requirements on their map pack, as well as weather and trail conditions, if any. Each player has a different map pack at the start of the game, a booklet of the same resource requirements but in a different order.
Another action is acquiring natural resources: water, earth, wind and fire. Placing your Tracks Token on these locations on the board will net you a specific number of tiles based on the resource. You then place them in your pack if you have room for them.
A third action you can do is discover Field Card Guides. These require various natural resources based on their location on the board, and when you pay those resources for them, they give you a backpack item, which you can place in your backpack or active if it’s already there, and some kind of reward. These cards also come in five varieties, which score points based on each unique set you have at the end of the game.
A fourth action is exploring destination cards. These cards require you to trade in natural and personal resources to receive backpack items and victory points. The cards are also one of four types, and when you receive the first card of a type, you can activate a one-time bonus on your player board. As hikers move along the John Muir Trail, the destination card decks will substitute out for harder cards that are worth higher point values. Both the destination cards and Field Card Guides could also go for end-game bonuses if you acquire a matching type of Journey Bonus Arrowheads.
Lastly, you can also use your Tracks Token to visit the High Sierra Lodge to resupply personal items, but only if you’ve filled your backpack up with 9 items. Personal items are food, a water bottle, Zzzs and condition.
If a card pictures a backpack item you already have in your pack, you can choose to activate it. When you activate it, you move your tent along the elevation track on the main board. Moving up this track will give you bonuses, as well as your fourth and fifth Tracks Token, and the chance to collect Bonus Arrowheads for more victory points. At the start of the game, the Arrowheads are placed in three piles, with the top tile flipped over for everyone to see. There’s also one Arrowhead placed in the center of the board that everyone can score at the end of the game. When you collect a personal Arrowhead, only you can score it. The person who reaches the end of the Elevation Chart gains 7 points, and the rest will score fewer points.
The last two locations on the board are the Mountain Pass Trail Cards, where you can draw cards and collect rewards without receiving the benefit of the backpack item, and the First Light location, which enables you to become first player the next round. If no one takes that action, the first-player marker moves left and a water tile is added to this location to make it more enticing as an action.
The last phase of each day is sunset. Players must turn in one food and one water bottle (which players can trade in two water tiles at any time to gain a water bottle). Players also take their Tracks Tokens from the board and pass the first-player marker to the person who took the First Light action or the next player to the left.
The most important part of this game is that hikers need to get to the end of the John Muir Trail. Anyone who doesn’t make it to the end of 10 days is ineligible to win. And naturally, the players who get there first will get more points than the rest. This kind of deadline forces you to plan ahead and move so that you’ll finish the trail. You can always move without having resources but you’ll gain a Hardship Token for each missing resource, and the more of those you have, the more negative points you’ll have at the end of the game. But you can also stop by the High Sierra Lodge to get rid of them, if you have access to the lodge.
Trailblazer: The John Muir Trail will appeal to both nature lovers and board gamers of all levels. It comes with gorgeous artwork and quality components (I especially liked the tent and hiker meeples, and sturdy player boards for my prototype). Games last about 1-2 hours, with each journey unique based on the weather conditions, map packs and trail requirements. The requirement to finish the trail for a chance to win adds some weighty strategy to this game. Overall, it’s a fun experience without having to load up your pack and dust off those hiking shoes. If Trailblazer sounds right up your alley, check out its Kickstarter page or visit the Mariposa Games website.