I could sum up my bundle of plays of Disney Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with one simple credo: not every cool idea should make it from daydream to reality. In our mind, Funko Games and Prospero Hall get a lot of leeway when releasing games. They’ve single handledly made buying IP based games rewarding, something I would not have been able to say when I entered the hobby twenty years ago. But their latest Disney IP-turned-cardboard entry fizzles instead of sizzles, and this is coming from someone with, let’s just say, credible Disney bona fides.
Now look. We don’t have to compare the size of our castles just to prop up an opinion on Disney themed cardboard. All we have to do is point out exactly where Prospero Hall went off track.
Prospero Hall to date has proven to be the kingpin of turning intellectual properties into workable, nay absolutely fantastic designs. Jaws. Villainous. Groundhog Day. The Fast & The Furious. Pan Am. Ted Lasso. All of these are waaaay better than they have any right to be, from a gameplay standpoint and sometimes even from a components perspective, too.
But something went very wrong this time, even though Prospero Hall started with a pretty good premise. Big Thunder Mountain Railway is an iconic attraction at all of the Disney parks. It’s the ‘Wildest Ride In The Wilderness’, and often one of the first roller coasters young kids use as their break out ride. My kids grew up listening to (and practically memorizing) the spiel that plays while you are buckling yourself into the coaster and about to launch onto the first hill. That’s where the “wildest ride in the wilderness” tag line comes from.
Big Thunder Mountain is a coaster that relies on sight gags, speedy downhill corkscrews, and a lots of set dressing to make it seem faster than it is all while telling a not-so-subtle story. Already we can see the basis for the board game and its mechanics. The game needs a mountain, of course, and railroad track, and Prospero Hall delivers both.
But maybe most importantly, the game needs some kind of surprise, just like the one kids get when their trains are thrust out of the station with the warning “hold onto them hats and glasses, folks”.
In Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, there’s a surprise, all right.
Players each get a train and a mine cart, placing the train on a scoring track and the mine cart on a board that encircles a pretty good replica of the mountain from the attraction. Each player gets a small deck of cards, eight in total. The cards represent actions players can take on their turn, with dual purposes — movement or some special action like mining for ore or panning for gold or upgrading their train.
There’s even money to earn that can be used to buy cards from an open market that upgrade our deck with even stronger actions, and “stock” you can invest in for end game points.
None of the above created any problems. In fact, one of the cool things about the design is that the game can easily be scaled for all ages. Playing with younger gamers? Take out the deck building and the stock and just concentrate on the ore, gold and flood waters gumming up the works.
Playing with less experienced gamers? Leave the deck building (my favorite part) but leave the stock out if you think it’s too complicated. I tested this out with gamers as young as six, and we were able to scale the game up and down just fine.
The problem wasn’t the scalability or complexity at all, it was a simple issue of a “cool idea” in practice not working out in reality. The meat of this game revolves around moving the mine cart around the mountain and grabbing marbles that spit out the top. They represent gold and ore and floodwater from eight different wells in the ‘dirt’ and ‘rocks’ surrounding the bottom of the mountain.
But how do the marbles get distributed all over the mountain’s foothills? By dumping them into a reservoir above the mountain that funnels them into a plastic ‘mountain peak’ (that looks just like the iconic peak from the parks). On each player’s turn, the player has to turn the peak 180 or 360 degrees to catch a marble and release it onto the mountain’s track. There, little channels ‘randomly’ distribute the marble around the mountain.
In theory? Sure. In real life. Nope. It’s a hassle to turn the mountain ’round and ’round. Marbles get stuck, marbles seem to take the same routes over and over filling up some wells and leaving others bone dry. Even worse, the fiddliness completely slows down the action. There’s nothing anyone can do while waiting on the marbles to drop (except be frustrated that the other player isn’t as good as you are in accomplishing the feat.)
Maybe it’s the mountain that came with the game we played. Maybe the problems of manufacturing mean that even a slight variance in how the channels are laid out affects the marble movement greatly. Maybe our house is unlevel by one-one-millionth of a degree. It does not really matter to me because I’d much rather just grab random marbles from a bag and dump them in the channels instead.
I’m frustrated because there are some good ideas here. I love the red marble mechanic. When players drop a ‘fate’ marble, they have to flip a card from another deck that has random effects, some good, some bad. It creates tension each time we know that a red marble is likely to drop.
I also love that the game was smart enough not to be just about gathering gold. Some of the bonus powers can mitigate bad drops by adding more points for ore, or giving you the ability to have a bigger hand.
A game like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad needs to move as quickly as the trains do as they careen around the rock formations in Frontierland. Unfortunately, the mountain marble mechanic bogs the game down.
For us, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad the board game is more like the queue at Jazzland on a hot summer day than the ever building thrill of winding your way up a mountain to jump on one of the most iconic coasters in all of Disneydom. (And yes, I realize Jazzland closed years ago. That’s the bit, you see.)
“This here’s not the wildest ride in the wilderness.”
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo