Friday, September 2, 2011

Board Game Review: Railways of the World

This is a review of Railways of the World, by Eagle Games/Fred Distribution. It was designed by Martin Wallace and Glenn Drover.

First, a little background. This game was originally published as Railroad Tycoon, from a license with the popular PC game. The rules were tweaked a little and the parts were changed a bit and it was re-released as this game.

The first thing you notice when you open up the box is that there is a LOT of stuff, and ALL of it is big.

This is probably about a third of what comes in the box.

The Eastern US board, in particular, easily can take up the entirety of a standard kitchen table.

Of course, part of this is necessity based on the nature of the game. Railways of the World  is a playable board game in and of itself, but it's also part of a kit: the publishers have released different maps covering different regions of the world. So you get all of the parts in this base game, and then all you need to do is purchase a board and some new cards and you can play any new map they release. So while it's intimidating at first, realize that you're not really going to be using all of the parts that have been provided.

The base game comes with two maps: Eastern US and Mexico. The Mexico map is small and suited best with two or three players. The Eastern US, however, is the flagship map. The rules change slightly from map to map, so what I am describing below are the "generic" rules, though all of the examples are from the Eastern US.

The goal of the game is to end up with the most victory points. Note that the goal is not to get the most money. The two are clearly related, of course, but since there are a few ways to earn victory points that are unrelated to money (such as connecting specific cities) this is an important distinction to make. Players will spend most of their time building track between cities and transporting goods.

The map is first "seeded." Small wooden cubes of differing colors represent goods in each city. Each city has a number roughly representing its size/economic activity, and the board is set up by placing a random cube in each city equal to this number.

Each player is dealt two Railroad Baron cards, and they keep one. Each baron is kept hidden from all other players; the card provides some sort of victory point bonus at the end of the game. (Things such as "have the highest-valued engine" or "get one point for every connection you control in Chicago.") Most only provide a few points, but their abilities tend to vary wildly, so choose carefully.

Three Railroad Operations cards are placed face-up so all players can inspect them. The first three are pre-determined, but after a card is taken a random one replaces it. Technically, the operations cards are an optional rule, but it makes the game so much better I can't imagine ever not playing with it. Players are also given a pile of trains of one color, which serve to note ownership of railways on the board.

Players start the game with no money. Obviously, players need money to do...well, anything, so players must take out bonds. A bond permits a player to collect $5,000. However, interest must be paid each turn, and each bond costs you one victory point at the end of the game.

Once the game is set up, play begins.

There are three phases in each turn: First Player Auction, Player Action, and Income and Dividends.

The First Player Auction is easy: each player makes a bid to be the first player on the turn. Play proceeds clockwise from the first player.

There are three Player Actions for each player, done once each in turn order. Players can build track, transport goods, take an operations card, upgrade engine, and urbanize. Players will spend a majority of the game building track and transporting goods.

To build track, players simply place rail tokens on the board. The cost of the rail depends on the terrain; generally, there is an extra cost for mountains or water. It takes a time or two to get used to adding it all up, but it's not hard to get the hang of. Players cannot split railways; while they can cross other railroads, each section of track can only be a single line from one city to another. Players can only build four pieces of track each turn (and you get three turns per round), and any incomplete tracks are removed (and your money wasted) if you can't finish it by the end of the round.

The hexes are easy to see: it only takes one piece of track to get from Philly to Baltimore, but two to get to Dover. The cities are much more spread out in the Midwest.

You don't have to connect to your existing track, although it often pays to do so. You note your ownership of a railway by placing a train of your color on it.

Transporting goods is easy, but finding ways to go about it isn't quite so easy. You can transport a good from one city to another--passing through additional cities on the way, if needed.. However, the destination city has to be the same color as the good. And you can only move through as many cities as the level of your current Engine. So at the beginning of the game, when your Engine level is 1, you can only make simple, one-track deliveries. As you upgrade, you can transport goods farther away from their home city. And you gain one victory point for each segment you use to deliver the good.

You can move along another player's track, but they get any victory points from each segment you use.

Many of cities are colored gray: no cubes may be delivered there, since there are no gray cubes.

Let's look at some examples:

In this situation, the yellow cube in Columbia can be delivered to Raleigh by the yellow player. It could not be delivered to Charleston, since Charleston is red. The red cube in Raleigh can be delivered to Charleston only if the yellow player has upgraded to Engine Level 2, since it will be traveling along two different segments. Nothing can be delivered to Columbia since it is grey.

The cube in Atlanta can be delivered to Jacksonville; however, two different players own track. So either the Blue player will have to move along a Red track, or the Red player must move along a Blue track. Both players get one victory point either way. Either player may attempt to build new track to circumvent their opponent. Or--since some cards and abilities grant additional bonuses above and beyond the delivery--it may still be worth it to deliver the good if additional bonuses are granted. The black cube in Jacksonville cannot be delivered yet, since it is not connected to any Black cities.

It seems a little complicated, but it's really not. Basically, you ignore the color of the city you are delivering from; you're only concerned about the city you're moving to.

When a city has had its last cube delivered, place a special token on it. The city is now "spent." Once a certain number of cities have been emptied out, the game ends.

Upgrading an engine is easy: you simply pay the cost of the new engine. This gets pretty pricey as you reach the highest level, 8.

You can take an Operations card and follow its directions. There are plenty of different conditions for each card: some you keep in your hand, some you must play immediately, etc. It's not difficult, so just read each card.

Finally, you can urbanize. With an expensive price tag ($10,000) you won't do this often. It can convert any "any grey-colored city into a colored city, and add a few cubes there as well. This can be useful for two reasons: it gives you more cubes to deliver (and, usually, these are cities right in the heart of your train network, so they will be easy to deliver) and it creates a new color for you to deliver to. This can certainly help if you've found yourself boxed in with little opportunities to grow without major expense, and maybe deliver some stubbornly-placed cubes that have been taking up space in your existing cities. Of course, any player can deliver these goods, so players must be careful that they are in the best position to take advantage.

Once all players have taken three actions, the game goes into the Income and Dividend phase. Players collect money based on their position on the victory point track, and also pay the interest on any bonds they have. (Income rises drastically as you get more VP; then it levels off, and, strangely, starts to dip as you get even more VP.) Interestingly, players are not permitted to pay off bonds, so once taken out you're paying interest for the rest of the game. (It's possible a player has to pay more than what they have on hand, which necessitates taking out another bond. This can get ugly and spiral out of control if you're not careful.)

Once a set number of cities have been empties of their cubes, the game ends. Players adjust their victory point totals based on the number of bonds they have and any bonuses from their baron card. The player with the highest final total wins!

Game time varies greatly depending on how many people are playing; a 3-4 player game probably takes about two hours once you get the hang of it. You can also adjust the length of the game by changing how many cities must be emptied for the game to end.

As stated before, the rules can change from map to map. For example, the Eastern US has a rule about the Western Link, where a player can spend an enormous amount of money to "link" their rails to western cities. This produces a ready supply of new cubes. I like these small but important rules, since it adds a little flavor to a game that tends to seem a little generic at times.

What I like about the game:
*The rules are simple. People's eyes may boggle a bit at the delivery and rail-building rules listed above, but it's actually quite intuitive. Aside from some weird track-laying situations, there isn't much room for question of how to do it.
*Even though the rules are reasonably simple, there is still plenty of strategy involved. Do players take out bonds with abandon, stocking up on cash so they can build aggressively, hoping their efforts will pay off in the long run? Do you make several regional railways, or let them spoke out of one major city? Do you build long, expensive rails to deliver some high-valued goods, or deliver a lot of shorter routes? The free-form railway-building system makes plenty of decisions about how best to win, and the randomized goods at the beginning of the game make each game different.
*A few small, subtle decisions make the game better. For example, you can't urbanize a new Red city: these are set at the beginning of the game and won't change. It doesn't seem big until you realize that it makes delivering red cubes more difficult, and suddenly you realize you can't take some action you originally intended.
*Separating cash and victory points--although keeping them closely related--helps the game design. There are certain decisions that will help your income but not your VP, and vice versa. This makes many decisions more meaningful than if the game was a straight-up cash grab.
*The Operations cards are very nice; while none of them are particularly overpowering, they can help give a boost to a player willing to spend an action picking it up. And the first three cards are "conditional" cards--you can't pick them up until you meet specific criteria--so there is sort of a time-delay release before players can start snapping up random cards.This lets players get their footing and prepare for any unexpected cards that pop up.
*The length of game vs. fun ratio is pretty good. It doesn't take horribly long until only one or two cities are left to be emptied before the game ends, and so there is a tense period that's over before you know it. But early in the game, the building pace is nice and slow.
*Although the "expandable" nature of the game seems gimmicky, so far they've been done very well. For the records, there are maps for the Eastern US and Mexico (which come with the base game) along with Europe, Western US, England and Wales, and (oddly) Time. Fans can also easily make their own maps.

What I don't like about the game:

*The rules could have been cleaned up. Some track-laying situations are spelled out, but others aren't, and I had to resort to some mad internet searching to find the answers.
*Players are permitted to "block" other players by building track in spaces, preventing them from completing their track (which then must be discarded at the end of the round). This to me, since one player placing a $2,000 piece of track can easily force someone else to abandon $15,000 worth of track. Granted, this only happens in the tightest of games, but it can happen, and it just seems ugly given how the rest of the game works.
*The income you derive on the victory point track scales up, reaches a peak, then scales back down--which means the more VP you earn, the less money you make each turn, after a certain point. I understand why this was done--leaders can run away with the game if it wasn't set up like this--but it seems so illogical. (I suppose the increased fixed costs of running a huge railroad can be used as an excuse, but I'm not impressed with that reasoning.) I just wish something a little more elegant could have been used.
*If you get the first print of the game, keep in mind that there are two issues with it. The first is irritating but minor: there are no Mexican Operations cards. Technically, the rule is optional, but I can't imagine why anyone would not play with them. The reprint includes them for free, and you can buy a deck for five bucks from the manufacturer, although shipping is pretty pricey (and ends up being something like $15 for a handful of cards.) You can simply print them out for free if you want to go through the trouble. 

The second issue, however, is pretty bad. I guarantee this mistake will ruin your first game play, because it does for pretty much everyone. While the reprint fixes this, there really isn't a way to correct it on the first edition or the first few expansion maps.

Basically, the colors in the game are screwed up. The "blue" cities on the board are very, very dark, to the point where they look like the purple cubes. However, the purple cubes are supposed to be matched to purple cities--which are, in reality, a bright magenta. So basically purple cubes look like blue cities. Blue cities aren't even close to magenta/purple cities, so you can't just switch them. And it is so easy to confuse the two, and it happens every game. It's unacceptable and makes the game much more confusing than it should be: the entire game, players are going to be trying to deliver purple cubes to blue cities.

The lower cube is "purple" but that city is "blue." They are, essentially, the same color. But the upper cube is technically the blue one. You can see a magenta city (which is supposed to be purple) in the first track-laying example above.

There's no reason you can't have a house rule that blue cubes go to magenta cities, but that often is confusing as well. There's no reason this should have happened, and it spoils a perfectly good game.

Final verdict? Despite the color issue, this is a very good game. It actually feels like a railroad-building game, even though a lot of it is abstracted out for simplicity and it plays reasonably quick for its scope. The sheer size and quality of the components is impressive for the price tag. And it plays reasonably fast for the amount of fun you're going to have. I'd like to try some of the other maps, but I just haven't had the time to do so. I would easily rate this an A if you have new reprint, but I can't let go of the color issue, or how it happened in the first place, so overall it gets a B.

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