Matt: It’s time for a Railroad Revolution!
Robinski: Ja! Ze people are angry at only having horse and cart! Ve must build zem a railroad fit for mother Russia!
Matt: Russia? What? We’re in America.
Robinski: Zis… Zis is ze euro game about building ze railways in Russia, no?
Matt: No! That’s Russian Railroads
Robinski: Zut alors! I always get zose mixed up!
Matt: wasn’t that… french?
Railroad Revolution may have a name that is confusingly similar to that Russian epic but aside from being about trains, it has nothing in common with it. It was last year’s release by makers of excellent, meaty Euro games, What’s Your Game, known for Nippon, Zhanguo, and Madeira, to name a few. But perhaps you aren’t a connoisseur of the medium-heavy European board game market. These are, outside certain circles, often unheard of titles. Which is perhaps why you should buy a ticket for this, their most accessible* ride so far.
*it’s still pretty meaty
Of course, “accessible” comes with some terms and conditions here. This can still be a tasty brain burner, tight on resources, and leaving inexperienced players floundering. You won’t be chucking out Ticket To Ride in favour of this. But likewise this game also features a delightfully smooth learning experience whose depths and complexity only develop over the course of the game.
The key to this learning experience is, firstly, pretty solid iconography, but more importantly, it’s that your turn consists of only choosing one out of four possible actions to perform. You might build one of your stations on the board, in a city that your fledgling rail network is connected to. Likewise you might extend that rail network by laying track, and paying through the nose to cross those annoying hills and mountains that Mother Nature irritatingly put in your way. Those wooden stations can instead be built as telegraph houses or whatever the standard unit of telegraphs is. These go into the colourful western union region at the bottom of the board and while train stations and track need to grow from east to west, telegrapheries can be built any old place, though they are only worth points if, you know, you actually connect up neighbouring houses (telegraphs like to sent places after all). The final action is a trade action, where you sell off your limited personal supply of huts and rails for a quick cash boost, but typically you’ll want to avoid taking this option as much as possible.
The subtleties and complexities arise from needing to manage a whole host of resources. Money is, unsurprisingly, a major one, as you’ll need it in copious amounts for both building stations and laying tracks. There are also shares, not in the 18xx stocks and shares style, simply as a secondary resource that can be either converted into money, or traded exclusively with the important deal makers of the age. More on that later. Because first I want to talk about that cheapest and yet most important of all resources, workers.
You might start out with a mere 5 generic white dogsbodies, but you’ll quickly want the more excitingly coloured and skilled workers you can obtain from building stations or doing deals. And once you do start collecting them the game takes the decision making up a notch. When taking an action, you choose one of your available workers and put them on that space. You can have as many as you like on a particular space, that’s fine, but each worker will get you a little bonus, and that bonus depends on their colour.
So the fake tan obsessed orange accountants do sterling work making your life cheaper or cannily investing in trains or shares to pay off with big piles of money, if you collect those things. The cool-headed blue engineers will get carried away with whatever action you send them on, letting you do everything better, but costing you more at the same time, like laying 3 track at once instead of 2 for the one action. The terrifying greys feel no emotion and can therefore out-negotiate any human, getting you access to the first place spots even when you aren’t first! And the purple faced foreman just like doing their own thing, basically, they’re a bit unpredictable.
As you collect this cadre of colourful characters, your choices necessarily multiply. Picking the right man for the job is hugely important and, once chosen, a worker will most likely be stuck on your player board for a while, removing the opportunity for you to use them again. You’ll only get your workers back once your pool of workers is completely empty, which is again interesting as it forces you to evaluate when to gain new workers and when to fire them for telegraph road bonuses or promote them out of your supply. As with the very best What’s Your Game titles, Railroad Revolution offers you the opportunity for great efficiencies and smart plays where timing and resources all come together perfectly. It also lets you feel when your plays aren’t quite living up to their promise. That is the magic touch I’m looking for from a game by this publisher.
Promotions, so briefly mentioned in the previous paragraph are, as in life, integral to success in the game. Each player receives two starting objective tiles that involve having built rails or stations in the right combination of locations. But these objectives also represent the growth of your company and a growing company needs bums on seats. Promotion shifts a worker to a desk job, leaving the high-octane days as a railroad company field agent behind them forever. Sustaining your workforce as you complete objectives is a challenging balance, as completing one objective only opens up a newer, bigger objective, needing yet more management positions. Sustaining your workforce at healthy levels, small enough that you can cycle workers back off your board, large enough that you don’t hit the minimum number, is another strand to Railroad Revolution’s interweaved puzzles.
Objectives are just one way of scoring points, which are all totalled up at the end. The other major source comes from the three investment tracks on the right hand side of the board. Various worker and other bonuses allow you to move your markers up these tracks, which will occasionally cost you some resource to get past certain points. Your final position acts as a victory point multiplier for whatever game feature the track is associated with. From left to right you have the total number of telegraph huts, the total number of stations, and the number of west coast cities you’ve connected with rails, so focussing on any of these would seem a reasonable strategy.
It’s the biggest disappointment then that the tracks have been widely criticised as not being balanced. The costs of climbing the telegraph track are printed as $50 and $100 dollars, which is ridiculously cheap compared to the other tracks, especially when you consider you already get points for building adjacent telegraph stations, and almost always need to go in there a bit to get hold of those valuable shares. A variant in the rulebook drives up the price of each by a factor of 10 and I recommend playing this with experienced players. But then I’ve found it hard to avoid going hard into the train track… track, since it is worth a potential 75 points at game end. The winners I’ve seen have always maxed it out, but then they’ve also always done a lot of things.
You won’t just score off of one approach here. Typically you’ll complete a few objectives and advance all the tracks, though maybe only one to the top. You’ll dabble in all elements of Railroad Revolution-ing but probably only specialise in one or two. Then you’ll probably pick up a few points on the side from the telegraph bonuses and trains. Oh, we’ve not really discussed trains yet have we?
Since this is a train game it would have been tragic to not see some trains around here somewhere! Trains are kind of another resource. Various action bonuses will enable you to get hold of trains and other bonuses will let you flip them (it took the train industry a long time to discover that it is more efficient to simply drive trains). Flipping these train tiles the first time rewards you with whatever bonus it supplies. But in that flipped state it is worthless. You want to flip it back, so that you can either flip it again sometime, or leave it face up to be worth a couple of points at game end. It’s another little puzzle noodle in this game spaghetti: collect lots of trains and flip them once or keep flipping the same train multiple times? Which bonuses do you want to have access to?
Now, what you may have noticed, though I won’t blame you for being slightly overwhelmed by this point, is that all these systems are very personal. There has not been one word said about interaction and that’s because there is really only a small grind for flavour. Stations and telegraph spots have bonuses for the first player to build there, encouraging a race-like attitude, but that only lasts so long. The longer lasting element of interaction, and this is still pretty slight, is in the deals. Any action or space with a green hand shake you get some wood into triggers a deal. The triggering player can spend shares to gain both of the bonuses on the current deal cards, and these are good bonuses! The other players can only buy a single of these deals. This might mean you race to trigger a particularly good deal, but a canny player will look to trigger deals when their opponents are short of shares, depriving them of the opportunity for cheap rewards.
I don’t mind low interaction games so this isn’t a significant issue for me. But long term I think the game does suffer from a limited amount of variability. All the objectives are just build track or stations here; they all end up feeling the same. You can take different approaches to how you try to win the game, but you just won’t be playing Railroad Revolution as often in as short a space of time as you would last year’s other big releases, Great Western Trail or A Feast For Odin. But it is far easier to teach than either of those games and provides a similarly satisfying puzzle to chew on.
I really like the flow of Railroad Revolution, I like the decisions and the deep challenge that the resource management presents. While you might not play it everyday, I see Railroad Revolution as a game to break out once or twice a year and it still be as fresh and enjoyable as I’ve found it at the start. I can see why it got a bit lost under the Essen release wave last year, and that will hardly change now with the latest Essen releases hitting stores. But it’s a game that deserves some love.
Rating: Something to choo on
My copy of Railroad Revolution was provided for review by publisher What’s Your Game!