By now, it should be no secret that I’m a big fan of trains as a theme for a game. I just find that, as a theme, there is so much to explore there, be it from the track laying point of view, the engine and economic engine point of view, the moving of goods point of view or from the corporation and those who run them point of view. I’ve yet to see a game that combines all of these points of view (the 18XX family comes close, but doesn’t cover the actual transport of goods), but one can dream. It is such a strong, rich theme that a lot can be done with it.
It is not often however that a game takes the trains theme and doesn’t include building tracks on a map. That is exactly the angle that Russian Railroads takes, casting the players in the roles of rail barons who try to build railroads out of Moscow towards other Russian cities, but without having a map of Russia involved, and opting for worker placement as its central mechanic. How is it? Great (it is, after all, on my 10X10in2014 challenge list)! Why? let’s find out, shall we?
In Russian Railroads (ZMan Games) by Helmut Ohley and Leonhard “Lonny” Orgler, 2 to 4 players are rail barons laying tracks from Moscow to different cities in Russia and potentially improving its industry, as they develop its railway infrastructure. As the game progresses, the players take turn taking actions, which allows them to push their tracks forward, gain new trains so they can score points, and advance their industry track. Which track they push forward will change the amount of points they will gain as well as what special bonus they get. The player who has the most points at the end of the game wins.
ZMan Games didn’t skimp on the components for this game: apart from the main board, each player gets their own player boards, a set of wooden tracks and workers, stacks of cards (Starting Bonus, ?, and End of Game Bonus cards), train/industry tokens, engineer tokens, roubles and doublers tokens. The players also get a set of ? tokens, which will grant them extra bonuses at specific points in the game and a player aid which explains the scoring mechanics.
The quality of the material is quite high and fortunately extends to the manual, which is clearly written, well organized and plentifully illustrated. At first, some of the concepts will be confusing but keep reading, as the manual explains things in the right order and will make learning and teaching the game easy.
Set up is fairly straightforward, with each player getting a player board, workers, tracks and a set of ? tokens. Additionally, each player will get 1 rouble and a 1 train. Take the End of Game Bonus cards, shuffle and remove 2. Take all the B engineers, shuffle them and take the top 4, placing them face down on the main board in the 4 to 7 slots. Take all the A engineers, shuffle and take the top 3, placing them on the board, two of them face up, showing their action selection side, and the last one in the purchase space. Decide play order and have the fourth through second player taking a Starting Bonus card (no bonus for being the first player!). You’re ready to go!
The game will last 7 rounds (6 if playing with less than 4 players). On their turn, a player will take a number of workers and/or roubles to select an action space and take the corresponding action. Some space will require 2 or 3 workers, while some other will require at least 1 rouble and possibly a worker to activate. If a player is unable or unwilling to place workers/roubles to take an action, they must pass. Once all players have passed, the new turn order is resolved (if there are any changes), the workers that were used to change the order are then placed in available spaces and those actions are resolved. Points are scored and the engineer in the purchase spot is removed (if still there), all other engineers are moved one space over, making available for purchase a new engineer and 2 new action spaces. If this was the last round (easy to tell since there will be no engineer left), a final scoring takes place, with players scoring points for their End of Game Bonus cards and for the players with the most engineers. Highest total wins.
The core of the game is the Player board. Every single action the player will take during the game will be in an effort to move tracks or industry tokens up its 4 different tracks. The vast majority of the scoring will also come from them. There are three railroads that all work the same way, namely the Moscow-Vladivostok line, the Moscow-St Petersburg line and the Moscow-Kiev line. At the bottom of the board, the Industry track can be found. Each railroad is made up of several spaces on which the colored tracks will move, but always in the same order: black first, followed by grey, brown, beige and finally white. This is the core concept of the game. While each of the track can move individually, they can never change the order stated above or be in the same space. These tracks (or a subset of these tracks since they will not all be present on all railroads) will do two things; it can trigger special events (either by landing on a space or having a train reach that space) and it will score at the end of a round.
What type of events can the tracks trigger? Well, for example, at the start of the game the players only have access to the black tracks, that is until their black track reaches the second space of the Moscow-Vladivostok line, in which case the grey tracks will now be available for all railroads. This is denoted by either a lone colored track in the space or a colored track plus a train. Thus, by pushing forward the different colored tracks (but always keeping the color order), the player is able to open up the opportunity that are before them. Another example is, still on the Moscow-Vladivostok line, reaching the 3 space with a brown track and a train gives the player an extra worker. With a train? Well, we’ll come back to this. Suffice to say that tracks can score immediate rewards (new types of tracks, points, extra worker, access to ? tokens) by landing on spaces and fulfilling its conditions or can gain long term scoring abilities.
In order to score the railroads, a player will also need trains. It’s great to have a nice track reaching somewhere, but if you need a train running its length for it to be truly useful. Trains come in different sizes, from 1 to 9. The number of the train denotes, simply, the number of spaces it can reach from Moscow. Thus, a 1 train assigned to the Moscow-Kiev line would only be able to reach the 1 space of that railroad, provided that there is a track there. Only the first railroad, the Moscow-Vladivostok line can have two trains (which combine), the other two can only have one train each. Of course, to keep things simple, trains can only be purchased in numerical order: until all the 1 trains are gone, no one can get a 2 train, Thus, when getting a train, players have to take the lowest value available. Note you’ll be able to change which line a train is on at any time you get a new train. As long as you are upgrading the current trains, they can be reshuffled as you wish.
Scoring is thus a two step process: first, determine how far the train can reach and then see the value of the track that can reach there (0 for black, 1 for grey and so on). Add all the values together and you have the score for that railroad. For example, if I have a 5 train on the Moscow-Vladivostok line and my black track is on the 7, my grey is on the 5 and my brown is on the 2, I would score: 3 times 1 for the grey (for the 3, 4 and 5 spaces) and 2 times 2 for the brown (for the 1 and 2 spaces) or a total of 7 points.
The Industry track works on the same principle, but doesn’t need a train. By moving the Industry token forward on the track, the player will score the points specified by the space at the end of the round, but can also get one time bonus events when they land in on the Industry tiles. Industry tiles are simply the reverse side of the Train tiles and they all confer a different bonus, depending on the level of the train. In order for the Industry token to move further on the track (and thus be worth more points), the small triangular gaps must have an Industry tile slotted in. This simply means that in order to score more points, you must have an Industry tile, which also gives you a special one time power.
You might have noticed that some space trigger a “?” event. This simply refers to the ? tokens, of which each player has 7 at the start of the game. When a player’s track or Industry marker reaches a space with that symbol, the player will select one of his ? token and take the action stated on it. They confer various bonus, such as allowing the player to move forward 4 tracks of the player’s choice, gain 3 doublers token (these can be placed on the Moscow-Vladivostok line to double the worth of the corresponding space), gain 5 Industry advancement, gain a +20 token to be placed on the Moscow-Kiev space, etc. Potentially the biggest of these tokens gives the player a ? card and an End of Game bonus card. Needless to say that both the ? token and the bonus cards can make a huge difference in scoring and must be selected carefully. with the End of Game bonus cards being worth anywhere between 15 and 30 points.
In turn order, each player will use some of their workers or roubles to select an action, ranging from moving their tracks a few spaces, gaining new trains/industries, moving the Industry marker or gaining a doubler, 2 roubles or 2 temporary workers. Additionally, there are also 2 engineers that can be used by anyone or one engineer that can be purchased by using a rouble. Note that while roubles can always be used instead of a worker, there are some spaces that need roubles to be used specifically in order to use them. There is also a pair of spaces that will allow the player to move up in the next turn order. Most spaces need only one worker or rouble to activate them, but there are some spaces that necessitate 2 or 3 workers to gain their effect. A player can always elect to pass instead of using their worker or their remaining roubles. To indicate they have passed. the players will flip their turn order card and score that many VPs immediately. Once everyone has passed, the turn order actions are resolved (with the workers used to change the turn order used on another single-worker space).
This was a game that, when I heard about it, I got very excited about. Railroads? Without have the actual rails? And it still uses some of the 18XX mechanics, like having to purchase the trains in order? And it’s by the same duo that brought us 1880 China, Poseidon, Railroad Barons and more, namely Helmut Ohley and Leonhard “Lonny” Orgler? Of course I was excited! and I wasn’t disappointed. This is one of the stand out games of 2013, if not of the last 5 years. A worker placement game which is not about resource management, but that is still an economic engine at its core.
At first brush, the game seems like one of the more complex worker placement game, but when you start to break it down and you’ve got half a game under your belt, you notice that it is actually one of the simpler worker placement (no, not as simple as Lords of Waterdeep, and way more satisfying). The core of the game is the tracks and what choices they get you to make. Since each track bring you very different advantages, it is which track you push forward that bring both the richness of choice and the complexity to the game. It’s easy to get stuck not knowing which choice is better, but at the same time, there’s no wrong choice, just choices that are less effective.
Although the tracks you build are theoretical at best (there is no map, you don’t really connect cities or make routes), you still get that feeling of the chugging train as you score few points in the first round, a little more in the second and more and more and more. You can feel like you’re picking up speed as the points start accumulating and you do feel like you’re making your way somewhere. And boy, do the points ever accumulate. At first, when you see the 100, 200, 300 and 400 token, you figure that you might need the 100 token, but the other tokens must be for people who play very well. Well, I’ve been in games where 3 of the 4 players had 300 tokens in front of them. I’ve yet to see someone with over 400 points. but I’m pretty sure it will happen once we have truly mastered the game.
While the game is actually quite simple when you break it down, it does have a tremendous amount of depth. The four different tracks give the player an amazing amount of flexibility and figuring which one to advance with the available actions is always an interesting decision. Do you go for something that will pay off a few points now (which, when multiplied by the amount of turns left can be quite a bit) or do you go for something that will pay off big in the longer run? Blocking someone, unless you can get some immediate benefit from it, is usually not a good choice since you will lose an action by doing so. And while you can have a lot of workers (up to 11 if you can get the temporary workers), with some actions costing more than 1 worker, every one of those are important. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to take an action because you are 1 worker short.
Focusing your attention is probably a good thing as attempting to push all 4 tracks forward at the same time will probably result in not getting a lot of points. Remember that when scoring, the white and beige tracks are worth the most, although they are limited to the top and the top two tracks respectively. Hitting the double space on the second track can be worth a lot of points, but you can get the same result on the first track if you can get your hands on a few doubler tokens. Of course, you might want to aim to get some of the ? and bonus cards… but if you do, you’ll have to sacrifice some of the other neat ? tokens that can be worth a lot of points.
Take the time to look at the player board before taking your first action. Check out the upcoming engineers and see how you can use them. A little planning at the start of the game can go a long way, but don’t be afraid to change your strategy if someone gets in your way. Stay flexible but keep your aim true.
This is a great game that rewards both long term planning and tactical play. It rewards those who can see the advantage of taking a move that, while it wasn’t really in the cards, might make sense now. There’s a bunch of ways to make big points, but not all of them will come true and that is the charm of the game.