In the past year I’ve been exposed to a range of games that I had previously disregarded. 18xx and the occasional lighter, train-themed game seemed more than adequate in the past. But this year I dove into the world of cube rails and now I’ve been playing train simulators and have a pair of striped overalls on the way to the house.
Welcome back to another round of guest Top 5. This time we are joined by Rex Stites, a local wargamer but more relevant an all around train game guru. Whether an 18xx or cube rail game, it seems to me that Rex will almost always have had some experience with the game. And although Rex might root for the Jayhawks, I do listen closely when he shares his opinions on train games.
This go around we are sharing out Top 5 ‘Train’ Games. It appears that, as with war games, it’s necessary to define, or intentionally fail to define what a train game is. Accordingly, we are interpreting ‘train’ game in the broadest sense of the term. If a train is involved, and it’s not an 18xx title, it qualified for the list. That being said, I think there should still be plenty of good picks for all levels of train interests
Rex was also great about providing a run down for each game, so listen up!
Rex: Dutch Intercity – What would this list be without DIC? Dutch InterCity is a train game that makes you forget it has trains. There’s a map. You build rail links. Route length determines dividends. Simple. But where’s the game?
The game is in the auctions. Well, kind of. What sets DIC auctions apart actually has nothing to do with the auctions themselves. Like many games, stock rounds, operating rounds, and dividend rounds make up the general cycle of the game. Dutch InterCity‘s conceit is that the stock round does not end until one player has $0 of personal cash left. This creates a brittle situation in early SRs, as players jockey to prevent [or obtain] an early share edge. As the game progresses, and the various companies differentiate themselves, players must carefully balance the intrinsic value of the share, their own personal cash, and the personal cash of others in deciding which shares to auction and how much to bid.
There’s not much of an operational aspect, but the game doesn’t need it. Dutch InterCity forces players to think about share auctions in a unique way, and the player interplay is more than enough to ensure DIC doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Matt: First Class is a household favorite and is only qualifying for this list based off theme alone. First Class is a drafting game where each player drafts cards into their tableau. Cards are largely single purpose but there are a few multi-use cards that can be selected depending on the modules used for play. For the most part First Class is multi-player solitaire but the multiple tracks (heh) to victory make for a fun puzzle each play as you focus on different aspects of your train tableau to develop. Probably not for the train-iest of train gamers but one of our most played games.
Rex: Age of Steam – Some say it’s Martin Wallace’s best game. Others say it’s not even a Martin Wallace game. Still others say it’s not a train game. Whatever it is or isn’t, it’s a damn good game.
The key to AoS is that the game hates you. And that’s not just hyperbole, it really does. Unsure how to interpret a rule? It’s safe to say, that whichever interpretation puts you in a worse position is the right one. And that’s not a bad thing. There are two levels of AoS play: learning to survive and learning to compete.
Surviving is harder than it sounds. While AoS‘s pick-up-and-deliver core (you deliver cubes to increase your income) is simple and unintimidating—once you dig into your first game, you might quickly begin to wonder if you can survive turn 2 or 3. Since each delivery permanently increases your income, how hard can it be? Did I mention that you don’t start with any money? That’s right $0. You have to take loans. Loans that can’t be repaid. Loans that cost interest each turn. Loans that count against your VPs. If that weren’t enough, at then end of a turn your income will $1 for every $10 of income. Not enough cash to pay your expenses after taking income for the turn? You reduce your income dollar for dollar—which can quickly lead to a spiral toward bankruptcy. Put it all together and AoS can become an economic trap that would make Malthus blush.
But with a game or two under your belt, the game becomes a less daunting enemy, allowing you to focus on the other players and actually winning. It’s at this point that AoS moves from a solid but forgettable game to something special. Auctions become the critical, if not sole, consideration.
The auctions are ostensibly just for turn order. “Just.” Ha. In reality, players are competing for everything from the right to deliver that one purple cube left to who will get to build that critical link. But turn order is not absolute. Immediately after the auction, players choose a single special action. Standard actions available include “First Build” and “First Delivery” that changes turn order for each of those phases. It’s not unheard of for having first choice to deliver a cube that round is so critical to a player’s game that the player will win first player and then take “First Delivery” as well to ensure, with absolute certainty, that the critical delivery is made. What makes the AoS auctions so great is that players have various competing interests throughout the sequence of play and they’re effectively all up for auction at the same time. Because of the uncertainty about what everyone else is doing, the auctions are always lively and, more often than not, decisive in determining the winner.
By itself, base AoS—The Rustbelt—probably wouldn’t be strong enough to include on this list. But there are myriad maps available, and they can change AoS into something new and fresh, but without disturbing the game’s core concerns. Rule changes are often as simple as replacing or modifying one of the core specific actions. With minimal AoS experience, the way such a change will reverberate throughout the game is fairly obvious, which means the same basic tricks players have already learned will continue to work. At the same time, the change(s) will often make you rethink a previously core aspect of the game.
Matt: Trains are a theme that seem to register well with members of our family who don’t play a lot of board games. For a long time, Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania was our go to when playing games with our family when wanted to play a train game but wanted more than Ticket to Ride. Although I still enjoy TTR:P, Ride the Rails has become our new go to lighter train game. Players are still building routes and taking limited actions each round but Ride the Rails introduces passenger delivery, company ownership, shared incentives and basic economic decision making, all without ramping the difficulty up much past a game of TTR.
Rex: Union v. Central—UvC is somewhat of a white whale for many who’ve dipped their toe into this little niche of the boardgaming hobby. I’m here to say that you probably won’t like it, and I don’t say that to be snobbish or elitest or exclusionary. I’m convinced that most people want it simply because they can’t find it and they’ve heard people talk about it.
Conceptually, there’s a lot that many people would like about UvC. It’s a 2P tableau building, resource conversion, pick-up-and-deliver card game. Kind of. It’s all those things and yet none of them. In a word, it’s unique. At it’s core, it offers something to gamers with a wide range of preferences. What sets it apart is that the “short” game is probably 6+ hours, and god knows how long the campaign game would take—12? 16? In some ways, it’s similar to AoS in that you’re building an economic engine of sorts. Like AoS—and unlike so many Euros, though—the engine is much more likely to stall than it is to snowball and become a trivial optimization exercise. A lot of people would be fine playing UvC for an hour, maybe two. But I doubt many would willingly suffer it for 6+ hours.
The game’s conceit is that each player represents either the Union Pacific or the Central Pacific, the two railroads trying to complete transcontinental railway. The winner is the first player to build a set number of rails—8 in the “short” game and 16 in the campaign game.
It sounds so simple. How could it take 6+ hours to build 8 rails??? Well, you’re not just building rail. You’re collecting and converting raw materials. You’re building towns and depots and buying the trains you need to transport your goods. What makes the going tough is a basic truism of logistics that is often neglected in boardgame design: as your supply lines become longer, the percentage of your transport capacity that is filled with the supplies necessary to move the goods increases. The trains you build in the game consume raw materials in order to operate for a turn. Each turn, they can move 5 rails—maybe less in bad terrain. It can be relatively easy to build those first few rail sections, but eventually you’re going to have to stop building rail and start building other infrastructure—depots, towns, etc.—along the way to facilitate shuffling goods to their ultimate destination.
In many ways you’re playing the game more than your opponent. But there’s just enough interaction that you don’t feel like you’re playing a solitaire game. It’s a game unlike any other and despite the length, at the end of a game, I’m always ready to play again as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to the table. If I have a buddy and 8 hours, I’m probably playing a wargame. And that’s too bad, because if you can get past the length and the effort needed to accomplish seemingly simple objectives, it’s a great game and a unique experience.
Matt: Iberian Railways is another game I would consider to be a great next step or introductory cube rail game but also one that I find to be tons of fun and a game that appears to have a few different viable strategies. The game is limited to four basic actions and you can’t repeat an action two turns in a row. No shared incentives or investment between players in Iberian Railways but players still develop routes, start new railways and must manage their finances and loans. The end game trigger is also interesting. Once a player has placed their final cube anywhere on the board (cubes are not only used in to represent routes) the game ends. Not everyone’s favorite but one I enjoy.
Rex: Lokomotive Werks— Who knew rolling 20d6 could be this much fun? The teaching pitch to the game is: 18XX train rush without stocks or operating rounds. The grumbling you hear from new players is, how could a game with that much dice rolling be decided by anything but luck? The fact is, games need uncertainty—whether from other players or randomness—otherwise they are simply a puzzle.
LW is incredibly simple at its core. So simple, new players may come away with the impression that it’s a trivial exercise in optimization combined with a lot of luck. But underneath its simple, trivial, and random venire, there’s a lot of game. The real decisions aren’t how much new production to buy or old production to upgrade each turn so that you optimize your return for that specific turn. The key decisions are which locomotives to develop and when and how to manipulate your production suboptimally in the short-term.
I should probably explain a bit more about the game. Players develop 4 different locomotive technology types. Each different loco type has a different number of technology levels. The highest level is “permanent.” The blue locos only have two technology levels, whereas the green locos have five. The techs come out in a fixed order, but the only requirement to start a new tech is that someone has started the one before. In other words, you don’t have to buy all the “2Ts” to get to the “3Ts.” The techs generally cycle through each color—green, red, yellow, blue—before moving to the next “level.” This isn’t always true, though. The level two blue tech becomes available after the level three green tech. New techs “rust” the earlier tech(s) of that color. There’s a linear progression of the technologies in terms of costs and income. Tech design cost (initial capital investment), additional production cost, and income per unit sold are always a ratio of $4 : $2 : $1. Thus tech is conceptually just as profitable as every other tech.
I mentioned production before. Production is abstract and semi-fungible. When you “design” a new tech, it comes with 1 production on it. You can buy additional production for 1/2 the design cost. Because each tech is 4:2:1, you can “upgrade” a production from one tech to another by simply paying the cost difference. But you can never move production back down the chain.
The flip side of production is consumer demand. This is where the dice come in. Each technology will have a certain number of dice representing consumer demand for that locomotive type. After someone develops a new technology, a single die is rolled for the next technology to determine the initial number of orders for that technology. After the first turn a technology is activated, another die is rolled and added until the tech is “full.” The maximum number dice each can hold varies from tech to tech, with green techs holding the most and blue the least. A player can only satisfy demand for one die before another player is given an opportunity. Dice that are completely depleted are rerolled. Dice that are not remain—so if you leave 1 production on a die, it may seriously limit demand the next turn.
Much of the game boils down to manipulating turn order to your advantage. At the end of the turn, the person with the least amount of cash will become first player—and thus first to satisfy demand—the next turn. That can be a huge deal if, for example, three players have a tech type and the demand dice for the next turn are 6, 1, 1. The first player will be able to sell 6 of that locomotive while the other two only one each. Playing the game well requires understanding the interplay of turn order and how demand is generated and satisfied. Sometimes that means buying new production you can’t use to spend your cash down or moving production away from a technology to leave some demand for the next turn. The big decisive points of the game are typically decisions on which new technology to develop. If you’re behind, it’s often a good idea to enter a market that someone else opened in an earlier turn so that you are competing and depriving them of sales.
The end result is that LW gives players fewer decisions but the decisions it gives have a big impact on the outcome. It also forces players to be cognizant of what other players are doing and to react to it.
Matt: It was back in February of this year that a group of us started playing Chicago Express asynchronously over and over again. Thus began my 2022 love affair with cube rails. Since then, we’ve had a continuous series of Chicago Express plays going non-stop. Those plays have been a highlight of the 2022 gaming year. Even after over thirty-five plays, Chicago Express is still revealing new layers and strategies to me. At first, the three actions all seemed so simple, but the timing and decision to execute (or intentionally not) are what make Chicago Express so brilliant. Those three simple actions and the time of execution are more important than you think when you first start playing the game and are as large of part of the game as auctioning and valuing shares.
Rex: Wabash Cannonball—The King of Cube Rails. The quintessential shared-incentives game. As with all Winsome games, it has a very simple set of rules. That simplicity belies the depth of the game, though. Two things set WC apart. First, it is often in a player’s best interest to select an action type, typically an auction, and then not actually take the action. Second, a player can act on behalf of a company merely by owning a share in it. More on both of those things later.
The game starts with an auction of one share in each of the four companies initially available. After that, players will choose from one of three actions on their turns: Auction, Expand, and Develop. There are a fixed number of each action type available. Once two of the three actions have been maxed out, dividends are paid and the action counters are reset. Auctions and expansions are self-explanatory. Development is placing a token on a hex to increase the revenue it produces. A companies revenue is determined by the cities and mountain hexes it visit. That income is paid out on a per-share sold basis. In other words, when another share of a company is put up for auction, the existing shareholders’ dividends are diluted.
These basic rules create an ever-changing set of incentive structures that force players to “negotiate” short-term alliances always with a chance of defection. I say “negotiate” because no table talk or explicit deal making is necessary. In fact, quite the opposite. The game really shines when such negotiations are limited to the implicit communication of various actions. If I put up a share of the B&O, which I own the only other share in, and I don’t have enough money to actually win it, that action should be seen as a request and offer to cooperate with someone through advancement of the B&O. But for each action—cooperation—there is an equal reaction—destruction. A 1-1 share split makes for great cooperation. If I’m outside of that [temporary] alliance, I may very well put a third share of that company up for auction. A 2-1 split for the PRR (which only has 3 shares) can quickly shatter that previous alliance and cause force the minority shareholder to divert the company to the middle of nowhere so that it never gets to Chicago (which triggers a special dividend payment for that company).
At the end of the day, your incentives are going to be inextricably intertwined with each of the other players in a way that doesn’t match anyone else (if that makes sense). Each action you take may improve your position relative to some players while hurting relative to others. The web of incentive structures isn’t unique to WC, but I’m not sure any other game gives you the same tools to manipulate and alter those structures.
Matt: Not a meme pick just to talk about the good, good Dutch InterCity. No, Dutch Intercity is a quick-playing, rules simple, minimalist design that is way more nuanced in execution than looks would have you believe. There is so much power in trying to time your actions to control auction rounds ending, turn order and to a slightly lesser extent game end (harder to trigger game end than triggering an auction close). Dutch Intercity is brain burn-y cube rail game with heavy emphasis on timing and auctions and, for the time being, is one of my favorite games going forward.
We asked members of the History on the Table Discord Server what their favorite train games were. The clear frontrunner for HotT members was Chicago Express with South African Railroads and Age of Steam both coming in second place.
Please feel free to share your Top 5 Train games below. Thanks to Rex for stopping by to share his favorite train games. We hope to have him back some day to share his top 18xx games as well.
If you are interested in submitting a Guest Top 5 list, please contact Matt at HistoryTablePodcast@gmail.com and thanks to Judd for dropping by.