Friday, September 18, 2009

Board Game Review - Railways of the World

I've heard of companies doing stuff like a retheme of a game to update it. I've heard of them doing straight-up reprints. But Railways of the World is different, because it's not a reprint, and it's not a retheme - it's the exact same game as Railroad Tycoon. If you already know whether or not you like Railroad Tycoon, I can save you some time, because this game and that game are the same exact games.

Well, OK, they're not exactly identical. Yes, the art is the same. Yes, the rules are the same. And yes, even the components are the same. Hell, the board is the same, except they took off all the scoring stuff on the edges of the board and put it on a separate track. They're different because the part of the game where you're competing for the Eastern United States has been sort of separated out, and called an included expansion.

See, when you buy Railroad Tycoon, you just get a whole game. But when you buy Railways of the World, you get the same game, but this time, part of it is called an expansion! Now that's a deal! Because if they didn't include an expansion in the box, they would have to call it Railways of Nowhere In Particular, because there would be no place to build railroads and it wouldn't actually be a game at all.

Now, in all fairness, there is a little more in Railways. Namely, there's Mexico, because we've all heard about the rail barons who fought and schemed to build track and haul goods in Mexico. The tales of the cutthroat tactics of the Mexican rail barons will go down in history as stuff that nobody ever heard of because it happened in Mexico.

Anyway, this is a train game, no matter where you play it. There are a bunch of cities, with the bigger cities given a color, and the little ones start out gray. There are cubes on the board that tell you what kind of business is there, and the cube colors match the city colors (sort of - the blue cubes are the same shade as the purple cities, which can be fairly confusing). You build track between cities, and you score by delivering cubes to their matching cities.

One cool element is that everyone starts flat broke. In that way, it's similar to my personal finances, except that in Railways, you can issue bonds. I can't issue bonds, because I'm so broke that I'm a credit risk for a peanut butter sandwich. These bonds haunt you the whole game, which creates an interesting thing where you have to decide if you trade quick cash for long-term debt. The best players manage to get by without spending too much, while the less patient players often wind up wondering why they never have any money (until someone who is good at math points out that they've been accumulating debt like Imelda Marcos buys shoes).

Limited actions and limited money force players to make tough decisions - a long piece of track might have the potential to pay off later, but if it means too much debt up front, it may never end up paying for itself. A short piece of track might generate income now, but can you afford to let your opponent grab the route from Chicago to Des Moines?

When you add in the special cards, the game gets really interesting. Like if you can connect Chicago and New York, you're going to get a huge score boost - but since you can only build one link a turn, you have to leave two links open so that someone else doesn't swoop in at the last minute and steal your win. But if you can manage to pull the 'take two actions' card, you could build those two links at the same time, as long as you can win the bid for first player and swipe that card before someone else gets it.

I'm not a huge train gamer. I wouldn't join a train game club, because I fear these would all be people who are very proud of themselves for not liking games where people die, and who wear berets and smell like clove cigarettes. But I do really love playing Railways of the World. It has virtually no luck, and unlike many European-style games, there's a staggering amount of interaction with your opponents. It's a very smart game, which is no surprise, really, when you consider that it's a Martin Wallace game.

Now, I don't know Martin Wallace personally, but from what I've seen, he is two things: 1) A genius, and 2) a jackass. Since that second one has virtually no impact on me whatsoever, I choose to be delighted to play his games. He's smart as a whip, and his games are fine-tuned and just a whole hell of a lot of fun. If you're looking to stack up bodies and blow up cities, you're out of luck, but if you want a nail-biter of a competition with brutal interplay and critical thinking, he's going to deliver.

I know I kind of bashed the game for the first three paragraphs, but there's a damned good reason this isn't Railroad Tycoon any more - expansions. I also have Railways of England and Wales, which lets you play the same game in a different place, and there's Rails of Europe, which came out a year before the base game (yes, it came out before the base game, technically as an expansion for Railroad Tycoon, but with a different name because Railroad Tycoon was licensed from someone else, and also that second thing about Martin Wallace). The new format allows you to add in expansion maps and expansion rules seamlessly, and it's actually a very valid upgrade, unless you already have Railroad Tycoon and just don't really care if you can play a super-basic version in Mexico.

I'll probably sell my copy of Railroad Tycoon, because it's completely redundant now. But I'm keeping Railways, because we've been playing the hell out of it at my house. It's great fun to play a game where I can be ruthless, but my daughter doesn't try to kill me as I sleep because I blew up her capital city with tactical nukes. The player who can think long-term, identify winning strategies and manage timing with patience and quick wit is almost certainly going to win, but that doesn't mean nobody else has fun. I love it, my daughter loves it, my wife loves it, and my son only plays games where stuff explodes (so three out of four ain't bad).

If you already have Railroad Tycoon, you don't need Railways of the World. You can play all the expansions with Tycoon. But if you don't, and you aren't sure which to buy, Railways of the World is an excellent choice. It's got all the tough choices and quick thinking of the original, but compartmentalized to mesh perfectly with any expansions you might bring to the table. I wouldn't recommend this game to anyone who likes to see a body count, but I love it.

It might be a good idea to keep in mind that I also love Agricola.


All the great components and rules from Railroad Tycoon (because it's the same game)
Really tough choices that almost always have a powerful impact
Almost no luck
Requires planning, patience, and quick wits
A huge amount of interaction, especially for a game with no violence
Very fun

Might not be that exciting if you're a theme junkie
No reason to get this if you already have Railroad Tycoon

If you've got a pile of money sitting around (it's $75), you can get Railways of the World right here:

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