Saturday, February 19, 2011

Expansion Review - Railways of England (and Wales)

It's been a while since I was able to get Railways of the World to the table. Until a few weeks ago, it had been more than a year since I broke it out and played my favorite train game. Four days of ice-covered roads and a mandated vacation, however, gave me boatloads of time to spend with my family, whether or not I wanted it. So to kill time while we shivered in our poorly insulated house and waited for the pipes to thaw so I could crawl around under my house and fix the leaks while lying in frozen mud, we broke out the trains.

And when we did, I realized that I have owned Railways of England and Wales for a year and a half and never actually wrote the review. It wasn't because I didn't want to review the damned thing, because I did. But there are two sets of rules in the box, and one of them was so completely foreign to anything I understood at the time I first got it that I gave up and put it away, then forgot it was there.

I sure am glad I dug it out again. Going over the rules again, I realized that the reason I didn't understand the advanced game was because I couldn't wrap my head around a railroad game where you didn't actually own the railroads. But after I forced myself through Baltimore & Ohio, I was embarrassed that I was ever confused by the advanced version of England and Wales. Compared to Baltimore & Ohio, England and Wales is a breeze.

The theory is essentially the same. There are a bunch of train companies, and you buy stock in them. The guy with the most stock in one company decides what that railroad does, and the railroads pay dividends to the shareholders if they make enough money. So you need the railroads to make a lot of money, so that their stock rises and they give you a bunch of money. You win by being the richest investor, so having lots of expensive stock at the end of the game (especially if you bought it on the cheap) is, you know, good.

It's almost funny to me now that I actually gave Baltimore & Ohio a positive review. If I had just grown a pair and powered through the rules for England and Wales, I would have realized what a tweaky mess Baltimore & Ohio really is. The two games have a ton in common, enough that if you're going to own one, there's not much reason to own the other. And in this case, I'll be dumping my copy of Baltimore & Ohio as quick as I can. Railways of England and Wales is so far superior that there will never be a reason to play Baltimore & Ohio again. Like if you've only ever had one girl in your whole life, and then she dumps you and you wind up with some bedroom freak who reinvents your entire sex life, and you wonder why you thought that other chick was so hot when all she ever did was lay there. I'm not saying that either game is like sex, of course. And there is absolutely no good reason to lube your plastic trains, you sick bastard.

The concept of owning stock and controlling railroads with the end goal of getting rich is not exactly innovative. A bunch of those 18XX games do exactly that, as do England and Wales and Baltimore & Ohio. However, where Baltimore & Ohio is so overrun by mathematical minutiae that every player has to have a calculator (this is literal - every player will need their own calculator. It helps if you can program if for sine curves), England & Wales distills the math down to sheer simplicity while maintaining every bit of the strategy and planning required to excel at either game.

Another feature that ruins Baltimore & Ohio is needless historical accuracy. I can make plenty of tactical decisions and long-term plans simply by having varying starting values for stock prices. I don't need to be forced to run the cast of Jersey Shore to Buffalo just to be reminded that this is how it happened in real life (but with different stupid people, obviously). I'm all for granting a little historical feel to a game in the name of playing out a theme, but when it interferes with the game play, I just don't see the point.

Need another reason that England and Wales beats the balls off Baltimore & Ohio? How about the fact that it plays in half the time. You can have very nearly the exact same experience, but finish before your wife goes to bed, so you can still have time to kick your friends out of the house and maybe get a little before she calls it a night. Would you rather have a great game, or a great game and then sex? Don't answer that. I do not want to know.

One final improvement in England and Wales is that the map is a lot smaller. Even with just three players, you're going to run into each other by the end of the first turn. And then you're going to be scheming and plotting and blocking and competing right up until the end of the game. Make a good move early on, and it could pay off for the entire game. Screw the pooch right out of the gate, on the other hand, and there's still a little time to catch up.

So now that I've spent this much time singing about why England and Wales is so awesome, it may surprise you when I say that I'll probably stick with the normal game. The advanced game really is fun, but I like owning my railroad. I am pretty good at the standard rules, and I really like the England and Wales map. It's perfect for three players, with enough chances to get bare-knuckles with your opponents, and still enough room to spread out a little. For playing with my wife and daughter, England and Wales is just about ideal. It has that sweet spot of interaction without excessive brutality, and all the stuff I enjoy about Railways in general, like jockeying for cards and racing to complete rail lines and rebuilding cities so the game can go just a couple more turns.

If you enjoy Railways of the World, you're really going to like England and Wales. If you enjoy Baltimore & Ohio or some of those 18XX games, but don't like having to break out a laptop just to track dividend splits, England and Wales will totally be your cup of tea. But if you like a really small map, you can get Mexico in the base game, and if you like a really huge map, you can use Eastern or Western US. England and Wales is perfect for me, and my favorite Railways expansion so far. It works for me without making me do too much work.


2-6 players

Map is just the right size for three
Advanced game kicks Baltimore & Ohio in the balls and steals its lunch money
Everything I like about the Railways games, in a size and location that is perfect for my family
Pick the game you want to play - both are a blast, so play the one you like

Still that stupid thing where you can't tell the blue from the purple
Simplified, which you may not like if you're a math nerd and a history dweeb

Noble Knight Games has a great deal on Railways of England and Wales. If you like Railways of the World and want to try something new and different, get it here, and save some money on it:

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