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Subject: Yardmaster: A fine addition to the Crash Games lineup rss

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Todd Derscheid
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I had the opportunity to try out an advance copy of Yardmaster, a small-box card game coming out from Crash Games. I was able to play it with 3 separate groups of people, and am pleased to say almost all of the players liked it quite a bit, except The Guy Who Hates Almost Everything, who still had an okay time playing.

In Yardmaster, players are collecting matching colors of cargo cards to purchase and accumulate train cars for points. The gameplay is intuitive and there are meaningful choices, which is impressive in a game that takes 30 minutes or so.

Turns are generally fast, with players having the choice of any of three actions, twice: draw a card (rummy-style, either from the deck or discard pile), play cargo cards to claim a train car, or swap trade privilege tokens. Turns proceed clockwise, but there's a Yardmaster token that gives you three actions going counter-clockwise at the table. This keeps the turns from feeling "same-y," and there's always a mega-turn to look forward to.

The game ends when a player reaches a set point total or all the train cars are exhausted (we almost saw this happen in one 4-player game). Games are short but again, the variance in how the turns flow make it feel like you are accomplishing something. Another differentiating factor between games is randomness in how the train cars come off the deck, which creates a game space for making interesting decisions about how to manage your hand.

I still haven't "solved" Yardmaster after several plays, and am pleased with the amount of depth to it. It's almost always better to draw from the deck to hunt for the special action cards, but sometimes drawing from the discard pile lets you specialize in a color and grab an easy train car. Also, manipulating your play in what you discard, especially with the trade tokens, can block other players from mining the discard pile, which we enjoyed immensely. The trade tokens themselves are a tough sell for me. It's one more type of action, although easy to explain, and almost every new player I taught tried to use the trade power backwards as a 2-for-1 discount. The trade power puts you at a card disadvantage, but gives you the practical ability to do something with more cards in your hand. The Guy Who Hates Everything really, really didn't like how inefficient swapping and then using the tokens were, probably his biggest complaint.

For the most part, I didn't see games with runaway winners or fall-away losers. You can't help but get a few train cars once your hand gets big enough, basically (there's a Sweep The Yard special card that helps move out log-jams when high-cost train cars are up for purchase). The coolest feature in the game is that when train cars are purchased, they need to match the color or number of the your previous train car, or they're placed in a Switching Yard and not yet eligible to score. The more cards stack in your yard, the more flexibility you have in chaining colors and numbers together. The buildup of cards is great for building dramatic tension, as players wrestle with building a train efficiently, or buying what they can get and hoping to work it out later. About a quarter of our games ended with someone sweeping a bunch of train cars onto their train triumphantly, while other times, people went to the grave without being able to score all their half-earned points.

Overall, I like Yardmaster. The set-collection and rummy mechanisms are familiar, but there's enough differences that make it an novel filler/gateway game. The train theme feels thematic as you accumulate a line of train car cards behind your engine, although thankfully the types of cargo don't have any game effects. Being limited to 7 cards in hand also makes for interesting hand-management decisions, especially when holding the special cards. Analysis-paralysis is kept to a minumum - there's just not enough perfect information to analyze. The appeal of the short, roughly 30-minute play time is also emphasized by the fact that you're always drawing cards and moving the game along. Trains always get bigger and the game state is always progressing; it's just a matter of luck and clever play to turn it to your advantage.
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