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Subject: Good for What is It? rss

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Nathaniel Hobbes
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OK, so microgames are a big thing right now. They're cheap, portable, fast to play, and quite fun. We've got Coup, Love Letter, and a whole crop of other games trying to horn in on that turf. It has to get old, right? It's all just a bunch of imitators trying to cash in on the fad, right?

Well, I might forgive you if that was your initial response to Yardmaster Express, since that thought crossed my mind as well. I was wrong, and so are you. Yardmaster itself is not a particularly deep or heavy game, so an "express" version seemed quite unnecessary. But Yardmaster Express was so cheap, and I got an extra discount for being a backer of Yardmaster, and Crash Games provided a nice PnP, so I thought I'd test it out.

Components:
The PnP is full color, and provides all the cards for five players as well as engines and cabooses. The engines are a brilliant piece of design. Not only are they thematically necessary for a train game, but they do provide a game function as well. They make it clear which side of your train is open to play cards on. Not only do they have a game function, but they also serve as a reference card, with nearly all the rules for setup, play, and scoring on the front and back of your one engine card. What wonderful convenience!

The rail car cards come in five colors, and each card has two cars. The cars may have different colors and numbers (2-4), or they may be the same. Each color technically represents a different kind of freight, but this is completely irrelevant to game play, so I won't go into further detail. Oh, and another cool things I've not seen in another game—the back of the card is relevant to play as well. Every rail car card's back is the same, and features two, 2-point wild cards. What exactly that means will be noted below, but for now, just know it's cool.

Finally, there are the caboose cards. A caboose sets up a condition for scoring bonus points at the end of the game. They are the same on the back for random selection, but these backs are different from all other cards to keep them easy to separate. Overall, very well put together.

Play:
This section will be short. You take a number of cards determined by the number of players. Draw one card, choose one card, play it into your train, then pass your hand to the next player. Repeat this for a certain number of rounds, again based on the number of players, then score your trains.

To play a car into your train, you have to match the color or the number of the train car next to it, unless you're playing next to a wild car. If your selected card does not match, then you play it face down as a wild card.

When everyone has played the proper number of cards into their trains, then the trains are scored. There are three ways to earn points:
1) Every rail car (including wild cars) scores a number of points equal to the numbers on the card. Since every rail car card has two numbers on it, you'll have some light math.
2) The player who gets the longest run of a single color scores points equal to the number of cars (not cards) in that run. Note that this bonus is only granted once, not once per color.
3) Any player who meets the conditions on the caboose scores the number of points listed on that caboose card.
The player with the highest score wins.

There is an tactical variant where the winner goes first in the second game, the cards are passed in the opposite direction, and the winner is the player with the highest total out of both games.

Analysis:
That description of play is probably longer than the entire rulebook. That's how simple this game is. Can it possibly offer any kind of depth? Well, yes, for what it is. This game is not breaking new ground. You could call it "Uno Wonders," or, "7 Unos," or, well, you get the idea. But neither 7 Wonders nor Uno offers this much interest in such a small package. You do have color/number matching, you do have drafting, but man, you have to be alert to make the best choices in that ten minutes of play. It's the whole tension between building and denial, and here is where the wild cards show their spark. They are what really make the denial aspect work. You're looking ahead at what the next two or three players have, and whether you should put the player to your left in the position of having to deny the player next to her, or if you should just do it yourself to be sure, but then you ruin your chance at the longest color run. You're also considering which of these cards are most likely to come back to you, because one will.

I've gotten in around 6-8 games so far. Everyone learns it easily, everyone enjoys it, and often players ask for another game as soon as the first one finishes. The last time I playtested it was with a group of five. We were at a restaurant waiting for our order, and it filled the time perfectly. Nobody was agape with its revolutionary play, but everyone was smiling and forgot their hunger until the game ended.

I'm always teaching new games to people. 7 Wonders, especially with both expansions, is a beast to explain to people, especially to new gamers. Now I'll be using Yardmaster Express to teach them—I can introduce newbies to the core mechanic in a completely stripped down fashion. You take one card and pass the rest. You can't only look at your own train, but what everyone else is doing with their trains. It's not only good as a teaching tool for 7 Wonders, though. You can play it with kids. You can play it with Grandma. This game is so simple that you can play it with just about anybody.

This is also what I would call a "backpack game," or a "briefcase game." That's the kind of game that takes up next to no space or weight, so you always throw it into your bag so you'll have something, just in case you have an opportunity to get in a game somewhere. It's so small, so light, and yet, it offers a rewarding experience in those few minutes.

Conclusion:
And that's about the sum of this game. It is well produced, the design is very well thought through, the rules are tight and balanced, and it's fun. It's not brilliant; It's functional. It does what it does very well. I'm getting it for the same reason I get a lot of other microgames. It's cool looking, it's fast, it's compact and portable, it fills a niche in my collection, and it's so danged inexpensive I'd feel bad for wasting the opportunity to snag it at this price.

Such a conclusion might seem like I’m damning the game with faint praise. That is not my intention. Let’s face it, when the worst thing I can say about a game is that it isn’t deep (it’s not supposed to be; the entire game is 49 cards) or that it isn’t groundbreaking (it’s not trying to be; it's a 'lite' version of another game), that means I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Let me put it in a positive way instead. Yardmaster Express is absolutely the best drafting microgame I have ever played. The train theme works; people get it and enjoy it. The design and presentation are top-notch and really lower the entry point, making it accessible non-gamers and children. Hard-core gamers can still really enjoy trying to bluff and out-think each other as they build their trains. All aboard.
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my eye
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I think you're spot on with all your comments. Pretty judicious about what I Kickstart, but at the price it was a no-brainer. Extra copies will be gifted to my younger nephews.
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Eric Knauer
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Drafting micro game for $7? Sold!
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Bob Hansen
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I backed it and printed out the print and play and sprung it on my family during our last family gaming night. The game was okay, but not earth-shattering. Still, for the low price point I am glad I backed it. This will be a nice little filler game.

It should be noted that I taught Sushi Go that same evening and that one went over a lot better than this one. People just seemed to like the constant action more than passing the same deck around.
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'Arctica' Gary
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Not to mention you can get multiple copies to give out as gifts
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