Whenever the Ragnar Brothers release a new game, I tend to take notice. While I’m not enamored with all of their games, I have thoroughly enjoyed several of them. I’m a big fan of Viking Fury, Kings and Castles, and History of the World. When I learned of the impending release of Canal Mania over a year ago, I knew I would have to acquire a copy.
When the game finally arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find the components – including a mounted board – to be more professional than past Ragnar Brothers productions. While the tea cloth maps have a certain charm, I was always worried about their durability. No worries here, as everything is professionally produced.
Billed as the “Golden Age of English Canal Building”, Canal Mania challenges players to obtain government contracts and construct canal networks across merry old England. Points are awarded for impressive feats of engineering (locks, aqueducts and tunnels), as well as for successfully transporting commodities from city to city. Constructing a successful network of canals is vital, but players must also manage their supply of tiles as the lucrative aqueduct and tunnel tiles are limited in number.
The hex-overlaid board depicts dozens of England’s towns and cities, as well as two basic types of terrain: clear and difficult. Each player has a set of tiles that include stretches, locks, aqueducts, and tunnels. Tiles are double-sided, with straights and curves available on each one. Further, each tile is restricted to a particular type of terrain. Stretches and locks can be constructed on clear terrain, while aqueducts and tunnels must be constructed when traversing difficult terrain. A key restriction is that two identical tiles cannot be adjacent in a canal system, so players must carefully manage their tiles when constructing their networks.
Players begin the game with one engineer in their employment. Engineers each grant a special power, but they can be swapped with opponents during one’s turn. Employing the correct engineer at the right time can be quite beneficial.
Five contracts are revealed in “parliament”, and five “build” cards are revealed. Build cards specify the type of tile a player can construct. Contracts specify two cities or towns that must be connected, as well as any intervening city through which the canal must flow. Parliament is not re-filled with new contracts until all existing contracts are taken by the players. When a player acquires a contract, he must place one of his two barges in one of the two cities listed on the contract. Construction of the canal begins from that city. Players may possess at most two incomplete contracts, so they must be selected judiciously.
Players execute their turn in three phases, choosing between several options in each phase. A player may only select one option per phase, and choosing which one to execute can be quite challenging.
During phase one, a player can either take a contract from parliament (or two, if there are two or less contracts remaining AND the player can hold both contracts), exchange engineers with another player, or discard the five build cards, replacing them with five new ones.
Phase two allows a player to either take three build cards from those available (or from the top of the deck), or construct tiles. Constructing tiles is a simple matter of placing the appropriate tiles onto the appropriate spaces … provided, of course, you follow certain construction rules! As mentioned, only stretches and locks can be placed on clear terrain, while only aqueducts and tunnels can be constructed through difficult terrain. No two identical tiles can be adjacent in a system. In order to construct a tile, a player must play the corresponding build cards. Stretches or locks require one matching card, aqueducts require two “aqueduct” cards, and expensive tunnels cost three “tunnel” cards. There are also the extremely valuable “surveyor” cards, which serve as a wild card. They tend to be scooped as soon as they make an appearance in the build card pool. Several of the engineers allow a player to reduce the number of cards required, or substitute other build cards to meet the build requirements. Players can construct tiles over previously played tiles, so there is no threat of being blocked.
Phase three allows a player to move a goods token from one city to another along a completed canal route. Points are scored in a manner similar to Age of Steam, wherein each segment traversed earns one point. A vital difference is that a point is earned for BOTH the player moving the good AND the player owning the route being traversed. Thus, the active player generally has a strong incentive to move goods, as he will always earn more points than his opponents. The two main restrictions are that the final segment traversed must be owned by the active player, and the good cannot be moved through two cities or towns of the same color.
Goods arrive on the map whenever a player SELECTS a build card which depicts a good icon. The good is placed in a city or town matching the color of the icon, but the placement must follow some specific rules. In order, the good must be placed in a city connected to a canal, a town connected to a canal, a city not connected to a canal, or a town not connected to a canal. Only one goods marker can be in a city or town, so this does ultimately result in goods being distributed across the board. However, cities do produce more goods, so it quickly becomes obvious that you want to own networks connected to as many cities as possible. This gives a player more opportunities to move goods, which is ultimately quite lucrative.
If a player opts to NOT execute a particular action during any phase, he may instead draw a build card. Sometimes this is wise.
When a player satisfies the requirements of a contract, he earns points for each lock, aqueduct and tunnel in the system. Points earned are 1, 2 and 3, respectively. The completed contract is then set aside, as completed contracts may earn bonuses for a player at the end of the game and serve as a possible tie-breaker.
The game enters its final stages when a player reaches a certain point level (40, 50 or 60 points, depending upon the number of players) or when the final set of five contracts is revealed in parliament. The current round is completed, followed by two more rounds. At this point, final scoring is conducted. Each player receives points for incomplete canals in the same manner as described above. Then, players alternate moving goods markers until all goods on the board have been moved or are unable to move. An important factor to consider here is that the order in which goods are moved are determined by the birth dates of the engineers, from youngest to oldest. It may well be a wise move to secure a young engineer on the final turn. Finally, bonus points are rewarded to players for completed contracts. These points range from 2 – 10 points, with the player completing the most contracts earning the most points. Ties are broken by the cumulative value of contracts completed.
After all final points are awarded, the player with the most points is victorious, and is knighted by the English parliament. Ties are broken in favor of the player possessing the oldest engineer.
There is no denying that Canal Mania is yet another “rail” building game, with water being substituted for rails. Using cards to construct track is similar to the method found in train games Ticket to Ride and Union Pacific. The method of moving goods is akin to the one used in Volldampf and Age of Steam. Player character special powers – engineers in this case – has been seen before. In short, there really isn’t a whole lot original here. But you know what? These mechanisms blend well together, and the game is quite challenging and fun. There are enough different twists and system modifications to give the game a reasonably fresh feel. There are numerous challenges facing the players, and it requires skill, planning and foresight to perform well. Canal Mania is a good game – and quite possibly a VERY good game. I just hope it doesn’t get lost in the sea of route-building games.
Jim, Alison, Gail and I traveled back in time to 19th century England, and competed to fulfill contracts and move goods. Jim’s train game experience proved beneficial, as he jumped to a large lead. Alison closed the gap late, but it wasn’t enough to catch him.
Finals: Jim 74, Alison 71, Greg 66, Gail 63
Ratings: Jim 8, Alison 8, Greg 7.5, Gail 7.5