Love live the Empress!
For the Motherland!
Overview: The idea is to build various railways connecting cities in the US. An underlying theme of the game is that, although you get points for connecting adjacent cities, you get even more points by connecting assigned far away cities (i.e. NYC and Miami) via many adjacent city connections (NYC-Boston-Raleigh-Atlanta-Miami).
Game Pieces: As usual with Days of Wonder games, the board is beautiful and more importantly, very large and quite easy to read, given the fact that all it really is is a map of the US. The score is actually kept on the perimeter of the board itself, so there’s no need to tally up points on a sheet of paper. The pieces are simple: Plastic train cars, about 30 or so for each player, where each player (2-6) gets his/her own color. The cards are probably the biggest issue I have. They are very small; about half the size of a standard playing card. This is both good and bad. It’s good in that occasionally you may be holding 10+ cards. The bad is that they make quite a mess if they spill off the deck (easy to do with small cards), especially given there are probably near 200 of these cards (or sure seems like it).
Mechanics: The mechanics are quite simple, and the rules are only 4 pages (2 pages front & back). It can be ready to play without difficulty with a quick read-thru. At the beginning of the game, each player draws 3 Destination Tickets. These cards have 2 non-adjacent cities listed on them and a point value. You MUST keep 2, but CAN keep all 3. At games end, if you have connected the 2 cities on the card with a continuous rail lines of YOUR railcars, you get that many bonus points. If you DON’T, you lose that many points. Each player then gets 4 (I think) train cards. These cards are pictures of railcars that are a color: red, green, blue, etc. About 8 colors total. There are also locomotive cards that are “wilds”. Then, place 5 face up train cards in front of the board…these are the “face up cards”.
Then the game starts, where each play takes a turn doing ONE of the following:
-Draw 2 train cards. You may draw from the face down pile or the face up train cards (or both). If you do the latter, you must replace the ones you take with one from your hand.
-Lay down a rail line [aka “claim a route] (more on this next)
-Draw 3 destination tickets. You MUST keep 1, but can keep 2 or 3. See above for how this works.
Laying the rail line is the meat and taters of the game. Each city has a few “potentinal” rail lines coming off it connecting it to adjacent cities. To claim that line, there are colored boxes that represent the train cards you must discard to claim it. For example: there is a 4-car green line connecting Helena and Denver. You must discard 4 green train cards to claim that line. When you do, you place 4 of your plastic trains to take that line. It’s now yours and no one may take it for the rest of the game.
Game ends when 1 player has 0-2 plastic train pieces left. Everybody (including that player) gets 1 more turn.
Points are added as you claim a line. It’s exponential, so a rail line of length=1 is worth=1, 2 is 2, 3 is 4, 4 is 6, 5 is 10, and 6 is 15. You also do your destination tickets at the end (again, see above), as well as granting 15 points to the player with the longest continual line.
Most points wins.
Strategy: The great thing about this game is there are a few ways to try and win: You can win by succeeding on lots of destinations (and even here, you can do north-south or west-east strategy, trying to use common cities and lines), by going for 6-car lines, by getting lots and lots of little lines. Much is going to depend on what Destination tickets you draw, because those are worth the most points. The trick is that the most direct route connecting to cities (such as Miami to Houston) may not be available, if other people start claiming lines.
Does it work with few (i.e. 2-3) players as well as more (i.e. 4-6) players?: Yes. The reason is the game is different for 2-3 players than 4-6. There are some “double lines” that work differently. For example, there may be 4 yellow OR 4 red connecting Miami to Atlanta. In 2-3 player games, you can use either of those to claim the route, but once you claim it, the other is “not available to be claimed.” In 4-6 players, if one is taken, you can still take the other one. This works well because in multi-player games, you don’t need an alternative route (i.e. going from NYC to Miami via Chicago) to connect 2 cities quite as quickly as in 2-3 player games.
Will my non-gaming wife/friends like it?: This depends on your style. If, on a regular basis, you like to block other people’s routes they are obviously trying to connect, you’re not going to gain popularity with those less competitive. Fortunately, there are always other ways to connect cities (you may have to go all the way over to Chicago, though, to connect Miami to NYC for that Desintation ticket), so this is somewhat negated by good mechanics.
Good for kids?: My 9 year-old niece loves this game. Why? Because it has familiar geography and the rules are simple. If you think about it, it’s a fancy version of rummy…trying to make suits (in this case colors) match, and then laying them down. You can do this by drawing from the deck or from the “face-up” pile, like in rummy. Plus it teaches them to plan routes ahead. But, unlike rummy, where you have to mentally count cards, everything you need to plan ahead about (i.e. lines) is right there in front of you on the board.
Should I buy it?: It retails for $39.99. It has good re-playablility since the game changes based on Destination Tickets drawn, works well with kids and non-gaming people, as well as more traditional boardgamers. It’s also a great beer-and-pretzels game that you can easily make into your entire game night with a few games. Only take <60 minutes to play, so I would argue “Yes.” If, however, you ONLY like more complex styled games, such as Descent or Arkham Horror, then this game may be a bit simple for you.