I recently had the opportunity to play a three-player game of 20th Century Limited at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, OH. I've only played once, so my apologies if I get any of the rules or terminology wrong. Although at first the game seemed to be merely a mash-up of Ticket to Ride and TransAmerica, it quickly became apparent that there was a level of strategic depth here that surpassed both its forebearers. Enough for me to recommend it? Read on and find out...
First off, I'll say that while I enjoy a game of Ticket to Ride or TransAmerica now and then, I tend to prefer heavier games. But there is something about connecting cities on a map that still draws me, and this led me to take a closer look at 20th Century Limited.
20th Century Limited is, at its heart, a game about laying train track to connect cities. The board is made up of triangles, and track is placed with wooden sticks, much like TransAmerica. Unlike that game, track can be placed anywhere on the board - you need not connect to anything else. Like Ticket to Ride, you will be attempting to connect various cities to one another via Region Cards and Company Cards, and scoring points for doing so. The winner is the person who has accumulated the most points during the game, via Region Card Scoring, Company Card Scoring, and Bonus Objective Scoring. The stated game time is 30-60 minutes, and our game took about an hour with rules explanation, so that feels about right.
Each turn, you can either place 1-3 pieces of track on the board, or remove 1-3 pieces. ("Remove track? Why would I want to remove track?" I hear you thinking. That was my first reaction, but bear with me...) After dealing with track, you may deal with scoring cards - choosing one of your region cards or company cards to score, or discarding and drawing new ones. You can only perform one action relating to scoring cards each turn, which works well to restrict the action economy and force players to plan their moves ahead.
Region Cards each have three cities that you must connect, similar to the goals in TransAmerica, except that all cities are in a single region of colored cities instead of one city in each region (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, etc). You will have two region cards at a time, so you can plan ahead to some extent, as regions go in order, roughly from east to west. Once you complete one region, you draw two of the next region you don't have in your hand, and choose the one you want to complete. To complete a region, you can use other players' track, but ONLY if you pay them to do so! At the beginning of the game, all players are given 2 cubes per player in the game. For each segment of other players' track you wish to use to connect the cities on your card, you must pay them 1 cube per track, with a maximum of 5 for any single transaction. This ends up creating some really interesting decisions, which I'll discuss in the mechanics section.
One interesting twist with Region cards is that you can choose to skip a region - but once you do, you can never go back to it. You can only complete the regions in numeric order, 1 through 8. Each region you complete gets you an increasing number of points, so while completing 5 regions may get you 20 points, completing 9 will get you 82. (Numbers are not exact, but you get the idea.)
Company Cards are very similar to tickets in Ticket to Ride - connect a variable number of cities in one or more regions to receive a proportional number of victory points for completion. There is one very significant difference that, for me, is the key to the game - when you complete a Company Card, you are "selling" the track to the company, and you REMOVE IT FROM THE BOARD, back into your supply. I'll discuss the implications of this further down in the "Mechanics" section. You can also use other players' track to complete these, paying for it the same way as for Region Cards, but other players' track stays on the board.
Finally, Bonus Objectives are randomly drawn objectives that give players additional goals with which to score points - things like, "Be the first person to complete 8 Company Cards", "Be the first person to connect Boston to El Paso, Denver, Los Angeles, and New Orleans", or "Be the first person to complete 4 Company Cards with a city in the Southwest region". Each is worth a varying number of victory points.
The game ends when one player either completes 8 Company Cards, or 8 Region Cards. My mind is nudging me that there's a third way to end the game, but if so, it's escaping me at the moment. Highest victory point total from the three sources (Region Cards, Company Cards, and Bonus Cards) is the winner!
There are a few mechanics that I found particularly interesting. While the basic track laying mechanic is fairly straightforward, you'll recall that instead of laying track down on your turn, you can choose to pick it back up. This felt odd to me, but it quickly became apparent why it was allowed. Unlike TransAmerica and Ticket to Ride, where running out of track occasions the end of the game, running out of track in 20th Century Limited simply means that you haven't managed your track economy well enough! Track is actually a replenishable resource, and the best way to manage it seems to be a balance between Region and Company cards. Although it's a pain at first to lose all your hard-built track that would have been so perfect for that other company card, it's the best way to get your track back for future cards while scoring points at the same time.
I did make the initial mistake of getting excited that my initial company cards were all in the same region. That's great in Ticket to Ride, but I realized my mistake the moment I played the first card and realized that all my beautiful track was about to disappear. By the end of the game, though, the flow of building track to collect Region cards followed by a company card to clear off old track was very satisfying.
Another resource is the cubes used to "rent" other players' track. I had more than my share for a while, and then for the second half of the game, I had very little. I'll need a few more plays to get a feel for the right way to manage this one - is it worth building track in areas you know other players want just to get their cubes? Should you hoard cubes so others can't use them or spend them whenever you want? I'm not sure yet, but it will be interesting to try different tactics.
Choosing whether to focus on Region cards or Company cards was another interesting choice. I chose to focus mainly on Region cards and use Company cards opportunistically, while another player focused on getting high-value Company cards. I ended up winning the game, but if my friend had one more turn, he would have completed his 50+ point Company Card and won the game.
The one thing I wasn't so sure about was the bonus cards. They all seemed like things that were either do difficult to do we wouldn't bother, or something that would just happen coincidentally along the way without really trying. The point values didn't seem high enough to bother given the effort that many of them would take, but maybe it just requires more advanced planning than I was able to do for my first game, or maybe we just got an uninspiring batch of cards. I like the idea, but the ones we got this time were a little underwhelming.
I am actually a big fan of games with a strong theme. While 20th Century Limited doesn't exactly drip with theme, the mechanics feel like they fit together well with the theme- the explanation that you're selling your track to the other Companies is good enough for me to accept taking the track off the board. The thing that I really enjoyed was that each of the Company Cards you can complete was a real-world railroad company at one time, and the cities that you must connect to score the card are actual cities that the company serviced. For someone who enjoys learning about history, that added a really nice touch.
- Strategic options - Company Cards or Region Cards? Use other players track or stick to your own?
- Multi-resource economy - Managing two resources while trying to connect your cities offers a lot of choices that reward careful planning.
- Theme - I really enjoyed seeing the actual railroad companies and the cities they serviced on the Company cards.
What doesn't work?
- Not sure about the Bonus Objective Cards.
What do I think?
For people who like games like Ticket to Ride or TransAmerica, but would appreciate a little more strategic depth, getting 20th Century Limited seems like a no-brainer. I don't think I would ever choose to play TransAmerica over this, although Ticket to Ride is different enough mechanically that it will still have a place, especially with the more casual gamers I play with. I'm still thinking about things I might do differently next time, and the variety of cities on the map and Region and Company cards mean the game will be tactically different each play. I'm strongly considering buying it, and as of now, I would give it a strong 8.
Nice review! I had most of the same reactions as you did when I played. Coincidentally, I played for the first time at Origins in the Rio Grande Games room too. But I played it this year, not last year.
- Last edited Fri Sep 9, 2016 2:49 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Fri Sep 9, 2016 2:48 am