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Subject: Railroad Tycoon: fast, fun and forgiving to beginners. rss

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Filip W.
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Trains! Woohoo! Trains, trains, trains! And a hell of a lot of them too! Unless you've spent the last five years in a barrel with a plugged bunghole you can't have missed the current boom in the train-game genre. The old Avalon Hill classics have been dusted off, Age of Steam has steamed past and Ticket to Ride has taken millions of game virgins out on their first tour, so Railroad Tycoon takes a dive into a crowded pond – but what a splash it makes!

If you lived through the "we love you Sid (Meier), you're our god" phase of computer strategy gaming in the 1990's you're familiar with the Railroad Tycoon franchise. Originally a computer train operations simulator focusing on money management it has evolved and split into multiple genres, from boardgames (yepp, that’s what you're reading about) to complex transport simulators and educational games.

The boardgame, while getting its name from the computer simulation, is evolved from Martin Wallace's excellent Age of Steam, but this doesn't show too much. If you like the computer game you'll love the RRT boardgame. And if you've never experienced the computer game you'll love the boardgame. Heck, if you're a nomad tribesman who's never set eyes on modern civilization you'll still love the boardgame. Just replace the trains with camels from Through the Desert.

Components
The RRT box is Big-with-a-capital-B. Weighing in at close to 4 kg / 8 pounds and measuring 30 cm by 40 cm (1' by 1,5'), it's the size and weight of three coca-cola bottles placed side by side on a sheet of A3 (or US Ledger/Tabloid size) paper and crammed chock full of pieces.

There's a map, a gargantuan creation with three separate 90 cm by 40 cm (3' by 1') sized sections, depicting the American midlands and east coast. Yes, that's over one square meter of map, and it will dwarf a regular sized kitchen table. If there's one thing to gripe about in RRT it's the map. It tends to warp a bit and pieces don't lie flat on it. And there's the dreaded blue/purple color discrepancy. City colors are extremely important in RRT and for some reason the designers felt that blue and purple would look nice if they were nigh on impossible to tell apart. Many a game has been lost by players who built track to the wrong colored city. Fortunately there are errata here on Board Game Geek for download, from lists of which cities are of which color to new hexes to glue over the old ones.

Then there are the track tiles. A single track tile measures only 2,5 cm (1") across but when placed side by side with hundreds of others the track dominates the board. Not only does it look very, very good but it fills a vital game function – track laying is it in Railroad Tycoon. Know your track and you'll master your enemy.

And don't forget the plastics. Plastic trains and plastic end of game markers, enough to fill bags upon zip-lock bags. The trains are nice, but that's about it. They're colored, soft molded plastic that can take some beating as they'll bend before breaking. But they're also prone to warping and twisting, and sometimes they don't sit well on the board. Unlike the city markers the train colors are easy to tell apart.
The end of game markers, looking like station buildings, water towers and rail crossing markers, are a uniform brown and from the same plastic that the trains. They're not strictly necessary for the game but, hey, free train related miniatures…

Oh, there's also heaps of monopoly money, stock certificates, special ability and victory point cards and stacks of goods cubes. Did I mention the box feels like a safe and is stuffed to the gills?

Gameplay
Ok, enough about the bits and pieces. How does RRT play? Simple answer: Very, very well. Long answer:

RRT is a pick-up and delivery game, where you take goods cubes from cities and score points by delivering them to other cities using your rail network. The longer the network the more points you score and points are directly responsible for your income, which in turn affects what trains you can buy and how much you can afford to build. It's all nice and circular and surprisingly free of runaway leader syndrome (where the leader gets more and more resources to gain more and more points and everybody else is left behind to fight for second place).

You start as a penniless railroad executive, selling stock to the public to raise your initial cash. It's not a true stock market – the investors will buy as many shares as you care to issue – but each turn you have to pay each shareholder a thousand dollars and your maximum income is 25 thousand. You also lose one victory point at the end of the game for each share certificate so choose wisely, young padawan, for your investors will ruin you.

RRT is also based on an action allowance point system, which means that you want to do loads of things but only get to do three each turn (blame it on the short attention span of high level railroad executives if you must). So coming up with the optimal order in which to do things is crucial. If I build here then I can snag one of those goods cubes from my opponent and deliver it myself but then I'll loose that city I need and I could deliver for more victory points elsewhere. But I want to hinder the other players. No, I must advance as rapidly as possible. But it's more fun to hinder. And imagine how red Jake will be in the face when I steal his last yellow cube. Hah, let's build in Jakes city…

It's a pleasurable surprise that RRT plays as fast as it does. A two player game is over in less than an hour, a six player one in less than two. It's so fast you can play three games in an evening and still be alert enough to want to play a fourth.

The RRT game system is also very forgiving for beginners. You can make a lot of mistakes and still make it all up to win in the end. As long as you haven't sold too many stock certificates you will almost always be able to recoup your losses.

There's also a random element in the form of cards drawn each turn. Most of them gain you victory points, some when you deliver goods to a certain city or connect two cities, but some give you small bonuses. There are also two cards that let you take two actions instead of one and that's very valuable since the amount of actions you can take is the limiting factor to your expansion.

Conclusions
Railroad Tycoon is a balancing act. Balancing money versus position on the board versus time. And all the while the amount of goods cubes dwindles and the end of the game approaches (the game ends when enough goods have been delivered). This creates a sense of urgency that tops that of Ticket to Ride and many similar collect and build games.

Theoretically the theme in RRT could have been replaced with anything, like building caravans through the desert or building roads or bus routes in a city. But the flavor is so well integrated in the game that it feels indispensable. You ARE J.P. Morgan or Cornelius Vanderbilt. You build tracks and direct steam engines around even. There's no question about it, the theme is solid as a rock and the only thing that can happen to that rock is a player excavating it to find coal for his steam engines.

Most importantly, Railroad tycoon is fast and fun. I haven't met a single person who tried it and didn't like it. I know there must be such people (after all, there's a Scrooge too) but they must be very rare. RRT is light enough to appeal to beginners and people who hate math but complex enough to offer a wide variety of tactics and forgiving enough to let anyone win. There's not a second where you feel that you're doomed for defeat. Up to the last action of the last turn there is a chance that you'll pull a good card and deliver a cube for that winning score. The chance may be small but it is always there.

So limber up your tender and step back to the simpler days of Yore, when steam engines rolled and Bazooka Bubblegum was politically correct. All together now: Somewheeeere over the rainbow, a train rolls by, loaded with tiny goods cubes, goods cubes to make me sigh…
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Simon Vasey
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Nice review - thanks! Santa will bring me a copy this year. I think my wife will enjoy playing it. I've read lots of times that this can be a slow game. From your review, it seems that the slower games happen when there are maximum players. I will mostly be playing this game with between 2-4 players. My question is - how does game play vary with the number of players? Does it make a difference to the enjoyment if 2 or 6 people are playing?
Thanks again for a nice review! redtraingreentrainbluetrainyellowtrainblacktrain
 
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Filip W.
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With two players it works great. You don't get to build as large engines as in 5 or 6 player games but you don't need them either. A 2 player game is about fast deliveries and balancing fast expansion vs. disrupting your opponent. The starting player auctions also become more important - when grabbing individual cubes can turn the game going first is vital.

4 or more player games lets you explore the full potential of RRT. With 4 players you have the surface needed for expansion and the time needed to carry out long term strategies. With 6 players you're crowded and need to find those risky but high paying strategies.

The only drawback I see is standard 3 player games. You deduct one goods cube from each town (as in 2 player) making the game very short - too short in my opinion. It's great for learning games but I'd recommend that, once you've played a couple of games, you try to play 3 player games with the standard amount of cubes.
 
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Simon Vasey
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Thanks Filip - I can't wait to try it!
 
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Dave J McWeasely
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We finished our first game in something really short, like 100m, including rules explanation. We really couldn't predict the consequences of our actions, because we had no experience.

After a few games, the play time went up, because we're thinking about our decisions longer.

In other games, usually our play time goes down, not up.
 
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