I wear my Halloween costume all year round!
I love route-building games, including Ticket to Ride and TransAmerica, so I was initially really excited when I heard about this game. TtR in particular feels played out to me, so I was looking forward to trying something fresh and new in the same vein. But then 20th Century Limited was actually released, and the initial signs weren’t good: an average rating that barely reaches 7 is a huge red flag for me, and I read at least one negative review, and concluded that I probably didn’t need to rush out to buy this game after all.
Then it was on sale for $24 on Black Friday. And so suddenly we had a copy in our possession. Funny how that works.
Not TransAmerica and Not Ticket to Ride
One of the most frequent descriptions of this game is that it’s like Ticket to Ride or TransAmerica. This is partially true and partially misleading. For starters, 20th Century Limited is significantly heavier than either of them, with an average weight of 2.7 compared to Ticket to Ride’s 1.9 or TransAmerica’s 1.4. It’s still pretty easy to teach, but it’s moved beyond what I’d consider a gateway game, and I’m optimistic that the added complexity will also mean significantly more replay value. So far so good, anyway: we’re at eleven plays for December alone, and I expect to continue playing it into the new year.
So, what are the similarities to those other games? Well, you’re building routes to connect specific cities (as indicated on your cards) and there are no stocks involved. The track placement mechanism is like TransAmerica in that you can just place a certain number of track pieces on your turn without having to pay any costs. But I find that 20th Century Limited offers a whole different level of decision-making compared to its simpler cousins.
In the middle of a three-player game
How Does It Work?
20th Century Limited has two different types of route cards: Regional Cards and Company Cards. Regional Cards are pretty much what you’d expect from a route-building game: you need to use your rails to connect to the cities shown on your cards. That’s also the case with Company Cards, but Company Cards also have a huge twist: when you complete a Company Card, you’re selling that rail line to the company, so you remove your rails from the board. This introduces the whole new dimension of track management to the game: you have a limited number of track pieces, and you can spend a turn just picking them up instead of placing new ones, but that’s obviously inefficient and best avoided by coordinating your Regional and Company cards.
The game ends when one player has completed either eight regional cards or eight company cards, which introduces another element of tension: you need to balance high-scoring longer routes with quicker routes that could accelerate the end of the game. A long route might be worth 50 or 60 points (and we’ve had at least one game where the winning score was less than 150 in total), but can you actually manage to build that route without sacrificing all other scoring opportunities, and do you even have enough rail pieces? You can reduce the number of rail pieces that you have to place by paying other players to use their tracks, but you only have limited funds available, so that can only take you so far. The option to use other people’s track adds yet another consideration that needs to be balanced with everything else, and I certainly don’t think I’ve managed to strike the right balance yet. Knowing that other people might pay to use your track can also affect the decision of where to build early tracks and how long to leave them on the board before completing your company cards. In other words, there’s a lot to consider here, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming because the basic goals are so clear: complete your routes to earn your points. I’m hoping this will turn out to be a game that’s easy to learn but difficult to master; the easy-to-learn aspect is certainly there, and I don’t feel like I’ve mastered it yet after ten plays, so the initial outlook is good anyway.
Regional and company cards at the beginning of the game
Another element of variation is introduced by the bonus cards, which provide a few specific goals for each game. They’re not worth a huge amount of points, but they’re certainly worth attempting because they can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
Here’s an example of the three bonus cards from one of our recent games:
I appreciate the way that these cards encourage the use of different strategies in every game.
To sum up the gameplay, the basic concept is route-building to connect cities shown on your cards. But it’s more complex than Ticket to Ride or TransAmerica because it introduces several different elements: balancing vanishing company routes with permanent regional routes, managing available track pieces, paying to use opponents’ tracks, and adapting your strategy to achieve bonus objectives. These are all fairly straightforward and intuitive concepts, but they add up to a more satisfying and variable experience than those other two train games. At the same time, 20th Century Limited retains some of the key elements that I like about TransAmerica and Ticket to Ride: the focus is on the visual route-building aspect, and your score is ultimately dependent on the routes that you build, not on stock market manipulation like some of the heavier train games.
Looking back at the game page after playing this game multiple times, I noticed that it lists pick-up-and-deliver as a mechanic, and also references a “pseudo pick-up-and-deliver system” in the description. My first thought was that I apparently have no idea what pick-up-and-deliver means. But I looked at the list of pick-up-and deliver games, and all of the ones that are familiar to me (Istanbul, Merchants & Marauders, Macao, Flash Point, Roads & Boats) actually do include pick-up-and-deliver in the expected sense of the word: you get something in one place and drop it off somewhere else. That mechanic is completely absent from 20th Century Limited. All you’re doing is connecting cities.
I honestly wonder whether the description refers to a pre-release version of the game that underwent dramatic revisions before being published. I have no idea what a Demand card is and can find no mention of such a thing in the rulebook. Maybe they mean Bonus cards? But those are things like “finish four regional/company routes that include a yellow city” or “have the most track on the board at the end of the game”. I just don’t see where the pick-up-and-deliver concept comes in.
So if you’re particularly interested in pick-up-and-deliver, prepare to be disappointed. I’m personally happy with pure route-building, so the absence of pick-up-and-deliver isn’t a problem for me. It’s just weird and confusing.
A lot of the discussion that I’ve read of this game has centered on the component issues, and for good reason. This is not a top-quality production, both in terms of design decisions and in terms of physical components.
When it comes to design decisions, there's a lot of tiny text on the board and on the cards. It’s hard to read the available company cards from across the table, and I often have to get up and walk around the table to look at the more distant cities on the map. Here’s some perspective on what the board might look like from your seat at the table:
The problem is compounded when the rails are placed on the board, since they seem slightly too big for the lines where they’re placed and can completely obscure the city names from certain angles:
We often had to pick up rails to look at the city names, and they’re hard enough to arrange nicely on the board the first time.
The designer has acknowledged these problems and says that they’ll be fixed in the future, at least in the game’s sequel:
But for now, this means that you’ll spent a lot of time awkwardly perusing the board in an attempt to find the cities shown on your cards. Maybe this is my non-American-ness speaking, but 20th Century Limited includes a significant number of cities that I hadn’t previously heard of, or whose location was only vaguely familiar. And you can’t casually search out those cities from a distance; as mentioned previously, I often have to get out of my seat to get up close and personal with the board. It’s a bit annoying, but I don’t think it detracts too much from my enjoyment of the game. I’m still very happy with the gameplay despite the visual issues.
On the topic of visual issues, I should also mention another production problem that’s even less relevant to the gameplay: the green rail pieces somehow come in two different colours, at least in my copy and several others that I’ve heard of.
Photo by Solta
This is obviously not a game-breaking problem, but again, it’s an indication that the production quality isn’t exactly top-notch.
Is it balanced?
This is one of those critical questions that can’t really be answered after just a few plays, or even a dozen. I’ll just note that I have a few reasons to be concerned: especially in multi-player games, I think the starting player sometimes has an advantage when it comes to placing critical early rails (which later players will have to pay to use) and taking the best bonus-matching company card from the supply. This should be counterbalanced by the later players getting to use the earlier players’ routes and having a better idea of when the game will end, but I’ve personally concluded that I’d rather play earlier in the turn order, at least in a game with more than two players.
And yes, you can pay a point to refresh the company cards, but that may or may not accomplish anything, and I’ve played at least one game where that one point prevented me from tying with the player ahead of me. Some people may also find that the randomness of the company cards (and regional cards) is an issue more generally: you may randomly get a card—or a chance at a card—that matches perfectly with the other cards in your hand, or you may randomly get cards that don’t work together at all. Of course, this is also an issue with other popular train games (the aforementioned TransAmerica and especially Ticket to Ride), but I find it a bit more bothersome in a heavier game. It doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the game, but it’s definitely annoyed me on more than one occasion. So this is something to keep in mind if you prefer games that minimize luck.
What’s the best player count?
I’ve played almost exclusively with two players, which is the most common player count for me in general. I don’t think that’s the ideal number, but I still find the games enjoyable, and the two-player game has one significant advantage: games are over in about 40 minutes. We played once with five players, and it took at least 90 minutes after the rules explanation. That game had a bit more downtime than I’d like, but that can partially be attributed to the fact that three of our five players were new to the game. I think our three-player games were probably the most satisfying; they definitely had more tension than the two-player game, but the turns also went by more quickly so I never felt like I was waiting around. My experience with the different player counts is obviously too limited to make a definitive statement, but I’d guess that it’s best with three players, with four players coming a close second, and worth playing with any number.
What’s the verdict?
If you enjoy medium-weight route-building games, you’ll probably want to pick this up. It combines the satisfaction of a pure route-building game with a bit more depth than the popular Ticket to Ride, and that’s a winning combination for me at least. There are admittedly some component issues that detract a bit from the enjoyment of the game, but they haven’t been serious enough to prevent me from playing repeatedly in a short period of time. I’m glad that I own this game and I expect that it will see plenty more table time in the future.
David G. Cox Esq.
Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are.
This is a quality Review.
I wear my Halloween costume all year round!