(This review originally appeared on iSlaytheDragon.com)
I love train games! The only problem with train games is that the vast majority of them have you doing the same thing: Creating routes to connect cities. Sure, there might be some variation in how this is accomplished, or whether you have to deliver something once you build the route, but it’s always route building. (Okay, Colt Express had the whole Great Train Robbery thing going on, but still.) When I heard that Snowdonia offered a little twist on the train genre, I had to check it out.
The twist? Hard work. Snowdonia isn’t simple route building. No. In this game, you’ve got to build the whole dang railroad. Up a mountain. In the fog. With laborers you might have dragged out of the pub. Anyone averse to hard, sweaty labor need not apply.
How It Plays
Snowdonia is a worker placement game that has players captaining work gangs building a railroad through the Welsh mountains. You want your crew to contribute the most to the construction. This isn’t a simple matter of creating routes, mind you. You have to excavate the mountain, make and lay track, and construct stations in order to build sections of the railway that are worth points at the end of the game. And you must do all of this in the unpredictable Welsh weather. It’s hard work and not for sissies.
Snowdonia is played over a series of rounds consisting of five phases. In the first phase, you assign your laborers to their tasks by placing them on any of the action spaces on the board. Players place workers one at a time until all players have placed their laborers. If you have the resources to make it worth his while to give up his booze, you can get your temporary laborer out of the pub and place him, too.
The mountain. Uh, board.
Once everybody’s been put to work, players resolve the actions in alphabetical and numerical order. (Action areas are lettered A through G and within each area the spaces are numbered. A1 is resolved first, followed by A2, etc.) If you have any contract cards that match the action area, you may play them before resolution of that area begins. Contract cards provide a benefit or boost to your actions so that your laborers work more efficiently.
The actions you can take include gathering resources from the stockyard, becoming start player next round, excavating rubble from the mountain so you can build your railroad, converting basic resources into steel and stone to make track, laying track, building a station, buying a train to give you a special ability and boost your construction efforts, taking a contract card, or sending your surveyor further up the mountain for more points at the end of the game.
Contract cards showing the weather on the backs.
Once actions are resolved, players restock the contract cards and then check the weather. The weather is more than just a forecast. Weather affects the rates at which excavation and track laying occur. The worse the weather, the slower these actions go. (And in fog, nothing at all happens.) At the end of each round, the active weather disc is discarded and the remaining discs are moved one space to the left with the one in the middle spot now becoming the active weather. The top card on the contract card deck determines which weather type will fill in the newly vacant space. Players can see the weather for the current round plus the next two rounds and use that information to make some of their action selections.
Finally, the stockyard is refilled by randomly drawing cubes from the supply bag and placing them on the appropriate stockyard spaces. Also lurking in the supply bag are white cubes which trigger events. If white cubes are drawn, they are placed on the event track, one per space, starting immediately after the last occupied space.
Rubble and resource cubes.
Events are resolved as soon as they are placed and before any more event cubes are placed. There are several types of events and each has its own effect on the game. An event may open up the ability to buy trains or force players owning trains to pay for their maintenance. Also track may be laid, stations completed, or rubble removed. Players can see how many events remain in the bag by checking the event track and noting how many spaces are cube-less.
Another round now begins and play continues in this way until the track card next to Yr Wyddfa has track laid on it. Players then total their points for completed sites on station cards, completed track, contract card bonuses, and the final position of their surveyor. The player who has the No. 4 Train, Snowdon, also gets nine points added to their total. The player with the most points wins.
In the Clear, or Lost in a Fog?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to review Snowdonia. I knew that it was a train game and a very Euro experience. I love train games and am gaining more appreciation for Euros, but I’d heard everything from, “It’s the best game ever,” to “It’s dry as dust, themeless, and boring.” Okay, then.
Let’s start with the themeless and dry criticism. I disagree. Yes, you do have to put some thought into the theme, but if you do, everything hangs together. First, there’s the weather. I spent some time traveling in Wales after college and I was tickled to see that Snowdonia captures the essence of the weather and its effects on travel and construction perfectly. If the fog is super dense, no outdoor work like excavation and laying track gets done. If it’s raining, you can still work, but you’ll work more slowly than you will in the bright sunshine. It’s no fun to slog through the rain, after all. That you need to plan your actions around the freaky Welsh weather is thematically accurate. Plus, it adds another layer of strategy and thought to the game.
I also loved the sly nod to worker laziness with the worker in the pub. (And I’ll admit that I may be the only person who sees it this way, as there’s no official description in the rulebook.) He’s sitting there, quaffing some beers, and maybe he wants to work or maybe he doesn’t. However, if you’ve got the resources, you can get him out of the pub and put him to work. Then after he does his bit, he goes back in the pub. I find it very amusing.
The pub, where you will find your temporary worker.
All of the elements of the game work together to create this theme of building a railroad up a mountain in crappy and unpredictable conditions. The actions make sense in terms of producing materials, clearing space, and creating rail lines. The events simulate a true building operation where things go wrong or happen seemingly randomly, screwing up your long-term plan. There’s even an official variant offered by the designer that involves goats on the tracks that you must work around.
As with most things, theme appreciation is a matter of preference. If you don’t like trains, Euros, or having to put a little imagination into your theme, then Snowdonia is going to be a problem for you. And speaking of taste, let’s talk about the art. Some people find it colorless and boring, others enjoy the folksy style and muted colors. I like it. I don’t think garish colors would suit the theme and the Welsh countryside, so I give it good marks.
The components are good quality, if not the best I’ve ever seen. Everything is sturdy enough and the worker miniatures hold their shapes well. The rulebook is also well done. Everything is explained well and in a logical order. I appreciate that the right margin is used for a bullet point version of the rules so if you only need a little prompting, you don’t have to search the whole document.
Trains and track cards.
What about the gameplay? Best game ever, or boring? For me, it’s closer to the “best” end, although it’s not the absolute best I’ve ever played. At its most basic, Snowdonia is standard worker placement: Put your worker on a space, do the action indicated. It’s very easy to understand how the game works. What isn’t so easy to grasp and only comes with multiple plays is how and when to best perform those actions in order to win the game. To me this is the mark of a good game: Easy to learn, difficult to master; a game that rewards repeated plays and different strategies.
You’re not simply playing actions. You’re managing resources, making plans, watching what other players are doing, keeping an eye on the weather, and dealing with events. You can’t ignore the contract cards or the possibility of buying a train, either. Both can help you win the game, but when it comes to the trains, which one do you choose? The train you choose will help define your strategy for the game, so pick carefully. There’s a lot going on and the better you get at tracking it all, the better you will do. This takes time, so it’s best played among players with similar experience levels, or at least players who are willing to help the newbies.
That said, Snowdonia is not the most complex worker placement game I’ve ever played. I would say that it’s a solid middle weight Euro. It’s certainly more complex than Stone Age (typically recommended as “beginner” worker placement) but not as complex as something like Keyflower or anything out of Uwe Rosenberg’s stable of big games. It’s perfect for those looking to move up on the scale without blowing their brains to pieces. Older kids who play games regularly could handle it, making it appropriate for gamer families.
Action space cards and player aids.
If any luck at all bothers you, you’re not going to like the way the weather and events happen. The weather is generated randomly, but you have two rounds to prepare for whatever is coming up and adjust your plans accordingly. Events are drawn randomly from the bag with the other cubes so you have no control over when they come out. However, I find both of these to be thematic additions. In a harsh outdoor environment, stuff happens. You can’t control the weather and you can’t control everything that happens. This makes sense in the context of the game.
These elements also serve to level the playing field a bit. Since no one has complete control over everything, players can recover from mistakes in other areas of the game. If an opponent gets hit by a bad event or fails to adjust to the changing weather, you can gain ground. While much of whether you win or lose is due to skilled play, these two little elements add some suspense and surprise. That adds to the fun for me.
One other lovely thing about Snowdonia: It’s almost like getting three games in one. There is the standard game, where you build the railroad up the mountain. There’s also an included variant/semi-expansion that allows players to begin either at the top or bottom of the mountain and then build to meet in the middle. Finally, there is a solo variant. That’s a lot of bang in the box.
Aside from the variants, the game is re-playable in all its forms. The weather, contract cards, and events come out differently each game. You can experiment with all of the different trains you can buy. The board sets up a little differently each time. It will take quite a while before you’ve seen everything Snowdonia has to offer.
As you can guess, I really enjoyed Snowdonia. It hits the sweet spot for me of being challenging, but not so challenging that I feel like I need a week’s rest before I can play again. It has just enough luck to keep things interesting without totally determining the outcome. At just around an hour with two, it’s one we can play on weeknights. And I enjoy the theme. The potential negatives of this game are mostly related to personal taste in games, art, and theme. If you like worker placement, Euros, trains, and middle-weight games, I would say definitely give it a try. No game is for everyone, but if you meet the above criteria, I don’t think you can go wrong with Snowdonia.
iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Indie Boards and Cards for giving us a copy of Snowdonia to review.