Knowing this was a limited edition from newcomer Jens Kappe and his Wassertal Spieleverlag company, I took a chance and pre-ordered a copy, securing it at the Spiele Faire in Essen. The game appeared to be interesting, but the rules were somewhat confusing. Coupled with this confusion was the fact that dozens of other newly acquired games were competing for table time. Finally, the fact that the game was limited to four players caused it to languish for 2-months before it finally hit the table.
As its name implies, Railroad Dice is a game about building railroads using dice. The abundance of dice each depict both straight and curved sections of track, as well as a stock certificate and a “?”, which serves as a “wild card”. Players build track, purchase stock shares, build stations and transport passengers, all in an attempt to gather wealth and become a wealthy tycoon.
First, let me state that I am not a railroad game fanatic. Railroad games do not send shivers of excitement coursing through my bodies. I don’t go ga-ga over the thought of constructing track across the vast plains of America or the rugged mountains of central Europe. I’ve never played an 18xx game. The closest I’ve probably come is Age of Steam, which even the designer claims is NOT in the 18xx classification of games.
That being said, I’m also not opposed to playing railroad games. The only reason I haven’t played an 18xx game is that I’ve never really had the opportunity. I don’t own any games in the series and the length of time required to play one has prevented me from seeking one out during the conventions I attend. Perhaps I’ll play one someday, but it just isn’t a top priority.
Thus, Railroad Dice didn’t hold an irresistible fascination for me, but it also didn’t evoke feelings of aversion. The game seemed interesting, so I bought it. After downloading and studying the revised rules, I began to understand the rules and mechanics, so felt reasonably comfortable bringing it to the table.
The game is filled with clever concepts and original mechanisms. The board, as it is, develops as the game progresses, and actually has two views. The first consists of large, 4” x 4” tiles, with an 8x8 grid and various terrain superimposed upon them. Mirroring these large tiles is a set of smaller tiles, which depict the same terrain but not the grid. The track (dice) and stations will be constructed on the larger tiles, while the smaller tiles will be pieced together to form a map of the overall landscape as the tracks spread.
The dice are the central mechanism of the game, and their location – whether in front of or behind the player’s screen – is important, as is the symbol depicted on its face. Here is how dice can be used:
1) In FRONT of screen:
a) Build track - if showing a straight or curve section of track or a “?”.
b) Purchase a stock share – if showing a share symbol or “?”.
c) Build a station – if showing a “?”.
d) Pay auxiliary track-building costs – if showing a “?”.
e) Rolled – if showing a “?”.
2) BEHIND screen:
a) Build a station.
b) Pay auxiliary track-building costs.
c) Rolled and then placed in FRONT of screen.
All dice located BEHIND a player’s screen are assumed to depict a “?”, so can be used to perform any of the “Behind Screen” actions, regardless of what is actually on their face at the time.
How to use the dice is during the course of a turn is the major decision players face. I should say “decisions”, as there are numerous options available. Since dice can be rolled and used in various sequences according to the player’s desires, the options seem almost limitless. This also allows for some very clever uses and a game which likely will play very differently each time. I can only speculate on this latter theory as I’ve only played it once … so far.
So just what can a player do on his turn? Let’s see …
1) Take Income. This can only be performed once by a player per turn. The number received is based on the number of stations on the board in whose companies the player holds director status. The minimum is four dice, which are placed behind his screen. An exception is if the player lost a directorship in the previous round, in which case he receives four dice, but they are placed in FRONT of his screen. So, while losing a directorship of a company isn’t pleasant, there is some compensation, as dice in front of the screen generally give the player more options. This is a nice balancing feature.
2) Roll Dice. Again, this action can be performed only once per turn by a player. The player may roll as many dice he desires from behind his screen and/or dice depicting a “?” from in front of his screen. An incentive to roll those “?” from in front of your screen is given: for each “?” rolled, the player receives a bonus die from the supply. This is the main way in which to acquire new dice. However, the danger is that the player will likely be sacrificing those valuable “?” and likely obtaining results that will not be as flexible. It is an interesting trade-off that poses a tough choice on the player. Sweet.
3) Buy Shares. There are five railroad companies in the game, each offering ten shares to investors. Initially, shares are purchased from the companies, but eventually will be purchased from the directors of the companies once the shares of four of the five companies are all in players’ possession. Shares are purchased using dice from in FRONT of a player’s screen. These dice must either depict a share symbol or a “?”.
When a player owns the most shares in a company, he will be named director of that company at the end of the turn. Only the director can build stations for that company and collect income for the delivery of passengers. Thus, the heart of the game is competing to become the director of one or more companies and delivering passengers between its stations.
4) Build Track. Players lay track onto the large tiles. Track is constructed from dice located in FRONT of a player’s screen, and can either depict straight or curved sections, or a “?”. Logical track building rules must be followed, with the track extending from both ends and no branches allowed. If a player builds into a mountain, an additional die depicting a “?” must be paid, while building across a lake requires an addition 2 dice.
If a player builds to the edge of a large tile, he MUST build track onto a new tile. The player has the advantage of choosing the new tile AND receiving 2 dice from supply, which are placed in FRONT of his screen, depicting a “?”. In order to progress to a new tile, however, at least five sections of track must have been constructed on the existing tile.
When a new tile is placed, the old tile is removed and any stations are transferred to the corresponding small tile in the map. Thus, there will only be, at most, two large tiles on the table at any one time.
5) Build Stations. As mentioned, in order to build a station, a player must be the Director in that company. Each company has from 8 – 10 stations available for construction, ranging in price from 3 – 5 dice. Naturally, the inexpensive stations tend to be constructed first, making later stations more expensive … and difficult … to construct. The cost must be paid with dice from BEHIND a player’s screen. Further, stations have specific terrain restrictions in terms of where they may be constructed. These are clearly depicted on the company mats. These restrictions cause further challenges and make it important for a player to be able to add terrain tiles himself, as opposed to allowing an opponent to do so. Otherwise, a tile could be laid that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to construct a station and continue a connected line of stations.
The ultimate idea is to construct stations that form a connected line; i.e., stations that are located along a series of adjacent tiles. At the end of a turn, the director of a company earns income (known as “transports passengers” in game parlance) based on the number of that company’s connected stations. Thus, the greater the number of connected stations, the more income a player receives. The incentive, therefore, is to grab control of the director position in companies that already have a large network of connected stations, or construct those stations yourself and maintain control of the directorship for as long as possible.
Maintaining control of a directorship is NOT an easy task, however. As mentioned, once all of the shares of at least four of the companies have been purchased, players are free to purchase shares directly from the director of a company. The director cannot refuse these purchases, and the consequence is that directorships often change hands with great frequency, particularly in the latter stages of the game. However, this change of status doesn’t actually occur until after income is collected for the transportation of passengers, so the controlling player will reap the benefits for at least the remainder of that turn. Further, he will be compensated, as he receives the dice paid to purchase the shares from him and gets to place any dice taken as income during the following turn in FRONT of his screen. This is a very effective compensatory mechanism that works well.
A player may perform the above actions in any order he desires and, with the exception of (a) and (b), as often as he desires. The possibilities and options are numerous, and the decisions to be made as to which actions to take and how to utilize the dice are challenging and often agonizing. Dice used for performing one action may not be available for use in performing a different action. It is the clever combination of the above actions, along with a little luck in the rolling, that can often result in creative maneuvers and strategic opportunities.
After each player has performed all of the actions they desire or can, an “End of Year” phase is held. First, passengers are transported, with income being distributed to the directors as described above. Then, stock holdings are assessed and the directorships of each company are maintained or reassigned. Finally, the start player rotates and the sequence is completed. The game ultimately ends when one of the following conditions is met:
1) If the last station of a company is built.
2) If all small terrain tiles are used or none can be legally placed.
3) If the railroad line “dead-ends” on both ends.
4) If the bank is unable to meet the demand for dice.
All of these are feasible endings, and we came close to achieving three of the four during our game. Players can actively force the train line into a position wherein it cannot be continued, so the leader can certainly work towards achieving this before his lead evaporates. Likewise, the director of a company can actively attempt to construct all of the stations of that company, or cause the dice supply to be depleted. So, players do have some degree of control in forcing an end to the game. Very clever and an effective strategy.
After the game end is triggered, passengers are delivered one more time and income paid to the company directors. Players then tally their income and the player who has successfully delivered the most passengers is victorious.
Few games have left me as intrigued and with as much enthusiasm after just one playing. There is SO much going on here and so much to think about. Decisions abound, and there appears to be a wide variety of strategies players can pursue. At first, it all seems a bit much and it is difficult to get a grasp on the rules and how the various mechanisms mingle to form a cohesive whole. However, about midway through the game, the fog lifted and the various possibilities and opportunities became clearer. I feel it will likely take several games at least to get a firm grip on how best to utilize your dice and optimize the various actions. That’s the mark of a good game. I’m not sure my enthusiasm for Railroad Dice will remain high after repeated playings, but I’m sure anxious to find out.
Michael was the first to successfully connect several stations and enjoyed an early lead. However, as the game progressed, Keith and I managed to keep pace, each controlling a company. Steve lagged behind, but made a late game surge that threatened to overtake all of us. Eventually, Michael lost the directorship of his two main companies and suffered a drought in passenger deliveries. This allowed us to close the gap and even overtake him. The game ended when the dice supply was depleted … not a turn too early in order to preserve my victory!
Finals: Greg 27, Steve 24, Michael 23, Keith 23
Ratings: Greg 9, Steve 9, Michael 8, Keith 8