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Subject: Santa Fe Rails rss

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Neil Whyman
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Basics
This is a game for 2 to 5 players by Alan Moon, and published by GMT. The theme is that of the race to connect the United States West coast to the East by railroad in the nineteenth century.

What you get in the Box
The board is mounted and of excellent quality. Graphically it is very pleasing on the eye. It shows the USA from roughly Chicago westward. The major cities are marked, as are all permissible potential railroad routes. Several of the cities are marked to show the start points of the various railroads in the game. Each city (other than Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas and New Orleans where the five major railroads start) has a value from 2 to 7, with those easiest to reach being the lower valued, with the values steadily rising across the plains and into the Rockies, until the West Coast is reached where everything is at value 7. Scattered among these are a few cities that are marked as being historically connected to particular major railroads. There are rivers and mountains marked for use with the terrain-cost variant.

There are nine sets of track pieces, made of wood, and color-coded to a specific railroad company. These are very robust and are beyond reproach in any way. The nine railroad companies are split into two types: The major railroad companies are: Southern Pacific (30 white tracks), Union Pacific (24 red tracks), Santa Fe (32 blue tracks), Great Northern (25 green tracks), Kansas Pacific (17 yellow tracks). The “short line” railroads are Western Pacific (7 brown tracks), Texas Pacific (8 black tracks), Rock Island (11 orange tracks), Denver & Rio Grande Western (6 purple tracks).

There are three types of coins valued at 1, 5 and 10 points. These are durable if light-weight plastic. Each type is a different color and size to the others so they are wonderfully easy to tell apart.

There is a pack of city cards. Each city of value 2 and 3 has one card; all the other cities have two cards.
There are four “short line” cards. These represent other railroads of the era, but in game terms they are more limited in the total amount of track they can lay. The set-up ensures that they will not enter play until the mid-game
There are 15 “branch line” cards (3 for each of the five major railroads). These are used to create extra railheads. They cost one point each; GMT missed an opportunity to include the price on the cards though.
There are 3 “Boomtown” cards with associated black plastic markers (five each of value 4 and 5).
There are some special power cards: four “2X” cards, one “3X” card, one “4-in-1” card. Irritatingly, the special powers are not recorded on these cards, and the “4-in-1” incorrectly states that it costs a point to buy it.
Six blank cards. All the cards mentioned above are of good quality, and since most of the cards will be flat on the table for much of the game, with no more than four in hand at any one time, they will last well. All the cards have the same backs.

There is also a little wooden train of the same kind that comes in TransAmerica. This is for indicating who has first turn in the round.
And finally a rule booklet. This is brief and to the point without being too short. It is black & white on plain paper with a few graphics thrown in. Unspectacular but sufficient.

Mechanics
These are kept delightfully simple: refill hand to 4 cards (sequential), play a card (simultaneous), lay a piece of track (sequential), lay another piece of track (sequential), pass the train.

In the first turn, and probably in many of the other turns, you will be playing a “city” card. These you accumulate in front of you, and they form the basis of your end of game scoring. Basically the more connections they have the more valuable they are. The Special Powers cards will impact the track-laying part of the turn. Playing a 2X card allows you to play two tracks per track-laying segment instead of one. Playing the “3X” card allows three per. And the “4-in-1” card means you can lay four tracks in one of the segments and none in the other. But there are other consequences of these cards that have an important effect. Both types of connection bonus are doubled with the 2X card, whereas they are both zero for the player of the 3X card, and normal for a 4-in-1 player. This makes card play exquisitely agonizing at times. One more benefit of the 2X card is that you can ditch your entire hand if it really stinks. The Boomtown cards bump up the value of any two cities valued at 2 or 3 points by 2 points each. A Boomtown card enables you to progress your score without helping someone else or revealing your future intentions. The board defines where track can be played. Additionally, new track can only be laid at a rail head. At the start of the game each major railroad has only one railhead, so the only options immediately available are those of choosing a direction for the track from one of the four start points (two of the major railroads both start at Chicago). But after the first turn the players can acquire branch line cards. There are three for each major railroad, so there could ultimately be up to four railheads per major railroad, though this is unlikely. The “Short Lines” can be branched at will, without a branch line card. Playing a branch line card still permits you to play either a city card or a 2X card.

Theme/Mechanics interface
I found this to be a good fit. Railroads are built up relatively slowly, but it was noticeable that the building rate of those with railheads furthest west was accelerated. To me this seems to well represent the anticipation of a more lucrative return on investment that might be expected from connections to the Pacific Coast than would be expected from being yet another railroad connecting to a city in the Great Plains. The loss of bonuses with the 3X card I could rationalize as being due to concentrating too much on building the track and not enough on such things as stations, maintenance depots, railroad hotels etc.

How Do You Win
There are three ways to accumulate points (the game calls them dollars, but they plainly aren’t). Firstly: when a city is connected to its first railroad 2 points are awarded. Secondly: a few cities will reward their first connection to a specific railroad with a 4 point bonus – this can be combined with the first method, so if the first railroad into a city is also one that is specifically rewarded then the player making the connection gets 6 points. Third: At the conclusion of play each player receives a number of points equal to the city value multiplied by the number of different railroads connected to that city, for each city card already played.

Decisions that the Players Face
The greatest dilemmas faced by the players derive from the card limit. You can only hold four cards, and you must play one of them each turn. It is at the end of the turn, when you must decide what card(s) to pick up, that the greatest feeling of pressure is apparent. Picking city cards is blind, you will not know what you are picking up, so perhaps drawing a city card might leave you with four cities, all of which are as yet unconnected. Revealing a city that is unconnected leaves you open to counter-measures. It also makes everyone else aware that you will be putting your efforts into building track in that direction, so the other players can predict where track will be laid, and wait until you have laid it before revealing cities of their own that benefit from your efforts (shades of TransAmerica here). Branch lines can have a big impact. If a railhead gets turned away from where you want it to go you might be forced into buying a branch line to reach your city. Alternatively others might buy branch lines so as to consume the track, leaving you with insufficient track to reach that “7” city on the Pacific. One also has to consider the benefits of stymieing this tactic by buying a branch line one’s self and then not using it. Or perhaps it will be worth while to take the 3x or the 4-in-1 cards just so that you don’t have to reveal any of your intended destinations next turn – even at the cost of losing connection bonuses. Particularly in the first half of the game, while there are still plenty of unconnected cities the temptation is there to concentrate on earning points now by playing a 2x card, rather than concentrating on the final points tally by playing city cards. With just four cards in hand there is a good degree of pain associated with holding a 2x card just to keep it out of circulation too. Boomtown cards have their place too. The nice thing about Boomtowns is that you can be absolutely sure that the only player to benefit from it is YOU! Almost every other action you can take carries with it the risk that you are inadvertently helping someone else. There are moments when a boomtown card is a great play, but many others when it is counter-productive, so choose wisely.

Impressions
My feeling is that the big west coast 7-point cities weigh disproportionately in the final scoring. It seems to me that the boomtown cards are there to counter-balance this, but appear to do so incompletely. Though perhaps the optional terrain rule would slow down the race for the west and thus tend to reduce the number of railroads in each of the 7-point cities - I haven’t tried it yet so can’t say. I was a little perturbed by the brown short line (Western Pacific); this had the stench of free points to the local 7-point cities. I call it “free” points because there is practically no skill or sacrifice needed to get the extra points. However, once aware of the potential effect of the Western Pacific it is possible to adjust strategy to allow for it.

This is a delightful game, and I know I shall play it over and over. It will appeal to a wide age range too due to the relatively simple mechanics meshing so well with difficult decision-making.

Addendum: Using the Terrain Rule
The Terrain Rule forces players to pay for mountains and for crossing big rivers. Using it seems to fix any lingering doubts about the race for the west. I recommend always using the Terrain Rule.
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Jon W
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Nice review! Inspired me to drag this out again, and I found it's aging well.

nwhyman wrote:
GMT missed an opportunity to include the price on the [branch line] cards though.

Not to mention not including the options available with the 2x, 3x, and 4-in-1 cards. You get used to it (it's not that hard to memorize the options), but it's such an obvious oversight, and makes the first (or intermittent) play a bit fussy. It (among other things, such as the cost misprint on the 4-in-1) makes me wonder if the changes from Santa Fe were tacked on right at the end of the production cycle.

Quote:
There are moments when a boomtown card is a great play

I've so far found I never want to play a boomtown. They're an out if you truly have nothing better to do and someone has already seized a more useful card. But usually a blind city draw is better. The one-way arrows out east and the low boomtown boost seem at odds with each other, almost as if the boomtowns were an early change to help people who got "stuck" with eastern cities, and the one-way arrows came later to force the action westward, but once they were added the designer/developer didn't revisit/re-cost the boomtowns. Wild speculation, sure, but they don't feel right.

Quote:
My feeling is that the big west coast 7-point cities weigh disproportionately in the final scoring.

I think they're somewhat self-balancing, and almost always a risk (with the exception of the "freebie" short line windfall that you note). The people who've made early gains with 2x (and maybe 4x) plays will be taking 3x to exhaust lines in inefficient loops and backtracks to drive to the endgame. If the big bonuses are in play, they'll likely be spread across several players, as it's easier to play defense than offense.

Thanks again for the review. I definitely agree it's a good game, one that in my opinion has been unfairly overshadowed by Ticket to Ride. There are a couple of rough edges with SFR, but overall it's my favorite Moon train game.
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Guy Riessen
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Jon Waddington wrote:
it's a good game, one that in my opinion has been unfairly overshadowed by Ticket to Ride. There are a couple of rough edges with SFR, but overall it's my favorite Moon train game.


After just 2 plays of this great game, I would say that SFR is "a gamer's" version of TTR. You can see some of the concepts in SFR which later evolved into TTR, but TTR is defintely much much lighter, with a smaller decision tree both in offensive as well as defensive play.

I'm looking forward to lots of future plays of this!
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Dave VanderArk
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waddball wrote:

I've so far found I never want to play a boomtown. They're an out if you truly have nothing better to do and someone has already seized a more useful card. But usually a blind city draw is better.


Just played this last night. I won the game by 4 points. A big swing in scoring was the boomtown card I played doubling Wichita to be worth 20 points on the second to last turn. Without the boomtown card I probably would have lost the game.
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