This is the most Winsome non-Winsome game I've played.
Simple ruleset. Short playing time. But loads of emergent complexity due to emergent alliances (including strong opposing alliances - you can build a company you don't own into spaces that reduce that companies score/profitability unlike Wabash Cannonball / Chicago Express where you must be a shareholder to build - this leads to a new bit of fun as the constructive and destructive alliances try and battle it out for supremacy). Plenty of room to pull the puppet strings and watch the players dance through a series of incentivised and sometimes forced moves. This had elements that reminded me of both SNCF / Paris Connection and Preußische Ostbahn / German Railways.
The game is played over 6 rounds. At the start of the game you seed a bag with an equal number of pieces for each company. At the start of each of the 6 rounds you pull out a number of pieces equal to one more than twice the number of players (e.g. 9 pieces for 4 players). These pieces are laid out in the order they were drawn. Players get two actions each turn, exactly one must be an investment action and the other must be a track building action. Players may execute these in either order. The starting player for turn 1 is determined randomly and then player order is set clockwise based on this starting player in the Catan / snake fashion (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1). When it is your turn to take an action, you take one of your two player markers from the turn order track and use it to replace a company piece. The location of this company piece determines turn order for next round (e.g. if you picked the piece that was drawn from the bag second this turn, you will get the second action next turn [or the first action if the surplus disc that no one selects by the end of the round is in front of you]). To invest, take the company piece and place it on 0 on your personal score board (regardless of previous company performance). To build track take the company piece and place it on the board. Each hex has a number of white pips that increase the score [revenue/profitability thematically] or red pips that decrease the score for each currently owned share of this colour across all players. Play continues until players have acted twice. One company piece remains. This piece will be moved down into the taxed area which impacts scoring (non-taxed companies will only score points if they are negative, taxed companies will only score points if they are positive). Play order for the next round is determined by the new relative position of all players action pawns. That's all there is to it.
It has a lot of the same tensions that SNCF / Paris Connection has in regards to investment vs. development/building. This is thanks to a similar action system (build or invest) from a common pool of limited pieces for each company. The more heavily you invest in a company, the worse off its final revenue/score/profit as it can now build into less destination thanks to its fewer track pieces. The random allotment of pieces available on each turn and the taxation mechanic in Mini Rails ratchets this tension up even higher than in SNCF. Every round you lay out one more company piece than player actions (2 times the number of players) so that one piece is always leftover. The leftover piece gets assigned to taxation. Any company that has not been taxed at the end of the game loses any of its profitable shares and is stuck with its negative shares. Any company that has been taxed can keep its positive shares and wipe out its negative shares. Push a company too hard for your own gain and other players can not only build your company into expensive score reducing areas, but they can also ensure it never gets taxed and wipes out any positive score you push it into. But spread investments in that company between multiple players and push it at a more conservative pace and there will not be enough player actions left to sabotage it effectively.
I found the random company pieces that were available each turn, very compelling. For reference I find the randomness in Preußische Ostbahn / German Railways punishing and this hampers my enjoyment greatly(I know it creates interesting opportunities to align with players lower in score order so they can use their greater number of probable actions to build your jointly owned companies, however I've seen too many games get hosed by low probability but still possible fluke draws for turn order). The reason I find Mini Rails more palatable is twofold, 1) all draws are guaranteed to even out by the end of the game. Every piece gets drawn by the end of the game so a shortage in yellow in early turns means a surplus in later turns (PO has no such mechanism, the player leading in score with only 1 action marker in the bag could have his marker pulled first from the bag every single round). Coupled with the second point 2) scores are only tabulated at the very end of the game, there are no intermediary dividends or scorings throughout the game. Early chance does not lead to rich get richer scenarios. It is still possible to be disadvantaged by the luck of the draw but the circumstances in which this might arise is much less frequent and can still be tempered by player choice.
Things can go a little bit poorly for you on account of the randomness if the discs you need are placed in a way that would give you unfavourable turn order by selecting them. Granted there aren't any objectively bad places in turn order. Going early in turn order improves your choice of company colours in the next round either for building or investing. While going later in turn order gives you a strong reactionary position where you can potentially hurt other player's investments and where you also have much greater control over what company does or does not get taxed this round. You can also try and pull the puppet strings to incentivise other players to take a company disc in a position with a turn order modifier that does not match your current strategy.
A situation where the randomness could have a stronger impact on player position is where the delayed entry of a colour leads to a company being blocked in. I think this is still going to be an uncommon situation and one that would only have a moderate impact. One dud investment out of 6. You are going to have a few dud investments regardless thanks to those nasty other players. You now know you can focus your actions on other parts of your portfolio or on damaging other players' investments. This company is also super likely to get taxed because there are no compelling actions available for it, which means a negative score would be wiped to 0. Additionally, you still have some control over this as you can protect an earlier investment by using up the discs of a nearby company that could block you off in other ways (either use them to build away from your initial company, or use them to invest in this competing company). Alternatively a glut of pieces in any single round (early or late) could be damaging to overall performance as it reduces the choices for other plays in that turn. This leads to either a greater investment in this colour which leads to a balancing of portfolios and lower overall performance or it leads to some sabotage builds performed by other players without enough compelling moves of their own. Again, there are upsides to this situation. The company is likely to be taxed this turn and you can now spend your actions pursuing other goals.
For the above reasons, I found the randomness of the available company pieces unburdensome. At no stage do I ever feel like the game is complete chaos or chance. There were always meaningful levers for me to pull and interesting decisions and trade-offs. Additionally, I found that the randomness actually created a very interesting and compelling decision space in the context of this design. Round by round the differing company pieces available offered a great variance of decisions that I predict will contribute greatly to keeping this game fresh. For our group SNCF fell into some stale patterns. Player 1 would invest in a company and player 2 would follow suit and leech off of this investment. Players 3 and 4 would then team up and either sabotage this investment with blocking moves or by using up this companies track pieces with non-profitable builds. Or players 3 and 4 would start investing in a second competing company. Play would continue until the opportunities with these companies petered out and then players would then jump on to a new pair of companies and repeat this pattern. The randomness in Mini Rails creates fresh tactical decisions every turn. Some rounds will be all about helping your own companies, others will be about hurting other companies, and others still will be foundational moves for future rounds. Despite this emphasis on tactics I still found the game had an interesting and fulfilling strategic arc. You have to respond tactically based on the available pieces every round, but these tactics need to feed into an overall strategy to build you towards a win. What opportunities does this round offer me? How does this align with my existing portfolio? Are there companies I need to shore up / defend? Do I need to diversify my portfolio? How many pieces of the key companies are left in the bag? How might they now come out? All the while being constantly mindful of how aligned portfolios might impact the incentives of others at the table to help you or make massive gains without you.
The modular board also provides some interesting setup randomness and variance that creates asymmetric company valuations. Some companies might be next to no valuable terrain, other companies might offer terrain prominent in safe but steady growth, while others still might offer high risk but high reward paths. Additionally, in terms of mechanics, I prefer the randomly available company pieces every round to the random starting portfolio of Paris Connection. They both generate an interesting kind of cat and mouse style of play. Is it possible I'm helping someone more than I'm helping myself? To me the known portfolios but unknown future opportunities of Mini Rails proved more interesting than some very light deduction about the hidden initial portfolios of SNCF.
I'm also a big fan of the scoring mechanism. The game is super light weight rules wise with no money or dividends. The cost to invest in a share has no money portion. It's purely the opportunity cost of investing in this colour as an action instead of another colour. When you invest in a company you put that share on the 0 space of your personal score track. It doesn't matter how profitable (or not) that company was before your investment. Its score starts on 0 for you (it may be on +3, or -2, or any other valid value for other players). Your score is only impacted by the impacts of builds made after your investment. This creates some really interesting tempo decisions. Especially combined with the different surrounding terrains for each company. Some companies you want to get in early. Some you want to cover up a few negative income spots before you invest in them. The two actions a turn that each player must take with exactly one being an investment and exactly one being a track build also keeps the tempo humming along and forces some really tough choices. Every time you take an invest action you have to re-evaluate the potential gains and losses facing this company from its present conditions.
I highly recommend this game, I'm super happy with my purchase and very keen on getting this to the table a bunch more times.
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- Lieven De Puysseleir(lievendp)Belgium
Leuvenwe don't lie, we use statistics
can't wait to get my copy ... still blocked at pesky customs though. Annoying...
Thanks for writing a review, though a tad difficult to read for me due to the blockiness of your text.
However, I particulary enjoyed your thoughts on the different aspects of the game (scoring, randomness) All this bodes well for future plays of this game.
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- calvin chowUnited States
- You made me preorder...
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- Martin GUnited Kingdom
BristolDon't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
- Superb review. I like the sound of this.
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