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A Derk appears from the mists...
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When you hear that Reiner Knizia is coming out with a new game, it’s kind of hard to justify a whole bunch of excitement. Well, it is for me anyway. I mean, the guy’s gotta average a new game every month, right? Oi. But the advanced word on this game was that it was amazing. Again, I’m doubtful. Then I see it in the store, so I buy it. Then I played it. In a word: phenomenal. I mean, this game is threatening to supplant Euphrat & Tigris as my overall favorite game, which is no mean feat.

First of all, the game’s about trains. I love train games. Well, I love train games that are well-designed. Granted, there’s the whole, “This is a Reiner game, why are you bringing up theme?” aspect of the Reiner’s impressive resume of games. But like Euphrat, there’s just enough theme to mechanic connection that it make sense to me.

Not to mention the graphical execution. I’m simply flabbergasted that I was able to purchase the game for about $35, because the game approaches Euphrat for presentation too. There’s a bunch of cards for shares, a fleet of chips for commodities, and neat little wooden bits to represent the trains and player station markers. Everything is all bright and shiny and clear. The only complaint that I’ve heard is regarding the various shades of the commodity chips, as they’re all light colors and it can be a little difficult to discern which color belongs to which city in less than perfect lighting situations. But then again, if you had to come up with thirteen different colors for the cities and still have primary colors left over to indicate the companies, you’d be darn proud to have produced this game. But enough about the bits, how does the game play?

The game pictures seven different rail companies all vying for control of 1800’s England. For the most part, the rail companies start at the corners of the board and work their way toward the center. Along the way, they will encounter rail towns, cities, and other rail companies. Each new encounter will probably trigger a monetary reward for someone; the question is what needs to be accomplished to become the payee.

When a player decides to extend a rail company, he immediately takes a single share of that company and then moves the little train figure of the right color. After the initial movement for each company, the little wooden trains for each company can only extend to the three hexagons in ‘front’ of the train. This makes the movement for each train somewhat restricted, without being unduly so. However whenever rail is added to the board, anyone at the table can call a veto round. Starting with the active player’s left, this is a once around auction determines who will bid the most shares of that company’s stock to choose another location for the moving train (with the same moving limitations). This can be a fairly large part of this game, as being able to control exactly where all the trains on the board are going allows you to make your choices in advance. Additionally, the veto action allows the players with very few shares to ‘suck’ shares from the hand’s of larger shareholders.

Stock is sort of valuable in this game, because it will allow you to score fairly well when the company gets merged. In addition, you can then trade in your shares 2-for-1 for the other line’s stock. So while having majorities in a type of stock is a good thing, it’s almost secondary to the stations. Stations are little wooden ‘houses’ in each of the players’ colors. Having more stations than any other player attached to a rail company will give you a pay-out similar to the one awarded the majority stockholder when the rail first touches a rail town. This is perhaps the best money-making aspect of the game. A majority of stock only pays out once because the rail disappears. The station approach pays out more times during a game, but takes a little longer to achieve dominance than you necessarily want. A new station can only placed one hex away from anything wooden on the board (which includes trains and any other stations), which means you cannot attach a station on the same turn you place it on the board. You could, during someone else’s movement of that rail company, do a successful veto and chose to make the rail line ‘run over’ the station to connect it, or you could simply do it yourself during you next turn. Often times players will trade shares, in veto form, to get controlling interest in a rail company’s stations.

The only other part of the game is the commodities. When it’s a player’s turn, he gets two actions. These can be any of the above: place a station, extend a rail line, or take a commodity chip. Each city on the board has three commodity chips, which are of different types. When a new rail company connects to that city, the player with most commodity chips from that city gets a smallish pay out. Plus at the end of the game, the player who collects the most of a particular type gets a decent amount. These things aren’t the high dollar returns that stock and especially stations are, but they’re often over looked. I’ve played games where the nickel-and-dime approach of getting majorities of commodities in cities works well; that is, assuming you don’t spend every turn doing that.

Eventually as the rail companies become inactive because they’ve been merged, either one of two things will happen to end the game. All the rail tiles will be used up, or all companies except one is merged (out of the game) or isolated, which means it can neither get to new cities nor move into a merger with another company. It’s difficult to say which will occur to end the game, until the strategies of the players’ becomes apparent. I think that that’s one of the things that really appeals to me (and this aspect is also found in E&T) that is each game can fall out much different than the last. Other than the first moves, which are pretty much the same from game to game. It’s just one of the elements of using a set map, but some of the lines shouldn’t be extended without doing certain actions prior. But this is very minor.

Now for the bad side. There’s little that’s bad about this game, from a gamer standpoint. But I doubt it’ll be very appealing to the fans of lighter faire. The strategies aren’t very intuitive, and the movement of the rail is a bit abstract at times, when placement of stations can in key locations can be massive. But if you liked E&T, you’ll love this game. I’ve heard rumors that the scoring is a bit arcane in this game, but I wouldn’t agree totally. The scoring is very easy to figure out: number of cities times a thousand for first, half that for second. But when that happens, and whether you’re comparing stocks or stations is key. I highly recommend this game for any group of three to four gamers willing to wrap his brain around a very interesting tile placement game.
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