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Subject: Surpringingly exciting mix of tactics and die race fun rss

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Simon Lundström
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Surpringingly exciting mix of tactics and die race fun
a review of Railway Rivals/Dampfross/Rail

Introduction
I am a poor man these days and simply can't allow myself to go buying a brand new game for the $50+ (the price of all games here). So instead I have found myself browsing in thrift stores or second hand shops for used toys - here in Sweden, board games aren't considered as anything else but toys for kids. I mean, I can't expect to find a good game there - but occasionally you can find an old gem hidden away. A lot of the old Ravensburger kids games that are amazingly playable for adults even now, were publshed in Sweden back in the 80s, so you never know.
And that's how I came by a copy of this game - Railway Rivals or Dampfross or whatever you feel like calling it.

Posting this review posed a problem - Where to post it? Not only are there 2 entries for Railway Rivals, there is also a separate entry for Dampfross; the only real difference seems to be what maps are included in the box*. And what do you know, although the game I picked up very obviously is the same game as all three of these entries, it doesn't fit into any of them - this edition has a map of southern Sweden on one of the sides. As this review is (or at least I hope it to be) of interest to people reading about this railway game by David Watts, regardless of what title is printed on the box or what specific maps are included, I decided that the only reasonable solution was to post on both entries (one of the Railway Rivals entries was for the prototype version, there seems to be no need to post there. Why there is a separate entry for a prototype version is completely beyond me, but that's not important now.)
*And to make it even funnier, Dampfross is considered to be part of the Crayon Railway series, whereas Railway Rivals is not!

Components
When I opened the box, I thought something was wrong. There is almost nothing in the box! It consists of laminated maps on hex-grids (what maps you get depends on what language version you buy, obviously, but it's not important for gameplay except for variety), two regular dice, 6 player pawns and 6 whiteboard markers in corresponding colours. And a rules sheet. I was suprised, I was expecting at least some game-breaking cards or something. But no, just maps, pawns, pens and dice. Very very simple.
The pens I had was in remarkable shape considering they were 25 years old, but one of them didn't work, and by some reason or another, the brown pen had a blue tip… but I guess it's just a question of buying extras.

Short game overview
This game is about first building a railway network on the map (for free, emulated by die rolls), and when that's done, do a couple of races across the maps, using your own network or paying rent for the other player's networks, gaining points if you reach the destination first or second, until one player reaches a set number of points or you've raced a set number of races. After each race, the players are also allowed to still enlarge their network by paying these points to build more and perhaps make it easier to win in future races.

Rules explanation
(If you can't bother, scroll down to "Verdict".)
The game starts with the building phase, where all players build their railroads (physically drawing with the pens on the game board) in succession until all cities are connected to at least 1 network.

Each player, in turn, rolls two dice and may then build railroad by as many points as the dice show eyes. For the very first build, players may only start out of the "starting cities" and after that, they may only build rails connected to their existing network.

Building from one hex to another costs only 1 building point, building from a land hex to a mountain hex costs 3 points, between two mountains costs 5 points, crossing a river costs 3 points, etcetera. Simply, some are more expensive than others.

The first time each city is connected to a network, the building player recieves 6 victory points. Each player starts with an account of 20 victory points.

If a player crosses, connects to, or builds parallell with another player's railway, the building player must in addition to the cost in bulding points (the die roll) pay a victory poitn fee to the other player.

There is a rules variant (much recommended) which says that instead of all players rolling the dice separately, the starting player rolls once, and then all players build by the same amount of eyes. After that, the next player rolls the dice, and all players build in turn, etcetera, rotating the starting player. This is obviously much fairer, as everyone will use the same amount of eyes.

Once all cities are connected to any network (or, as a rules variant says, 2 whole game turns after there is only 1 city left to connect) the building phase ends and the racing phase starts. The racing phase does feel more as the actual game, where the building phase is mostly setting up the basic grid and pissing territory.

The two dice are rolled twice, thus deciding starting city and destination city. Each player in turn checks what kind of route he/she has at her disposal and decides whether to participate in the race or not. Normally, players are forced (or tempted) to use parts of an opponent's network in order to reach the destination; in that case they have to pay 1 victory point to the opponent for each hex they have move on his/her track. The difference in payment may never be above 10 for any two players. For example, if Blue doesn't want to use any of Red's tracks, Red can only use (and pay) a maximum of 10 hexes of Blue's tracks, but if Blue wants to use 5 of Red's track, then Red can use a maximum of 15 hexes of Blue's tracks.

Once all players have decided whether to participate or not, and decided the route, and paid in advance any fees, the race itself is a simple roll-and-move: Roll the die and move that many spaces, along the route you're using. Player's can't change routes mid-race. The first to the destination gets 20 victory points, second gets 10 victory points, and the rest get nothing.

After each race, players may use any prizes and recieved fees to pay for further enlargement of their network, just like in the building phase, except now they pay with victory points directly and don't roll the dice to get "free" points to build with. Also, you can't use more than the spoils from the latest race when building.

Rince and repeat the racing phase until someone reaches 250 points, or 200 points or whatever you decide on, or a set number of races. There are several variants on how exactly to decide on the cities to race to and from, and players choose the version they feel is most fitting.

Verdict
I was pleasantly surprised by this game. Sure, my expectations weren't high, and I paid $4 for it, but still… I knew it had to be reasonably good, as it was a Spiel des Jahres winner in 1984. But I guess deep inside I didn't expect much. The game delivered all the fun, though.

At a first glance, I though the game would prove "only luck" with the roll-and-move races in the end, but not at all. First of all, there's a tactics phase while building, and all times I've played, the initial difference in victory points after connecting cities have easily been evened out when racing. Secondly, there's tactics when it comes to deciding whether or not to use up your victory points to build further. And thirdly and most importanly, these short die-rolling races are actually a helluva lot fun! Colour me weird, but we were all on fire rolling our dice to race to the finish city, and everyone was on their toes when the dice that would decide the next start and goal were rolled. The races were a lot about luck, but they didn't at all feel totally random or luck-based, but succeeded in just adding that nice spice of uncertainty.

Eventually, of course, there can be the snowball effect. The player who wins the race can use more points to further upgrade his/her network, which obviously enhances his/her chances to win the next race and so on, but there is always the luck factor that never makes you give up hope until the last minute. In the start of the racing phase, there is a lot of extra building, and once the points start setting off, it's pretty fast. I believe our sessions took a fairly long time on only 3 payers, but it was an exciting two hours, despite the games simplicity and the fact that we most of the time were sitting there hoping to roll 6s.

This is a game I'll come back to, for sure. Both tactics and die race fun. You won't win by outsmarting your opponents only, but the idea is nice, it's amazingly simple, forever variable (draw your own maps and get some pens!) and suprisingly exciting!
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Mik Svellov
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Good review, Simon!
I believe Derek Carver published a variant that improved the game slightly. If it isn't already here, I will seek it out and post it here, so you can get even enjoyment out of your 'new' game!
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Richard Morris
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Nice Review

FWIW: I have just spent considerable effort trying to 'tidy up' the Railway Rivals listings on here. The thing that you dismiss as 'a prototype version' is no such thing - that is the real game. David Watts was a real enthusiast who independently got the game up and running on a shoe string budget (making nothing from it). For 10 years or so, it was ONLY available as 'colouring instructions' or stand alone maps, yet became a mainstay of the PbM hobby, especially in the UK, where many hundreds of games were played in various zines. In the 70s and 80s it was probably the second most populat PbM game, behind Diplomacy.

The box games, despite the date give on the games listings, arrived much later. The first edition of Dampfross was in 1979, and there were only about 1000 copies of that made. There were then later versions by various other manufacturers. The boxed games called Railway Rivals did not appear until 1985.

It is still a great little game, though. It is nice to see that you have quickly picked up on some of the subtleties. We still play it fairly regularly, over 30 years after we first played, and I am still GMing games in forums. It may (has) been superseded by other rail networking games, but we owe a lot to it, and to David.
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stephen
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This is about one of the only games in my collection from this period that I still consider worth playing for the enjoyment, rather than nostalgia or some sense of history. Its a great game which is still very playable.

I think I paid a couple of pounds for my copy at a car boot sale and its money very well spent. Any geek who sees a copy of this should add it to their collection without fail.
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Simon Lundström
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AnnuverScotinExile wrote:
The thing that you dismiss as 'a prototype version' is no such thing - that is the real game.

At any rate, all three listings are still the same game. Which makes it hard to post a review that doesn't only concern specific maps or that the trains are plastic pawns or wooden cubes.
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Richard Morris
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Zimeon wrote:
AnnuverScotinExile wrote:
The thing that you dismiss as 'a prototype version' is no such thing - that is the real game.

At any rate, all three listings are still the same game. Which makes it hard to post a review that doesn't only concern specific maps or that the trains are plastic pawns or wooden cubes.


Indeed they are. But that is how the admins suggested it be set up. The base game, against which reviews, etc., should be written is really this one: Railway Rivals, but I can understand those that never saw the original form of the game thinking that the boxed games are 'original' in some way.

Certainly posting the same review against 3 games only leads to separate threads, all of which have interesting stuff, on some of which is cross referenced and requoted.
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Derek Carver
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Quote:
I believe Derek Carver published a variant that improved the game slightly.


No - mine wasn't a variant Mik. David's game was superb as it was and we played it regularly for many years prior to its publication in Germany as a fully boxed game (and later in the UK). I merely took David's system a stage further; it involved delivering freight. So, in that respects, it was a variant.as opposed to a change on the original.

- Derek
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Mik Svellov
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Then let us call it a 'House Rule'
In any case did it instill new life into a game I had stopped playing.
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Derek Carver
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Quote:
it instilled new life into a game I had stopped playing.


I know it is going off-topic a bit, but this thread has prompted a trip down memory lane. Even your comment, Mik, quoted above, shows that with so few games at our disposal we welcomed variants that gave them a new lease of life.

Now most of us are grateful when we manage to get a new game on the table at all. I was reminded of this when reading an announcement by a guy who was selling games in order to reduce his collection down from 2,500. But what struck me was the excellent games he was selling that were 'unplayed'. With so many to choose from he clearly hasn't even had the opportunity to discover how good they were.

Personally I now have more time for games playing than I did back in the early RAILWAY RIVALS days, but no game now gets played as much as that game did (with its various maps that I still have) - nowhere near it. And great fun it was, too.

- Derek
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Michael Pargman
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Are you aware that Railway Rivals is still one of the more popular pbm (play by mail) games around - and that David Watts is still active as a Game Master.

Playing RR by mail means that you leave the more repetetive work (like throwing the dice) to the Game Master. Instead you are left with building the track for 6 rounds and racing for another 6 rounds. It's great fun.

There are at least 10 active fanzines, and new maps are developed by a number of people.

Regards,
Michael
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Tom Burke
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Just to mention my family's affection for Railway Rivals. During the early/mid 80s when my daughters were young we went through a 'family board game' phase, during which we bought Railway Rivals, Talisman and (at the very end) the AH edition of Civilization. We played all of these with RR was probably the favourite. (My personal favourite was Civ, but that required lots of players and a whole day.) Then the girls grew out of board games and they languished in the cupboard for a number of years. (The games, not the daughters....)

But no more! In recent years playing a game of RR at Christmas has become something of a tradition - me, my wife, and both daughters, home for Christmas. We've just played this year's game - just three of us this year - and as ever it gave us an excellent afternoon's fun. An really good game that still satisfies as a game, and not just an exercise in nostalgia.
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Crazy Jay
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I remember playing and enjoying Railway Rivals at our regular games club a few times. It was always good fun. I never managed to get myself a copy - Perhaps I'll have to look one out at some point.
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Alan Saunders
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I got my copy out for the first time in probably 15 years the other day, and managed to play a six-player France map with family and friends on Easter Saturday. Everyone enjoyed it. I have a Rostherne version in a cardboard tube, purchased from Mr Watts' own hands at Manorcon back in the 1980s, although I discovered that I'd lost the pawns at some stage. I managed to find some replacements, though.

 
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