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Michael Coene
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Ellicott City
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HellRail is a little tile-placing game where you take on the role of an engineer in hell. Your job is to transport the damned from one circle of hell to another, earning points as you do. With a price tag of twenty bucks, I'm totally down.

That price tag does show, however. The materials are all pretty cheap stock, and the graphics (look at the 3-D computer graphics on the back of the box) are all very generic and boring. This is really too bad. With such a fun theme, one would expect a fun game to look at. And having a more colorful presentation may have distracted me from some of the game's other flaws.

Speaking of cheap materials, let's talk instruction manuals. The booklet is made out of printer paper. Like the stuff you have at work. It's all black and white, and almost the entire thing is written in PARAGRAPH form, with only a couple of diagrams here and there. Personally, I prefer quick sentences explaining things in the most condensed and simple manner possible, with a diagram showing exactly what you mean. The manual also fails in that it doesn't feel like it's taking you step-by-step through your turn. Rather, it feels like it's just telling you a bunch of stuff that might happen. My other issue is the wording. These wordy, lengthy paragraphs aren't wordy and lengthy because they had no other way to explain themselves, they're wordy and lengthy because it seriously needs a good editor. They take forever to explain something that is just "Re-shuffle the discard pile".

I don't want to get into the mechanics too heavily here, but let's just say that in a turn you can either lay a track, alter a track, move your train engine, pick-up passengers, or drop-off passengers. When you drop-off passengers, you earn points. The person with the most at the end is the winner.

To spice things up, there are effect tokens at each of the pick-up/drop-off points that do various things, for example they can give your train the ability to remove a passenger from another player by ramming him, or you can draw an extra effect token to use at any time. These things certainly help the game, but I feel like the effects don't affect the actual strategy of them game enough (with the exception of the Boatman, maybe).

The trick is that each card contains all of the information for every type of action you can make. This means you'll often be making sacrifices and tough choices. For example, you'll have to sacrifice a card for it's decent amount of spaces it enables you to move, even though you were close to the pick-up point on it, in order to use another card for it's brimstone, to get to a drop-off point on a card you all ready picked up. Things like this happen a lot, and in that respect, HellRail really succeeds as a hand management game. There's just the right amount of Analysis Paralysis here. Just enough to make you realize you've been thinking for a while, but not enough to make other players wonder what's taking so long.

Where the game doesn't succeed, however, is as a tile-placing game. When the other players are taking their turns, you don't really need to pay any attention to what they're doing. Tile-placement and even the effect tokens don't really affect you too severely, and what they're doing isn't going to be any more interesting than what you just did. They're headed for a drop-off point. Unfortunately, this makes or breaks (in this case breaks) the game. In Carcassonne, you pay attention to every tile that's placed because any tile could affect the outcome of the game. And Carcassonne has a lot more tiles. So it feels odd to say that HellRail needs to feel smaller, you need to feel like what you're doing is affecting the players around you more drastically, even though HellRail is a pretty small game. Without that tension and anticipation, you're just picking people up and dropping them off. Nobody likes to be a designated driver. (Note: I am not comparing Carcassonne to HellRail, since people on the Geek love to attack reviewers for "mis-comparing" games. I'm simply using Carcassonne as an example of a game that makes the other players pay attention to the tile-placement.)

What happens as a result of this is that you spend a bunch of time and thought figuring out the math of your strategy, and then do it. But rarely does your effort ever become thwarted by another player, and rarely will you hear a player go "Aw, man!" about what you just did. Little things happen here and there as a result of the effect tokens, but they never feel severe enough or beneficial enough to make me find a new strategy. I just had to get more cards and go somewhere else, if it came to it.

I'd comment on how it fares as a train game, but I really don't think HellRail counts. Calling HellRail a train game is like calling Tsuro a train game.

All that being said, I do like this game. I know it doesn't sound like it, but there are times when I want a game where I don't have to cling to every move that happens, I can just kind of do my thing and then space-out until I hear "Green, it's your turn". Sometimes I'm down for that, but only sometimes. And I do think there are better, and certainly shorter (in a good way), games out there to fill this hole. I think maybe I'd like to see a Fourth Perdition, with prettier presentation and effects tokens that maybe require a bit more strategy from the players.

Since in my reviews I try to find where a game fits on the whole scale of board game collections, I have to say that HellRail is pretty limited. Kids won't get it, older folks might be turned off by the theme, or otherwise be frustrated by the hand-management. I don't recommend it for new gamers because the lack of tension combined with the length will make them loose interest. Those of us who are used to dropping time on a game that is less than tense may be fine with having this around.

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