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Subject: F$%&ing Murmansk rss

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Geoff Dunbar
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The Doctor and I had the Borrower over last night for some fun and frivolity, meaning, of course, gaming. We gave the Borrower "Russian Rails" some months ago, I believe as a birthday present, but the Crayon Rails games are hard to bring to the table, and this was the virgin playing.

By "hard to bring to the table", I mean there are certain, limited sets of people and circumstances I find Crayon Rails tenable to play with. Four people is the most I would play with, and that only with experienced players on a board everyone was familiar with. Two or three works better, but only one newbie allowed. If you don't follow these simple rules, prepare yourself for a long evening of occasional interest interspersed with periods of intense, and oft-times boring, downtime. It's even worse than most games because the downtime is not predictable, either in duration or frequency; the game just grinds to a halt when someone gets a new delivery card or two, and has to re-jigger their strategy. At least in bridge when you're the dummy, you know that you can go watch TV or something for five or ten minutes.

But in any case, we had the lucky synergy of three players, all experienced Rails players, so the likelihood of a good game was high. The Doctor and I have played dozens of games, many two player, and the Borrower has played quite a bit as well. So, slipping back into Rails was like riding on a bicycle after a lengthy hiatus. Of course, in this case, given the new map and the array of cities which I've never heard of (I'm confident I could place Russia on a map, but Omsk or Tomsk?), it was like hopping on a bicycle, but the bike has three wheels, two of them hexagonal in shape, the seat is mounted between the handlebars and looks like something from a budget science fiction show (Doctor Who, say), and so forth. In addition the Russian Rails set promised the tantalizing "Fall of Communism" event; more on that later.

Now, one of the thrills of a new game of Rails is the exploration and probing of the various deliveries, locations, and strategies which seem somewhat familiar but also different. I'd liken it to a board-game Casanova making love to a new woman, but let's be realistic here, it's just a game. (Perhaps you have a different relationship with your games than I, but please keep that to yourself). But one of the frustrations of playing the same old Rails board over and over is that you figure out the strategies and it's just a matter of applying the few, known, good strategies given the luck of the Delivery Cards. The unconventional move is instantly recognized (often by the sharp-witted Doctor), yielding sarcastic remarks like, "Going to Sri Lanka, are you? I hear the view is beautiful... the view of me whipping you in the game, that is!", or, "Trying out Barnstaple, are you? Never seen anyone win a game after going to Barnstaple." (Or, "F$%&ing Barnstaple", as it is more often referred to in our, somewhat uncouth, household).

Don't let me mislead you; there is pleasure to be had in playing on the old familiar boards too. The challenge of putting your deliveries in order, and who can execute the strategies the best, is enjoyable. And, there is the length factor; we had the expectation of taking about twice as long as usual given the new map. Given that it took us about twenty minutes just to figure out our initial cards, that seemed realistic. Remember, the initial cards are the only time you have to look at nine separate deliveries, with no track on the board to guide you, with myriad (and mostly impossible) combinations to put together. Given that none of us knew where any of the cities were, let alone the somewhat-arbitrarily placed commodities on the board, a bit of analysis is to be expected.

From that point we moved along pretty smoothly. The Borrower got off to a slow start, eyeing enviously mine and the Doctor's piles of cash and speedy trains while he puttered around the board, but the Borrower did eventually get things rolling and into competition with the rest of us. I made two or three poor decisions, such as buying the bigger (three load) train, or building (and using extensively) the ferry across the Caspian Sea, or building track to Murmansk. The three load train is _never_ (except very rarely) worth the twenty million dollars (or ruples, or whatever). The ferries are never (except very rarely) worth the cost and delay, and the Caspian ferry seems to be no different, with a more useful route going around the north of the Caspian. And Murmansk is the Barnstaple ("F$%&ing Barnstaple, as you recall), where it just isn't worth the cost and distance of travel, even for the infrequent high payoff.

In fact, if you'll let me digress ("Again?", you say, to which I answer, "What's a little digression between friends?"), the whole Murmansk situation is one of the slight flaws of the Crayon Rails system. The deliveries are all costed based strictly on route distance to the nearest source of the specified commodity. (Actually, they may bump the cost up based on mountain vs. plain or whatever; I've never really analyzed that. That point is mostly irrelevant to the point I'm making. Bear with me.) So, if it's twenty hexes (or whatever) for a delivery to Moscow, that yields the same as twenty hexes to Murmansk. However, it's very likely that you'll be able to deliver or pickup something else near to Moscow, whereas Murmansk, way off in the boonies, has little else to recommend it. This makes the strategy of building and delivering to a place like Murmansk a low-reward decision; I contend that if the rewards for deliveries to places like Murmansk were bumped up a little beyond the strict route distance, it would make going to Murmansk more viable. And by extension, with more viable choices, the whole game would be rendered somewhat more interesting.

Back to the matter at hand, the Doctor seemed to hit on the right strategy and the right cards, building an east-to-west network through the middle. She cruised on to victory at $250 million; the Borrower and I were both around $190, with prospects of getting to around $230 in the next few turns, but no immediate prospects of victory. The game ended up clocking in at about two hours, as expected.

So, my quick thoughts on the Russian Rails map are that it seems quite similar to the Empire Builder (North America) map, where victory is established through a good east-west network, and taking proper advantage of it. In fact, the Russian Rails map is even less mountainous than Empire Builder, making the good east-west routes even easier to build. As with the North America map, you then choose which northern and southern extremities to build to based on batches of Delivery cards, while avoiding such obvious losers as Murmansk. The map is really big and wide open, so there isn't apt to be much competition for track building; if your group is the type who would want to play a Crayon Rails with five or six players (not for me thanks!), this would probably be an appropriate map. For two or three players, things are perhaps a bit too wide open.

The big disappointment for this game was that we didn't get to the "Fall of Communism" card. Now after reading the rules, it's mostly just a mega-event card, with only a slight effect on the game rules, so that's probably not that big a deal, but it was the much-hyped new feature of Russian Rails (inasmuch as these sorts of things can be described as "hyped"). Since it's just a single Event card, and with three players we only went through, say, a third of the deck, the "Fall of Communism" is actually pretty unlikely, and is mostly to be ignored unless it actually does happen. So I would categorize that as a mild letdown.

Would I play Russian Rails again? Absolutely, but that was pretty much a given before we even played; as I said, a new Rails map is something to be enjoyed for a few games, pretty much regardless of it's actual qualities, just for the exploring and unfolding experience. And perhaps a few more playings and I'll be able to find Volgograd and kin on a map.
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Chris Shaffer
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Can I come play games at your house? Sounds like fun!

Good session report - I enjoyed reading it.
 
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Geoff Dunbar
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TheCat wrote:
Good session report - I enjoyed reading it.


Glad you liked it!

Geoff
 
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uberhegi
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My wife and I own India and Russian Rails, and Russian Rails gets to most plays. We have found that building to Murmansk is an immediate recipe for failure, although every once in a while one of us is lured there. It has become a substitute for a swear word in our household, most appropriately used whenever our efforts have little or no payout.

By the way, for the first time ever, I built a ferry, and I still managed to win, by the skin of my teeth.
 
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Stuart
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This is a pretty "cold" thread, but let's face it, it's pretty cold in Murmansk right about now, too.

I've found it's worth building to Murmansk only if you can get a couple of the bonus payouts for going there, ie Uranium for the sub fleet. It does have three fairly handy loads available for pickup, but I probably wouldn't use it as a main source for any of them, although I have been known to make a run up for some fish the odd time.

With regards to the Fall of Communism, after last night's game, I find I must beg to differ that it has little effect on the game, as all players immediately lose 20% of their cash, which, when you're up over 200 million like I was, can be a pretty big chunk of change(over 40 million for me). I went from looking at an easy win at Kiev to scrambling back to Alma-Ata to make up for the loss!

The 2 million tariff for re-entering Russia isn't too big of a deal, but there are a couple routes that suffer from it more than others, so care must still be exercised when building under the Soviet regime.

We had the idea last night to start out under Capitalism(Czarist-Rails, if you will) and then have the event card trigger the Revolution, instead, which might be kind of interesting, but we have yet to try it out...
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