The Spin: “Take the role of one of history’s railroad barons and see if you have what it takes to become the next Railroad Tycoon “
The Story: Railroad Tycoon is a tabletop adaptation of the great PC game of the same name. Players compete in19th century America to be the top Railroad Tycoon on the continent. This is done by expanding rail lines, upgrading locomotives, and delivering goods throughout the young nation.
The Play: Railroad Tycoon was co-designed by Glenn Dover and Martin Wallace and plays like a lighter variant of Wallace's own Age of Steam (for many people the best train game ever made). RT is lighter than Age of Steam (by a good deal) and doesn't feature as many anguishing decisions. It also introduces quite a bit of randomness in the form of Railroad Operations cards (and, to a lesser extent, the Tycoon cards). The base game play is simple, but it is exceedingly clever and fun.
Players begin each round by bidding for turn order. It can sometimes be of utmost importance to go first, so the turn auctions are often tense and competitive. The winner of the auction, pays the amount to the bank and takes his or her turn. The turn can consist of a variety of actions, ranging from laying track to form routes between cities to upgrading the companies train technology. The eventual idea is to have routes between numerous cities that allow the player to deliver colored goods cubes to cities of the same color. Because there are limited amount of goods to be delivered and limited ways to go from one city to another, turn order can be very important. A player often can't take the risk that another player going before him will claim a needed route.
Delivering goods earns the player victory points and an increase in company income.
This income is important because of a very clever game mechanism. Players start off RT with no money. Not surprisingly, building tracks, founding cities, upgrading trains, and bidding on an early turn number all require cash. The game handles this by allowing (forcing) players to issue stock in their company in exchange for cash. This means players are never out of cash which serves to keep the game interesting for all players, even when some have fallen behind on the victory point track. Of course, there is no such thing as free money, so there is also a downside—players lose victory points at the end of the game for each share they have issued. This keeps people from issuing stocks willy-nilly and trying to buy the victory and it forces players to carefully weigh each decision and evaluate the cost/reward ratio constantly.
As goods are delivered and cities are emptied of their goods, empty city markers are placed on the board. The placement of markers is the game's timing mechanism. The game ends when a certain number (based on the number of players) of empty city tokens have been placed.
My Take: Railroad Tycoon is the best video game to tabletop game adaptation yet. And don't think that I'm damning with feint praise either. Eagle (especially with Age of Mythology) and Fantasy Flight (Doom and Warcraft) have really raised the bar as far as the video game adaptation genre goes. I love the stock-issuing element and the bidding for turn order. The Operations cards add a bit more luck than I'd like sometimes, but the fact that they are played face up next to the board and are available to any player mitigates the luck quite a bit. The only totally random element that affects just one player is the dealing of Tycoon cards. These are cards with real tycoons from the period on them who have certain goals that, if met, provide victory points (for instance, one tycoon gets a victory point bonus for having the largest railroad network, another tycoon get a bonus for having the longest continuous network). I'll have to play a bit more to see if any of the Tycoon's are considerably better than others, but, for now, I do not think so.
Railroad Tycoon's theme is dead on and easy to get lost in. The player interaction (in a five or six player game—I haven't tried it yet with less) is ample and often contentious. There are a ton of non-obvious decisions to be made each turn Just deciding whether to issue a bunch of stocks and go for an expensive action or to conserve cash and go cheap is difficult. Still, I saw very little analysis paralysis in our games.
Finally, the components are simply gorgeous. Railroad Tycoon looks great on the table with its huge map*, colorful wooden cubes, plastic trains, and awesome sculpted empty city markers. The game is a pleasure to look at when set up.
* [A note:] The first printing of the game has some problem with the boards warping. Apparently, the factory didn't allow the boards to cure completely before boxing them, so when the humidity hits, they begin to warp. Our review copy exhibited the problem on first play. We stacked the boards up after the game and placed a pile of hardback books on top of them and left it there for three days. We haven't had any noticeable warping since then.
Pros: Tough, interesting decisions to be made each turn
Great match of theme and mechanics
Scores remain tight throughout (in our experience)
Cons: The board might be too huge for some game tables
The warping of the board, though repairable is annoying when it happens
Screwed up US geography make it a poor teaching tool for younger gamers