I have been quite vocal through the years concerning my disdain for the lack of development of many games in the Eagle line. While the games are quite beautiful to behold, and contain many clever ideas and mechanisms, there were inevitably significant flaws and development oversights. This was quite frustrating, and potentially damaging to future game sales. I cried for Eagle to improve their development process, and to use outside game groups to play-test their games before final production.
Things seem to be improving lately. Bootleggers was a step further along the development path. There were still problems, but it was their best effort to date. That effort has been surpassed by Railroad Tycoon, which is a top-notch game and one of 2005’s best releases. This should come as no surprise, however, as the game is based heavily on Martin Wallace’s award-winning Age of Steam. Indeed, Martin was the main designer of Railroad Tycoon, with some additions and modifications performed by Glenn Dover. Little wonder that the game is a winner!
Players take the role of wealthy railroad tycoons seeking to build rail networks throughout the eastern United States, and reap huge profits from the shipping of goods across their lines. Money is tight early, and players are forced to raise capital by issuing shares. Interest must be paid on outstanding shares each turn, and outstanding shares will deduct from a player’s final victory point tally. The wise player will be conservative in his issuing of shares.
Each turn begins a single auction, with the winner securing the privilege of going first in the subsequent three action rounds of the turn. In some rounds, going first can be critical, as there may be a valuable operations card available, or a track to build before an opponent scan scoop a valuable route. These auctions are often tense early, but lose some of their suspense later in the game as money becomes more plentiful.
After deciding the first player, each player will have three opportunities to perform actions. Actions include:
• Build Track. The player may build up to four sections of track. Track pieces are placed directly onto the board, and the cost for each track constructed varies with the type of terrain it traverses. The idea here is to connect cities, forming routes over which goods can be transported. Routes must be completed by the end of a turn’s three rounds, and a player may only construct one city-to-city route per round.
• Urbanize. Most cities have a specific color, which indicate the type of good it can receive. However, there are a dozen or so “neutral” cities on the board. These can be converted (urbanized) by spending $10,000, allowing the player to change it to a specific color. This can be quite useful, as it opens a new market, and also causes two new goods to appear at that city.
• Improve Engine. Each player begins with an engine which allows players to transport goods to an adjacent city. In order to make longer runs, a player must upgrade his engine in stages. The cost to upgrade steadily increases, but the outlay is critical in order to transport goods great distances.
• Deliver One Good. Cities begin with several goods cubes upon them. Money is earned by transporting a good to a city matching its color. Each rail line the good traverses on its journey earns a victory point for the owner of the line. Victory points also correspond to income, so it is essential that goods be transported on a regular basis.
• Take Rail Operations Card. Each turn, several cards will be available. Some are goal cards, which earn points for the first player to achieve their conditions. Others can be taken by the players and used to give them specified abilities. Many cards are quite beneficial, and their presence often causes the first player auction to be quite spirited.
• Build Western Link. A player who completes a route to either Kansas City or Des Moines may construct a “western link”, albeit at a hefty cost of $30,000. This does allow the player to possibly ship extra goods into Chicago, which can be quite lucrative.
Players alternate taking actions until all have completed their three actions. At this point, income is earned based on a player’s position on the income / victory point track. Players must then pay $1,000 for each outstanding share they possess. Shares may NOT be paid-off during the game, so this is an ongoing expense.
When goods are delivered to a city, they are returned to the off-board supply. As cities are emptied of goods, they are marked with various markers, which are completely superfluous, but nonetheless quite attractive. The game ends when a certain number of cities are empty, the number varying with the number of players. Players must keep a careful eye on the amount of empty cities, as this is a harbinger of the game’s end.
At game’s end, players must subtract the number of outstanding shares they possess from their tally. Of course, the player furthest along the income / victory point track is victorious, and the new railroad tycoon.
The comparisons to Age of Steam are inescapable. Indeed, the game is its brother, with slight differences. Those differences, however, are significant.
• Money is much more plentiful here. Shares can be purchased at ANY time, and not just at the beginning of a turn. As a result, there is no danger of being eliminated from the game. This makes the game much more forgiving, and much accessible for folks new to the system. For Age of Steam veterans, however, it does sap much of the tension and tightness from the game.
• Huge board. The folks at Eagle games are enamored with HUGE boards. In a conflict oriented game wherein massive armies must be assembled, I can understand the need for large spaces and territories. That just isn’t necessary here, however. The new boards simply encompass too much territory, and much of the board never comes into play during the course of a game. Further, other than the northeast, there isn’t much congestion in the development of routes. A smaller board would not only have made the game more table friendly, but would have forced a more competitive game.
• Operations cards. These are clearly not part of Martin Wallace’s original design. While not completely random or chaotic, they do detract from the pure strategic element of the game’s ancestor. While the goal cards are available for everyone to potentially achieve, the other cards shake-up the game, oftentimes dramatically. I personally don’t mind the cards, but Age of Steam purists have derided their inclusion here.
• Railroad Tycoon Cards. Each player randomly receives a historical personality, which contains a goal that, if achieved, earns the player bonus victory points. Seems interesting, but the problem is that there are duplicates for two of the personalities. Since the cards are dealt-out randomly, it is quite possible some players will have goals that are uncontested, while others will have to compete with opponents to achieve their goal. I’m really surprised this wasn’t caught in play-testing.
Railroad Tycoon is, in my opinion, the best effort from Eagle games to date. This is largely due to the fact that the system has been adapted from Martin Wallace’s stellar Age of Steam. The changes are, for the most part, acceptable, and some are even quite good. The result is a game that is often tense, and forces players to make important decisions throughout its duration. While dominating the northeast can lead to victory, several players should be competing in this profitable area, making that strategy less likely to succeed with experienced players. The result is that there are numerous strategies to pursue, and no one sure path to victory.
Is the game as good as Age of Steam? That will certainly depend upon who you ask, and perhaps what you are seeking. Experienced gamers will likely prefer the purity and tightness of Age of Steam, while folks who enjoy games with a bit more randomness and freedom may well find Railroad Tycoon more palatable. Both are quite good, though, and should please the majority of folks. I hope Eagle opts to undertake more collaborations with established designers.
Jim, Byron, Brian, Alison, Kevin and I stepped back in time to the birth of the “iron dragons” in the United States. Byron and I were the first to construct links in the northeast, but everyone else sought their riches elsewhere. This was in spite of my warnings against allowing one player to dominate the lucrative northeast. Jim immediately headed to the Great Lakes, establishing his hub in Chicago and spreading from there. Brian sought wealth in the south, spreading south from the Carolinas to Jacksonville and then west.
Without much competition, Byron was able to construct track around my lines. This enabled him to establish an impressive network in the Northeast. My main network was in the Appalachians, and this kept me competitive throughout the game. Jim and Kevin were also keeping pace, but Kevin got into a tussle with Brian around Mobile, forcing him to dismantle a five-segment line. This was his doom.
Brian was deeply in debt, and suffered through numerous turns wherein he was having a negative income flow. Later in the game, he did manage to make some connections across the mountains and into the northeast, which allowed him to begin turning a profit. By that time, however, he was out of contention.
Allison’s had spread her efforts over several areas, but she was unable to establish a firm network in any one location. Thus, she lagged behind the pack for the duration.
It became evident early that I had little hope of achieving the goal on my Railroad Tycoon card, which required me to have the least outstanding shares. Byron was being miserly, thank in large part to the short routes he constructed in the northeast. He ended the game with only four shares issued. Jim was also quite conservative, and he, too, managed to keep his issued shares to four. I finished with five issued shares, so lost out on earning the bonus points. Sure enough, Byron had the same goal. Arrghh!
Byron became the front-runner about halfway into the game, with me just a step or two behind on the income track. Jim was also within striking distance. Byron managed to upgrade to a value ‘6’ locomotive, allowing him to make two very lucrative runs on the final turn. Jim made it close, however, as he achieved his goal of having the most money, but fell just short of catching Byron.
Finals: Byron 50, Jim 49, Greg 44, Kevin 30, Alison 25, Brian 8
Ratings: Byron 8, Jim 8, Kevin 8, Greg 8, Alison 7, Brian 5