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[Review] Russian Rails

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  • Tom Vasel
    I ve never played any of the Empire Rails series. For some reason, the crayon-rail games never had any massive appeal to me, but at the same time I wasn t
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 4, 2005
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      I've never played any of the Empire Rails series. For some reason,
      the "crayon-rail" games never had any massive appeal to me, but at the
      same time I wasn't averse to playing one. It's simply that the lack
      of availability in my gaming groups, coupled with a lengthy playing
      time, kept me from trying one out. This all changed when I received
      Russian Rails (Mayfair Games, 2004 - Jodi Soares). Finally, I was
      able to see what all the fuss was about.

      As this is my first Empire Rails game to play, I can't compare it to
      others in the series, but I will say that it certainly worked well for
      beginners and was a fun game to play. It was involving and thought
      provoking, giving a player a lot of options. The only problems with
      the game were the lengthy time of play (3+ hours) and the ample
      opportunities for analysis paralysis. But if you are willing to make
      the time to play this rails game, you will be rewarded by a
      tremendous, satisfying game.

      A large board is placed in the middle of the table, depicting a map
      of the former Soviet Union. The map has forty-six cities, separated
      into three types: major, medium, and small and is divided up into a
      triangular grid of "milepost" dots. Next to each city, there are one
      to three icons depicting what kinds of goods that city produces. Each
      player takes a "train" token in their color, along with a special
      wipe-off crayon. Each player also receives sixty million rubles as
      starting cash and a Loco card that depicts nine speed and two goods.
      A deck of demand/event cards is shuffled, and three demand cards are
      dealt face-up to each player. The cards show three different cities
      on them, and the type of goods that each city wants along with the
      payout in rubles for supplying that demand. Stacks of chips
      representing each commodity are placed in a special area in the box,
      along with the rest of the Loco cards and the cash. The player who
      has the highest cash value on one their three Demand cards goes first
      with play proceeding clockwise around the table.

      Each turn has two phases, the operation phase and the building phase.
      During the first two turns of the game, players skip the operation
      phase. During the operation phase, players can move their train pawn
      on their tracks on the map. The train starts the game in any city on
      the map, and then can move up to its maximum speed (9 or 12) each
      turn. Trains cannot reverse direction except at a junction and can
      pick up or drop off loads at any city. Players can move freely on
      their own tracks and must pay opponents 4 million a turn if they use
      their track. If in a city that has good icons, a player may pick up
      loads of those particular types if they have room on their Loco card
      (two or three spots) and if there are any chips of that type
      available. (There are three to four chips of each type.) A player can
      drop a load off at any city, discarding it for no reward; unless they
      have a demand card showing that the city they are dropping the load
      off at wants that type of good. When the player does deliver a load
      to its destination, they return the chip to the box, discard the card,
      and receive the amount of rubles shown on the card immediately. The
      player then draws a new Demand card, placing it face-up in front of
      them. If the player draws an event card, it is either placed face up
      on the table, or takes effect immediately (depending on the card), and
      the player draws another card to take its place.

      In the building phase, a player can spend up to twenty million rubles
      to either upgrade their train or lay track on the board. If upgrading
      their train, the player pays twenty million rubles to the bank and
      takes a new Loco card of the next level, increasing either the speed
      (from 9 to 12) or the load maximum (from 2 to 3). If building track,
      the player can draw on the board with their crayon, connecting the
      mileposts at a cost. Players can build from any milepost from which
      they already have track connected to or can start from any major City
      milepost (twice a turn). Different terrain types on the board
      determine the cost for building the track, determined by the milepost
      built TO.
      - Clear mileposts cost 1 million
      - Mountain mileposts cost 2 million
      - Alpine mileposts cost 5 million
      - Marshland mileposts cost 3 million
      - Small cities cost 3 million and have a maximum of two players who
      can connect to them.
      - Medium cities cost 3 million and have a maximum of three players who
      can connect to them.
      - Major cities cost 5 million, and all players can connect to them (a
      player cannot deliberately block another from connecting.)
      - Crossing a river costs an additional 2 million
      - Crossing a lake or ocean inlet costs an additional 3 million
      - There is a ferry that crosses the Caspian Sea that also has some
      additional costs and special rules.
      - Players cannot ever borrow from the bank but must use cash on hand.

      Players have the option to discard all three of their cards, drawing
      new ones - forfeiting the remainder of their turn. Any event cards
      drawn must immediately be dealt with. The most important event card
      in the deck is the "Communism Falls" event. Most event cards are
      known as dual events. When played before Communism falls, the top
      half is used, with the bottom half being used after Communism falling.
      The fall of Communism also has the following effects. All players
      must immediately discard 20% of their cash, all dual events in play
      are discarded, and the Russian boundaries become effective. All over
      the board, the boundaries of Russia are defined but aren't used when
      the USSR is in effect. After the fall, players must pay 2 million
      when entering INTO Russia. All the other events allow for special
      deliveries of goods, tax the players, use weather to keep players from
      moving, etc.

      When one player has connected five of the six major cities on the
      board with a continuous line of track AND has at least 250 million
      rubles in cash at the end of their turn, the game ends with each
      player finishing up their last turn. If a tie occurs, play continues
      until one player gets 300 million rubles, in which case they are the
      winner!

      Some comments on the game...

      1.) Components: The board is six puzzle pieces attached together,
      which form a fairly accurate map of the USSR. At first the board
      looks a bit bland; but once players start drawing the track, it
      becomes intriguing, as one watches the train networks grow and expand.
      The crayons were effective and were easy to wipe off the board, but I
      question the effectiveness of the yellow crayon; it was difficult to
      see. While the crayons were good, I'm going to get some erasable
      markers, they're just easier to use. The boards are of good quality;
      and while the graphics are plain and a bit bland, they are quite easy
      to see and differentiate. The paper money was passable, and the cards
      were useful and of good quality - easy to shuffle and use. The chips
      were small poker chips that needed to have quite a few stickers
      attached to them, but I'm coloring the commodities to make them stand
      apart more. There was a plastic tray in the box that holds money,
      cards, and chips effectively but with one problem. If the box is
      tipped on its side at all, all the chips fall out of their slots,
      mixing them together in a giant mess. This is easily fixed by putting
      them all in a plastic bag, but then you have to sort them all out at
      the beginning of the game. Not a big deal, but a slight pain - I
      might tape some kind of board over them to keep them in place when I
      transport the game.

      2.) Rules: The rulebook was very clear; I've never played a crayon
      rail game before, but I easily understood it. The twelve pages of
      rules include several players' aids that can be given to each player.
      The player aids show the location of each city on the map (the map is
      divided up into a grid), and the cities that provide each good. For
      people who are intimately familiar with Russian geography (me for
      sure!) these aids can become invaluable. Actually, I was impressed at
      how simple the game actually was. Whenever I had seen a crayon rail
      game in the past, I thought that they looked complicated and long.
      Long is correct, but the game play is actually quite simple.

      3.) Length: The game is LONG. Even with a variant of moving the
      trains quicker, it still took a while. This isn't to say that I
      didn't enjoy my time of playing the game, but downtime can occur. I
      tried to speed up the game by encouraging players to plan their track
      building while others where moving, but a simple event card can mess
      up all your carefully laid plans and cause a person to rethink the
      map. Once a good is delivered, the player draws a new card, which
      also might affect what they do next. So there's really no way around
      it, the game is going to take a while.

      4.) Variations: There are some variations on play in the rulebook -
      two of which I think quite useful. One of them involves changing the
      speed of the trains to 12 and 16 respectively. This speeds the game
      up, while still retaining fairness and balance. Another variant
      allows the players to decide where in the deck the Communism Falls
      event card is placed. I HIGHLY recommend this variant, as the game
      can be too unpredictable otherwise. If you aren't prepared for the
      fall of Communism, a lot of plans can be ruined and money lost. In
      fact, if a player's train is outside Russia when the fall occurs, and
      they have no money (frequent in this game); they are effectively out
      of the game. I think it's better to shuffle it into the bottom one
      third of the deck - still giving randomness, but a bit more
      controlled.

      5.) Strategy and Fun Factor: Most of the fun of the game is involved
      with setting up your network of trains. It's great fun to watch your
      network grow and expand, and delivering goods gives one such a
      tremendous feeling of satisfaction. Knowing what goods to deliver and
      where is the crux of the game. Do you deliver several small loads,
      taking a bit of money at a time, or do you concentrate on the very
      long but lucrative loads. Being in the right place at the right time
      also helps, especially when an event card is drawn. The event cards
      add some randomness to the game; but aside from Communism Falls, none
      of them are too detrimental to a player. The game starts off a bit
      slow, as players struggle to get one or two loads delivered. Then, as
      the game progresses, the game speeds up, with the networks completed,
      as players rush to deliver as much stuff as they can. It's not too
      terribly interactive, but players get so caught up in their networks
      that they don't care too much.

      6.) Empire Rails: As I've never played the other games in the series,
      I cannot compare it; but I'm quite happy with the game. Others I've
      gamed with HAVE played other crayon-rail games, and they said that
      this one is similar, with the Fall of Communism providing the major
      difference. These opinions I've gathered have also been positive,
      saying that this is one of the better games in the series.

      This is not the kind of game I'll pull out to finish out a game night,
      nor is it one which I'll pull off the shelves lightly. When we play
      this one, we are going to game - and game hard. At the same time,
      it's not too terribly taxing on the brain, just immensely involving.
      Because it takes so long to play, it probably won't get played that
      often; but when it does get played, the time will be memorable. I
      enjoyed the game quite a bit and recommend it to anyone who has wanted
      to start their own train empire. And the geography lesson about
      Russia certainly doesn't hurt.

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games."
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