[Review] Russian Rails
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.
"Real men play board games."