02 June 2022
Pieces of Fr-eight
Freight trains can be annoyingly s-l-o-w, as most commuters will testify, so they are not the most obvious choice for a quick-fire filler game. Yet it’s lightning-fast maglevs that motor Freight Cars – a set-collector-cum-Tetris® throwback. Set in a near-future where corporations rule in place of governments, players must race to make big bucks by loading and shipping goods across the United States.
Getting started is swift as this is essentially a small game in a large box. Everyone picks a Corporation card, dictating a specific set(s) of goods to collect for a final-score boost. This is then placed face down to become the maglev. Next come the Freight cards, which show one of five goods icons. If the draw has been kind, these will match the goods players need. If the draw has been downright uncooperative, there’ll be a chance to draft required cards on subsequent turns. The star turn, however, has to be loading a Freight card – done by laying it behind the maglev and arranging, then rearranging, polyomino pieces until they fit within the pattern shown. Some shapes are teasingly trickier than others, so it’s worth using those early doors.
Don’t go blowing the whistle for departure to Boston or Cincinnati just yet. Thanks to the triangle-number scoring system, it pays to ship maximum five-car loads because longer trains mean more lucrative payouts. Extra cash is also won by fulfilling one (or two) of the City Demand cards, but only if an opponent doesn’t deliver the goods first. It’s still unclear to this reviewer what the goods icons actually represent (Honey? Oil? Toxic waste?) and the rulebook’s vague story about delivering lumber and coal confuses matters. Yet the enigmatic symbols are monochromatic enough to stand out, even if you’re not entirely sure what’s being dispatched (“Sorry, officer. I just load the cars, I don’t ask what’s in ‘em!”).
So. It all sounds pretty speedy, right? Yes and no. Turns move rapidly to start with, but when players load up their third and fourth cards, the pace can derail as there is no time pressure. Zilch. Part of the genius of Tetris was how levels manically sped up, with the ticking clock forcing sweaty moves, incoherent shouting and inevitable mistakes. A rush of adrenaline could easily be injected here, however, by agreeing a loading time limit (using a phone or egg timer) to keep the game – and turn order – on track.
Pushing your luck to load five cars is certainly enjoyable, and reveals a level of challenge that will pique repeat play. Another intriguingly tough decision arises when goods stubbornly refuse to show up. Do you deck dive and risk a fistful of unwanted goods? This dicey move also ups the chance of prematurely terminating play, as an end-of-game card lurks stealthily within. It’s a fun jeopardy moment that always elicits groans and moans when revealed.
Ultimately, it’s the puzzle-piece mechanic that really makes Freight Cars worth a ride. Players will have to wade through the artwork which, although very competently sketched by Calder Moore, appears to have been filtered through a swamp. This future’s neither bright nor orange, more of a dirge brown. All detail gets lost under artificial lighting, whereas playing during the day only just about reveals the dystopian colour coding. Other elements that underwhelm include the uninspired scoreboard and its teeny maglev meeples, while the oversized box means components rattle and scatter inside – although a few plastic bags would efficiently restore order. With some minor tweaks, Freight Cars fulfils its quick game promise and sees 30 minutes whoosh by. Its longevity, however, might be equally as short lived.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Whilst lacking the fiendishly addictive quality of Tetris, Freight Cars’ use of polyomino pieces does deliver something novel to the well-travelled train theme. It offers (potentially) fast play, but its icky colourways and underdeveloped components may make its final destination the back of the shelf.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED: Nmbr 9
Maths is at the core of Freight Cars, and Nmbr 9 is literally about numbers. Both games also utilise puzzle pieces, whilst promising quick play that won’t delay your day.
Designer: Ben Parmentier
Publisher: Quick Simple Fun Games
Time: 30 minutes
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