Pioneer Rails Board Game Review

20 May 2024
In the world of board games, trains are a perfect theme, and Pioneer Rails capitalises on this perfectly.

Written by Dan York

Poker and the Old West, an iconic pairing. Throw in an excellent flip-and-write railway building game and you’ve got Pioneer Rails. Train-based roll-and-writes are nothing new, but this game adds the tense thrill of a hand of poker as a much-needed twist on the formula.

Related article: Like Train Games? All aboard for the best of the bunch!

What is Pioneer Rails?

In Pioneer Rails, 2-4 (usually) players are trying to lay the railway tracks that littered the old west. You’ll connect towns, deposit gold into banks and even help the ranchers out by making it hard for the cows to flee too far. Each turn the dealer reveals three cards from a deck of poker cards, four suits numbered 10 through Ace, and chooses one to keep for themselves. The other players can then pick from the cards that are left. The suit on the card determines which of the four railway stations on the board that player can build their tracks from, drawing lines to different types of building, activating them so they can be scored. The number on the card is used to form a poker hand, every five turns there are points available for making a high-scoring hand and ideally, you want to be doing both!

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Pioneer Rails Review

This is a delightful game, even before playing there’s a lot to love in the art and the presentation. The poker cards are gorgeous, and the playing board is easy to read and makes planning your turns out a breeze. The relatively small box contains a lot of game, both in terms of replayability and in terms of the level of decision-making and problem solving. Each game will always play out differently, as the map is too big to ever completely fill on a single playthrough. This means that your routes can vary each time you play. Maybe this time you’ll focus on rounding up every cattle ranch on the map or you’ll beeline for the goldmines, stopping to deposit your precious metals at the banks you pass along the way.

It rarely feels like there’s an obvious move, which makes for a great puzzle. There’s meaningful tension in choosing which card to pick from the selection each turn. I found myself agonising over whether I wanted to take the Queen of Hearts because “I really need to extend the Heart railway to the next town” or whether the Ace of Spades was the pick this turn, because then “I’m only a King away from making the elusive Royal Flush!”

My favourite rule is the Towns. They’re vital as the only way for multiple lines to meet, growing your network to be across the map. They also unlock a range of special abilities, such as digging a tunnel through an otherwise impassible mountain or manipulating the suit of the cards on the table, smoothing out your turns in a highly satisfying way.

Playing with more than four players is possible and it’s still fun, though the concession to high player counts is to remove all player interaction, taking out one of the most interesting decisions that players would otherwise make.

It’s easy to recommend Pioneer Rails. It’s simple to teach and easy to play. There are plenty of incredibly satisfying decisions and just enough elements of push-your-luck that it captures the spirit of a tense game of poker in a saloon. It’s refreshing to have some player interaction in a genre that is often focused on parallel play and solo puzzle-solving, but it never feels overtly mean.

Pioneer Rails Verdict

It’s easy to get this to the table, with its straightforward nature and range of player counts, it’s a great addition to any collection looking for a snappy puzzle. Should you play it? Yes. 

You should also try this if you liked Railroad Ink. Fans of the Roll-and-write Railroad Ink who are looking for an extra layer of tension and interaction would love the deeper puzzling brought about by the twists in Pioneer Rail’s mechanics.

About Pioneer Rails

Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Jeffrey D. Allers

Publisher: Dranda Games

Time: 45 minutes

Players: 1-80

Ages: 10+

Price: £20

What’s in the box?

  • 80 Double-sided sheets
  • 1 Dealer token
  • 1 Eraser
  • 4 Pencils
  • 15 Goal cards
  • 20 Playing cards

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