17 September 2018
Number one with a bullet train
Both the latest expansion to and a standalone sequel to Railways of the World, Railways of Nippon is a fantastic leaping-on point for the venerated train game.
The gameplay here is a refinement rather than a reinvention of what’s come before. The Railways of the World system strikes a perfect balance between the crowd-pleasing Ticket to Ride and harder-core series such as Age of Steam and 18xx, indulging in the simple pleasure of completing routes by placing hex track tiles while layering in slightly more complex budget management and goods delivery requirements, without tipping over into full-on stock trading simulation.
Starting penniless, players must obtain enough bonds to get their rail network rolling – but every bond will be repaid as interest for the rest of the game and costs victory points during final scoring, so keeping your growth sustainable is a must. Delivering goods cubes between locations will increase your income and score points, but you’ll eventually need to invest in improving your train engines to deliver further or even urbanise cities to ensure there’s demand for what you can offer. Meanwhile, each player’s baron card has a hidden objective that could swing the game for them at the end, from amassing the most money to hooking up with enough of the right cities. That might sound like a lot – and it is, in a way – yet it all runs along the rails so smoothly you’ll be surprised when there's no squealing brakes during player turns.
Like past entries in the series, Nippon’s old-fashioned visuals favour utility over beauty. The terrain icons – new for this game – make identifying the open, water and mountain hexes that cost different amounts much faster; it can still be hard to track the location-specific abilities of certain railroad operations cards once the board is smothered in tiles, but everything is otherwise clear and well-designed, with Hisashi Hayashi’s layout of Japan making for an exciting landmass to race across.
If you’re already a Railways of the World fan, there’s no need to pick up this standalone box, as the unique content can be found as a separate expansion. The empty city markers, train upgrades and paper dollars themselves are untouched from the US-set base game, lending a peculiar air of thematic inconsistency as John Bull locomotives chug their way between Tokyo and Kyoto, while buffalo skulls hang on ‘Keep Out’ signs. It’s a bit of a shame, but the upside is that this makes Nippon an excellent intro for newcomers to the series, as the revised rulebook serves as a compendium for all the variants and expansions currently out there, meaning you’ll only need the maps and cards to grow your collection if you’re hooked on the gameplay – which you will be. At £20 cheaper than the core Railways of the World box it’s also a cost-friendlier way to get involved, but the smaller set reduces the player count by two – if you’ll ever be looking to play with five or six people in the future, picking up the original and getting Nippon as an expansion instead is a no-brainer.
For those wanting to experience one of the very best train games out there for the first time with a smaller group, Railways of Nippon should be irresistible. The Railways of the World engine continues to drive the series ahead of the route-building crowd, and this friendly, hugely fun set proves it’s on the right track to find an even wider appreciation.
If you don’t already own Railways of the World or want to play with a bigger group, Railways of Nippon should be the train game in your collection. Smooth, approachable gameplay hides a rich depth that’s impossible to say no to another game of.
Designer: Glenn Drover, Hisashi Hayashi, Martin Wallace
Time: 120 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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