18 June 2021
Whenever a board game has a small rulebook, I'm intrigued. The level of confidence needed to ensure every rule query can be contained within a double-sided sheet of A4 speaks to either a very simple or very engaging experience. Sometimes, it can be both.
Ride the Rails has three to five players become railway tycoons as the ‘age of steam’ makes its way to America. You'll start on the east coast and slowly develop a nationwide multicolour train network, with the sole objective being to earn the most money after six rounds of play.
The game loop is sublime. Each round starts with players taking a coloured train piece as a pseudo-stock certificate. Next, players lay out trains across the map, connecting cities to a shared rail network and only able to place trains that they have a stock share for. Finally, each player chooses one of the 51 passengers (one for each city) and takes them on a city hopping journey, with the rule that they can never visit the same place twice. The player moving the passenger earns $1 for every city visited, then all players earn money based on what train lines are used. For example, a journey with five cities using three red lines and one blue, earns the moving player $5, then every player with a red or blue stock gets $3 or $1 per stock respectively. As the next round begins, a new railway becomes available with new placement conditions and play order is rearranged so the lowest scoring player goes first.
The game's simplicity makes sure that players are never lost in rules and are instead focused on finding opportunities. Space is limited and so are available trains, so if one colour is favoured by many you'll quickly find that supply exhausted, forcing players to react. Teams form and slowly splinter as the network diversifies, but those early alliances will always be a remembered as they continue to score much needed dollars right until the end. Money exists only to mark who's winning and isn't an expendable resource, so there's never any hesitation of whether you can afford to create a new line or not, instead it's nonstop ‘build, build, build!’
The only restriction to creating new lines are mountains marked on the board; if any of your lines in a round go into any mountain space, you lose one train maximum. The seems like a small penalty, but the decision space is immense, especially when not having one more train to complete a route can be the difference maker in that round of scoring. There are financial bonuses to players who first connect certain cities or who manage to connect the first trans-continental route, which may not win the game outright, but will certainly help keep you one step ahead of your opponents.
The game strives for minimalistic elegance, from its charmingly retro look and the tactile enjoyment of placing wooden locomotives to span across all of USA. It could have had cards to represent stocks, or had players spend money up to a limit for how many trains you could place per turn, but instead it avoids these cluttered traps and keeps the focus on where it should be; deciding what train colours to have and where to place them.
Every game I've played of this has gone differently and every player count variation refreshes the puzzle brilliantly. Just when you think you have a winning strategy or optimised placement sequence, something will happen that completely changes things as the game finds new ways to surprise you.
It's a game that some players might bemoan for being too simple, especially those used to rule-heavy extravagances like the 18XX series, but there is something magical about how Ride the Rails captures that same tension and power fantasy but concentrates it to a much shorter and much more accessible experience.
For players looking for a wargame without war or an economic game without economics, this is an incredible game that will continue to delight and impress time after time. Phenomenal.
A refined moneymaking master class in effective minimalist design. Easy to teach with countless play possibilities, few games make being a railway tycoon this engaging.
Comparisons are inevitable when making a train game, but Ride the Rails swaps out card management for stock manipulation for an equally satisfying experience.
Designer: Harry Wu
Publisher: Capstone Games
Time: 60 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Game Board
- 162 Wooden locomotives
- 52 Wooden passengers
- Round marker
- Tracker hexagon
- 6 Tracker disks
- 15 Player disks
This article originally appeared in issue 48 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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