16 January 2023
Points mean prizes
We’re all familiar with the Trolley Problem – the somewhat unlikely moral dilemma where pulling a lever diverts a train onto a side track where it will slay a mere one human instead of five. Switch & Signal asks, arguably, the more urgent philosophical question: what if no lives were in peril, but some haulage companies might get very ticked off?
Welcome to a cooperative game where you and up to four train-loving pals (or train-loathing mortal enemies, if you’re prepared to put aside your differences for the duration) try to guide a variety of locomotives through a spaghetti of continental European railways, picking up freight from the big cities and running it down south to the port at Marseilles.
But you don’t get to control the trains once they’re unleashed from their sheds, not really. Instead, they rattle along the tracks like hamsters through a maze and it’s your job to switch points and change red lights to green to steer them where you want them to go, making sure they don’t crash into each other or run through stop signals or wander off the line altogether.
The mechanisms for play are deceptively simple: each turn you’re going to flip a card, which gets you to place a new train in one of the starting areas or move one colour of existing train. There are three train types: slow, medium, and express. The slow trains’ low-numbered dice mean it takes ages to get anywhere, but you’ve got more time to set up their route. Express trains create a constant slew of crises but they get to their destinations quickly.
And that matters, because if you don’t get all your freight delivered before the deck runs out, you lose. Players also get a hand of cards that let you change signals, switch points, or roll dice to move trains onwards on their journeys. Whenever a train overruns a red light or collides with another, you lose clock tokens – for every seven you lose, you discard a card from the top of the deck that acts as your timer: which is pretty grim, as you’re on a tight schedule.
Switch & Signal manages somehow to be intense, intricate and brain-burny, yet oddly relaxing. The central puzzle is engaging, and the difficulty – which can be tweaked once you feel confident – is more consistent than a lot of co-op games, though luck still plays a part in whether the train will squeak through that junction or smash into the back of another.
Every time we played, players became genuinely emotionally invested in getting our massive rail network to run to schedule. You find yourself stroking your chin and looking with worry at the route through Germany. Does the Amsterdam express have enough spare track before it hits that junction outside Berlin? Was it a mistake sending that little branch line stopper via Paris so close to the shipping deadline? Switch & Signal (if you want to make it sound more hardcore to your friends you can call it SAS) creates a reality in which these questions matter to you.
If it falls down anywhere, it’s on the cooperative side. Switch & Signal is, fundamentally, a one-player puzzle. Each player gets their own hand of cards, but with only three types in the whole deck and the ability to discard any two to take any action, you’re all acting with the same information and powers. This also means newer players may find themselves simply carrying out the plans of more experienced ones.
But this is no deal-breaker. The central puzzle is fun, intricate and just the right amount of stressful. On the reverse of the board is a whole new American map with different destinations for the freight and different powers for the three special actions you can take to get yourself out of a bind. Overall, this is a flavourful co-op game with plenty to choo-choo on.
PLAY IT? YES
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Ticket to Ride
Switch & Signal’s rules are pretty simple to grasp, aided by the strong theme (though admittedly we managed to get them wrong the first two times we played), so it makes a solid introduction to co-operative games for groups who enjoyed Ticket to Ride.
Designer: David Thompson
Time: 45 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Double-sided game board
- 100 Cards
- 9 Trains
- 12 Goods pieces
- 5 Dice
- 10 Signal discs
- 30 Switch discs
- 10 Time tiles
- 11 Location tiles
- 3 Cover tiles
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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