14 July 2021
A sturdy bridge between cube rails and 18xx
Welcome aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad; an aesthetically bleak cube-rails game of 19th century rail companies rushing to connect Moscow to Vladivostock, and their struggles against nationalisation.
It may not meet traditional standards of beauty, but there’s charm and ingenuity to be found in this cleanly functional, spartan aesthetic. Within this sparse canvas, Amabel Holland’s exquisite design chops truly shine as she delivers an engrossing, network-building game that captures a satisfying snapshot of grand 18xx titles in little over an hour.
Whilst the rulebook is by no means small, gameplay isn’t as byzantine as expected. After a variable amount of rounds, players win by having the most wealth in both cash and stock. Reaching this point is achieved largely through the use of two possible actions; buying stock or building rails. Aside from passing your turn, that’s basically it. Furthermore, players will be choosing only one of these actions each turn, carrying it out as per the brilliantly concise player aids/player boards.
Four companies will be participating in this expansion across Russia, with a further two being added in the latter half of the games two phases. Players can invest in any number of these companies, placing their well earned dividends into the respective treasuries in return for stock certificates, ever wary of the risks of losing them to nationalisation.
Buying a single stock is simple, but opting for two is where things get interesting, bumping the round’s timing marker further toward its fifth and final step. This tense time mechanic works similarly when building tracks too, albeit with players dipping their hands into company coffers instead of their own pockets. Here, a double build will sap time away but with the added incentive of raising a company’s stock value. Once the timing marker resets, players reap the dividends of their stock according to the income track, and the process repeats.
Due to my limited Russian linguistic skills, the companies of Trans-Siberian Railroad were reduced to simply ‘blue’, ‘red’ etc. Yet, despite this – and the overly traditional aesthetic – there’s life to these faceless stocks. Indeed, under the flawed, human guidance of the players, there’s an irresistible dramatic dynamism here.
There will be moments of collective cheering for the plucky underdog narrowly escaping the clutches of nationalisation when their stock values sit beneath the Tsar’s expectations. Often this is thanks to the efforts of short-lived but necessary alliances; neat touches of cooperation in an otherwise fiercely competitive game.
Other moments will see stocks you’ve long since ignored suddenly take on economic importance, leading to unforeseen forays through a company’s routes purely to pump money back into their dwindling treasury.
These companies, once perceived as abstract cubes, will engage in tense games of cat-and-mouse along the Stock and Income tracks as they push to reap the highest dividends, whilst others falter; casualties of their own steeply priced stock.
It’s these moments of drama - where every decision is met with further consequence - that make Trans-Siberian Railroad stand out. Amazingly, whilst strategies and situations become more easily assessed with repeat plays, it never reaches a point where the game ceases to surprise. No matter how well you think you’ve got things figured out, it’s likely you’ll still encounter games with varying rates of nationalisation.
Overall this nippy, bullet-train take on 18xx continually fascinates as an unassuming sandbox for player-led excitement, and notably, it never boils down to luck.
PLAY IT? YES
Its looks and theme may be an acquired taste, but beneath its surface is a unique and surprisingly accessible experience that’s certainly worth trying.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED IBERIAN GAUGE
Ian O’Toole adds some appreciated visual flair to this fellow cube-rails Holland design.
Designer: Amabel Holland
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Time: 60 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Game Board
- 26 Railroad Stock Certificates
- 192 Railroad Cubes
- 4 Marker Cubes
- 5 Player Boards
- Paper Money
This feature originally appeared in Issue 57 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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