By Robert Florence on August 31st, 2013 at 12:00 am.
TRAINS! TRAINS! TRAINS! You there, young man! Do you like TRAINS?! You there, young lady! Do you like TRAINS?! TRAINS TRAINS TRAINS!
“Just picked up a new game.”
“Cool. What’s it called?”
You, Rock Paper Shotgun reader! Do you like TRAINS?! Read on, regardless. TRAINS.
TRAINS. It takes a big old set of balls to call your board game TRAINS. There are a lot of train games out there. There’s Ticket To Ride, which is a family game about trains. There’s Steam, which is about trains. There’s the 18XX games, which are about trains. There’s games like Martian Rails, which is set on Mars and is about trains. I could go on. I could, honestly. But this game is called TRAINS. Just TRAINS, and that takes a big old set of balls. It’s like saying “Yeah, sure there are other train games, but when someone thinks TRAINS they are going to think TRAINS. They are going to think US. TRAINS.”
As your man from Dragon’s Den might say “It’s a confident pitch from the young board game, but will it stand up to the Dragons’ analysis?”
Do you like Dominion? Dominion is a card game that changed the landscape of tabletop gaming a fair bit. It introduced that whole “deckbuilding as you play” thing, and for better or worse it spawned a league of imitators. I like the game. I don’t think it’s spectacular. I certainly haven’t played it a lot, because while I find it “enjoyable” I hardly find it a gripping experience. There’s almost too little going on, and there’s no real sense of theme, so the mechanics are way out there front and centre. And like I said, I enjoy those mechanics, but in the same way I used to enjoy playing a game of Patience with a normal deck of cards. It’s a relaxing, mechanical, chill-out thing – and that’s GREAT – but it’s not often what I’m wanting from a board gaming session. (I should state here that I don’t own even one Dominion expansion, so I’m basing all this on the base game alone.)
Why am I talking about Dominion? Well, you will soon see a lot of people calling TRAINS “Dominion with a board.” And while I think that’s a bit of a lazy thing to say, it’s very hard to argue with as a shortcut to understanding what this game is. The deckbuilding element of the game is a lot like Dominion. Play cards to pay the cost to buy other cards. Put new purchases into your discard pile. Shuffle up, hope for your new cards. The fun comes from the additional actions that cards introduce to your game, and your attempts to get some kind of synergy rolling. And unlike Dominion, there is no limit on playing actions in your turn.
But here’s where TRAINS differs from Dominion. In a turn, as well as playing and buying cards, you can play cards that let you build stations and lay tracks. All that building stuff happens on a board. The board is laid out in hexes, and shows some Japanese cities. Players will lay tracks across the board, scoring points at the end of the game for tracks laid in cities with stations and tracks reaching to remote locations. The cost of laying tracks is paid for with cards too, so there’s a lot of deciding whether to spend money on refining your deck or on laying track. (Of course, you can only lay track when you play the card that allows you to do it, so you need to ensure your deck is spitting out enough of these cards.)
Here’s my favourite part of the game, though. It feels like everything you do creates waste. When you build a station in a city (and remember, you have to develop cities in this way to have your track be worth anything) you need to take a Waste card. When you lay rails, you need to take a Waste card. When you lay rail into a hex that already contains another player’s rail, that’s ANOTHER Waste card. And Waste cards do nothing. No actions, no value – nothing. In Dominion, for example, a major element of the game is trying to get rid of the weak early starting cards, to thin your deck. In TRAINS, it’s all about Waste. Your starting cards will always be useful, but your deck will start to clog up with Waste. Thankfully, you can skip a turn to take a “Rest” action, allowing you to ditch any Waste cards in your 5-card hand. But there are other, better ways. You can buy Landfill cards that allow you to trash waste, and you can even buy Freight Train cards that will carry off your Waste and get you PAID for that shit. Yep, you can even make your Waste work for you.
With Waste alone, the theme of TRAINS really comes through. In Dominion, you never feel like you’re building a kingdom, but in TRAINS you do feel like you’re building a little rail network and paying the economic and environmental cost for your constant expansion. Just having that board there, and being able to see your little network grow, elevates TRAINS above the other deckbuilders of this type.
There’s a lot to like here. I like how the scoring works. I like how your rails only generate points if they’re in cities with stations. I like how that forces you to build towards other players’ rail networks, to take points in cities full of stations you had no hand in building. I like how you can buy cards that lower the cost of you building into your opponents’ networks. I love how clean and simple the deckbuilding element is, allowing you to think equally about board and deck and hand. I love how fast it plays. I love the variety in the game, with the random selection of card piles at the start of every game. I pretty much just love it. By placing those rail cubes on that board, you have a completely different experience to any other deckbuilder I’ve played.
The theming of the game is great, I think. The art is lovely, and I’m delighted that the game is still set in Japan, the land of its origin. Cards that let you tunnel, pull freight, run tourist trains, build bridges – all of that stuff just seems to click more naturally than other games of this type. It’s such a solid marriage of design and theme.
What else is there to say? It plays 2-4 players and absolutely will take an hour to play at most. If you’re a fan of Dominion, this is a definite buy for you. It’s some mechanics you recognise and love with some fun “building” in the mix too. If you don’t like Dominion, this is still worth trying. I think it improves on the Dominion model, so you might like this game despite Dominion not clicking with you. If you’ve never played Dominion, I’d honestly recommend TRAINS over it. Many will disagree, I’m sure, because people LOVE Dominion. But I just think that when you compare base game with base game, TRAINS comes out on top with its elegant theming and the extra layer of light strategy that the board provides.
So. Do you like trains? Do you? It doesn’t matter, because I think you’re going to love TRAINS.
BROTHER GETHSEMANE WRITES…
“Fear not, Gethsemaniacs. The Midnight Table will return at regular intervals, with a darker look at board gaming, and the profane experiences you can expect from games good… and BAD.”
JAMES PUREFOY WRITES…
“Sorry, I’m not contributing anything to this column.”