What is it about trains that makes them such an irresistible and seemingly inexhaustable focus for play? Is it the trains themselves or is it the limitless possibilities of the tracks, or is it just the ability to control all those points and sidings, to fiddle and then fiddle some more? Whether it is that wooden push-along train you got for your second birthday or the train set you had as a child (and don’t we all secretly want a set like Rod Stewart’s?) or the steam train outing you treat yourself to as a fortysomething, that pull is always there. Unsurprisingly it has also proven to be a fertile hunting ground for game designers, from the gateway goodness of Ticket To Ride and all its various maps to the hardcore economic simulations of the 18xx series and all stops in between.
The box art means business!
Trains everywhere! Where does this fit in?
Somewhere in between the gateway and the all-consuming obsession slots in Railroad Revolution, a game designed by Marco Canetta and Stefania Niccolini, and taking as its focus the emergence of the American railways in the 1800s, including stocks and shares, telegraph offices, different types of terrain, economic management and the like. Those elements already place it above the Ticket To Ride series in terms of complexity, although some of the TTR maps include one or more of those extra niceties listed above, but the fact the gameplay includes all these interconnected elements adds to its heft and weight.
The components in the square box are a pleasing bunch, decent quality cardboard tiles to represent all manner of things from shares to money to goals, and wooden tokens to keep track of buildings, scoring and, well, track. Each player receives their own board with spaces for their workers, while the central board, on which up to four aspiring rail magnates will attempt to build their empires, is good and sturdy and displays most of the information that will be needed in Railroad Revolution.
The neat main board awaits your exploitation.
The signal is green! It’s time for actions!
Despite a vast array of tiles that look as if they are going to cause serious migranes once the game is set up, Railroad Revolution is admirably simple to explain because players simply select a worker from their pool, place that worker on an action space and then execute that action. Railroad Revolution’s twist is that there are five types of worker in the game, represented by different colours, and using any of the four specialised workers (Foreman, Accountant, Negotiator or Engineer) offers a player the option of a second, more advanced, action in addition to the basic one. Use a white meeple (non-specialist) means that a player still gets a second action but it is less lucrative and flexibe than those offered by specialists.
The top action always activates, the lower is optional and depends on the meeple’s colour.
A player’s four main actions comprise building a station, extending the railroad, building a telegraph office or selling off an asset for money. Building the first station in a city nets that player a bonus, as does constructing the first office in a section of the telegraph line, and there are deals that may be triggered, terrain to be conquered (although here it is conquered by money), shares to be sold off, workers to promote and milestones to be completed. Play continues until any player has used up nearly all their stock of track and buildings at which point everybody gets one more chance to get those rails and stations onto the map before the final reckoning.
Some tracks pass through tough terrain or trigger deals.
1800s America? Get ready for open spaces!
For all the interlinking of its various elements, Railroad Revolution’s players may well feel themselves entirely separate from their other competitors as the level of interaction in this game is on the low side. In many ways Railroad Revolution is decidedly forgiving as far as worker placement games go, especially as each player has their own board with all the actions available rather than selecting from a common pool, and it takes some effort to be backed into enough of a corner to find one’s options curtailed, something that happens normally only as one’s pool of workers diminishes. All routes on the board are also available to all players at all times as long as they are continuing a connection, and the only real rough and tumble comes in the quest for the first-to-get-there bonuses, but even these can sometimes be gained in other ways.
First to build a station or telegraph office gets a bonus
I have a soft spot for worker placement games, but I find those that give me all of the options all of the time to be pretty easy going. I would much rather consider not only what I would like to do but also what might inhibit my opponents, or find some spaces blocked off, or need to pay for more valuable actions. Railroad Revolution does impose financial penalties for some choices, but I was more taken recently with Haspelknecht‘s implementation of its ideas (reviewed here), especially the idea of a player “owning” a hex in the tech tree, and this train game has come off second best as those two boxes have gone head to head on my table. While a lack of interactivity does not kill a game – or even Railroad Revolution – for me, merely lessening my interest in it, you might feel differently, so if you prefer Caverna to Agricola then you should probably be fine, but think carefully if you have those Rosenberg boxes ranked the other way round.
The board is full of great details.
As one might expect with a game this open in terms of its decision space, Railroad Revolution is at its best at the full player count of four. A lower number of players reduces the number of tiles in play and adds a little more pressure to the main board in the form of blocked spaces, but playing in two ends up being a pretty thin experience of the full game, even if a three-player game is not too shabby. Four, though, is certainly the sweet spot for Railroad Revolution, even if it brings with it the possibility of things slowing down to a Southern Trains-style crawl as players assess all their options.
Full steam ahead! What’s to like?
Despite filling me with fear when I initially opened the box, Railroad Revolution turned out to be easy to learn and explain and streamlined in play. For all the lovely art and icons and attempting to work out where those victory points are going to come from (more on this later), the basic layout of a turn as Take 1 Worker -> Place that Worker -> Perform that Action could hardly be easier to grasp, leaving new players plenty of brain space for working out the subtleties of the design.
Not as terrifying as it originally appears.
In the sidings! What’s not so great?
There is a fair amount of information to keep track of in Railroad Revolution, and this can make life tough in the first plays, especially with the iconography which, while clear once players know what is going on, takes a little while to take on. It also needs to be mentioned that those pesky folks on the internet have noticed that a certain strategic focus in the game has turned out to be pretty much a dead cert for victory, so much so that the designers have suggested a difference to one element of the game in order to negate a possible imbalance. If this is the kind of thing that will irk you as a player then it is only fair that you are aware not only that it was supposedly there, but also that it has (just as supposedly) been dealt with.
The telegraph track is an important part of the game…
Railroad Revolution also does not really mind where your score comes from, although the three Performance Tracks on the board where players can gain serious points give a big fat hint that Networks, Stations and Telegraph are the big earners. Players are also rewarded for face up train tiles, which are considered active trains, completed milestones and Telegraph connections, so if you like splashing around for points in all sorts of different areas and final scores in the triple digits then you will be in game heaven here.
The scoring tracks provide hints on where to gather points.
For seasoned traveller? Or nervous newbie?
On a good day and with the wind in the right direction I would say that Railroad Revolution is a decent next step for players of Ticket To Ride who harbour a secret affection for things on rails, but in reality it is probably a better next next step – it is certainly playable at the lighter level and with the intention of simply having a good time, but it comes to life when its players are seasoned cardboarders who know how to fit the various conflicting elements of a game together, and in that kind of company Railroad Revolution shines. All those icons and deals and tiles and achievements are possibly too much of a leap for a gateway gamer, but players with a few Euro titles under their belts will feel at home.
Icons will take getting used to.
Unfortunately Railroad Revolution is one of those games that leaves me just a little underwhelmed in the playing, something it shares with other titles keen to hand out hundreds and hundreds of points. I can forgive this in something like The Castles Of Burgundy because it curtails its players’ options in other ways, throws in a dab of chance, and rewards intelligent plans along a focused path, but Railroad Revolution, with nearly all its options available at all times only nudges its wannabee tycoons in specific directions via the Milestone tiles, and I did not find it as visceral a thrill even as a couple of the Ticket To Ride maps, and that, surely, is an ominous sign.
Don’t forget to achieve your milestones!
First class travel? Or stuck in the depot?
As I mentioned before, playing Railroad Revolution back to back against Haspelknecht has been an interesting experience, because the mining game had enough tweaks to make me think “that’s interesting” or “that’s different” several times and kept bringing me back for just one more go to explore how those elements might best be exploited. Railroad Revolution also gave me a “that’s interesting” moment, but it was just the one, when I saw how the different colour meeples affect actions. It is a twist, a tweak, rather than an innovation, but in many other aspects Railroad Revolution feels as comfortable and cosy (and safe) as the seats in the old first class carriages in the black and white films.
Cash and prizes and lovely cardboard money!
Railroad Revolution is therefore a solid and respectable entry into the pantheon of train games, a couple of levels up from Ticket To Ride in terms of complexity and suited to more experienced gamers. There are puffs of new ideas here and there, but the main thrust of the game passes in the familiar attainment of goals (and, therefore, points) by different means. It is not innovative or individual enough to warrant a high mark, but neither is it a bad game at all, so it is a question of paying your money and making your choice. For me, though, this is a 7 out of 10, so something to cull rather than keep, but decent enough to play…but who would have thought with my recent big boxes that I would have had more fun being a sixteenth century coal miner than a train driver?
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.