The deckbuilding mechanic of Dominion was the most revolutionary thing in the last decade of tabletop gaming. Many other games have build on that creativity. Yet after all that time and all those titles, deckbuilding still feels like a mechanic struggling to find its place in the world.
It’s an inherently insular thing. Demanding significant setup time and forcing players to obsess over their own constructions while ignoring everyone else. Nightfall and Star Realms added more interaction, but it wasn’t enough. A Few Acres of Snow briefly looked like a miraculous saviour but got crushed under the Halifax Hammer.
Trains looks like a re-themed Dominion. You play cards to get money to buy more cards and, if you pick your combos well, the economic engine of your deck slowly improves. It’s got a curious new concept of Waste, useless cards that you gain from certain actions and which do nothing but clog up your hand. You can pass to get rid of all the Waste cards in your hand, or certain other cards can help you get rid of them.
It’s interesting, but it’s not enough to differentiate the game on its own. What does make Trains different, and special, is what you do with your economic engine. Rather than just an ever-increasing velocity of victory card purchases until someone wins, the goal of Trains is to build track. Across a hex board. Against other people.
This changes everything.
Suddenly, your deck and your hand are worthy only of peripheral glances. Everyone focuses down the board in the middle of the table. They’re together: pointing, chatting, worrying about what’s going to happen on that board before their turn rolls around. It’s not just more interaction. This is deckbuilding as a shared experience.
This dynamic is enhanced by the clever way in which you score points. Some come from building track into “remote locations” and some will come from victory point cards in your deck. But mostly they come from having track in cities where there are stations. It costs money, a card, and waste, to build a station but no-one owns it. Everyone with track in the city benefits. Station building in crowded locales thus becomes a vast and intriguing game of chicken.
Yet the game still manages to feel friendly and welcoming. Building track in a hex doesn’t claim it as yours, it just makes it more expensive for someone to join you. Competition without cruelty.
Turns roll round with incredible speed, but you’re faced with a wealth of options. Besides all those ways to score points, there’s different ways to build your deck and expand on the board. Sometimes it makes sense to build a lean, card dealing machine and others you can embrace the Waste. Sometimes it makes sense to isolate yourself in a corner and others you’re best shadowing other players and feeding off their stations. No two games are ever the same.
It’s not as good a family game as it makes out to be, however. It has the same information overload as many deckbuilders, with so many cards to choose from and a selection that shifts with every game. This is great gamer fuel, of course, but many find it confusing. The two big maps on the double-sided board aren’t great with just two players, either.
Enter Trains: Rising Sun.
This is one of those expansions that’s also a stand-alone game. You can play it out of the box, or combine the new cards and boards it offers with those from the original Train.
If you’re new to the series, it’s a much better place to start. The double-sided board has a big map for three to four players and two smaller maps for two. They’re cramped and awkward making the game much more compelling for a duo of players.
There’s also a couple of new mechanics. One of them is the concept of Route Bonuses. These are effectively like the tickets in Ticket to Ride: extra points you can get for connecting cities. There’s nothing not to love about this. It adds depth, competition and excitement for no overhead. Rising Sun has the necessary cards and markers to add Routes to the original game too.
The other thing is adds are Attack and Reaction cards, two sides of the same coin. The Attacks are a little soft, as you’d expect in a game like this, but they still add some sweet kid glove brutality. And if you like the interaction, but not the nastiness, be sure to throw in some Reactions into the card mix too.
In making for these extra card types, Rising Sun does create one odd problem. What’s gone to create the space are a selection of cards that allow you to slim and control your deck. Without them you’re stuck with your starting cards for longer and it’s harder to hone your deck into a potent engine.
Some might say this is a good thing. It can certainly end up creating some surprise plays. If you don’t like it, there’s plenty of cards with the necessary functions in the original Trains. Mix them both together.
Neither of these games are groundbreaking with their design. Plus they have a feeling of trying to be all things to all gamers, creating a game of all trades that’s master of nothing. These are the only reasons I can think of why they haven’t exploded into wider consciousness, because they’re cracking titles. What they lack in innovation they make up for in impact. Here, finally, is a proper fusion of deckbuilder and board. Here, finally, is a game with all the creativity and variety of deckbuilding with interaction and positional play. Here, finally, is a deckbuilder I actually want to play.
Here’s a little “inside baseball” about the games review racket. Most publishers, especially the smaller guys, you need to email or call and ask for press copies. It’s somewhat humiliating in a way, going out with hat in hand to ask for a free game but the game makers benefit from the press more than a reviewer benefits from a free game. But some of the companies have bona fide press lists, and they send out press packages and unsolicited promos. Sometimes, this is a great thing because you get to see games ahead of release and it gives you lots of material for the next several articles. But sometimes, it feels like this huge obligation- particularly if you’re being sent games that you don’t want to cover.
Fortunately, AEG does good press packages and even though I’m pledged to impartiality and I’m not swayed by swag I appreciate their generosity. It shows that they respect reviewers and understand their part in the marketing process. There’s a new AEG box with their summer releases packed in it that I got a couple of weeks ago so I thought I’d just review the whole damn thing in one swing.
They didn’t send me Istanbul, which is ironic since I’m going through this Eurogames rediscovery. But that’s fine, I’m not a big Rudiger Dorn fan to begin with. One of the big ticket items was the new Thunderstone Advance expansion, Worlds Collide. I swear they have sent me Thunderstone ten times. I like Thunderstone and I’m actually always interested to see what’s new and the last round, the Numenera set, was the best release in the franchise to date. This new one is a great idea, it is effectively a “greatest hits” compilation of cards- and promos- from the Thunderstone sets before the Advance reboot. Everything is made current, and it is also a standalone so it’s also an entry point for newcomers as well as an expansion. I’d like to see this “best of” concept applied to other games with tons of expansions, a single package that hits the high points for folks that don’t want to collect or clutter.
At some point, I’d like to see AEG do something similar with Smash Up, which is already four or five expansions deep. The new one is Science Fiction Double Feature, which adds four new groups to the crazy mix-and-match base battles. Cyber-Apes, secret agents, time-travelers, and shapeshifters add lots of fun combinations on their own and more when mixed with a couple of other Smash Up releases. Smash Up is actually kind of funny and this set is no exception. The Bond references are eye-rolling but fun and I love that the time travelers are all done up in a late 1970s style- and they’re led by “Doctor When”. Smash Up doesn’t hit the tables much with my gang, but I have an abiding fondness for this simple, stupid game. I still think there’s a little too much simple addition.
The new Romance of the Nine Kingdoms expansion set Arcane Fire was in the box, but I didn’t play it. I didn’t like the base game, which is effectively a redevelopment of the old Legend of the Burning Sands CCG. It’s this odd concept where it’s supposedly this fictional long-running CCG from an indie picture called “The Gamers”. It’s sort of a “multiverse” set up with vaguely connected mythology, terminology and characters. I just could not get into it, and I didn’t get the joke.
Valley of the Kings is much more serious, what with its subject matter being Egyptian mortuary customs. I didn’t know what to expect from this microgame-class title and even though it’s a deckbuilder, it’s very different. From a starting deck of 10 cards depicting Egyptian funerary artifiacts that can be used as money, a special effect or “entombed” for points in a set collection scheme at the end of the game, you’ve got to purchase cards from a pyramid of six cards to construct your deck. But you can only buy off the bottom row of three cards, and then those above “crumble” down. Of course, there are cards that let you poach artifacts early and perform other rule-breaking or interfering actions but the catch is that you have to balance the three strategic uses for each card in your hand. Entombing a powerful card to complete a set of artifacts may net you points, but it’s out of the game and no longer available for use. It’s an interesting variation on “trashing” or deck pruning because you do so for points- not just to thin the deck. I enjoyed this little game and I think that it carries its theme quite well despite abstracted mechanics. I think it could be a sleeper hit- it definitely feels quite a bit different than most deckbuilders and it kind of touches back to card game concepts not common in the genre, such as the whole set collection goal.
One of the best things that AEG has been doing lately is their “Big in Japan” line, which makes sense after the smash success of Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter and the mostly good notices for Hisahi Hayashi’s Trains. The floodgates are open. They shipped me two copies of Love Letter, which should have been a Spiel Des Jahres finalist but was still one of Barnes’ Best for 2013. One is the Legend of the Five Rings edition, the other is the white box “wedding” edition that apparently you can only buy direct from them and only if you submit evidence that you’re getting married. I still prefer the lovely Kanai Factory edition with the original art, but these are still fine versions of an outstanding game. I am worried, however, that Munchkin Love Letter may be in the works.
I was pleased to find Kanai-san’s Mai-Star in the stack, a Geisha card game that has turned out to be somewhat better than I thought it was at the outset. The idea is that you take on a proprietorship role at a geisha house represented by a card showing your Geisha, her special ability and her ratings in three different qualities- performance, service and intelligence. You’ve got to attract customers, who have different requirements for each of these ratings, to make the most money by the end of the third round of cardplay. It’s a “run out” game, so each round ends when a player is out of cards and negative points are assigned to anyone still holding.
But your ratings won’t be enough to attract the various doctors, sumo wrestlers, actors and generals. In order to increase your reputation and skills, you can choose to play a character card as an advertiser. Your ratings will increase, but you won’t get any income as you would for using the card as a customer. So there’s a balance between playing cards that improve your Geisha and using the cards as clientele. And of course, there are also special effects that each card provides- they may help you or hurt the other Geishas.
I liked this game mainly because it turned out to be a nastier than I expected. It’s more take-that than I expected, and there are some pretty vicious swings thanks to a few fairly powerful cards. It’s accessible enough, but it is more complex than Love Letter and it isn’t anywhere nearly as clean or minimalist. I like that it plays to six, and it is one that plays better with more, preferably over a little Sake or plum wine.
Another of the Big In Japan titles, Hisashi Hayashi’s Sail to India has been earning some advance praise via its imported edition, and for good reason. This is a very smart, very streamlined post-Eurogame that packs a lot of gameplay into 24 large cards and a pile of wooden cubes. It’s another microgame, and it’s one that gets small by literally editing out everything out of a traditional pick up and deliver/nautical commerce concept except what is absolutely important to conveying the subject matter. Players represent shipping companies tasked with setting out to trade goods, establish churches or fortresses and develop technologies to increase their ability to travel and turn a profit. This is all played out on a line of cards that represent ports of call, culminating with one player reaching India to end the game.
The neat thing is that Hayashi has taken the worker placement concept, in some sense, back to Carcassonne. In that game, a meeple could represent a knight, a robber, a monk or a farmer. In Sail to India, each cube might represent a banker, a scientist, a boat or a historian. And you have a limited pool of cubes, so doing things like making money or earning VPs (recorded by your historians) takes resources from the pool. You’ve got to balance having ships to sail out to distant lands to conduct trade with having someone to count the money.
I really like this little game. It’s definitely heavier than you’d think from something that looks and sounds like a filler. There are a lot of dynamics represented from the simple tech tree to improving your ships. And it’s shot through with tough one-or-the-other choices. I want to see more microgames of this caliber- and at this level of thoughtful, highly editorial design.
And finally, the AEG Summer Blow-Out wraps up with the headliner- the much-anticipated Doomtown Reloaded. It is AEG’s first foray into reviving dead CCGs, and following the Fantasy Flight LCG model it’s another title that offers a bulk purchase core set with additional “Saddle Bag” expansions on the way. Doomtown was one of those late 1990s CCGs that came along long after the format exploded and while the big shakedown of also-rans was going on. I never got to play it, but I’ve had some friends over the years that totally were in love with it, keeping decks ready on hand and playing it off and on long after it had left shelves.
The concept is great. Players represent weird western “outfits” including lawmen, outlaws, big business and even a travelling circus. These factions are represented by decks loaded up with “dudes”, gear and hexes and the cards are also traditionally suited to handle certain resolutions such as shootouts and initiatives with Poker hands- an inspired touch. These outfits are all out to control a town called Gomorra (there’s a Spaghetti Western title) and its locations. There’s a much stronger sense of geography and setting than is typical in the CCG field, with dudes moving around from location to location, exercising control to earn influence and develop a Ghost Rock-based economy that funds your purchases of people and pistols.
Here’s the deal about Doomtown, at least from my perspective after a couple of games of it. This is a very, very compelling and complex game that requires players to seriously dig in and invest. Richard Garfield once said that a successful CCG is one that devours a player’s time, and that may be this game’s biggest draw- and its biggest liability. I have no doubt that Doomtown is a good game and I’ve definitely been interested in it, but I don’t know if I’m up for investing the kind of time I think this game deserves. The deckbuilding looks quite intriguing- decks cycle fairly quickly, and in addition to taking into consideration what dudes and equipment you want, what actions you need, you’ve also got to consider how your deck is going to draw to get these Poker hands. So some great cards might not be a good choice for your deck just because you need some other suits to try to get better draws. Learning to put together a quality deck seems like a tall order for those with a casual interest in the game.
As Doomtown Reloaded stands today, the new box does a great job of trying to get players right into the action with four preset decks, two big “player aid” boards and a full tutorial game that walks you literally step by step through the game. If you’ve never played it before, do not skip this offering. I thought I would be Mr. Smartypants veteran game player and do so, and when I read through the rules I was totally lost. I had to call up one of my old CCG friends that was one of those Doomtown acolytes from way back to help me play through a couple of games with some of the other cards. He was thrilled by the new set, so long-time fans might be enjoying a Netrunner-like renaissance over the coming months.
I received another one of AEG’s care packages late last year (delivered to the wrong address, as usual) and I’ve finally gotten around to playing through their most recent review copy bounty. For some reason, I was shorted Cheaty Mages which sucks because I was really looking forward to it, but beggar-critics can’t be choosers. So here are three capsule reviews of some recent AEG releases.
It’s practically impossible for me to not call this game “Banalis”, because it has got to be one of the most banal games I’ve played in recent memory. It’s another design, this time by Philipp DuBarry, that has been appropriated into AEG’s Tempest setting and like the previous titles in the set it’s a workmanlike, mostly unremarkable game with some familiar mechanics and a general lack of excitement. Players once again represent rival factions of the Tempest city-state, this time dredging canals through swamp lands to make connections between resources and production facilities that turn those raw materials into finished goods when they’re also connected to tenements, which provider workers. There are also special buildings that impart- you guessed it special abilities. Talk about old hat. The whole thing is driven by a 7 Wonders-style pick-and-pass card drafting mechanic.
It does play out something like a rail game on water, complete with player ownership of locks (stations, if you will) and tolls required to players using them. There is a sublimated element of cooperation, since players are mutually building the canal system but it’s mostly a tile-laying, point-scoring affair with moderate friction. It’s mercifully brief, so at least it has that going for it.
I dreaded playing this game more than once for review purposes. I almost felt like I had to apologize to my regular game group for bringing it out for a third round because it just wasn’t interesting to anyone. It isn’t that the game is badly designed- in fact, I think it’s a competently developed system but it’s at least ten years out of date. It reminds me of playing marginal Eurogames with mercantile themes in the early 2000s, titles like Kontor or Hansa that were coldly economical exercises with very little heart or passion.
Nightfall: Eastern Skies
I was much more excited to play the new Nightfall expansion, Eastern Skies- mostly because this add-on moves the apocalyptic vampires versus werewolves action of the storyline to far east. It’s an unusual setting, allowing for all kinds of cool Chinese, Indian, Thai, and other Eastern flavors. You don’t often see traditional gothic horror tropes in these kinds of environs. Like the other Nightfall expansions, Eastern Skies is a standalone game that doesn’t require you to have any other Nightfall products.
I haven’t kept up with Nightfall, a game that I liked but didn’t feel particularly compelled to continue playing for long after the IOS version came out. So I wasn’t aware of some of the changes that have been made to the core system, but I found that I liked what was new in this set. The intricate core gameplay based around building chains of cards is the same but this time out there are cards that summon disposable ghouls into play for use as minions. There are also cards that have a new “link” ability, that basically provide an instant effect as soon as a card is played into a chain. This gives the process of playing cards into chains a little more oomph and increases the strategic value of some cards.
I liked the new set and I was glad to check in on Nightfall again, but I don’t think the cool setting and new mechanics are quite enough to lure me back into it. I still feel like the game is a little too complicated for its own good, and I’m not sure that I would reach for it over other deckbuilders that offer a more direct, immediate style of play. That said, Nightfall remains one of the more interesting and violent deckbuilding designs on the market.
Thunderstone Advance: Numenera
By far the gem of this lot- quite unexpectedly- is the new Thunderstone set. When I saw it in the package, I groaned a bit because even though I do like Thunderstone it’s quickly approaching Munchkin levels of proliferation. I also didn’t really know much about the Numenera setting, which is a new RPG from Monte Cook. So I sort of felt like I’d be going through the motions in reviewing this release, which is a completely standalone game requiring none of the other Thunderstone products.
It turns out the Numenera setting is very cool stuff, a Gene Wolfe-like far-future deal where ancient technologies are interpreted as magic and the monsters are more in tune with weird fantasy than high fantasy. The artwork- which I assume is mostly pulled from the RPG books- is quite nice and overall there’s a sense of character and atmosphere replacing Thunderstone’s amiable but bland genericism. More significantly, a couple of minor tweaks to the Thunderstone formula (building on the improvements made in the Advance edition) make this the best release in the line to date.
The card mix is really good, providing a solid blend of basic, intermediate and advanced card effects and there’s a host of interesting monsters to fight. But the main difference is that when players earn XP from smashing the weirdo creatures in the game, they draw thunderstone tokens out of a bag. These are color-coded to different one-shot effects. This imparts a fun resource element- do you want to spend a token for an extra point of light or a gold or do you want to save it for an upgrade? It’s a small thing, but it adds just a small layer of detail and choice that pays off quite a lot.
There are also large format cards that provide global effects. They can be pretty interesting and there again it’s a small addition that works and has a worthwhile payoff. Above these additions, this version of Thunderstone by far feels the cleanest, most refined and most carefully developed. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing more of Numenera explored via Thunderstone.
AEG has certainly come a long way from Tomb, a game I mercilessly panned back in 2008 which remains one of my barometers for modern game design gone…well, just bad. They’ve positioned themselves well with a couple of strong product lines and brand names beyond their tentpole Legend of the Five the Rings, and I’m always curious to see what they’re doing next. Last week, I reviewed (and mostly liked) their US release of the Japanese deckbuilder Trains but I’ve also been sitting on a small pile of recent card game releases from the company and I figure it’s about time to round ‘em up in a Review Rodeo.
First up is a new entry in one of AEG’s longest running product lines, Thunderstone. Thunderstone was the first major deckbuilding game out of the gate in the post-Dominion world and its tagline was “deckbuilding with a purpose”, signifying that the game had a stronger thematic context than its esteemed competition. It’s a dungeon crawl, of sorts, with some unusual (for the genre) fiddliness about light sources, weight limits, and leveling up character cards. Overall I like the game and I think that last year’s Thunderstone Advance was a general improvement to a game that already, at that point, had something like five or six expansions including one major big-box one. The Thunderstone Starter Set is the newest release, and I think it’s a pretty interesting idea- strip out all of the more complicated cards and effects and do a very basic, 259 card “entry level” set at a low cost and a low commitment level.
The Starter is completely compatible with all previous Thunderstone sets, which is really nice, so that means it’s effectively a new expansion but with some built-in redundancies in terms of the seed deck cards. Veteran players might not be too impressed with the simpler cards, but I think this is a pretty nice assortment of cards with which to check out the mechanics to see if it’s something you want to dig into deeper. I also think it’s a good set to try the game with younger players who might be new to more complex card games.
I like that AEG does a lot of expansions that are also standalone games, and Guildhall: Job Faire is another one of those. I never played the original Guildhall (thrillingly subtitled “Old World Economy” because it looked tragically boring and had god awful artwork. So when I got the review copy of Job Faire, I sort of shrugged at it. I took it to the Hellfire Club, my usual game night, and one of my friends said “we’re not actually going to play that are we?” So it’s kind of a tough sell based on looks and concept, but it’s a pretty decent and accessible card game that’s better than it appears.
It’s a rather traditional-feeling kind of card game, with a set-melding mechanic. The idea is that you play cards of matching medieval occupations but differing colors into groups (“chapters”), and as you play more into a set you activate progressively more effective special abilities. There’s a little take-that so it’s hardly a frictionless tableaux builder, and there are some head-nodding card management decision points. But overall, the game lacks an element of excitement. It’s a 30-45 minute title so it’s hardly an offensive three hour slog, but unless your group just finds itself hooked into the mechanics it definitely feels like a game with a short table life.
A game that has a short table life of a different kind is Love Letter, another Japanese game released earlier this year by AEG as part of their Tempest line. AEG rethemed the game to match up with its Venetian atmosphere and artwork and packaged the game in a delightful red velvet bag embroidered with the title. It’s a 15-20 minute game played with a very small number of cards (16) and a handful of tokens. It’s also brilliant, a tremendously compelling exercise in design minimalism.
AEG has just released a special limited edition of the game called the “Kanai Factory Limited Edition” in tribute the game’s original publisher. They’ve returned all of the original artwork and packaged the game in a curt little black box. It’s very striking, and the visuals are quite distinctive. There are two promo cards included that are purely cosmetic- a second Princess card with glasses and a Prince card that replaces the Princess. There are slight differences to the Countess and Minister cards that make them a bit more dangerous. But overall, it’s the same great game with its original artwork. I like this edition better than the Tempest version. Apparently AEG is making a L5R version of the game as well, which might have some different rules itself.
They’ve also stuck some L5R artwork into Maximum Throwdown, a ridiculously fun and frankly quite stupid card-throwing game that is kind of like a Smash Bros. concept- at least visually. Recycling artwork from other AEG properties, the game pits up to six players against each other, each with decks depicting characters, factions, and images from Thunderstone, Nightfall, Smash-Up, and so forth. Process is simple. Draw a card, throw it on the table.
There’s a little more to it than that. There are location cards (again, more AEG artwork re-use) that your card has to touch if it’s not touching another card. After you throw, you get to activate visible icons on your in-play cards that do things like steal cards from other players, throw again, or most importantly score points. It’s similar to Carl Chudyk’s Flowerfall, but with more bite to it. Don’t confuse this title with a Serious Gamer’s Game. It’s played best with rowdy, slightly drunk, and potty-mouthed players. Churchmice and Age of Steam players should probably go to another table. This is fun stuff- simple, direct, and belligerent.
Last year’s Smash-Up should be simple, direct, and belligerent but it’s oddly math-y for a game that should be nothing more than a punch-up between mix-and-match combatants. The concept is that you take two half-decks, each representing something like robots or dinosaurs, and smash them together. Then you play those cards at bases, attempting to numerically best everybody else there while activating special functions. It’s really an area majority game but with some up-front aggression. At least once you’re done adding up all the numbers.
The new add-on is the Awesome Level 9000 set, which functions as a stand-alone two player game. But don’t do that, you really need four and you’ll wish the game supported six. The expansion adds ghosts, killer plants, WTF Russian bear cavalry, and (regretfully) steampunk. All have their own particular flavor that works in varying degrees of synergy with other decks. I actually found that I liked Smash-Up more than I remembered from back when I reviewed it last year, and the new cards add more variety which is always good in a game like this. But it still has this awkward layer of calculation that keeps the game from being the kind of dumb fun I really want it to be- like Maximum Throwdown.
Hisashi Hayashi’s Trains, just released in the US by AEG, is a very good game that unfortunately has an indelible issue of identity. You simply can’t discuss this title, which is effectively a deckbuilder that drives rail game inspired board play, without Dominion. Even if I did not mention it, every single aspect of this game’s fundamental design would still say it out loud. Trains is probably even closer to the cornerstone Dominion design than Ascension, Thunderstone, or any of the other deckbuilders we’ve seen over the past few years. But then again, continually referencing Dominion, even if the design’s goal is to “fix” an aspect of that game like its notorious lack of meaningful theme, is the pandemic problem with the entire genre. It all goes back to Dominion, and the big question mark hovering over all of these designs is to what degree any of them could actually be considered “great” or “significant” when ultimately all are iterative designs typically with a couple of modifications or twists to distinguish them from their forbears.
Even Trains’ post-Dominion stab at intervention isn’t particularly novel. From Starcraft to For a Few Acres of Snow to City of Remnants, the notion of driving a board game with Dominion-inspired deckbuilding mechanics is quite common at this point. So Trains has its work cut out for itself- it needs to emerge as something more than “Dominion with a board”, and it needs to make an argument that this particularly mechanical/processional chassis can run a train game where geography, proximity, economy, and development are as important as cycling your deck and developing a good card mix. It also needs to overcome Dominion’s inability to connect abstract action with concrete meaning as well as its mostly passive sense of competition.
The good news is that Mr. Hayashi’s design is actually quite successful in accomplishing these goals, regardless of how easy (and lazy) it is to dismiss the game as Dominion with a board. Trains is slickly designed with a solid out-of-the-box card mix, a real sense of growth and change as decks are built and refined, and plenty of on-board friction. Some really smart design work creates some unique strategic considerations and the simple rail building makes the game as a whole feel richer, more complex, and satisfying.
The format at this point barely needs describing. You start with a seed deck of ten cards. Seven basic “Normal Train” cards, two cards to build tracks with, and a station expansion card that lets you build a station on a city where you have a rail built. The train cards generate a dollar each when played, and you’ll need money not only to buy cards from the common display but also to pay fees for when you build rails over certain terrain and most significantly when you attempt to build in a hex where someone else has already laid track. Of course, there are upgrades to the Normal Train cards available at a cost, and many action cards generate additional per-turn funds before you flush everything away and redraw to five.
Buying cards to increase revenue, mitigate costs, and capitalize on what is in your deck are of course key concerns. Like Dominion, there are also three types of cards (representing urban development) that do nothing but generate VPs at the end of the game. When it comes to a close, you get points for having connections to cities that have one or more stations as well as connecting to “distant places” on the edges of the map that have a printed point value.
The value of on-board competition can not be overstated in Trains because it makes a tremendous difference. Having to watch what other players are building and weighting the opportunity cost of building an expensive track in a spot where one or more players have already built (thus jacking the price up) is a different game than developing a couple of combos and cycling them for victory points. You may not be able to outright block another player in Trains, but you can certainly make things more expensive for them. And in a game where money is tight and doesn’t accumulate, that’s a powerful ability.
Waste is a key factor in the game as well. Playing a Lay Tracks or Station Expansion card puts a do-nothing Waste card into your deck. Playing one of those cards to build where someone has already broken ground before you not only incurs a financial cost, it also puts an extra Waste into your deck- the cost of competition. As the game progresses, decks naturally become more and more choked by Waste, throttling them down and limiting their growth potential. There is a pass action whereby you can throw out your entire hand and send any Waste back to supply, but it can put you down a turn on the competition. Other cards effectively let you recycle the Waste into money, card draws, or other benefits- provided you can keep control of the mounting uselessness in your card pool.
I really like Trains, particularly as a three or four player game which is something that I definitely don’t say about Dominion. But I can’t shake the feeling that this game should be- and could be- more than it is. As a proof-of-concept, the idea of a rail game driven by deckbuilding totally works. But it needs to be more than just Dominion on a board, and hopefully with expansion it can be. What I don’t want to see are expansions that are little more than additional maps and new cards that aren’t much more than modified versions of the cards in the core box. I’d like to see more train game elements incorporated into the mix like deliveries, demand, goods production, and other aspects. I think it can be done, and since AEG is great about supporting its card game lines with expansions the possibilities are at least out there.