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Trains and Trains: Rising Sun Review

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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.

Enter Trains.

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.

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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.

Cracked LCD- Trains in Review

 

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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.

Infiltration Review

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Gaming is littered with quirky little titles that play bait and switch with gamers, masquerading as a style of game they don’t actually provide. It’s not a problem, as long as the game is fun. Indeed it adds to the novelty and charm of the title for the open minded. Dungeonquest, for example, looks like a role-play mimic but is in fact a push-your-luck title and a wonderfully brutal one at that.

Infiltration is equally deceptive. At first glance you would expect this to be a fairly straightforward cyberpunk adventure, where the players take the place of criminals attempting to loot a research facility for information before the police arrive based on a partly-random timer. Collect the most data, and get out before time is up, and you win.

And in a sense, that’s what it is. The game is furnished with quality thematic art and the requisite background quotes and flavour text to add a fake air of authenticity. It also offers plenty of opportunity for the players to interact with people and things in the research facility and to do what criminals in botched heists do best: royally screw one another over for a profit.

However, played with these expectations the game is bound to disappoint to some extent. While the card decks that are dealt from to create a new set of rooms for the facility on each play through are richly varied, thematic and interesting, the same can’t be said of most of the other components of the game.

Players, for instance, have no special abilities. They can take only four actions – move forward or backward through the room cards, interact with the room’s function or loot some of its data. To supplement this they also start with four items which are mostly one-shot variations on the basic actions. But the items deck is pretty small. As a thematic exploration, it works moderately well. As a heist game it lacks the variety and tension required to support repeat plays and has a weak strategic framework against which to make interesting decisions.

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It is, therefore, a damn good job that Infiltration isn’t really either of those things. Sure it’d be nice to see some greater variety in actions and items, but it’s not necessary. Those elements are present but rather than make the game, they just add pleasing extra dimensions to Infiltration’s primary purpose. Which is to be a bluffing game.

The first clue is the way that so much of the game starts face down. Rooms cards can’t be seen until explored or examined via technology. The data files they contain are face-down chips of varying value, and it’s the value you score at game end, not the number of counters themselves. Players hands, and stacks of data files, are hidden from one another. Each turn they select an action individually, play it face down, and only resolve the effects once everyone has chosen.

All this hidden information is absolutely crucial to making the game fun. Many of the card effects add to the sleight and confusion, such as the “Blackmail” item which permits a player to cash in some of his hoarded data files to escape the facility with sublime ease. But its clearest in the action that allow players to steal data in the first place. There’s two variants for this (use “Extract”, trust me) but both mean that players get the most if they’re the first to resolve that action, and less if someone else got there first.

That one point of critical uncertainty alone injects massive tension and psychological manipulation into the game. Everyone has to grab as much data as possible in order to win, so if there’s some left where you are, stealing it has to be a prime consideration. But the same rule applies to everyone. So unless you’re first in turn sequence this round, dare you risk it? Action selection is suddenly transformed into a sweat-soaked frenzy of second guessing and double bluff as you try and work out what everyone else is holding and planning.

That’s just when it comes to downloading data. There is, of course, plenty more. Items can allow you to make sudden jumps back and forth through the facility. Others allow you to break tech-locks or murder employees in certain rooms, releasing more data. There are room effects and non-player characters which will hurt or hinder players encountering them. But you only have one action per turn. It’s all about dare, wondering whether you can waste a valuable action to set a trap for another player, or whether you may become an unwitting victim of your own schemes. It’s all down to those cards held and selected by your opponents in utmost secrecy.

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But of course making your decisions in an information vacuum means there’s little mechanical strategy. That’s the source of the common whine about it being excessively light and lacking replay value. The important decisions are all about bluffing and reading your opponents intentions correctly. The replay value is in interacting psychologically with the other players, not with the game itself. It’s a kind of strategy, but not the strategy some gamers might be looking for. Especially not from the same designer as the mechanically stripped down and low-interaction favourite Dominion.

So Infiltration turns out to be a bluffing game in disguise. In this category it stacks up against an impressive number of popular semi-abstract games like Poker which arguably do the whole psychological angle rather more impressively. What makes Infiltration special are the other strings to its bow. The simplistic maneuver and hand management aspects. The beguiling cyberpunk theme sitting on top the the mechanics like a graphical overlay on a pool of data. The direct and often rather nasty player interaction. The push you luck aspect of balancing the data grab with the need to escape alive. None alone may be done particularly impressively, but as props to the core bluff, they function brilliantly.

It’s that blending of relatively common elements into an unusual combination that makes Infiltration. It’s a fast playing and easily learned game that offers you a gripping hour of cyberpunk plot twists, tension and backstabbing and doesn’t let up until the final score tallies are made at the end. Single unexpected plays and events can totally change the course of the game and you have to be able to take that in your stride, while recognising that the skill comes in doing your best to anticipate and ensure things aren’t quite so unexpected. Manage that, and you’re in for a treat.

The Digital Transcendence of Deckbuilding

Holy smokes, you know what I forgot to do? Post last week’s Cracked LCD link. Sorry ma, I was Witchering!

Anyway, I’ve not done an editorial in a while because there’s been too much on the docket that I wanted to review. But things are slowing down, and I’ll probably start rotating the reviews with smarty pants articles, trolling lists, and ranting. Last week, I wrote about deckbuilding and how I no longer have any desire to play physical games in that genre. But boy, I do love them on the iPad.

It’s a genre that has come of age along with the maturation of tablet and smartphone gaming. And it’s a perfect fit. The funny thing is that a lot of the liabilites and negatives around deckbuilding games fall away when the logistics, calculation, and process is automated. What’s that you say? “But Barnes…face to face gaming with friends and family!” To that I say “that’s what Cosmic Encounter is for, not Dominion”.

It’s a somewhat unpopular opinion, but I would be more than happy to see a lot of physical games just go straight to a tablet/smartphone format. There are games that specifically need human, face-to-face interaction. But there are many that do not. And I’d much rather spend my limited time gaming at the table with friends with the former than wasting time with the latter. There’s also the issue that digital board games are much cheaper, more eco-friendly, and you can play them any damn time you want without having to negotiate with the wife, get four other friends to schedule time (and negotiate with their SOs) and have everybody drive somewhere to meet. It’s the future of board gaming, like it or not.