Before I get into my personal train-based gaming history, I thought I’d jump in quickly with some things that I can only categorize as train-based shower-thoughts… or perhaps train-navel gazing.
Trains are cool.
a. exception: steam locomotives are quite hot, do not touch
b. one thing (albeit: a giant thing) can pull all of those rail cars!? Yes. And it can do more than that! It can pull them for hours and hours without touching a steering wheel! Imagine taking a road trip, but you only have to control the accelerator and brake pedals (velocitator and deceleratrix, if you will). And not only that, but you can chain up all your friends’ cars to yours and you’ll all get there at the same time. Okay, now take that, and instead of “your friends” it’s “120 tons of your favorite gravel” per car. That’s a lot of something for one thing to do.
Trains are not offroad-vehicles. We talked about the steering wheel, or lack-thereof… because the steering is handled by inflexible and expensive iron bars bolted to the ground!
a. Inflexible and expensive iron bars bolted to the ground (let’s call them “rails” for short, because I don’t want to keep typing that out) are expensive to install.
b. And expensive to keep in working order
It takes a lot of money to get all three (a locomotive, train cars, and rails) all in one place and, importantly, with businesses on either side willing to pay you money to get their favorite gravel (or food, or cars, or big boxes full of small boxes, etc) from one place to another.
a. But it pays a lot of money! I’m not going to trust all 120 tons of my favorite gravel to just anyone! But someone with a steering-wheel-less engine pulling a hundred rail cars all at once… Hmm, yes, that could just work.
I’ve been told that, to build a suspension bridge, the engineer has to know what it looks like before they can design it. That is; you can’t just build it from the ground up- some amount of it has to be a vision before it can be designed on paper. Railroads are exactly the same (except they aren’t bridges).
Okay, well, let’s say that’s true; how does that relate?
Acacia has pointed out that some “train” games focus on the financial aspect of training; this seems obvious to me; it’s the quintessential “big business” – it only works on a large scale.
But what about the other aspect? Train games that don’t focus on economics and financials: Well, imagine running a railroad. More trains = more success! (success is often measured in cubes) But, wait, there’s a finite amount of trains… and a finite amount of cubes… and the more trains there are, the more trains there are to get in your way. Just taking dollar signs out of the design space does so much to open up the imagination of not just playing to “win money” but playing to “business better than the next guy”.
Anyway, my personal train game journey is long and not very interesting, but I’ll post about it soon.
To dispel these rumours about me: I’m not actually into trains. If the games that I play were themed into something else other than trains, I would still be into them.
Why so much Train in the industry?
I don’t know, maaaan!
There are also secret train games around. Knizia’s Spectaculum, Moon’s Airlines Europe, and Odenhoven’s Portobello Market are examples of these
One club member who dislikes train games argued that I have made him play a secret train game with Through the Desert. I disagree
How would you proselytize someone who does not Train? Where is the magic?
The magic is in the emerging gameplay. Sticking only to Cubies and 18xx, they allow “emerging gameplay” where their rules allows great depth to emerge. Playing Container a few weeks ago, a friend remarked how the rules for Container are rather simple, but found it interesting in the end when she found out that there’s “a lot more to it”.
Indeed, Cube Rails remain the best subgenre when it comes to light rules vs depth/player interaction ratio.
The problem with this in how I have to convince people to play it with me is the production. And I always rely on it. I sincerely dislike Rio Grande’s production on their latest line up of Cube Rails. I know that’s what the boorish train gamers want, but in my position, I have to convince people to play these with me.
Fortunately, I still have the old and new titles from Queen Games and Capstone. Queen’s are passable. Ian O’Toole’s clear graphics for Age of Steam and Capstone’s Cube Rails are fab.
Age of Steamways of the World subgenre feels more like a Euro game, tbh. But at least, they are VERY elegant to play. Efficiency Euros nowadays are such a piss-take on how they keep becoming so complicated as years pass, and yet they do the same snowbally thing as Age of Steam. Sure. There’s nuance on how they establish their design framework so players have different ways to make creative moves, and I do appreciate those nuances. But really good titles like Tzolkin or Agra are rarer than I thought.
P.S. Reiner Knizia’s Stephenson’s Rocket is the best game he ever made. And that one is inspired heavily by Acquire rather than by 18xx.
There is a narrative about why board games default to war and colonialism so frequently. It goes like this: It’s a board game. So you are starting with a board. This lends itself to a map. Then you have two options: a) Start with a bunch of stuff on the map → WAR. Start with an empty map → COLONIZATION. It’s a compelling narrative and I think there is truth to that.
People get around it by skirting the edges. What if it’s just a map of our city? What if we are building or rebuilding our own city? (Lisboa, Santorini) What if it’s a blueprint or floorplan? (Kanban, Flashpoint) What if instead of people, it’s animals, so it’s not “war?”
And we’re getting more and more creative over time. We can build a zoo (empty map)! We can run a hospital (full blueprint)! So there are ways around war and colonization, though we are ultimately doing tangential concepts using less fraught situations.
Empty map? Build a rail network!
Full map? Compete for routes and deliveries!
It just works with the medium. Map, thematic layers of territorial conflict and terrestrial development.
Of course, we can then segue into the evils of indentured immigrant labor, hell on wheels, eminent domain, buffalo shooting… I guess nothings entirely unfraught when we humans are involved. Oh gosh, zoos are fraught too now that I’m thinking about it.
I have to plug the youngest sibling, Steam: Rails to Riches, here again. It’s got two modes. The simple mode has such a simple, streamlined ruleset it could compete for SdJ. So, boring, right?
But from the outset, you’re locking horns with everyone, trying to secure routes AND secure cubes faster than everyone else, and everyone is eyeing the same low hanging fruit on the map.
You’re desperately trying to manage your personal economy, between spending money for infrastructure and NOT spending money to stay out of debt, then delivering cubes to get some level of income so you can spent more money and not go into debt… forgoing a delivery to upgrade your loco… agh.
It’s so streamlined but captures the core. And yeah, it’s not a “train company sim” like others but it leverages all the advantages of trains.
Then, of course, you have the advanced mode in the same box, which is 90% of Age of Steam, making the economic side of the game much more punishing. It just doesn’t have the chance of bankruptcy, like AoS, since there is no cap to your income. Some people can’t forgive it for that.
Train Games are The Best Games. Games with trains are not necessarily Train Games. Buuuut every game is a train game if you squint hard enough.
By a long margin my favourite sub-genre of games are cube rails. I just wish there was one that you could sell shares in. One day I’ll try Spectaculum a train game by my favourite designer, Dr. Reiner.
As @Acacia said, the whole board on a table thing lends itself to building things. Trains make it possible to have some juicy shared incentives, which in turn is why I play games. To play with other people!
18XX are fun but suffer from the end game issue of there’s a point where you just run the game until it breaks.
I really like games that have route building in them… often those are with trains.
Sometimes boats. But boats are probably just short water-trains. Like Polynesia.
I am not so much for the economy part.
My only 18xx is the one from my Dad’s home city Dortmund and beyond some solo rules-learning it hasn’t hit the table though my dad proclaims he is willing to play. (it has a simple route-building only mode so that would be nice).
I like Ticket to Ride just not playing it with people. They think so much and take so long while I could already be losing against the bot
My only cube rails thing is Iberian Rails–beautiful cover. I have no idea whats inside except it only plays 3+ and that just doesn’t hit the table here.
As for why trains? People like trains? Trains remind them of visiting their grandparents when they were young? And Trains are everywhere. Trains are past and future. Trains are cool like bow-ties.
And also maybe gamers here want to show how they can do it better than Douche Bahn.
And last: I just took a walk down into the farthest reaches of the basement:
I think an important part about trains in games has been hit upon already by @Acacia and @pillbox and I’d try and sum it up a bit. I think the things games abstract about trains have enough of a feel and representation of the real thing as to be thematic and can give rise to satisfying game mechanism for good game play.
If you were to pick up and deliver with helicopters you’d struggle to apply game limitations about directions you can go that were thematic. Trains though, the limitations make sense as there’s no track there so you can’t go there. I also think limitations are often what makes games interesting to play. The thematic abstractions are by no means perfect but have enough to feel about right.
Train games are rarely about trains. Rather, they are about stocks, network building, and/or logistics. The latter two appeal to me greatly and I enjoy the activity of the crayon rail games, even though I admit they can be too random.
AuZtralia is a train game of route-building and resource gathering in 1930s Australia which transitions half way through into fighting a war against the newly-awakened Great Old Ones. Which is a mad combination that totally works. (comments, comments, comments.)
Wow. Ok. I really thought this topic would feed itself. Are we done?
Here’s the trains I have:
Ticket to Ride (Europe, plus two expansion maps)
Railroad Ink, Green and Yellow (on the maybe cull pile)
Steam: Rails to Riches
Empyreal: Spells and Steam
Kinda covers the gamut and I think this is a more disciplined section of my collection, where I’ve tried to get a set that doesn’t overlap. Chicago and Iberian may be similar. I may get one more 18xx on the 1829 side of the family tree.
What’s the best game on the 1829 side of the equation, considering a confluence of manageable teachability and playtime with reasonable interest and replayability? So far the manual for 1846 reads very similar to Shikoku, but maybe the differences emerge in gameplay.
Favorite? Steam or Empyreal. But those are also the ones I’ve played most, apart from TTR, which is really just there for other people. I am excited for Iberian and ChiEx one day, I think those may be even better.
As a thematic-first gamer, I like trains but I want train games to give me whatever it is I think is “train feel”, and that hasn’t happened. I played Shikoku 1889 online with some of you here; I’ve played Trains the deck-building game; I suspect what I’m after may be some sort of timetabling game where I have to get as much traffic as possible through the network in a set time.