You don’t need to like trains to love... Isle of Trains!
Dice Hate Me Games didn’t expect such an incredible response to their 54-card ‘Rabbit’ game design competition. Isle of Trains is the brilliant story of a game that, although it didn’t take the first prize, stood the test of time and was given a warm reception by the board gaming public.
The premise is simple. Build the best train on the island and deliver goods to fulfil contracts. However, Dan Keltner and Seth Jaffee have cleverly designed Isle of Trains to be much more than meets the eye! Hold onto your caboose - let’s see if this game delivers the goods.
From a designer’s point of view, Isle of Trains is inspiring and innovative. Once you’ve laid out the island - six cards with simple contracts on - and received your brave little starting engine, you begin to see the ingenuity of this game in the cards dealt to your hand. Each card has multiple functions that will have you thinking very carefully.
Perhaps you will want to build one of your cards as a carriage on your train. In the deck you’ll find hoppers, tankers and boxcars for carrying the three types of cargo. These can be upgraded over time to bring attractive benefits and more victory points. However, to pull bigger freight cars, you’ll need to upgrade your locomotive engine.
There is a satisfaction that comes as your train develops into a powerful behemoth, complete with bonus-carrying cabooses (the carriages at the back). You can even construct one of six buildings that will most benefit your style of play.
Turn any card sideways, and you’ll notice one of three symbols. Oil, coal and ‘box’ are the only cargo you’ll be interested in on this curious island. You can load these into your wagons by sliding them sideways, underneath the train cars. Once your train is carrying the correct goods, they can be delivered to gain points and eventually usher in the end of the game.
More often than not, you might prefer to load an opponent’s train cars! Loading other players with cargo activates different powerful benefits, creating a great interaction between players. Will you fill up your rival’s tanker with oil so that you can gain three more cards and a free action? Or stingily keep the oil for yourself and struggle through like a miser? In Isle of Trains, it’s often better to give a little and gain a lot.
Building and filling freight trains with cargo is an expensive business! How on earth do you hope to finance all of this in a 54-card game? With cards! You may need to say goodbye to that Megahopper and Oil Refinery for a few rounds - those two cards can be discarded to pay for the shiny new Level Two Engine you need.
Cards paid from your hand are placed face-down in the discard pile to pay the cost shown for the different things you will need to build. Eventually, they will be shuffled back into the draw pile, but then your opponents may be able to draw them.
A great feature of Isle of Trains is the upgrade system. Instead of having to take a massive hit to your hand to fund the most costly carriages, you only need to pay the difference between what you have and what you want. The Supertanker (cost eight) is a lot more affordable when you trade in your Tanker 201 (cost five) - only needing three cards to pay the upgrade. This allows the game to grow and develop at a healthy pace, with no players left trailing behind.
Engine Building and Hand Management
Player’s turns are limited in Isle of Trains, but present plenty of opportunity. Two actions from the following can be taken:
- Take the top card from the draw pile.
- Build one card from your hand.
- Load one card from your hand (as long as there is capacity for it!).
- Deliver cargo from your train.
These can be the same action twice in a row if you’d like.
The true scope and power of a player’s choices comes when loading rivals up with their own cargo. Doing this immediately allows the active player to gain multiple cards and can even line up a chain of actions. This cheeky nod to engine building adds to the charm of Isle of Trains.
Players will have to carefully plan their actions, as whilst they can inflate their hand to pay big costs, they will need to discard down to a limit at the end of their turn. Hand management is important for getting the most out of the different stages of the game and offers a lot more strategy than first appears.
Once a delivery has been made, that contract is taken and allows the player to attempt an alternate contract which is worth many more points.
The game ends (with a last turn for each player - including the player who triggered the end) when a certain number of contracts are taken or if both the draw deck and discard pile are entirely empty.
Points are awarded for train cars, completed deliveries, buildings and loaded cargo. The winner is crowned the greatest train operator on the Isle of Trains!
Time to Board - Final Thoughts on Isle of Trains
If you’re looking for a well-designed, strategic game, Isle of Trains is a tiny package that packs a big punch. Don’t be deceived - there's a lot of depth within these 54 cards! Games cater for 2-4 players and tend to last 30-60 minutes. The art is charming and has a retro, 1950's American feel to it. The cards have a good weight to them and rules are found on two double-sided sheets.
At such a tiny price, this game makes both a great gift for a gamer and a worthy addition to a collection. Catch Isle of Trains while you can!