Although it would appear to be themed as a small train game, Mini Rails is more of a network building, share management game. It has a very compact footprint, playtime and execution, but still provides a game which is fun to play, and benefits from strategic play.
I have heard Mini Rails described as a distilled down, filler version of an 18XX game. But I’ve also heard that description dismissed by regular 18XX players. I guess you’ll have to make your own mind up on that. However, I’ve known Mini Rails be enjoyed by people who enjoy 18XX games and people who prefer thematic games. In short, it generally goes down very well. Also, with a play time of around 45 minutes (depending on player count), it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The starting board is a hexagonal map, with six railroad (differentiated by colour) companies, one located in each corner of the map. Each company occupies three hex tiles on the map. In a round, players take two turns, each turn is a different action - either build tracks or buy shares. Both actions involve removing a company disk from the central market board, and either placing it on the map (build tracks) or on their personal profit board (buy shares) at a share value of zero (insert chosen currency value here).
That alone isn’t enough to make the game sound interesting. However, there is a catch to the way that the company disks are selected. There are two turn order tracks on the central market board. The first is occupied by player pieces (two for each player), the second is occupied by the company disks - in a randomised order.
When a player selects which disk they want to take, they are also determining which position in turn order they will occupy in the next round. Decisions about when to play in the next round can be just as crucial as which disk to take… and which action to take.
Buy Shares - This is a simple action. Take the selected company disk and place it on your personal profit board, on a share value of zero. You may already have shares in this company, but neither the old share nor the new one are affected by this purchase. The only thing that affects share value is the building of tracks.
Build Tracks - This is a similarly simple action. However, this is the one that impacts on the value of shares. Any company disk which is placed on the map must be placed on an empty hex adjacent to already existing company tracks. All hexes have a share adjustment value of between -3 and +3 (apart from the central hex - the Big City - which is +5). Anyone who currently owns shares in this company must adjust the value of their shares by the number on the hex which the company just occupied. This can lead to a race to boost your own company share values, whilst also making the share value of companies owned by other players plummet.
Not all companies score. In each round the number of company disks that are placed on the central market board is equal to double the number of players, plus one. This means that there is a single company disk left at the end of the round. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it counts as a round marker. The game is played over six rounds, so once the sixth “surplus” marker has been left, the game is over.
The other purpose has much more impact on the game. The disks are placed on a round marker track called the “Taxed area”. Only shares from companies that appear in the taxed area can score positively at the end of the game. Also, they cannot score negatively. However, companies that do not appear on the taxed area can only score negatively.
So, whilst there is a race to place tracks on the positive hexes, it is also important to make sure that your companies are properly taxed. And as there are a specific number of disks for each company, part of the aim of the game is to manage the number of remaining disks.
Final Thoughts on Mini Rails
It's no surprise that Mini Rails (designed by Mark Gerrits) was shortlisted for an award at UKGE 2018. It arguably deserved to win, given the nature of the game, and the time it plays in. It’s a real shame that Mini Rails isn’t more widely recognised. It is a great game that deserves a much bigger fan base. Also, it plays up to five players, which is refreshing to see, in a market dominated by games for four players max.
It is worth noting that earlier printings of Mini Rails have very poor colour choices for the companies. Some of the colours are virtually indistinguishable in moderate indoor lighting. I’m pleased to say that this was addressed in later printings, but it is worth bearing in mind. With six colours for the companies, and five player colours, it’s not difficult to see how mistakes could have been made.
As with all train type games, there is a level of interaction that is higher than your typical Euro, but lower than a direct conflict game. The entire board is a random set-up. There are seven two-sided tiles that make up the map, as well as the company border, all of which can be randomly positioned. The order that the company disks are drawn is random. As a result, there is plenty of variability in such a small game. As a result, I can’t imagine it ever feeling too repetitive. Mini Rails is, for me, a keeper.