Recently, I seem to be playing a lot of train-themed games. Not the big 18XX style games, I’ve yet to graduate to that, (though it does interest me I must say). The most recent train game I’ve been playing is Pacific Rails Inc. by Vesuvius Media. This game, for 2-4 players, was originally on Kickstarter back in 2019.
It grabbed me when I saw pictures of the map, covered in little rail tiles as routes started sprawling over the map. When I saw that this was mainly powered by a worker placement mechanic I was interested. And when I saw that this was complemented by an engine-building system, I was backing. This game was ticking a lot of boxes for on paper. But does it hold up with a few plays under my belt?
Cross country rails
So, Pacific Rails Inc. is a game for 2-4 players and takes about 2 hours to play. Each player will take control of a rail company aiming to connect the East and West coasts of the United States. You’ll be earning points for building new rails, new stations and telegraph poles. You can also pick-up points by completing end game scoring roles and one or two points in a few other ways too.
There is a lot going on in this game. In general, you will be gathering resources then using the specialists in your train to convert those resources into rails. Finally, you place those rails on the map. This allows you to connect new cities then build new stations and telegraphs. The majority of this is driven by the worker placement board.
There are nine actions on this worker placement area. Interestingly, you don’t place your workers on the action itself. You place them between two of the actions. When you place your worker, you can then take either of these two actions. You can also remove a worker from this board to trigger one of the two possible actions again. If you’re clever, you can place between one action you need now and another you need a little later.
Working hard, or hardly working?
Because of the way this grid is laid out, these actions have multiple spaces allocated to them. If you ever take an action and already have another worker adjacent to that action, you get to take a boosted version of that action. If you’ve got two workers already adjacent, then you can double boost your actions! I like it when a game gives you little efficiencies and opportunities to really combo up. Pacific Rails Inc. reminds me a lot of Concordia in this sense.
There are three main types of action in the worker placement area. Four actions allow you to gather one of the four resource types. Four allow you to use your specialists on your train to convert these resources into different types of track. Or political favours in the case of the financier. And the last space is a combo of laying track and hiring new specialists. From this grid of worker placement, you are essentially controlling your railway empire.
The other shared bit of the board is the map at the bottom. This is where the results of most of your actions will ultimately end up. Each player will start the game with a train piece on either side of the map. The game ends when one player has linked the East and West sides of the map together with rails. On this map, you’ll find different types of terrain to build on, some impassable mountains and various cities scattered all over the place. Every time you build rails you need to make a new connection between two previously unconnected cities. You then move your train along a continuous set of tracks to one of these two newly connected cities. Once you’ve arrived you can build a station or telegraph in whichever city you end up in.
You earn points for each bit of track you lay as well as a few points for building a station or telegraph. Stations are worth a flat three points apiece. Telegraphs start off earning you very little but if you manage to get lots of them out, they really start to pay off.
You don’t have to use only rails you’ve built though. If it makes sense, you can connect your rails to some that your opponents may have built and move through their network as well. You’ll end up giving them a few points for the privilege, but it could be worth it in the right situation.
The third main area of the game is your personal player board. Initially, all you have is a train engine. You’ll also keep your station houses and telegraphs on your player board. As you place out your station houses, you’ll uncover new spots allowing you to gather more of a chosen resource. This can help you tailor your strategy and resource production to the terrain you are most likely to be building on.
The other effect of placing a station out on the map is that you get to add a carriage to your train board. Each carriage adds spots for two specialists, an upgrade and a few resource storage spaces. This is important for the specialist spaces on the worker placement board. The more carriages you have, the larger you can make your production engine. Also, specialists placed in the later carriages are more potent! But they do cost more as well.
When you choose to run your train, you get to activate each specialist in each carriage in turn. These will allow you to convert the basic resources into the tracks needed to traverse each of the different terrain types. The financier specialist will allow you to influence different senators on the mainboard. These will grant you anything from resources to the ability to place out your stations on the map. You can also reset any senators that have been used and get one victory point for each one you move back. This also reminds me a little of Concordia but also a little of Istanbul too.
The train terminates here
That is pretty much the whole game. There are some random end game scoring tiles to keep things fresh and add a little replayability. On the whole, this is the only variable setup present in Pacific rails Inc. other than switching up the starting positions.
The game itself feels like three smaller games trying to work together. This produces a big complex experience and I would say that on the whole, it succeeds. You have a worker placement game which is the main place you will go to gather resources. The engine building on your player mat is very satisfying. Once you’ve got a few stations out on the map you’ll be gathering buckets of resources. Your train full of specialists can then convert them all to rails and you can make large thrusts across the map, netting a pile of points in the process.
You have some interesting decisions to make. Do you make several smaller moves in order to start placing your stations out on the map, or do you try and make a mega combo engine that allows you to burst across the map leaving your opponents in the dust? You can largely try and keep to yourself or get right in the mix of it and use as many rails build by your opponents as possible.
You’ll give them points but you can use them as a springboard to jump across the map. Being second in a city isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. If you concentrate on that you can get all of your telegraph poles out, and they are worth loads of points come to the end of the game.
Please have your tickets ready
There are definitely a few things I would change about this game, mainly on the production side of things. The player mats, though nicely illustrated, are incredibly thin. Some thicker, or even dual-layered, player boards would give the game a much more premium feel. Also, and this is probably my biggest complaint, there is no customisation on the map layout. I would’ve loved it if this map was comprised of smaller tiles that could be mixed together to randomise the world you’ll be building across. But as it is the same map every time the track layouts always feel similar.
The opening moves from each starting location are pretty much the same in every game. It does branch out after that, but I feel that a modular board could’ve really helped the game in this case and taken Pacific Rails Inc. to the next level.
That said, the game feels tense when you’re playing. You’re really trying not to open up a route that’ll let your opponent leapfrog through your network to make massive gains across the map. The shared map means you are always watching your opponents and are interested in their turns. That’s not always the case with worker placement games. The mechanisms that allow you to multiply your actions by surrounding different spots have you trying to eke out every little efficiency you can muster. You need to try and get your engine running that little bit smoother.
The game plays well throughout its player count. At two, depending on the starting positions, it is possible to mostly stay out of each other’s way and concentrate on honing your engine. At four, you’re generally never more than two or three spaces away from your opponents. At first, that’s about the same distance as it is between towns. But, by the time you get to the middle of the map, it’s often easier to piggyback off of your opponent’s gains so you can push through to the other side of the map.
Overall, I think this is a really interesting game. I can think of no other game exactly like it, although I can see aspects of it in other games. If you like worker placement, engine builders or even just Euro leaning games in general, this is probably worth a look. It is a little bit let down in the replayability and production departments. The latter of which can be partially remedied by going for one of the upgraded versions of the game. There But on the whole this is a solid game and something a little bit unique.