Railroad Ink is a quaint little roll-and-write game about creating a network of railroads and highways worth as many points as possible. It couldn’t be simpler, but that does not mean this delightful little puzzle is easy.
Each player grabs a board and a pen. The four-route dice and any additional expansion dice are placed in view of everyone.
A standard game lasts for seven rounds. If an expansion has been included, the game will last for six.
At the start of a round, any player rolls all of the dice in full view of every player. Three of the route dice show standard routes for either railroads or highways, while the remaining route die shows one of three routes that link highways and railroads in some way.
Either a station that converts one to the other, or an overpass that allows them to cross. The expansion dice shows additional scoring methods depending on which expansion was chosen.
All four of the route dice must be used by all players in every round (unless it is impossible to do so legally), while the expansion dice are always optional. In addition to the routes, six four-way special routes are displayed on each player board, three of which can be used during the game to get players out of difficult spots.
All routes drawn must either link to one of the exits around the edges of the player board, or to any pre-existing route. Railroads must be drawn next to other railroads, and the same rule applies to highways. All routes displayed on the dice can be mirrored or rotated in any way when drawn, allowing greater freedom when creating networks.
The goal is to score as many points as possible. The main method of doing so is to link exits together. A chart is displayed on each board showing how many points are scored depending on the number of exits linked.
Bonus points are scored for each player’s longest continuous railroad. Their longest continuous highway and by how many of the central nine squares were used. Each expansion provides opportunities for bonus points too.
However, points are deducted for every railroad or highway network that does not link to an exit, or to any edge of the board. Careful route planning is required to avoid losing too many points.
The player with the highest score at the end of the game is the winner.
Railroad Ink is produced by Horrible Games, but it is by no means horrible. The charming, whimsical artwork on the front of the box is both delightful to behold and perfectly on-theme. Playing this game is among the most peaceful and mindful experiences I have had in the tabletop gaming hobby.
The setup takes no time at all, so pulling this game off the shelf and sitting down to a quick game is just about the easiest thing ever. The game itself is so fast and simple, it can be played multiple times in an hour and only ever requires as much focus as you want to give it.
It has become a part of my morning routine. I wake up, walk the dog, get the kettle on, make a nice cup of tea and sit down to a game of Railroad Ink. Starting the day with a welcoming little puzzle such as this is one of the best ways to get the ol’ thinkbox chugging along at the start of the day; that is why the morning crossword is the endearing institution that it is.
This is mostly possible because Railroad Ink supports as many players as there are boards available. The game plays exactly the same with one player as it does with six. So, while I can bring this out as a nice way to ease friends into a game night before slapping down some lumbering behemoth such as Scythe, I can just as easily whittle away at my downtime by playing by myself.
No Player Interaction
Both experiences are equally as mindful. This is perhaps the only true negative of this game. There is absolutely no player interaction whatsoever. No discussion is encouraged between players in any way. Playing this game with other people results in quiet contemplation as everybody stares down at their boards working out how to place each route. Their eyes only ever meet across the table as they look at the dice that have been rolled.
The only words uttered are silent curses at the terrible, awful, useless routes available this round that create more problems than they solve. Then, at the end of it all, players compare routes and somebody wins. Then they start talking about something else.
As A Result Of All This
Almost all of my time with this game has been spent quietly sitting at the table playing solo when I have some free time to occupy. It does not diminish my love for the game because it is what it is, and it does what it does very well. But it will be an issue for some, so much so that Horrible Games saw fit to produce the Railroad Ink Challenge games, which remedy this problem by introducing player interaction elements. If that is what you want, then you should consider those instead.
This version of the game is a very straightforward puzzle, but one that is very well designed. The exits around the edges alternate between railroads and highways, forcing players to find ways to cross them or make use of stations. Also, the bonus points scored by using the central squares encourage players to build more sprawling networks, without ever forcing them to do so.
The Deep Blue Edition
It comes with two mini-expansions: Rivers and Lakes. You can only play with one or the other, never both. Their inclusion in the box is genius; they both change the game in such a way that Lakes can be considered easy mode, while Rivers makes the game more challenging.
How so? Adding expansion dice reduces the length of the game by one whole round, which means that while they are optional players are highly encouraged to make use of them. Rivers work similarly to the regular game, where they must start and end at the edge of the board or else, they could be worth negative points.
Only one river can be scored at the end, so they must be placed with care. Lakes, on the other hand, are much simpler to deal with. Lakes do not have to be completely closed off in order to score, and if an empty square is ever surrounded by at least three lake squares then it is filled with water and becomes part of the lake.
Additionally, some faces of the Lake dice have ferry ports, allowing the lake to connect routes across the board. Only the smallest lake scores points, but if the player can create one giant lake in the middle of the board, they can score huge points while also linking all routes together easily.
The expansions both add something different to the game and really help make it accessible to all.
Railroad Ink is essentially a solo game you can play alongside other people. It lacks a little as a shared experience, but it is a delightful and fun game, nonetheless. If you enjoy a quiet, contemplative game then it is hard to think of one better than this.
If you prefer a more engaging multiplayer experience, consider Railroad Ink Challenge. It has all the charm with a little added bite.