What is it about trains and boardgames? I doubt there’s another theme, outside of warfare, that has quite captured the imagination of designers as much as the Railway, and the number of germs without at least one train game in their collection must be pretty low. That being said, equally perplexing is just how different those games can be despite the shared theme. The spectrum runs from the super light but hugely popular route building of Ticket to Ride, to the complex and cut throat stock manipulation and boardroom shenanigans of 18xx games. In fact, the range of gaming experiences makes the term “train games” seem reductive and also also means that any discussions about which may be the best of them a little pointless as it genuinely depends what style of game you enjoy. But then again, trivial pursuits are very much “on brand” for board gamers and I’m nor going to buck that trend here. So allow me to weigh in with my submission for “Best Train Game” category: Railways of the World. Read on for my review and consider it an argument for why you (probably) need this game in your collection.
Station Approach: How to Play Railways Of The World
Railways of the World was developed by Glen Drover and Martin Wallace as a gentle introduction into so called “cube rail” games. These are games with some element of “pick up and deliver” mechanisms where the goods are represented by coloured cubes and delivered along an expnding rail network built by the players as the game progresses. While the box suggests the game is for 2-5 players, and both maps included have a perfectly adequate 2 player option, it is a more rewarding experience at 3 players or above. In this game, players take the roles of historical Rail Barons represented by cards given out randomly at the beginning of the game and which have secret objectives for end game scoring. The aim is to build their rail networks connecting cities on the board (these connections are referred to as “links”) and deliver goods between them.
In addition to the two included maps, there are a variety of expansion maps available, many of which are huge (such as the Eastern USA board included in the box) and add different rules to vary gameplay. Even on the larger maps, however, the space is deceptive as games tend to be very tight- there are only so many opportunities to build links between cities and some of these are both more expensive, such as those through the mountains, and also more tactically valuable. The main way in which players will earn points, however, is by delivering the cubes of various colours to their corresponding cities (so red goods cubes can only be delivered to red cities, for instance). These cubes are put out randomly during set up and are limited in number. Once a set number of cities have been completely emptied, the game will end.
Railways of the World has an unusual but straightforward turn structure. Firstly, Turn order is determined each round through an auction with the player willing to pay the largest amount going first. Players then take turns to take one action (see below) and, after everyone has had three actions, the round moves on to the last phase, taking income and paying out dividends. During this part of the turn, players take money from the bank with the amount dependent on their position on the score track. They then pay out money for any bonds they have taken out previously. Then, assuming the end game conditions haven’t been met, a new round is played.
Players of Railways of the World have a variety of actions they can choose to take in order to build their networks, deliver goods more efficiently and try to get the edge on their competitors. The first is to build track, represented by hex tiles denoting different track shapes and connections. A player will pay for up to four to be built in one action, how much depending on the terrain they are building on. Links between cities have to be built in one round so even though this can be done using more than one action in the round, players need to ensure they will have the resources to finish links before the round ends as any links left uncompleted are removed and building costs lost. Building is a crucial part of Railways of the World and there is a temptation to focus too heavily on this aspect of the game for beginners. Indeed there are bonus points available for the first player to complete certain longer routes however laying track is not the main way that players will gain points.
At its heart, Railways of the World is a pick up and delivery game and it is with the colourful goods cubes where the main game is won or lost. The second and perhaps most important action players can take, then, is to deliver one cube to a city which matches its colour. The board has a number of coloured cities and these will accept their corresponding cubes. For every one of their own links that the player uses to deliver a cube they will earn one point. So the further you deliver the more points you receive and the more efficient each delivery becomes. However, at the beginning of the game, every player’s trains can only deliver through one link. So another action players can take is to Upgrade their Engines to increase their delivery range by one. This becomes increasingly more expensive as trains improve and is only profitable if players are able to use their own links. You can use other players networks but then they get the point for that link instead of you, so… Boo.
Another action available is to take a card from an array of Railway Operations cards. These are free but take an action to pick up and can give a variety of benefits. These refresh at the end of the round and offer opportunities for additional scoring, bonuses on deliveries or discounts on building or upgrading. While most cards are useful, players will tend to take them sparingly as using up one action to take a card in a game where action economy and initiative is so crucial may not seem worth it. However, there are some cards which are so powerful they will instantly start a bidding war for turn order when they appear.
The last main action players can take is to Urbanise, which enables a player to convert one neutral “Grey” city on the board into a colour of their choice. This is another action which becomes more important as the game progresses as urbanising not only puts a new destination on the board, it is also one of the few ways that players can put new cubes onto the board and therefore more opportunities for deliveries or simply to delay the end game.
All of these actions, which are simple to take and seem so innocuous, can be game changers depending on when you take them, or just as crucially when you decide not to take them. Railways of the World is a game about momentum and a couple of unwise decisions can soon see you hobbling into last place. If you don’t build enough links you simply won’t get enough points through deliveries… however build inefficiently and you will end up without the money to take other important actions. If you don’t upgrade at a steady rate your opportunities to deliver will quickly dry up as easy to reach cities clear out while spending on upgrades too fast is inefficient if you don’t have the track to use it and may mean all the best links are taken before you get in on the fun… It is a seductive conundrum that never goes away from the first turn to the last and may result in some players suffering from the dreaded Analysis Paralysis from early on.
Railways of the world isn’t a cruel game but it can be unforgiving . Another example of this is in the loans system in the game. Any time a player needs funds, they can take a bond. These represent selling shares in the company and each one provides £5000 to the player. The catch is that they can never be repaid and at the end of each round, payers will pay £1000 for each bond they have.
Also, at the end of the game, players will be deducted one point for every bond they’ve taken. As each player start with no money, barring a very lucky draw with the Operation cards, the first thing a player will have to do is take a bond even if just to bid for turn order. The easy availability of money in the form of bonds is balanced by the long term effects of them. Too many and the building pressure they put on a players income and end of the game scoring can prove to be difference between winning and losing. But avoiding them at all costs can leave you lagging behind while other players are building their infrastructure and snapping up first player bonuses, and that lack of momentum can also rob you of victory. It is one of many decisions which the game casually tosses in your way which can seem innocent but which will bite back further down the track and it gets me every time.
First Class Service
One area where Railways of the world shines in comparison to many other train games is in the components. The Maps are lovely; detailed, colourful and in many cases sprawling affairs that look impressive on any (suitably sized) table. The plastic trains are colourful and fun to fiddle with in a similar way to Ticket to Ride trains but more detailed. In fact some components are a little over produced- the empty city markers are huge for some reason and seem like a bit of a waste of plastic. But they still look impressive and stand out to make counting them easier, I suppose. For me, one of the pleasures of Railways of the World is looking at the board once a game has finished and getting a real feel of how the game played out and a sense of a joint infrastructure and story.
The card art is simple and functional rather than particularly impressive but overall the visuals of Railways of the World is a real plus. My only criticism of production is that the game is a real table hog. The Eastern USA board is huge (see the picture for a sense of how big it is) and for no discernible reason has a separate score track rather than one going round the edge of the board like many of the other available maps. This takes up more room on the table when space is at a premium and feels like it could’ve been easily avoided. The paper money included in the game is not ideal for repeated plays but is good enough quality and the insert and production on the box more than makes up for it. All in all the anniversary edition is extremely well presented and leaves plenty of room for expansion components- my copy holds the base game, the recently added solo rules and cards by David Turczi and the European Map with very little box lift.
Verdict: Ticket To Ride Cubed
So why would I pick Railways of the World as my favourite train game so far? Because I think it is a game that I can introduce confidently to newer gamers and know that they will probably be able to play together more experienced players. That doesn’t mean it isn’t competitive- a seasoned player will likely wipe the floor with a beginner- however it will still be fun and win or lose you will feel like you have achieved something. Also, the rules do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the tactics gently steering players towards more efficient ways of achieving their goals without being over bearing. An example of this is how the income and score track are linked.
At first, Income increases as you get more points and eventually players will reach a point where money is no longer a barrier to their goals, time and actions is. But past a certain point the income starts to recede again as the company simulates becoming bigger and marginal returns start to peter out. This means that the leader should never run away too far and is at the same time gentle encouragement to players to pivot from network building to delivering goods as the focus for their turns without being too obvious about it. Its simply smart design.
My final reason for loving this game is that Railways of the World is always interactive but it can be as aggressive as you want it to be. Some games can feel more like a puzzle, where player interaction is simply about getting in or out of each others way while you all pursue similar goals. At other times, things can get a bit more sneaky with every action holding the potential temptation to lob a proverbial hand grenade into your opponents buffet car and then run off sniggering. And when so much planning and resources has gone into their plans, it might actually be the most worthwhile move to make.
A simple example here is the urbanisation action- placing a city on the board and some more cubes that everyone can use is very public-spirited right? Well yes… except that one of the rules states that cubes can’t go through cities of the same colour- they have to be delivered to the first city that they can be delivered too. So if you have an opponent who has spent a fortune building a network and upgrading his engines to deliver lots of blue cubes to the other side of the map, and you happen to turn one of the grey cities on his route blue… cost of the action? £10,000. The look on their face when you trash their 7-point per cube production line? Priceless.
There are absolutely more tactical and strategic train game out there, and there are lighter more beginner friendly games too. But I honestly think that Railways of the World is one which truly bridges both camps perfectly and that is an achievement in any genre.
Railways of the World reminds me why I love boardgames every time I play it. A game can take three hours or more, but it won’t feel that way. At the end of the game you may not have achieved anything of lasting value, but it won’t feel that way either. But most importantly, if the game gets under your skin as it has mine, a loss will feel like an injustice that you want to rectify immediately, while a win will feel like a well-earned reward for your undoubted tactical genius. The main thing is either way you’ll want to come back to it again and bring some more friends along for the journey.