Social deduction is one of those mechanics where no one's comfortable until it's over, and then you do it all again. Deception, deviance, dirty tactics - they're all a common occurrence. And the speed at which people fall into their allocated roles astounds me! That one guy who you think has his life together suddenly becomes an erratic mess when accused of underhanded dealings. They sweat, panic, beg, plead... they feign innocence and people go along with it... and they then turn out to have been the traitor all along! It's impressive how well their colours are hidden, and being objective is imperative. Stop The Train by Escape Plan Board Games is a social deduction game with classic traitorous tropes and some unique ideas. It's for four to six players and crashes into the station in about 30 minutes.
The game's concept is simple. The saboteur wins if they crash the train into Paris; most everyone else could win if they stop the train. Where things get spicy is that all players have their own unique objectives to complete at the same time. Not completing their secondary objective could mean a loss no matter what, whereas the saboteur simply needs to get that train beyond the stopping point at the station of Paris.
Stop the Train Setup
To get started, players must lay out the track as prescribed by the letters on the rails. They then deal out character cards to each player, ensuring the saboteur is amongst the cards. Players then receive three intervention cards and keep two of them, discarding the unwanted one. Now, the effect deck is shuffled and placed on the play area, alongside two Permits To Travel and the Land Speed Record token. Finally, the train is set to 120km/h. The first player is then handed the current player token.
Elements of the Track
Stop The Train's track contains several elements which enable players to achieve their own objectives, and also begin specific occurrences. As the game progresses, the train will encounter these areas and play may be altered because of it. It may result in players voting for something, card effects going into play, or players completing their objectives.
Some sections of the track have inclines, which are specific to achieving the land speed record; some have tunnels where the active player can steal a Permit To Travel. This is needed for any players who don't believe they'll achieve their secondary objective and an important element of some roles' objectives. There are also bridges where players will vote on a player to throw off the train and a signal box where players vote for which route they'll take to Paris. Again, some of these are specific to certain objective or intervention cards but can hinder and aid the saboteur depending on the context.
Taking a Turn and Winning
Turns in this game are unusual, but make sense in practice. At first glance, they appear to run over two opposite phases. The current player will resolve the previous player's turn and begin their own turn before passing to another player to resolve. At the start of the game, the first player will choose three effect cards, discard one and then pass the remaining two and current player token to the next player. That player then chooses one of those to play and one to discard. They will then resolve the effects of that card and move the train the respective number of spaces. Players play these cards face down for secrecy. That same player then takes three cards, discards one and passes the remaining two and current player token to the player on their left.
Stop The Train's odd turn sequence is the result of ensuring treachery can occur. By choosing two of three cards, you leave the next player with a moral decision and give all others an opportunity to scrutinise. However, between these turns, players can use intervention cards to impact the game in other ways. These will have moments where their use is applicable, as prescribed by the card, and will hinder or improve players' chances of success. For example, the "Run The Red Light" card will overrule the collective vote at the signal box and allow you to choose the train's route.
The game ends once the train either crashes into Paris or stops. Throwing the saboteur off the train does not result in an overall win, but can be helpful to reduce the likelihood of a loss. Players individually win if they manage to complete their game objective and their secondary objective, or have a Permit To Travel instead of their secondary objective. The saboteur, however, wins if they bomb Paris. Once either Paris is bombed or the train stops, the game ends!
How It Handles
Stop The Train has everything that makes any hidden role game quality, makes every social deduction game exciting, and makes every game with a countdown tense. It is sneaky moves and underhanded betrayals through and through and it works so, so well. You'll betray, lie, deceive and sneak as you attempt to crush the others' motives. Are they friends? Or do they need a personal meeting with a few railway sleepers at 180km/h?
Social deduction usually runs on one's ability to bluff their way through being someone else. Or on the ability to whittle down everyone's motives. If you're the bad guy, you claim you're the good guy. It's a simple but effective formula. If someone's acting in a certain way, they fall into a certain category. Again, tried and tested - grouping characters just works. Stop The Train removes that entirely, and takes a more realistic approach. Every character is unique in their motives, goals and end game. You'll want the train to do different things at different times, but generally, you'll want it to stop. Before this happens, however, you need to have completed your secondary objective. If the train stops before you have the chance to complete it, and you don't have a Permit To Travel, your efforts are for nought and it's an outright personal loss.
The reason the "you're bad so claim to be good" methodology doesn't work is because the game outright states you shouldn't discuss roles. You can't claim to be The Speedster, The Engineer, The Saboteur (not that you would) as it wouldn't be thematic. I personally saw it as The Speedster was an adrenaline junky who was taking advantage of a terrible situation. They weren't born The Speedster, nor were they brought up with the aim to have a speeding train break the land speed record before blowing Paris to smithereens. In that sense, they wouldn't announce themselves a speedster as the other passengers would think they had a bolt or two loose. So how do you defend your actions? You can't. You're strangers fighting over the speed of a train whilst doing odd things. It's poetically chaotic and superbly fun!
Spot The Saboteur
Now, normally you'd be able to figure out who's who through picking out classic role tropes. Not here! No longer can the process of elimination remove the social aspect. Stop The Train's removal of "You're doing X, so you must be you Y, so they're the saboteur." means that the social deduction has to be done socially. It's weird to say that, but it's surprising how many games with this mechanic can be overruled through the process of elimination. Eradicating that in this game is more than welcome and ensures you're never stuck with a dud role. And it's all done through interaction, discussion and action. It's something we'd not experienced before, but something that blew us away with how well it worked. The tried and tested formula is gone, and I can't imagine going back to it!
Feel The Rush!!
One of my favourite things about this game is the visual countdown. You know how close you are to doom because of the train's physical distance from Paris. Inevitably, it's heading there. What you control is how quickly that happens, and that's exhilarating. As a collective, you have to stop the train to succeed. However, you decide the speed of the train based on your motives or lack of choices. This could be down to two poorly passed cards, a sinister motive, or just playing the best card you can. What comes next is just as intense, the discussion...
The aftermath and discussion following an effect card can make or break. In example... You were given two "Full Speed Ahead!" cards, not much choice, but because you played one you're at fault. You can talk your way out of it or accuse whoever gave you the cards, but you've got to do something. You can't own the choice without raising suspicion, and doing it multiple times makes it more than a coincidence. Everyone begins to accuse and panic, and you do too. Before long you're at the bridge, and that's where you've got to really state your case. Succeed and you might stop the train together, fail and face a tumble at high speeds, and a failure. It's so tricky, and acting out of the ordinary (or too ordinarily) will raise an eyebrow or two. And in all honesty, I think that's superb!
Stop The Train has a wonderful way of building tension through the simplest of actions. Every event, every occurrence, every card all result in a nail-biting outcome. Whether the finger is pointed at you is going to be down to how well you can blag your way out of a bad situation... or how well you can dob someone else in one!
It's a Set-Up!
There's something very simple about playing the saboteur in this game. You can play the ignorance of everyone else off against one another quite easily. No one knows who anyone is for certain, and you're not supposed to announce your role - not forgetting it's your character's title, not role in life - so it makes things quite tricky for the passengers to figure everyone out. So, how do the passengers win? Vigilance. Playing the saboteur is simple, yes. You just need to get the train to Paris. Nothing more, nothing less. Where those lines get blurry is when people start interrogating one another. Do you jump in? Do things get spicy and you keep quiet? How do you best control the flow of blame? You have an intervention!
These aren't literal interventions with loved ones and concerned peers, but a figurative one played through an intervention card. These cards are tremendously powerful under the right circumstances and can make anyone squirm, regardless of their role. A fan favourite of mine is the one that allows you to check a discarded effect card. Now they may very well have gotten rid of a Hard Brake card to ensure they can break the land speed record. But is that believable? No one wants to hurtle into Paris at lightning speed. That's unforgivable! Other cards allow the opportunity to dictate which way the train goes for your own purposes. These may be for sinister motives, or to tick off an objective, but either way, it'll raise suspicion.
Stop The Train does have some intervention cards which are more hard-hitting though. These cards won't just raise suspicion, but they'll basically dictate your motive and reveal you for the cruel individual you are! I won't go into too much detail, but they involve some player elimination, some take-that, and a tiny spice of dragging someone down with you. All the acts of desperation you'd expect to see during a desperate battle to control a train at high speeds!
It's as we said at the start, Stop The Train is a social-deduction-gamer's game. A hidden-role-player's hidden role game. It's pure social interaction and interrogation through and through. You discuss, challenge, argue and accuse. The visual countdown of the train progressing is superbly thematic and sets up a great amount of tension as the game progresses. What’s more, the track is excellent at indicating what’s coming up and the consequences associated with each element. Whether it's the risk of being thrown off a bridge or missing out on an objective, it'll impact someone somehow! We very much enjoyed Stop The Train and its components, theme and ease of access really impressed. Couple that in with the pace of the game and you've got your new favourite social deduction game! Just don't raise suspicion... No one wants to meet the ground at 180km/h!