Everyone loves trains, well perhaps not everyone. There is almost a romanticism about train travel- memories of a bygone era with a nod to old classic movies such as Brief Encounter or Murder on the Orient Express. Nowadays trains are “just” a mode of transport, a way to get from A to B [assuming they are running and there are no strikes!]. In homage to this nation’s love of trains, and to give those commuters something to consider as they work from home whilst negotiations between the RMT and management continue, here are five fabulous board games with a railway theme (aka train games).
In the pursuit of scientific rigour, the fabulous Zatu blogging team were asked to name a group of games. They were then scored and the highest ranking five board games selected. Some games are a little less known, others very popular and in the mainstream. The challenge with open polls is to make certain that the most popular titles do not swamp other’s more obscure offerings. Some train games are fantastic. However, because of their newness or perhaps because their publisher is not as well known, they may remain in relative obscurity. To achieve fairness, a weighted scoring system was used to give a definitive result.
Although we will raise the signal on just five games today there are a whole siding full of excellent offerings. At the end of this blog they will get an honourable mention with a full list and summary score for each train game.
In fifth place with a score of 2.24 is Railroad Ink. This roll and write game by Horrible Guild has taken the gaming community by storm. Universally known and accepted, it has many guises, expansions and versions. The basic game has all players constructing an interlocking network of tracks and roads on a seven by seven grid. By rolling four dice, with just seven turns, players then draw these dice faces onto their board. Points are awarded depending on the longest train and road route. Players will aim to connect as many edge exits as possible and bonus points are awarded for routes that use the centre nine squares.
Playing Railroad Ink in its simplest form is like buying a single ticket to London on a direct train and being prepared to accept the first price quoted online. Now, if you want to be more interesting, you might choose an alternative route, breaking your journey on the way. This moves the travel to London purely from being functional to an event to be enjoyed. The travel becomes something to savour without the rush of a deadline in the capital. By using any of the numerous expansions this adds flavour and complexity to Railroad Ink. Some of these expansions are available with the standard game; rivers and lakes with the Blue Edition, lava and meteors with the Red.
More recent versions, Yellow and Green bring in deserts and forests, but perhaps what really makes this game sing are the extra dice to add to any of the above games. I am excited by Challenge Sky and Underground expansions. These add an extra dimension, quite literally, and ensure much more thought needed.
Railroad Ink can be played almost anywhere, especially one of many train games. I have enjoyed it whilst travelling. It is a great solo mind-bending puzzle and during lockdown a group of us played it on Zoom with a Railroad Ink league. Most recently a Railroad Ink app allows play on mobile platforms but for me the purity of the base game remains the most fun. There is nothing like holding out for a specific dice roll on the last move and then see with satisfaction your huge interlocking network getting connected. With summer holidays almost on us Railroad Ink is a perfect companion.
There’s no way we could have a blog about train games and not include the Spiel Des Jahres winning granddaddy of them all, Ticket to Ride. Like USA, Ticket to Ride Europe is a quintessential gateway game. It tickles the edges of your mind with fundamental mechanics, but always with an easy to learn touch.
Ticket to Ride comes in fourth place in our survey. In the game, the goal is simple. Build railroads between destination cities shown on routes in your hand to win points. Each turn you’ll be choosing between picking up train cards or placing carriages on the map to claim those routes. With a finite number of carriages and a wide open map quickly filling with other players’ trains, you’ll be making simple but significant decisions throughout. Plus TTR Europe contains a few more strategic options than original USA; tunnels that have a heftier price as well as ferries that require wild locomotive cards.
Ticket to Ride is primarily a card drafting and hand management game of collection and connection. And whilst it’s no heavyweight 18XX game, there are a lot of TTR Spotters (me included!) out there who fall in love with the simple, colourful, replayable, gameplay. Given the sheer number of variants that embody the TTR series, its popularity shows no sign of stopping. You can almost circumnavigate the globe via Ticket to Ride maps now. From USA to Norway, India to UK, Africa to Asia and more. Each map has its own strategic quirks and scoring dynamics. A personal favourite of mine is Switzerland where some routes have open ended destinations for more in-game decision dilemmas. There’s also a junior edition as well as smaller box versions (London, New York, Amsterdam, San Francisco) for those who like their TTR gameplay in under 15 mins. Not only that but now the larger Rails and Sails incorporates boats into the mix, and Track Switcher truncates the experience into solo puzzles!
Ultimately, whether your journey started here or you have yet to jump aboard, you’re guaranteed to never forget your first Ticket to Ride.
Snowdonia is a worker placement game, designed by Tony Boydell. The year is 1894; 1-5 players represent companies contributing towards a railway line heading up Wales’ Mount Snowdon. You take on contracts, which, if completed, earn mega-points.
You need to clear rubble that blocks the ascending route and make way for station points. As the route clears, potential for this rail line emerges. Then you’ll need to collect iron (to convert into girders) so you can lay the track! Clear rubble off the land put aside for stations, and then invest stone towards their construction. You can even send your surveyor up the mountain, to check on the progress! And you have one worker in your team who’d rather spend their time lazing in the pub. (You have to bribe them to work for you each round!)
However, the British weather has its say in how efficient you get to work, each round. Sunny? Progress is faster! Rainy? Tougher conditions mean slower work. Misty? It’s too dangerous to work in certain locations right now. You get to see an evolving three-day forecast, so you can prep in advance.
Plus, at the end of each round, an AI player – a neutral labour company – gets involved in the progress. This mechanism will either hoover up the rubble, lay track, or complete stations on their own. These ‘Events’ act as a constant timer for the game, as well as weaselling in on claiming your potential contract points! Snowdonia is a marvellous game with bags of replay-ability (especially with the multitude of modules included).
Arriving now at Platform 2 is Whistle Stop! Our number two train game. It’s a nonstop service to fun-town and, hopefully, your future games night!
Now that my limited train puns have run out, let’s get to what Whistle Stop is and why it’s so awesome! Whistle Stop is a pick up and deliver, tile placement game for 2-5 players where you move trains across wildly illogical routes to deliver goods to stations at the other side of the board. Players earn shares in other train corporations and gradually build reputation to bag you the win. What makes it so dynamically fun is that you control multiple trains at once and can activate them as you see fit, making use of coal to power them and unique upgrades to give them the edge. It has a lot of what I love in a board game, but there’s a lot more to it than just pretty visuals and clean mechanics.
Whistle Stop boasts passive player interaction driven by a race to the finish line. Everyone has access to all the end goal markers and points for achieving these are tiered by placement. No one wants to be second and you’ll do anything by to prevent that… With this, trains cannot pass opposing trains. You can block a whole route (should it be made that way) by simply not running a service. You can also place tiles to ensure the route taken does/doesn’t visit certain resource pick up points. Players really have to weigh up the benefits to themselves against the benefits to others… is that extra spicy blue cube worth it? Knowing someone else is desperate for it too? Or should you add it to a dud route and take the loss… tactics are never in short supply and it’s a superbly fun game that flexes these brain tickling moments readily!
I’m a massive fan of Whistle Stop. Despite it being the blog squad’s number two in train games.. it’s my number one. Top dog of the train games. Tactical, tile laying, train-centric fun at its peak.
At the top of the list of train games, some might say levitating above it, is Maglev Metro. This is an excellent pick up and deliver and tile placement game that will have players placing out track and delivering passengers to allow you to upgrade your maglev company. The components are brilliant and it looks incredible on the table. But it’s this company customisation that really makes the game pop for me.
Everybody will start off really basic. But as you deliver more passengers you can start to specialize into certain areas. You can make sure you can be the only company to deliver certain types of customers. If you time this right, when the passenger bag is close to empty, you can make sure the stations are flooded with passengers that only you can deliver.
On top of this you also have secret objectives to score. These might reward you for trying something a little bit different each time you sit down to play. Because of that I’m never really sure quite how the map is going to end up looking when the game is over. There are a lot of options here and that gives your opponents a lot of space to surprise you. It’s one of the reasons why this game is really first class.
Like trains marshalled in the sidings awaiting the call to be used at rush hour there are a whole host of excellent games that have not yet been mentioned. On the Underground involves players constructing routes for a single traveller to negotiate the many central London stations. Metro X is a very accessible flip and write game where players cross of routes depending on the card that is selected. This too has the advantage of being able to play solo as well as in a group. Colt Express sees players taking the role of bandits trying to steal and rob from passengers on a train in the Wild West. Foothills is the two player game of organising your gang to build narrow gauge railways in Wales.
Although concentrating on the top five train games has allowed more column inches to be used on what may be some well known games all of the games within the table are worthy of any gamers shelf.