Aside from stating the obvious, COVID has impacted every aspect of our lives, especially those of us who enjoy gaming with others. However, it has spawned alternative ways to enjoy gaming opportunities. For some, it has led to new friendships and new ideas. This certainly has been assisted by technology.
So, what is the best way to enjoy games?
Let’s take a well-known “roll and write” game - Railroad Ink by Horrible Guild. This little box of fun hit the shelves in 2018. In just three years it has acquired an almost “cult-like” following, such that some shops quickly sold out of the original Deep Blue and Blazing Red editions.
What is All the Fuss About?
In its basic form Railroad Ink has a very simple concept. Shorn of any of the expansions or goals of the newer editions, this is a game of just some dice and a handful of wipe clean boards. Over seven rounds, players will roll the dice and draw the roads and tracks on their board, with the aim to connect as many starting points as possible. Additional bonus points may be scored if the centre grid is used. Penalties are enforced if routes are left “out in the open” and unclosed. The game lends itself to solo play or with as many players as there are boards and pens.
Railroad Ink in Real Life
Railroad Ink is a small game with a big heart. The only components in the box are four dice, a few erasable pens, and a selection of boards. As players take turns to roll the dice they draw a sprawling network across the sheet. I have taken my Railroad Ink game around the world and played it on a tropical island with others who had never seen it before. There is simplicity and cleanness to the game design. With just highways and railways on the four dice, this can limit where you might draw your route. The dice are 18mm, slightly larger than your typical D6 dice. The ink is recessed so that the printing remains clear, even after years of use.
Rolling the dice and keeping fingers crossed in hope of a favourable set of routes is part of the fun. There is anticipation and eternally optimism, and this is amplified if playing with others. Even though each player has an individual task ahead of them, the collective element of sharing the same good or bad dice rolls gives the interaction. Playing together in real life gives that shared experience. The groans and moans where a risky strategy is taken and hope is crushed by series of straight highway dice instead of T junction railway dice is so familiar. Others might share a smug chuckle as just the right dice roll arrives at the correct time.
More than Monopoly
Anyone can roll the dice. Give young children a board and a pen and they can pretend to make their own routes. They often have their own novel scoring but it adds to the interaction. This small, portable game can be played anywhere. I have played it at sea level [on the beach] or at 35,000 feet, shoe-horned in economy class at the back of a Boeing 737. Playing games in real life provokes questions and conversations from non-gamers. Railroad Ink has certainly started interesting discussions and opened the eyes of others that games are more than Monopoly®.
There are one or two tiny limitations of dice rolling. Whilst it could be played in bed, there are risks that the whiteboard pen might mark the bedsheets, or even of losing a dice or two under the covers! It is not a game you can play in the dark if your wife is trying to sleep and wants the light off. That statement is probably true for almost every game played in real life.
As a solo gaming mode, the enjoyment to get a high score is always tempered by the inability to share that result. Others might also say it is dependent on the luck of the dice. Playing Railroad Ink alongside others and all sharing the same dice is where the competitive element makes this such fun.
Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams are now the mainstay of office working in this post-COVID world. At the start of the first lockdown in March 2020 I wanted to share my enjoyment of Railroad Ink. However, I could not do this outside of the home. This is where Instagram came to the rescue. Over the course of a week each day I posted an image of the rolls of the four dice. Other RR Ink enthusiasts were able to log in and, at their own leisure, use the same rolls of the dice to create their network. This led to some interaction and comments on social media and from this, a number of friendships have formed.
This slightly “disjointed” but remote way of playing has meant that the competitive element is retained. It's opened up the game to players unfamiliar with Railroad Ink. After one week the scores were collated and the results shared online along with pictures of the completed boards.
From these first few tentative dice rolls, the next steps in interactive play were made. The question was asked, why not try a real time, online game? With lockdown in full swing people were craving human interaction. Gaming together was outlawed. So, with a shared Zoom account, a slightly “Heath-Robinson” arrangement using a music stand as a camera support, so the first Railroad Ink challenge was born. This was advertised on Instagram and played out live on a Saturday night in the UK. Notwithstanding time zones, this game has a universality that crosses continents. There is a commonality that all can share. With the same four dice and simple set of rules gamers from around the globe came together. But being an online meeting allowed faces to be put with names. Voices could be heard alongside Instagram handles.
Who would have thought that four simple dice could bring together people from New Zealand, California, Pennsylvania, London, the Home Counties, and even rural Wiltshire!
Each week the Railroad Ink challenge played out the seven rounds of four dice. Gamers were encouraged to play in real time and often would show the progress of their board. It was as close an experience as one could get without sharing the game at the dining room table. At the end of each session, each player showed off their finished network, with scores added to a collective league table. Those that could not join in at the specific time could still access the dice rolls and play later and upload their results.
After six weeks the final scores were close. Honours went to Katheryn from Ohio, although Zatu Blogger, Northern Dice came in an honourable third! The whole online experience showed how versatile Railroad Ink is as a game. From those slightly amateurish Saturday nights, where bandwidth and camera angle seemed to affect play, there have been so many friendships that have continued. Many of these relationships are continuing despite never having met face to face!
The app brings the familiarity of the original game. In its present form, the four dice and seven round version is playable although moves are afoot to add various expansion dice in the future. Images are identical to the real version of the game with dice shown on the screen. A drag and drop option with simple rotation of the dice enables players to place their dice easily. The app will only allow dice to be played in legal positions and scoring is shown at the top of the screen.
The newer board versions of Railroad Ink include various goals. These might give players the chance to get bonuses if, for example, three of the four corners are used, or if two middle start points are linked. In the “real” version of the game, if playing with others, the first player to achieve a specific goal will be awarded four points, two for second place, and a single point for the third. In the app a fixed bonus of two points is given to each player on achieving a goal but four points are given if the goal is achieved with a certain time frame. Players may choose the goals or accept a randomised selection of three.
The beauty apps of this nature is the “play anywhere” opportunity. It's a great way to practice different strategies. Being on a mobile device it can even be played in the dark in bed! Anyone who’s played Railroad Ink in person will be aware of some of the contentious issues during scoring at the end of the seventh round. “Does that count as a connection? Where is the longest road?” The app removes all of that anxiety. It will calculate all the final scores and provide a breakdown of how that was achieved.
League Tables and Challenging Friends
Part of the “fun” of the lockdown Zoom games was the creation of the local league table. Each week we could see who was the cream rising to the top or who had performed poorly. In the same way the app provides high scores for the day, month, and all time.
Playing against others is part of Railroad Ink’s enjoyment. The app allows you to select a group of friends [and other Railroad Ink enthusiasts] and together, play the same dice. Over the last few weeks, five Zatu bloggers have battled it out for supremacy. Gavin Hudson often shows his Railroad Ink prowess. There is no time limit so these games may stretch over several days. You can see how others have done before you get underway. This gives an indication if the dice rolls will be kind or not.
Whilst the app does give similar gameplay, there is a very different player experience compared with playing in real life. There is a temptation with some online games to play quickly [in the style of a computer game] and perhaps with less thought. Maybe this is why my scores seem poorer. The dice themselves are different from the original blue and red versions of the real game. There are new base game dice for the yellow and green versions. They provide more connections between highways and railways and there is one dice that always cause some head-scratching- the double bend. These dice are a welcome addition to the game and necessary if playing with the new boards.
Evolution and Natural Selection
With time games develop and publishers will use other methods to promote their game and encourage take-up in the wider community. Perhaps This is why Horrible Guild has developed the Railroad Ink app. But is it better than the original?
Its immediacy and move checking, along with abilities to challenge others remotely make the game much more accessible. Purists will feel that the colours are a little washed out and the app has “beautified” the somewhat amateur drawing of gamers on their boards. Perhaps there's no need to draw formal stations when making connections where a single black square might suffice. The dice rolls are meant to be randomised, but sometimes there seems to be a surfeit of T junctions, rather than straight routes. For those of us who live in a family of gamers, we're never short of people to sit at the table and roll some D6 dice. The tangible element of the game with the rolling of the dice, moaning about the outcome, followed by the rubbing out of a route that has been poorly played is some of the interaction. This isn't present with the app.
But many are not fortunate to have instantly available gaming partners. For those, this feature of a remote gaming experience gives the chance to share the highs and lows of Railroad Ink and to challenge others at whatever time of day is convenient. The app is a good way to introduce others to the delights of this lovely roll-and-write “classic”. As it develops with expansion dice it will become better but for my personal situation, nothing can beat the physical act of playing the game.