An Evening on the Rails with Trains

August 23, 2013

trains On my way to GenCon, my friend started to tell me about how everyone was hyped about some game called Trains, and I couldn't help but think, "Really? How could everybody be hyped about a game called Trains?" In an age of games called Thunderstone and Pirates vs. Dinosaurs, Trains was almost intriguing in its boring choice of title. I was always way more into dinosaurs in my youth. Metal tubes on tracks never did much for me. GenCon came and went and with so many other awesome things going on, I completely forgot about the game with the completely forgettable name. Until I sat down at my weekly game night to find not one but two copies of Trains staring me in the face. Apparently it was a big deal? So after a quick game of Mascarade, we employed both copies so that all six of us could play at once. (Not in any sort of crazy Frankengame way - just 2 separate games of 3.) Upon the initial setup, it became immediately obvious that Trains' mechanics cribbed a lot from Dominion. You had your three types of currency (in the form of trains), your three types of victory point cards (in the form of buildings) and a hand-clogging curse-like card (in the form of waste) all out on the table to start every game. The costs of these cards weren't exactly the same, but almost. And while we're talking about the similarities, 8 stacks of randomized cards also joined the table to be purchased as action cards, and the mechanics of a lot of these sounded very similar, as well. There was a Mine-type card, a Spy-type card, a Blacksmith-type card and lots of other similarities. Can I just state right here, though, that if you're going to make a Dominion clone, having all available cards out on the table for purchase (as opposed to a randomized deck that is dealt out 5 or 6 cards at time) is very much a step in the preferred direction. It allows for actual depth of strategy, enabling the players to formulate and enact plans rather than just buying whatever random card is available because what else are you going to do with your money? But, anyway, we get it: there's an eerie amount of similarities to Dominion, however there's also a good amount of stuff going on that's different. And that makes game more awesome and enjoyable than a game of basic Dominion in a lot of ways. Like, let's say if Dominion were a picture of a group of Corgis playing on a beach, Trains would be a picture of those same Corgis with Photoshopped weapons so it looks like they are in an epic battle. corgibattle Clearly we have now made the picture more awesome. So, anyway, what are those Photoshopped weapons? Well, first of all you've got this hex grid, which is just great in and of itself. I will play anything with a hex grid. So this grid is map of a region in Japan where players will be physically building their train empire. Everyone starts in a single hex and then begins to expand through the use of Lay Rail and Expand Station cards. Rails allows you to claim adjacent hexes and stations can be added to cities on the grid. Stations are typically the majority of a player's score, as every station in a hex claimed by a player is worth points to them at the end of the game. So here already we have a really fantastic addition, as, unlike Dominion, players actually feel like they're building something more than just a deck of abstract cards. They can see their train empire expanding as the game progresses, and that's really cool. The problem is, though, every time you do something on the board, you get "waste" cards put into your deck, which can seriously clog up your hand. So in addition to building deck engines that expand your influence on the grid and generate money for you to buy new cards, you've also got to build some sort of engine to manage or remove all the waste that is accumulating in your deck. At first I was really apprehensive about this as the waste started to pile up, but thinking about it more, I've decided it's really cool. Without the mechanic, I think the game might be too easy. But with waste, it sort of gives the player something to fight against in their own deck. So now you're sort of vying against other players for territory on the board, and vying against yourself and all this junk you've gathered in your own deck. Right, because other players didn't put that waste in your hand, so there's really no animosity that develops from some jerk playing Witches on you over and over. You did it to yourself, and now you've gotta take responsibility for your rapid expansion. I think there's some sort of ecological message in there... Anyway, so the game played out and the other two guys picked up an early lead by getting lots of Tourist Trains, which give you a point every time you play them. But I was spending my $4 hands on Freight Trains, which remove all the waste from your hand, and I think that turned out to be a better long-term strategy, as I only had 1-2 hands in the game where I wasn't able to do anything because I had too much junk. I managed to connect to both orange cities, which can have 3 stations on them, which is worth 8 points. I ended up tied for first in points, but had more rails on the board, so I got the W. One thing that was kind of disappointing was that players had an unlimited amount of actions and buys on their turn. I guess if limitations on those had been added to the game, it might have been to annoying to deal with that and waste and all the other stuff, but it still left me a tiny bit empty inside. Then again, if there had been limitations, the parallels to Dominion would have been even stronger. So, yes, the similarities between Trains and Dominion are plentiful and obvious, but if you can get past that, you'll find that the addition of a map to claim and explore is a welcome improvement that gives the game a unique feel. It was a good experience and I am eager to play another round. Also, the title is still boring. But undeniably accurate.


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