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Last Train to Wensleydale

[Few people enjoy a better – or more well deserved – reputation than Greg J. Schloesser. Greg is a formidable force in the world of games. Starting and developing a readership as one of the most respected reviewers on the internet, Greg has spread the good word on gaming by being the driving force behind TWO gaming groups (the Westbank Gamers of New Orleans and the East Tennessee Gamers), being the co-founder of the semi-annual game event known as Gulf Games, and founding the prestigious International Gamers Awards. Greg made his first appearance in these pages with his review of Mexica in the Spring 2002 issue of GA Report. In this, his 28th review, it’s all aboard as we join Greg to catch the Last Train to Wensleydale.]

(Treefrog Games, 3-4 players, ages 13 and up, 120 minutes; about $90)

 

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

Yes, yet another train game. For many, if not most, gamers, this is not a bad thing. Train-themed games remain extremely popular, a fact of which designers and publishers are keenly aware. Prolific designer Martin Wallace is no stranger to the genre having created numerous train games including the award-winning Age of Steam (featured in the Winter 2003 issue of Gamers Alliance Report). His latest entry into the crowded field is Last Train to Wensleydale.

lasttrain1Wensleydale shares many characteristics of other train games. Track must be constructed, goods collected and delivered, and profits made. For all its similarities to other train games, however, Wensleydale is also substantially different. Players must pacify protesters in order to construct track in various regions. Players must sell track to major networks, eventually divesting themselves of most, if not all of their network. To do this, however, they must gain influence with these mega-companies, often by sacrificing other actions they would prefer to take. Oh, and goods are never really delivered to specific destinations. Now that’s different.

Last Train to Wensleydale is set in the tranquil Yorkshire Dales area of England. Renowned for its lovely but difficult to traverse hills, the area is one that is not ideally conducive to the construction of rail networks. This is reflected in the game’s mechanisms by the prohibition of building into the hills and a greater expense to construct in valleys. Players are in charge of small railway companies that are destined to be absorbed by the major rail empires. Before that happens however, profits must be made by building rail networks to reach valuable commodities and passengers, transporting them to earn a hefty profit.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the game is the bidding phase wherein players bid investment cubes to acquire influence in four different areas: train influence, government, and the two main rail companies. Each of the eight bidding boxes depicts two or three influence tokens, and a random one is also placed into each box. Armed with twelve-to-fifteen investment cubes, players take turns placing cubes into these boxes, attempting to gain the influence markers present. If a player is outbid, he can place cubes again when it is his turn again. Eventually, players will each have winning bids in two different boxes. Influence gained is marked on the appropriate charts, and these charts are used to determine which players go first in the extremely important track-building and train-buying / goods movement phases.

A further consideration is that players have a limited number of investment cubes each turn. Twelve new ones are received each turn, but a player has a total limit of only fifteen. These cubes must be used not only in the bidding process but also to construct track. The more a player spends in the bidding phase, the fewer he will have available to construct his rail network. These factors make the bidding process quite tense as players vie to secure the influence they require in order to execute their plans for the upcoming turns while at the same time keeping an eye on how the acquired influence will affect the turn order in other phases while attempting to conserve enough investment cubes to construct track. These are tough and often gut-wrenching choices.

lasttrain2Players will next construct track in turn order based on the influence they have on the government track. A player’s network must begin at one of the five original “company towns” but from that point can expand from any other link or government town. There are no requirements that links must terminate at a town and players can branch their network on future turns but players must build one contiguous network on a turn. The object is to build a network or networks that reach resources (stone or cheese … yes, cheese) or passengers. However, passengers are loyal to one of the two large train companies and demand to be transported to a corresponding company town. So, players should attempt to build their network so that it connects to towns controlled by both companies. This is not easy to accomplish as only one rail link can be constructed across each border. The board becomes congested with track quickly – particularly in the tight valleys – and as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to link to cities.

As mentioned, players must conserve enough investment cubes to construct their track. It is not terribly expensive to construct track – one or two investment cubes per segment – but usually a player will only have six-to-eight cubes remaining after the bidding phase. Further, players must maintain their track, so building a vast network will prove extremely expensive and deplete one’s profits.

Another factor to consider when constructing track into an area is the possible presence of protesters. It appears that many of the locals object to noisy railroads invading their peaceful region. However, these hot-headed protesters can be pacified. A player must expend a government influence point for each protester present in a region after which they quietly depart. This forces players to acquire government influence during the bidding rounds lest they limit their construction options.

After constructing track, players will purchase trains and move goods based on their level of influence on the train track. The board depicts sixteen different trains that are available each turn, each with its own capacity (goods and passengers) and related costs. The more goods and passengers a train can transport, the more expensive the train. The cost varies from one-to-three and is paid with train influence points. Once a player purchases a train, it is no longer available to the other players. Trains are only in a player’s possession for the current turn so they must be re-purchased on subsequent turns. Thus, it is essential for players to regularly obtain train influence during the bidding phase.

Timing can be critical during this phase. If a player has the only railway connected to a resource or passenger, then there is no rush to quickly move that commodity. If, however, two or more players have railways connected to a commodity, then it is essential to move that commodity before your opponents. This situation doesn’t seem to occur as frequently as it does in other train games which is a shame. The game would be much tenser if it would.

When a player wishes to move a commodity, he removes the piece from the board and places it on the appropriate location on one of the trains he purchased. It is important to note that resources do not need a specific destination. So long as the network connects back to a town, the good is assumed to have been transported. Passengers, however, are strong-willed and demand to be transported to a company town matching their preference (color). So, the rail network must connect to such a town.

At the end of this phase, players maintain possession of all resources and passengers they transported. These will add to a player’s overall profit at game’s end. The object is twofold: transport as many items as you can, and try to build sets – one each of stone, cheese and two different passengers. This also coerces players to construct networks in a fashion wherein they can accomplish this objective.

After completing all transports, it is time for each player to calculate their profit or losses for the current turn. Each passenger and cheese good transported earns the player a one pound profit while the more valuable stone goods earn two pounds apiece. However, players must also pay one pound per track segment which can be quite costly. It is not uncommon for players to go through much of the game on the negative side of the profit track. The track only allows a cumulative profit level of +5 pounds but a player can sink as low as -13 pounds in debt. The key here is not to panic as players usually make a nice profit at game’s end based on the goods and passengers they have transported.

Since track is so expensive, just how does one divest oneself of it? Takeovers. After determining profit or loss, players can sell contiguous rail links to one of the two major companies. A link is a section connecting two towns, one of which is a company town. The player expends one influence point of the appropriate company for each two track sections sold. The track sections are replaced with track of the appropriate company which now makes any towns connected by these tracks company towns. This takeover process helps reduce a player’s maintenance costs but also reduces his network. Again, timing is critical. Knowing when to sell track and when to maintain it is often a very difficult decision. I find it amusing that a critical part of the game involves players divesting themselves of the network they labored to construct. Sounds like the real business world to me!

This process is repeated until the prescribed number of turns is completed. This ranges from 4 – 5 turns depending upon the number of players. At the conclusion of the game, players will earn one profit point for each commodity – resource and passenger – they have transported during the course of the game. In addition, two points are earned for each set, as described above. The player with the greatest overall profit is victorious.

While I am not a card-carrying member of the train-game groupie club, I do enjoy many games in the genre. Steam, Age of Steam and Railways of the World are amongst my favorite games. Still, I do not rush out and purchase every game that has a train theme. Indeed, a game in the genre must offer something fresh or new to truly entice me. Last Train to Wensleydale has quite a few unique features that help give the game a fresh feel. That is a plus. So, too, is the angst caused by the numerous decisions that must be made throughout the game. It is tough to decide where to place one’s bids and just how much to bid. There are numerous factors that must be considered, and a player will likely not be able to obtain exactly what he desires. The track building, engine purchase and move goods, and takeover phases are all filled with equally taxing decisions.

For me, however, the game has some aspects for which I don’t much care. The set-up at the beginning is very random and can greatly affect how a particular game will play out. Each region is marked with a colored square – orange (cheese) or white (stone). Two cubes are randomly placed in each region, and then cubes that do not match the color depicted are removed from the game. This often results in dozens of cubes being removed, leaving precious few remaining on the board. Passengers are also placed randomly, and we’ve had situations wherein it was extremely difficult to transport red passengers due to their distant locations. These situations greatly reduce the options available to the players, and decrease the tension and fun factors as well. I’d like to see a different set-up procedure that makes more commodities available from the start.

The game seems to last about a turn too long too. By the fourth turn, there are often too few resources remaining which severely restricts players’ options. The final turns often seems to be one of “I’ll do this because there is nothing else I can do”. Thus, it is often very anti-climatic. I’m also finding that each game feels much like the previous one. The geography dictates that there is usually only one viable route to certain areas of the board. The ultimate result of the track construction seems to be much the same from game-to-game, giving players a déjà-vu feel.

Last Train to Wensleydale places me in a quandary. I enjoy much of the game, including the decisions, tenseness and angst. I appreciate the original aspects and the fresh approach. However, repeat plays have not maintained the enthusiasm I experienced with my first exposure. Perhaps there simply are too many train games available, so when the desire arises to play one, others offer more appeal to me. That’s not necessarily a slight against Last Train to Wensleydale but rather a statement on the sheer number of entries in the genre.

 


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