Reviewed by Joe Huber
(Japon Brand / OKAZU Brand, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 45 minutes; $49.99)
What is it about trains which make them the most popular means of transportation to use as a game theme? Oh, there are plenty of games about other means of transportation. There are lots of games focusing on cars, though most of them are focused on racing. Canal Mania is one of the very few games to focus on canals, in spite of the important role they played in the development of the United States. And a few games, such as Airlines Europe, have focused on airplanes. But trains have spawn multiple large series of game, such as 18xx and Crayon Rails, not to mention the Age of Steam franchise, in additional to numerous individual train-themed games.
So it’s really no surprise that someone would combine the hottest trend in boardgaming – deckbuilding, as epitomized by Dominion – with trains. Trains might not be the most original name for such a game, but it does actually fit in well with the name Dominion. The basics of the game are directly modeled on Dominion – a hand of five cards, playing through any cards desired, and then discarding the remaining cards. But whereas Dominion is purely a card game, Trains, designed by Hisashi Hayashi, adds a board, where players build track to connect various cities, and develop those cities by adding stations.
But even beyond the addition of the board, the details of the game are significantly different. Each turn consists of using any action cards desired for their abilities, and using any cards which provide money to purchase additional cards, which are added to the player’s discard pile. But unlike Dominion, where players are limited to a single purchase and a single action each turn, in Trains players may buy as many cards as they have money for, and take as many actions as the player’s cards allow. In addition, nearly all of the actions which lead to earning victory points – building track, building stations, and the purchase of victory point cards – leads to the addition of waste to the player’s deck. These act as fillers – clogging up the hand. But the game offers a way to deal with the clutter; a player’s whole turn may be used to discard all of the waste cards a player holds.
So what are the cards available? There are eight basic cards, with a large number available in every game. One is waste, which can never be taken voluntarily. Three are victory point cards, worth one, two, or four victory points – but in addition to the waste they generate, the victory point cards clog player hands, in much the same way as in Dominion. There are two basic action cards, one allowing track to be built, and one allowing stations to be built; players start the game with two track building cards and one station building card, in addition to seven one-value train cards, used for money. There are also two bigger train cards available for purchase. Finally there are waste cards, which cannot be taken voluntarily. Of the 30 other cards, eight types are selected at random.
So given these cards, player take turns in largely the same fashion as in Dominion. Players always start their turn with five cards. A turn then consists of _either_ playing as many actions and buying as many cards as desired and possible, _or_ placing all the waste cards from the hand back on the waste card pile. Assuming a player doesn’t spend their turn clearing waste, as they take actions (by playing action cards) and buy cards, the cards used – along with any cards purchased – are placed on the player’s discard pile. Any cards not used – or, if clearing waste, any non-waste cards – are also placed on the player’s discard pile. Finally, the player draws five cards from their draw pile, shuffling their discard pile if necessary to do so. The game then continues in this fashion until one of three end game conditions is met – one player placing all of their track, the last station being placed, or four types of cards being sold out. Players then calculate their scores – points for victory point cards in their decks, points for cities they have track in if there are stations present, and points for remote locations at the edge of the board, each worth a fixed number of points. Whoever has the most total points wins.
Given my reaction to other deckbuilding games, I had some trepidation in giving the game a play. And that concern was amplified, due to a rule that we weren’t originally taught – the ability to spend an entire turn to discard all waste. We were informed of the missing rule about halfway through our game – but by that point, it was an additional rule that improved my enjoyment of a game that had already captured my interest.
There are three issues I’d found with deckbuilding games I’d played previously – and Trains addresses two of them. The first is the take-that nature of some cards, and particularly the random nature of some of those cards. In trains, all of the cards are constructive, eliminating this problem. The second is the lack of interaction, particularly for those who don’t enjoy take-that elements. Here, the addition of the board and the board play works wonderfully at bringing a significant element of interaction to the game. Even better, players are never blocked out entirely from a space on the board, but simply must pay increasing costs as spaces become more developed. The third element is the regular shuffling of small decks; that, I fear, is the same as ever.
The theme of Trains is clearly not the appeal of the game. However, it is more prominent than in Dominion, as players do build a route of track, even it’s just indicated by wooden cubes. But it’s certainly not a strong theme. The production is reasonable, but the cards are a bit thin – many people have commented that it’s a game that is begging for card sleeves. A much bigger problem is the current availability – it’s currently sold out.
In terms of complexity, the game is directly comparable to Dominion – but because of the multilingual cards, it’s a little less accessible than that game. Still, anyone already familiar with Dominion should have no difficult in learning Trains. Because the variety of scoring options makes for a wider variety of strategies; the need to build up cash seems to be much less clear. This also adds for additional variance in gameplay, even above that naturally brought to the game by using a subset of the cards each game.
There are a total of 39 different cards in Trains, one of which is only in player’s starting hands, eight basic cards present in every game, and 30 selectable cards from which eight are chosen at random for each game. Cards have a cost, money (the amount of money they provide toward the purchase of cards or track), and victory points, and most cards have a special ability.
The nine basic cards:
Normal Train – cost 1, money 1: Each player starts with seven of these cards; additional normal trains are not available.
Express Train – cost 3, money 2. The second level of basic money. Not so critical to playing the game as in Dominion, but still useful to reach more expensive cards or track.
Limited Express Train – cost 6, money 3. The third level of basic money. It’s definitely possible to win at Trains without a Limited Express Train.
Rail Laying – cost 3. Allows one piece of track to be built; one waste is received. Each player starts with two rail laying cards. Building track seems to be a viable primary strategy.
Station Expansion – cost 3. Allows placement of one station in any city, up to the city limit; one waste is received. Each player starts with one station expansion card. Stations are an excellent source of victory points – but also a target for other players to expand into.
Building – cost 3, 1 victory point: A basic scoring card. When purchased, one waste is received.
Storey Building (multi-story building) – cost 5, 2 victory points. The second level basic scoring card. When purchased, one waste is received.
Skyscraper – cost 8, 4 victory points. The third level basic scoring card. When purchased, one waste is received. Note that even all 10 skyscraper cards, worth a total of 40 points, would not typically be worth enough to win the game.
Waste – cost 0. May not be purchased; the basic hand-clogger of Trains.
The thirty selectable cards:
Land Fill – cost 2: Allows a player to return all waste cards in hand to the supply. The problem is that this is often no better than using a turn to discard all waste card; to be better, a hand must include sufficient other cards to take a useful action.
Conductor Area – cost 2: Allows a player to discard any number of cards from hand, and draw the same number from her deck. This is somewhat useful, in allowing for cycling of cards, but not additions to the hand.
Signals – cost 2: Draw 1 card, and then look at the top card on your deck, and either put it back or discard it. This has a mild, but real positive value, since it allows waste to be discarded, and effectively takes no hand space due to the draw action.
Station Crew – cost 2: Allows for 1 draw or 1 money or return of 1 Waste. The flexibility makes this card reasonably useful given the cost.
Rapid Train – cost 2, 1 money: Gain 1 additional money if you have a normal train in play. Essentially a half level between normal trains and express trains. Excellent return early in the game, but of decreasing value thereafter.
Holiday Timetable – cost 3: May be trashed to gain 3 money. These are stepping stone cards, very useful to pick up skyscrapers but of no lasting value, and thus fairly expensive for what they provide.
Pulling – cost 3: Take a train card from your discard pile into your hand. These work well with a money-focused strategy, but aren’t worth considering otherwise.
Command Central – cost 3: Draw 1, and then predict the card at the top of your draw deck. If correct, it is added to the hand. In practice, I’ve mostly seen this card used to get rid of waste, making it effectively a more expensive signals card.
Passing Station – cost 3, money 1: Draw 1 card. These are extremely valuable – and, in my experience, extremely popular – cards.
Switchback – cost 3, money 1: Place one train card from your hand back on top of the draw deck, instead of in the discard, at the end of the round. As with pulling, works best when focusing on building money, though the addition of some money to the card makes it somewhat more valuable.
Garage – cost 3, money 1: Draw two, discard two. A good way of dealing with waste, and with cards not of current value.
Stationmaster Office – cost 4: Acts as the duplicate of any action card in play. Unless concentrating on high-cost cards, the main benefit of this card is its flexibility. But many cards are not useful to duplicate, lowering the effective value of this card.
Steel Bridge – cost 4: Removes the extra cost for building over rivers (normally one) for the turn; provides a track building opportunity, while generating a waste. Not typically a net gain over a simple rail laying card.
Amusement Park – cost 4, money 1: Also adds the value of a train card in play (if any). This can be extremely valuable with a money-focused strategy, as just an Amusement Park and a Limited Express Train provide 7 money, one shy of the requirement for a skyscraper.
Freight Train – cost 4, money 1: Return any number of waste to the supply, gaining one money for each. A very effective way to deal with waste.
Information Central – cost 4, money 1: Reveal the top four cards from your draw deck, putting one in hand and the rest back on top of the deck. Similar to passing station, but more flexible, at a small additional cost.
Ironworks – cost 4, money 1: Gain two money for each rail laying card (including cards such as steel bridge, which allow for rail laying). An excellent card for a rail laying strategy, otherwise tends not to come up at the right time often enough.
Mail Train – cost 4, money 1: Gain one money for each card discarded. Like the freight train, this is an effective way to deal with waste; it’s a little more flexible, but given that the waste cycles through a little less effective.
Tourist Train – cost 4, money 1: Gain one victory point. This is one of the very few ways to gain victory points during the game, and is clearly superior to buying a building early in the game due to the money and potential of cycling through multiple times. In practice, while this is a valuable card, I haven’t seen it make a large difference in practice.
Collaboration – cost 5: Removes the extra cost and extra waste for building track where other players have built; provides a track building opportunity, while generating a waste. This is very helpful for getting into crowded areas – typically places with multiple stations, and therefore valuable places.
Maintenance Factory – cost 5: Receive a train card identical to one in hand. Another card that’s most valuable with a money-focused plan.
Temporary Timetable – cost 5: Reveal cards from your deck until you have revealed two train cards. Add those to your hand, discarding the rest. This can be invaluable late in the game to get past victory point cards.
Tunnel – cost 5: Removes the extra cost for building track in mountains; provides a track building opportunity, while generating a waste. In practice, not as valuable as collaboration, since mountain spaces don’t earn victory points.
Viaduct – cost 5: Removes the extra cost for building track in cities; provides a track building opportunity, while generating a waste. Since the most valuable cities are the most expensive cities – the ones with the most stations – this is a useful mid-game card, or even early-game if in a busy portion of the board.
Wagon Factory – cost 5: Trash a train card from your hand in order to gain one with a cost up to three higher. I’ve seen this be fairly useful in practice – but not a game-changer.
Signal Spot – cost 5, money 1: Draw two cards. Great card, combines well with just about any strategy.
First Train – cost 5, money 2: Cards you buy when this card is in play go on top of your deck, rather than in to your discard pile. This is a fantastic card – lots of money and a very useful ability. Works best with a card-focused strategy.
Material Dump Site – cost 5, money 2: Don’t gain any waste while this card is in play. While this sounds nice, it’s only really useful with a strategy which generates waste – track-building, station-building, or victory point cards.
Underground Digging – cost 7: Removes all extra costs for building track except for remote locations; provides a track building opportunity, while generating a waste. Adds flexibility to the other, less expensive cards of this type, but it’s awfully expensive for what it does.
Control Room – cost 7, money 1: Draw three cards. Somehow, I’ve never played with this card. But it’s everything the Signal Spot is, and more.
It’s important to note that the value of cards is directly impacted by the other cards available. In a game without many cards that provide money, the holiday timetable is much more valuable than normal, for instance.
Trains was the first of the Essen 2012 games I had the chance to play, and it was soon my favorite 2012 release. While I’m not sure it’s still my favorite – I’ve enjoyed many of the Essen releases – it’s still in the discussion. It’s probably not the right game for everyone, however – my opinion on deckbuilding games is not consistent with most, making the charms of Trains of more value to me than to most. But I have found that most folks who have played it have enjoyed it.
But for now, it’s academic – the game is not readily available. However, it’s still worth seeking out if it looks to be of interest, as it’s almost certain to be republished at some point. Try-before-you-buy is always good advice, but that’s particularly true in this case, as for most folks it will be easier to find someone who has a copy than someone willing to sell a copy. – – – – Joe Huber
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Winter 2013 GA Report Articles