Reviewed by Craig Massey

(Ragnar Brothers, 3-5 players, ages teen to adult, about 90 minutes; about $50)


The release of a Ragnar Brothers game is a highly anticipated event that comes along once every few years. Anticipation for Canal Mania started building back in the summer and fall of 2005 with information from session reports and sneak previews from the brothers themselves. When Essen 2005 came and went without the game being released, we were left waiting and wondering about the eventual appearance. Almost eight months later, the game arrived on what many felt were the slowest boats to cross the Atlantic since the Mayflower.

So now that the game is out, what have the brothers Ragnar given us? Well, the first thing owners of previous Ragnar Brothers games will notice is the top-notch production job. Gone are the days when you could wipe your cheese puff-stained fingers on the corner of a RB game board when no one was looking. The tea towel board that was a Ragnar Brothers trademark has been replaced in Canal Mania with a full color, mounted map board of England showing the cities and towns of England, each in one of six colors. The remaining spaces are divided up into hexes of two different flavors: easy and difficult terrain. The rest of the bits – player tiles, player markers (boats), cards of three varieties (resources, contracts, and engineers) as well as the box and rules have also been given the deluxe treatment providing a polished feel normally associated with the larger German game companies.

Enough about the looks, how does the game play? The theme is one of building the canal system in late 18th and early 19th century England. Not a theme I have ever really thought about, but one which has not previously been tackled by game designers. Players are tasked with the goal of collecting resource cards of four types and using them to construct canal routes between the cities and towns of England. Building these routes fulfills specific contracts historically provided by parliament. Once built, the routes are then used for the delivery of goods. Points are scored based on completed routes as well as delivery of said goods along those routes. Players get tiles pieces and boats in their color as well as randomly drawing one of five engineer cards and are off and running.

Player turns are divided into three actions. First, players have the option to claim a contract, enlist a different engineer, or clear the available resource cards for a fresh tableau. A player without a contract must select one from the available contracts. At any point and time, a player may have a maximum of two contracts. Contracts specify the two cities and/or towns to be linked as well as a contract value. This represents the maximum amount of tiles that may be laid to connect these endpoints.

If a player has a contract, they could choose to swap engineers with another player. Each engineer provides the player with a unique ability. Four engineers help players with the construction of canals. The fifth engineer allows players to build up their resources faster. If swapping engineers doesn’t fit a player’s master plan that turn, the player can get a fresh set of resource cards for use during the second action.

After completing one of the above, the player moves onto the second action. Here the player has two options – drawing resource cards or building canal segments. Drawing cards allows a player to select up to three of five available cards. Resource cards come in five different flavors – one for each type of canal piece as well as a wild card. Drawing cards also brings goods onto the board for eventual delivery. Some cards have goods symbols on them. When these are drawn, players place two goods cubes onto the board in cities or towns of a matching color. If a player has accumulated sufficient cards, building is an option.

Building is a simple matter of playing cards to match the types of pieces needed to connect the cities and towns required for a contract. There are a few restrictions on building. First, players may never play the same canal piece in consecutive hexes. Second, the terrain on the map affects which types of pieces can be played. Two types of canal pieces can be built in simple terrain and the other two types of pieces can be built in the difficult terrain. Playing tiles in difficult terrain requires more cards. If during building a player has completed a route, points are scored based on the type of tiles used to complete the route. Simple terrain pieces score zero or one point each. Difficult terrain pieces score two or three points each.canalmania2

The last action after a player has drawn cards or built is to deliver a goods cube. If the player has access to goods in towns or cities, one goods cube may be delivered along completed canal sections. Goods can travel along as many segments as desired as long as the cube does not visit a city or town of the same color more than once. The final segment in the delivery must be a segment owned by the delivery player. Cities and towns are all one of six different colors which means at most a cube may visit six different towns or cities. Points are scored for each city or town visited along the route for all players whose routes are used. Players have one final option available to them during each of their three actions. They may always forgo an action in order to draw a random card from the deck.

The game continues until a prescribed score is surpassed (this score changes depending on the number of players) or until the final contracts become available. At that point, players have two final turns and then all remaining goods on the board are delivered. A final scoring bonus is awarded to the player with the most completed contracts and huzzahs and pats on the back are given to the player with the highest score.

The game is on par with Age of Steam (Winter 2003 GA REPORT) in weight and complexity as well. Players have a limited range of interesting choices. In the games I played, it always seemed that I wanted to do one more thing and I was incrementally building up to something larger even though the game offers more in the way of a tactical rather than a strategic challenge. There is some scope to interfere with your opponents, but player interaction is largely limited. Players are racing to complete contacts and claim more contracts that fit best with their existing routes, but aside from grabbing the occasional goods cube for delivery coveted by your opponent, there is no opportunity to really go after anyone.

The game does reward experience. My first game saw everyone floundering around with a disjointed network of canals that provided little synergy. The second time through the game things clicked though offering a richer and less random experience. Luck plays a small role in the form of your card drawing choice and placement of goods cubes. Often you can feel like there is nothing useful to draw at all, but there are things you can do to ameliorate luck’s affects. For example, often players will avoid using their first action to clear the tableau. While this certainly isn’t terribly efficient, it does help. Also, players should judiciously swap engineers to make the most of the cards they do have and make more efficient use of the cards they hold.

Canal Mania fits into the broader category of “train” games. Yes, the theme has one digging ditches for water travel, but ultimately it is about completing a network of routes and delivery goods along those routes – not unlike Age of Steam, Railway Rivals (Fall 1990 GA REPORT) or even Ticket To Ride (Spring 2004 GA REPORT). Those who enjoy “train” games will no doubt see this resemblance as well and be quite happy with Canal Mania. Those looking to avoid yet another game about trains will enjoy this too because the theme definitely fits the game and is different enough from the “train” game genre.

In the end, Canal Mania is easily one of my favorite games for 2006. The theme supports the mechanics and game play and the options and decisions available have remained interesting and fresh over several games. I have been left wondering after each game “if only….,” which is a very good sign. Those favoring train games will definitely find much to like as an alternative to the usual fair and those looking for something a little meatier should find enough in this latest offering from Ragnar Brothers. – – – – – – – Craig Massey


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