Reviewed by Chris Wray
RAILROAD INK (Horrible Games/CMON, 1 to 6 players, ages 8 and up, 20-30 minutes; $17.99)
The “roll and write” genre is having a moment, with dozens of titles releasing in recent months. One of the bigger splashes has been Railroad Ink designed by Hjalmar Hach & Lorenzo Silva. The game famously comes in two different versions — Blazing Red and Deep Blue — though they both contain the same base game and differ only in the set of expansion dice included. Railroad Ink made its debut at Gen Con 2018, quickly selling out each morning, and it has generated both buzz and critical claim in the intervening months.
The base game is played over seven rounds. Each player receives a dry-erase player board which shows the 7 x 7 grid with three connections along each edge. Sitting at the top of the board are the potential special routes, then the combinations of what’s on the dice and finally. a little scoring guide.
To start a round, a set of four custom dice are rolled. The dice contain various iterations of railroad and highway and the goal is to connect as many “exits” on the edge of the 7 x 7 game grid as possible. For instance, some dice show a straight track, others show a T-shaped split, and others have an L-shaped elbow. Some dice allow highway-to-rail connections but one side of the dice shows an overpass not resulting in any connection. Routes must first be drawn in from the outside edge.
All players write the four dice each round, then also potentially use one of their three special routes. There are six different specials in the game (and they’re shown along the top of the player board), each consisting of various variations of routes going across all four sides of the squares in the grid. Only one special route can be used per round, so players need to start using them by round 5 or lose them.
Once all seven rounds are played, scoring takes place. Players earn points based on the number of connections they’ve made to the “exits” on their player board, and these points are the bulk of the ones earned in the game. Players also earn points for their longest rail route, their longest highway route, and for squares used in the 5 x 5 grid in the center of the board. Players lose points for open connections, those pesky hanging lines that didn’t get connected during gameplay.
Railroad Ink is simple to learn but fun to play. A rules explanation takes just a few minutes and the game itself lasts about 20-30 minutes. Because of the simultaneous turns, there is little downtime, and players around the table always seem to be engaged.
There’s quite a bit of strategy involved and it is fun to watch how new players morph their approach with additional plays. The first game tends to be all about connecting routes. But advanced players focus more on using the middle squares and building long rail/highway routes to get the extra points.
The game is well produced. One of the most annoying characteristics of roll and writes can be the ever-depleting stack of scorepads but that problem is addressed here through inclusion of dry erase player boards. The box is right-sized, and there are 6 boards in the box, so this accommodates a wide player count. Additional copies of the game expand the player count.
My only real complaint is the rulebook, which is below average. The explanation is surprisingly obtuse for such a simple game and there are typos that make me think the publisher should have hired an editor.
I played each “version” of the game at least 5 times for about a dozen combined plays. But I have yet to use the expansions as I’m still enamored with the base game. I’ve been skeptical of roll and writes in the past, but Railroad Ink has caused me to realize that maybe… just maybe… I actually enjoy good roll and writes. – – – – – – – – Chris Wray
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