Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Eagle Games, 2-6 players, ages 10 and up, about 2 hours; $59.99)


If size truly doesn’t matter, someone should tell Glenn Drover. For, in his newest release, Railroad Tycoon, Drover thinks big, REALLY BIG, both in style and substance.

Railroad Tycoon comes in a huge box, heavily laden with a host of quality components. There are lots of tiles for laying track as well as denoting a western link and the creation of a new city, nicely molded plastic railroad locomotives (25 of each in red, yellow, green, blue and purple), wooden cubes (in red, yellow, blue, black and purple) representing the various goods in the game awaiting delivery (and a bag to hold them), share certificates, money, engine cards, markers to denote “empty” cities (i.e., those without goods), a larger locomotive piece to mark the “first player”, two decks of cards (Railroad Tycoon and Railroad Operation) and an incredibly large board.

The board is a map of the Eastern half of the United States, circa 1830-1880, over which a grid of hexes is superimposed. Some of these hexes are homes to cities; others show certain land types such as open terrain (green) and hills (brown). Dark brown lines denote mountains; blue lines trace the flow of rivers. The income track and round track are also on the board.

The goods cubes are place in the bag and cubes (equal to the number found on each city) are randomly drawn and placed on city spaces. Three Railroad Operation cards, those marked with an “S”, are removed from the deck. The rest of the cards are shuffled and a certain number of cards (two times the number of players) are drawn and placed face up next to the board (in addition to those “S” cards) . All players choose their own set of colored locomotives, placing one of them on the income track. They also receive a “1” locomotive card. Finally, each player randomly draws 1 Railroad Tycoon card. Tycoon cards give each player a goal worth anywhere from 5 to 8 Victory Points if achieved. These cards are kept secret until the end of the game (except for the George Pullman card which must be revealed if that player becomes the first to upgrade his locomotive to a level “6”).

A game turn consists of three phases: Auction, Player Actions and Income/Dividends.

In turn, players bid for the privilege of going first. Minimum bid is $1000. A consideration here is that players start with NO money! The easiest way to raise funds is by issuing shares. This is NOT considered a “player action” and shares may be issued anytime during a player’s turn. Each share nets the player $5000. However, shares may never be “bought back” or paid off. Rather, they cost the player cash each turn as well as 1 VP per share at the end of the game! (One of the Railroad Tycoon cards rewards a player with 7 VPs if he has issued the FEWEST shares!) High bidder goes first.

Now, in turn order, come THREE rounds of Player Actions. In each round, each player may perform ONE action from a menu of six possibilities. They may build track, deliver one goods cube, improve engine, urbanize, take a Railroad Operation or build a Western Link.

A player may build up to 4 tiles in a turn OR stop if he has linked to another city. Laying track costs money depending on terrain, from as little as $1000 per tile (for open terrain) to $8000 per tile if building in hills and crossing a mountain. Track must start from a city and an uncompleted stretch may be continued in the next turn (remember: there are THREE turns in a round). But by the end of the round, track placed MUST connect to a city (creating a link). If not, unconnected tiles are removed from the board and money spent in placing them is lost. Ownership of built links is marked by placing one of the player’s locomotives on it.

As links are created, pllayers may choose to deliver goods. Any goods cube sitting on a city may be moved across completed links to another city of the SAME color as the cube. The engine card a player has indicates how many links his locomotive can traverse from city to city. (For example, an engine card of “1” means delivery may only be made over 1 link while an engine card of “3” allows travel over three links.) Although you may use other players’ links in getting goods to a city, the initial link MUST be controlled by you. Players gain 1 point on the income track for EACH link of theirs used in this transport. Because of this, players will want to upgrade their engines (another option). Upgrade costs an action (and money, depending on which grade engine) and players may only upgrade one level per action, no skipping from a level 1 to a level 5 engine, for example, allowed.

As goods get delivered, some cities will have fewer cubes or become empty. A player may choose to urbanize. This allows a player to choose a new city tile, available in all colors except red, transform any gray city into the chosen color and draw at random two good cubes to be placed in the new city (in addition to any cubes still remaining there). If the city was vacant, the vacant marker is removed as the city is back in business. Urbanization can be a valuable, but pricey, action costing $10,000.

Players may also select one of the available Railroad Operation cards. Some cards (such as the S cards) cannot be selected but go into effect once a certain condition is met. Some of the rest must be used immediately and discarded, others may be held for later use while still others are re-usable.

Building a Western Link is the final option and simulates building a link off the western portion of the board, possible once a link is built by a player in Kansas City or Des Moines. Four red cubes are placed on the Western Link and any red cubes delivered from the Western Link to Chicago cause 2 new random cubes to be placed in Chicago. This can create a big ripple effect in creating income if you happen to have the Western Link connecting links to Chicago. But you pay for it. Building a Western Link will cost you $30,000.

Once three rounds of actions are completed, players collect their income and dividends. Players collect the income shown on the income track occupied by their locomotive. Then, they must pay $1000 per share (as “dividends” to stock holders) from their earnings. Don’t have enough money? Then you have to issue more shares!

As noted, as cubes get delivered, cities begin to empty. Empty City Markers are placed on the vacant sites and even here, Eagle opts for a graphic upgrade. This markers are three dimensional plastic pieces representing water towers, railroad crossing signs etc. They all signify the same thing but add to the ambiance of the landscape. It also makes it easy to tell how many markers are in play, important since the endgame is triggered once the specified number of Empty markers (10 with 2 players to 18 with 6) is reached. The game ends after the completion of the FOLLOWING turn that this occurs. Players score VPs on the last turn as usual and then deduct 1 VP for each issued stock share. The player with the highest final total is the winner! (If a tie, the first tie-breaker is the most track links and the second is the most cash on hand.)

Railroad Tycoon is a more accessible version of Age of Steam, one that is more forgiving than its progenitor. The specter of bankruptcy, a real threat in AoS, is dissipated here as you can issue shares to refresh your bank account at will. The Operations cards, not present in Age of Steam, provide a host of appealing options. How about the one that allows you to Urbanize for FREE! A savings of $10,000 in a game where money is so important is extremely valuable. And the cards add to the decision-making: if there is a “powerful” card for the taking, how much is it worth to you? Gauging its value is part of the fun. You can always bid higher (and issue more shares) to be certain that you go first and can grab that prize before anyone else – if it’s worth it! Of course, not all of these cards are that powerful. Still, if “weaker” cards are all that’s available at the moment, the menu of moves is large enough so that there are always other valid choices. Geography is an important factor here too. The North East region is filled with easily reached cities. If you allow one player to dominate the region, he’ll be able to generate income quite easily and you’ll be playing catch-up all game.

But the game is not without flaws. There have been reports of board warping (although, to be honest, that hasn’t been a problem with our set so far). The blue and purple cities are hard to distinguish, an oversight hard to understand given the importance of being able to match colors to cubes and the consistent graphic excellence of the game. (We suggest either training yourself to recognize blue/purple as blue or applying properly colored stickers to the cities in question.) The secret Victory Point cards are not balanced and while it can be satisfying to flip over a 7 or 8 point Victory card at game’s end to secure a win, the whole thing can be likened to pulling an ace out of your sleeve in a Wild West poker game. People have been shot for that! Unless that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, you might wish to keep those cards in the box and play without them. The final barrier to play is the size of the board. It is just unwieldy. Beautiful, to be sure, but cumbersome. The board measures an astounding 45″ x 36″! That’s nearly 4 FEET by 3 FEET big! And don’t forget you need room to display Operations cards as well as a place to put your engine card, stock shares and money. Unless you have a large (and I mean, large) playing surface available, this game may be relegated to the shelf and not come to the gaming table nearly as often as it should.

Railroad Tycoon follows the precedent established by Drover in the last Eagle Games release, Conquest of the Empire (featured last issue), where a previous design is used as a springboard. In this case, Drover draws upon two sources of inspiration: the computer game of the same name by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley and Age of Steam by Martin Wallace. From these launching points, Drover proceeds to twist and modify the originals to successfully give Railroad Tycoon a life of its own. – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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