Russian Railroads

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Z-Man Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 120 minutes; $59.99 )

russianrailroads1There is something that quickens the pulse among gamers when it comes to games about trains. There is just something in that theme undeniably appealing – and that’s not a new thing. Avalon Hill, in its early years, put out Dispatcher in 1958. More recently, Ticket to Ride (now celebrating its 10th year in print) has been a huge hit and, of course, the entire 18xx series of train games has a long, successful history and devoted fans. But rail games generally focus on Western Europe, England or America, not surprisingly as this form of transportation occupied an important place in the histories of those areas. But let’s not forget Russia. A country that big had great need for rails and, in Russian Railroads, the new game designed by Helmut Ohley and Leonhard Orgler, Russia is the scene for the action.

Each player begins with his own player board. The board depicts three rail lines to be built (the Trans-Siberian, Kiev and Saint Petersburg lines) as well as a track for charting industrial development. Players begin with a bunch of workers (meeples in their chosen color), a “1” level locomotive, three black rail tracks (one for each of the three rail lines), one gold rouble and a set of counters which will allow for special privileges IF you are lucky (and smart enough) to be able to activate them.

The starting player is chosen randomly. Players going from fourth to second get a bonus (from an extra rouble to moving one of your black tracks ahead a space) as a compensation for turn order. (An additional compensation is, when everyone is done in the round, the player going first receives no Victory Points but second place, third place and fourth place players earn bonuses of 2, 3 or 4 VPs, respectively.)

russianrailroads3In addition to your own board, attention is centered on the general board which has areas for worker placement where the presence of one (or more) of your workers allows you to build track, upgrade your locomotives, increase industrialization, hire engineers for your rail lines and more. In turn order, players will place one or more of their workers on spaces that will grant them the action they wish to take. (Turn order is not fixed permanently. There is an area where players can realign turn order for the following round. Although committing a worker for this purpose may compel you to leave other, possibly more desirable, areas open to other players, there is an up side to this. At the end of the round, once turn order is determined, workers placed there will be reassigned and moved to ANY open space. For the final round, this space gets covered and converted into an area that will increase movement on the industrialization track.)

Engineers are an important factor and they come in two varieties: A and B. The A and B decks are shuffled separately. Three A and four B engineers are randomly chosen and placed on the board. (The other engineers are removed from play.) From left to right, the four B engineers are placed vertically with the front side showing; the first two A engineers are placed on their reverse side horizontally, the final, however, is placed vertically too. Two engineers (the horizontal ones) are places where workers may be deployed to activate those particular engineer abilities. One engineer and only one (the one farthest to the right) is available for purchase (for 1 rouble) each round. Generally, this is the move that the player going first will always choose for several reasons: bought engineers are your personal areas, available only to the owning player, where you may use workers to grant you additional abilities (and sometimes Victory Points) and, at the end of the game, the player with the most and second most number of hired engineers will score a bonus of 40 and 20 points. And speaking of buying, money is tight and very useful. There is only one standard space on the board to gain roubles (one worker will produce 2 roubles for you). Not only are roubles required to purchase engineers but they are also flexible in their use in that a rouble can double as a worker if you run out of your own worker pieces. The majority of the other actions involve building up your rail lines and your industrial capacity. (Engineers also serve as a “timer” for the game. After each round, all engineers slide one slot to the right. When only one engineer is on the board, you know that this will be the last round.)

russianrailroads2As railroads are built, track is placed on the individual lines. Tracks come in different colors (black, gray, white, tan and white) and must be placed in a specific order. Black track must be placed first with gray, white, tan (if possible) and white (only on the Trans-Siberian line) to follow. This order must be maintained. At no time may one color “catch up” to or surpass another. Along the way, thepresence of track (and sometimes, you need a certain color track AND a locomotive) on a space on a rail line will unlock a benefit. (For example, advancing black track to the second space on the Trans-Siberian line will give you the gray track you will need for your three lines. Other spaces, denoted by a ?, will allow you to choose ONE of your 7 special tiles and use one of their powers. These powers range from moving track, advancing your industry, enhancing the point values of your track and more. One of them allows you to claim a bonus card which, in turn, allows you to do lots of beneficial things such as grabbing a 9 valued locomotive, picking up an extra worker, recruiting an exclusive engineer for yourself and more. Plus, it allows you to browse through end of game bonus cards and choose one for later use. Or, you could forego that bonus card and just take 10 Victory Points instead.)

Activation essentially means your locomotive has “reached” the space on the track necessary to grab those benefits. “Reaching” is determined rather simply. Each locomotive has a number. Consider that its “range”. For example, a 3 locomotive will reach the first 3 spaces on a particular rail line. Since you start with a 1 locomotive, how do you get to a 3 or beyond?

Trains range from 1 to 9 in value and are stacked according to those values. When doing an action allowing you to get a locomotive, you take the LOWEST valued train available and move it to your player board. The Kiev and Saint Petersburg lines can handle one locomotive; the Trans-Siberian line is the longest so can accommodate two trains. (For example, a locomotive valued at 3 coupled with one valued at 4 would give the trains on that line a range of 7.) When choosing a new train, you may supplant one already there with a higher valued train and move the less powerful one to a line that doesn’t have a train on it as yet, in essence, a falling domino effect. If there is no available place for a locomotive, you flip the train over to its reverse side creating an industry tile. This now revealed industry tile is placed in an “industry” stack by the trains. If you choose an industrialization action, you either take the lowest available train tile (and flip it over to its industrialization side) or sift through the stack of available industry tiles and choose one. Industry tiles fill the first available slot in the your board’s industrialization track.

Once all players have used their workers (and roubles) as they choose and everyone passes, scoring occurs.

Track is scored depending on the type of track it is. Black track, required to be placed before any other color track can be placed, while useful in triggering some benefits, is worth no points. Gray has a value of 1, brown 2, tan 4 and white 7. For each space occupied by those tracks, points are scored. In addition, some spaces award bonuses and players may pick up “doubler” tiles which may be used on the Trans-Siberian line to DOUBLE the values of track there. The industrialization track also displays point values which players earn depending on how far along they have travelled. The combined totals are recorded on the perimeter scoring track.

Play continues until all seven rounds have been played. At that point, a final scoring occurs with bonus points from having the most and second most engineers and special “end of game” bonus cards added to the totals. High score wins!

Like locomotives, Russian Railroads has lots of moving parts! Fortunately, for players familiar with the worker placement style of play, the learning curve is relatively quick. Place your men in areas that allow you to do the actions your strategy and tactics require. While the worker placement mechanism has been often used (and for some, has outlasted its vogue), game play is elevated in several ways.

Only seven engineers are used in each game making the worker placement board less static as abilities available each round will differ somewhat. The variety of industry tiles assures that your industrialization track will bestow varying abilities each time too. The unique use of rail track gives the game not only a boost in theme but provides a set of obstacles different from other worker placement designs.

In implementing strategy, it is important to note that, realistically, you cannot do everything. Those who “spread out” their resources pursuing a balanced approach to building track on all three lines and industrializing will have a steep, uphill climb to victory. You are much better off focusing on one or two rail lines (which lines may depend on what your opponents are doing) or putting track on the “back burner” in favor of building up your industry. There is a hare vs. tortoise dynamic here. Industrialization will generate lots of early points, giving the player pursuing that approach an early lead. The trick for that player is to maintain that lead – and it’s a nice trick if you can pull it off! In pursuing a rail building strategy, points come later but come in trainloads as it’s not uncommon for a player building rails to actually amass double the points scored by the player concentrating on the industrialization strategy in a turn.

Scoring (of rail lines in particular) is very different than your typical game. Stretches of track will score based on which type of rail line (black, gray, brown, tan or white) happens to be in play. This includes “virtual” track. As you advance your track pieces (be they black, gray or any other color), empty spaces behind those pieces are considered occupied by other pieces of the same color and score accordingly. In addition, on some rail lines, track placement will earn bonuses and that scoring is cumulative. Those ? counters offer lots of different ways to maximize your score too. Each counter offers something valuable but how valuable it is to you depends on the strategy you are implementing. In any case, it is a good goal to try to realize at least two of the possible four ? spaces on your board to make winning more easily within reach.

Russian Railroads provides a different flavor to the tried and true game mechanism of worker placement. What separates this game from the many worker placement games out there is the acrobatics of track building and locomotive upgrading which provides a fresh and exciting set of challenges for even the most experienced gamer. And the wild and exponential explosion of Victory Points as the game progresses gives you a sense of “picking up steam”, just like those powerful train engines, as the game rushes to its exciting conclusion. All of which making Russian Railroads one game that gamers should be rushin’ to buy.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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