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Switchbacks and Sidetracks - Ideas for a family-oriented Railroad Game

11 replies [Last post]
Joined: 09/02/2008

I have been thinking of entering into the "paid PnP" arena for awhile now and have been working on this design for awhile. It was initially designed to be just a straight "roll and move", but some input I've received on Board Game Geek has made me rethink my strategy.

I'm thinking of basing the mechanics solely around passenger transport to keep things simple. Tile laying would form the first part of the game. Players would build from a central city tile (here's where hex would be better possibly) outward. Each player draws a tile and lays it where appropriate. Trains all start at the central area and once a second city tile is laid, players may move their trains.

Instead of money, players would be awarded points based on deliveries. I've also thought of having reward points for completing routes, possibly on cards. ie. players draw 3 cards initially, each with a route (towns likely will be colour coded). First player to complete a certain route gets bonus points. Also possible are passenger bonuses. so you can haul passengers on any route (say A-B), but if your card has A-C, you get a bonus based on having that route.

Trians will be upgradable as well for a certain number of points, with a total of 4 different trains in the game, all better than the previous one.

Cards would have routes on them as well as certain situations (lose loads, derailment, etc) and there will also be certain "blocker" cards to avoid these situations, similar to a Get out of Jail Free card.

Goal would be to reach a certain number of points and/or complete all of your routes.

It's a bit more work than just a simple roll and move, but adds alot more options for strategy and interaction.
Dan M.

jeffinberlin's picture
Joined: 07/29/2008
shorter, child-friendly Empire Builder

Ever since being introduced to crayon rail games, I've wanted to design a shorter, more child-friendly rail building and pick-up-and-deliver game. I've also got a few ideas I'm working on, but nothing completely like what you describe. I even came up with a version using dominoes (as the track pieces AND as delivery orders) because I was getting tired of playing Mexican Train with friends (draw a domino and hope you can play it--bleh!). I posted my rules for that on the Geek a long time ago and I'll re-post it here for anyone who would like to try it. Feel free to take any inspiration from it for your game as well.

In your game, I have a few questions, though:
1) How would you give points for completed routes, if the length of the routes depends on drawing the stations or correct track tiles?
2) If you start from a central station, how do you make sure that the other stations will also be connected (and not just a pinwheel connected to the central station?)
3) With all trains starting from a central station, how do they fulfill different contracts? I guess I don't quite understand how contracts can be fulfilled to cities that haven't been placed on the board, since building the track and drawing the contracts takes place simultaneously?

With crayon rail games, the cities are already fixed. Placing the cities as part of the game, though, makes the delivery aspect more difficult. Unless there are distinctly 2 phases of the game: first a building phase awarding points based in some way on the building, and then a delivery phase awarding more points in a different way? Or the first phase simply awards ownership of the different tracks to those who invested the most for each city-to-city connnection. Those players get points in the second phase every time another player uses his track (in addition to the other player receiving points for the delivery).

Just a few ideas...

Joined: 09/02/2008
I like your ideas for the

I like your ideas for the domino game, it adds much more to it. I haven't actually played the original, but I have played Empire Builder alot

My thoughts for the track were to essentially have it communal, as a sort of shared game board.

I thought of having different coloured tiles per player, but that may confuse things (also may make things easier as well)
Crossing another players track would cost a certain amount of points as well as using another player's track

This would simplify things alot in my opinion. The first player to make a direct connection (whether it be A-B-C or A-C, or whichever), will receive the bonus construction points. Delivery points would be for each passenger unit delivered, but if you deliver a passenger on one of your "preferred" routes, you get 1 bonus point per passenger. This will encourage players to lay their own routes.

Another possibility would be to have varying town sizes with different cargo productions (ie, small towns have one passenger unit, medium have 2 and large have 3)

I was thinking players trains didn't have to stop ina town enroute, IE, if they want to travel between A-C but B is in the way, they can do so, there are just no bonus points.

It's still very much a WIP. I don't want to make things too complex and yet I want to introduce a certain amount of strategy into it as well.

Dan M

Joined: 09/02/2008
Digging this up - A bit of a rethink...

Hello all,

I've dug up this topic because I've done some revising on my concept. Real Life has intruded in my game designing, and both this game and my Pizza game have taken a back burner. I hope to begin working on both soon, but this game is closer to completion I think. I've abandoned the tile laying in favour of a normal board. Basic concept is deliver as much cargo as possible and reach a certain number of points.

Basic concept of the revised version:

A game designed for 2-4 players.

The board basically consists of a central "Union Station", and a main track looping around the board with three paths of increasing lengths. There are three additional stations on the board, one on each route, and the payment for passengers to Union Station varies depending on the distance travelled.

Players begin with a basic locomotive card and a passenger car that can carry 2 passengers. There are 4 levels of locomotive, the Local, which players start with, followed by Commuter, Express and Limited. Each locomotive can haul a certain number of cars and travels at a set speed. Adding additional passenger cars costs points, as does upgrading your train.

This adds more strategy to the game idea above and beyond the simple "roll and move". There are more choices to be made (Upgrade, go for the long distance high paying run or the short local runs that take less time).

Also along the board are various spots to pick up "Switchback" cards, which can help or hinder your progress.

The "points" may be replaced with money at some point, depends how things play out. This is intended to be a relatively simple game that has a bit more strategy than just a simple "round the board" concept.


Dan M

Pastor_Mora's picture
Joined: 01/05/2010

Too bad you dropped the modular board. When I first started reading the thread I was thinking about Zug all the time. It's like Carcassonne with trains (actually lighter!). Check it here:

As far as roll-and-move, the thing is you don't have actually much of a choice, because tracks do not divide every 3 spaces. So, what is that you are proposing? Make a single choice at the end of every loop? I imagine the choice been: do I take the 10-turns loop for 10 points or do I take the 20-turns loop for 20 points? (I miss the 3-eyed BGG emoticon)

If you are commited to it, my suggestion would be to add layers of players advancements. For example, you make $100 a loop in "local" level and you need to get some upgrades to qualify for the "suburban" level, where you make $300 a loop, and then "international" for $1000 loops (set in Europe, of course). This is much like the 1967 game of the year:

Retrace (Status) check on

That was as far as roll-and-move went.

Keep thinking!

PS get back to modular board!

Joined: 09/02/2008
Bit more detail

Thanks for the links and comments.

The modular board created some issues with implementation, and that's why I revised the concept. The basic concept for the board has been uploaded to the prototype gallery along with an image of some WIP train cards.

I hope the pictures speak better than I can :) I'm finalising a rough draft of the rules as well, adn they'll be posted here once completed.

Joined: 09/02/2008
More Discussion

As a follow-up to the discussion in my Rules thread (, I'm redirecting suggestions here.

Thanks for the feedback. Going over what I wrote, I can definitely see where you're coming from in regards to the "explaination" vs "Rulesheet"

I can definitely understand the distance/movement ratio, and I will definitely adjust that. The board design was a prelim design, but I'm going to halve the spaces and double the train movement rates. Things are still in the preliminary design phases, so the board, cards and rules aren't finalized by any means. Real Life just has a habit of interfering sometimes in hobbies.

I've got some notes in regards to the effects of the switchback cards, but I need to refine them as to exactly what each one does. To eliminate the random draw, the Switchback cards could be drawn on each successful passenger delivery at Union Station.

I'm still also mulling over the "modular board" concept again. With the board design with three different length routes, it makes it easy to calculate how much each delivery is worth. With the modular board, it gets more complicated. I'd almost need to change the cargo from Passengers to goods of some sort, and different types of goods pay more. I'm trying to reach a balance of strategy versus simplicity. I don't want the game becoming overly complex. I do like the idea of other routes though, and I'm toying with that now as well.

The option to switch the track is an interesting one. In reality, switches are protected by switch locks. I thought about having 4 "lock" cards (one per player) and 4 "key" cards that players can use to unlock switches if their opponents block them. To use the board as an example, a player uses a lock to align the track for a curve through Carville after passing through straight. This could be accomplished by a tile or chip with the locked route shown. Any player can unlock the route and allow other players through. The only problem I can think of with this is that as the game progresses, if I have players keep the 'lock' and 'key' cards, then their purpose is moot after everyone's got one. Possibly have more than 4 and have them placed into the draw deck, with the lock and key discarded after the lock is disabled.. I also like the idea of players beginning with a certain amount of cards, possibly 2 or 3. Players may have a lock or a key in the initial draw, they may not.

Another idea I've been toying with is to retheme things to trucking as opposed to trains. It would make more sense in some respects. There are almost as many trucking games out there as there are train games though, so that may not be an option. I'm definitely open to retheming though if it makes the game flow better.

Any further suggestions are welcomed.

Joined: 09/02/2008
Random Card Draws vs. Set Draw

Another idea I've been playing with here. I'm rethinking the lack of a random draw. Some of the switchback cards I've designed have effects which take place "Out on the road", so to speak. If players only draw cards after deliveries, these "random incident" cards are a moot point. Personally I think a balance needs to be set regarding the number of random spaces vs. drawing cards.

This is something playtesting needs to establish, I know, but I'm looking for some input from the more experienced designers out there.


drktron's picture
Joined: 07/18/2010
Your gameboard had improved.

Your gameboard had improved. As far as the random events "out on the road", it depends on what sort of game your trying to make. Random events can be fine if that's what you want but its not exactly random if events only occur when you land on or pass a certain space. For example, my train has a chance to derail everytime I pass this switchback spot. This seems like "chance" or community chest in Monopoly. I may advance to boardwalk or go to jail. Personally not an appealing mechanic. What if you had swithcback spaces on alternate (longer) routes to the stations which would allow you to draw an extra card to your hand. So the player has a choice to take a shorter route to get points quickly or take a slightly longer route to gain a card that may help them in the long run. I suggest the "on the road" events be directed by the players (a player plays a derail on another player) rather than flip a card and see what happens. However, if you really like random events you could do that easily. You could have random event cards in the switchback deck that get resolved when drawn while other cards are drawn to the hand to be used later. OR you could have a separate random event deck with a different mechanic for triggering it. say a die roll after each round (or turn) or set up the random event cards to only effect certain areas of track and draw one after each round. For example, "avalanche: any train in the tunnel is derailed" or "Track Repairs: any train between northbury and union station loses their next turn". I would still prefer the players to play these cards on each other but I like cutthroat games :).
The lock and key cards would work fine. I wouldn't have the players keep them though. I image a switchback deck with (amongst others) switch cards that change the track direction, lock cards that prevent them from being switched, and key cards that cancel the lock allowing the track to be switched again. The cards would be discarded after use.
It sounds like you would like a modular board but the balancing of the points and distances won't balance, then I suggest a different approach. Put grand central station in the center of the board and add modular tracks emanating from it in each direction. Different tracks and stations(each with a designated color) are laid out. Instead of picking up blue chips from northbury and delivering them to union station for five points, have red, yellow and gray(or whatever color) at the northbury station. If you pick up red chips they need to be delivered to the red station (carville) for one point each. At the end of the game you could give bonuses to the player who delivered the most of each color. Or you could have delivery objectives at the beginning of the game for a certain number of passengers in certain colors for bonus points (sort of like ticket to ride objectives but with passengers instead of routes). Train upgrades may cost a combination of colored chips to purchase. Each station could have a set number of different colored passengers OR you could have a mechanism where new passengers "spawn" at each station throughout the game.
Anyway these are just a few suggestions, hope it helps

Joined: 09/02/2008
Excellent Suggestions

Excellent suggestions, and I like the random number of load chips at each station if I were to go modular.

That being said, I don't think my game model really works with the modular board as it's evolved to this point. I've seriously thought about it, and the stationary board, for the moment, is the way to go I think.

I like the more cutthroat idea and it definitely improves player interaction. I've got a couple of ideas I'm actually going to play around with as well, and I'm seriously considering dropping the "Passenger" angle entirely and going with generic cargo. The existing scoring would remain the same, but certain things would be changed.

More info as it develops.

Joined: 02/22/2010
How about adding different

How about adding different goods transports to the passenger options?

OdysseyDyse's picture
Joined: 02/17/2011
moveable tracks

I'm thinking of basing the mechanics solely around passenger transport to keep things simple. Tile laying would form the first part of the game. Players would build from a central city tile (here's where hex would be better possibly) outward. Each player draws a tile and lays it where appropriate. Trains all start at the central area and once a second city tile is laid, players may move their trains.

I designed some dice with grids on their faces that form roads/tracks which move in different directions according to their orientation to each other. A pic is my avatar. You might like the chance involed in these rather than tile. The 3 can be a nuisance, becasue it forces you to turn, but I give it other qualities as needed like a one-way gate. Similarly the 5 is a dead -end , but in one game I allow it to be played on the diagonal, which gets it off the path and lets it assume a different role, (station?) But while I was applying for a patten on the basic 6 I added some other shapes that are helpful in getting from A to B, For instance, the 5 is rearranged into a T-junction. If that sounds useful I'll send you some pictures. I'm trying to get game designers to incorporate them in some games. Blue Panther is making me some real ones but my prototypes are wooden cubes and adhesive backed printer paper.

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