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[Review] Railroad Tycoon

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Joined: 03/23/2011

When Eagle games first started producing games, such as War: Age of Imperialism, and The American Civil War, they took a lot of heat online, with comments such as "lack of playtesting" being bandied about with a vehemence by a vocal group on the internet. That group, my friends, is silent. And well they should be - for both of Eagle's big games this year have been nothing short of brilliant. First there was the redone version of Conquest of the Empire, and now the even more fascinating Railroad Tycoon (Eagle Games, 2005 - Martin Wallace and Glenn Drover). Conquest of the Empire was a great game in its own right, but Railroad Tycoon surpasses it, being one of the best games of the year and the best I've ever played.

Part of this is because the game is a reworking of the all time great Age of Steam, by Martin Wallace. Add to that incredible system a pile of tremendous components (for which Eagle is well-known!) and a translation of the game so that it reaches a much wider audience, and you have a game that simply shimmers with greatness. One of the most amazing things about Railroad Tycoon is that it is fairly easy to teach and grasp and yet offers a tremendous variety of options and strategy. Railroad Tycoon is without a doubt a game in which "die hard" strategic gamers and casual social gamers can enjoy at the same levels.

Some comments on the game…

1.) Game Board: I will get out of the way my sole complaint about the game - and that is the board (at least in the first printing) has some severe warping problems. Fortunately, this can be fixed, and wasn't a major problem, but it did cause some sliding of trains in our first couple games. Also, the board is gigantic, and may be a little too large for some folks' tables.

2.) Components: And that's it - everything else is superb about the game. The box is quite large, and understandably so, since there is so much inside. The control locomotives are plastic trains in six different colors and look great on the board. The track tiles (of which are provided FAR more than will ever be needed) are simple and yet have different terrain on them so that they match the map. And since I've brought up the map, let me state that it's Eagle's best board to date, and that's beating an impressive lineup! While some people may cringe at the size of the board, to me it helped bring about a feeling of "massiveness" to the game. The goods cubes were large and easy to handle, and all the cards, especially the engine cards, were of the highest quality. Even the empty city markers, which are in the game simply to put in empty cities to help point them out to players, are four different buildings (which incidentally look like pieces of chocolate). It's these unnecessary but thematic touches that raise Railroad Tycoon head and shoulders above competing games.

3.) Rules: The rulebook is a mere ten pages long, with two of those dedicated to a history of the eight different engines used in the game. Formatted, and in color - they are very easy to understand and use. I've taught the game several times to over ten people, and all of them have understood the game almost immediately into playing. Some of the concepts are new to them, but the theme of the game is so strong that much of it is intuitive. The game looks complex, and indeed offers a lot of choices, but no one I've played the game with yet (and I've taught the game to some folk who play very few games) has had any trouble.

4.) Age of Steam: There is a contingent of people who are extreme fans of Age of Steam (AoS), and I count myself one of them. But one of the problems I've had with AoS is that it is undeniably hard on newcomers and is easy to feel overwhelmed by the tough system. So there was some talk of Railroad Tycoon as being a "dumbed down" version of AoS. And while the game certainly is easier to play, I feel that calling it "dumbed down" is a disservice to the refined system of Railroad Tycoon. With Railroad Tycoon, the "no playtesting" catcallers will be silenced, because the game has been playtested extensively (I even had a small part), and the end results show. There are a myriad of differences between the games, even though they do show several of the same genetic traits. Railroad Tycoon has a much larger map, cards, and fewer types of tracks. It has a more forgiving economic system, and (at least in my opinion), a wider variety of options. So the burning question is which should a player own, and is it worth it to own both? I own both games and feel no desire to get rid of either one of them. But only purchase Age of Steam if you want a tough yet fun hardcore "designer" game. Play Railroad Tycoon if you want beautiful components and a larger audience. Age of Steam still slightly edges out Railroad Tycoon for me, because there are tons of maps available for it. If Eagle starts producing maps for Railroad Tycoon, then it will easily surpass AoS.

5.) Map: The map is so giant in Railroad Tycoon that every game will play out differently. On a player's first turn, they have so many options as to where to put their tracks, and even though there will be fights to see who puts track down in certain areas, players will have plenty of room to build their own track systems. This can lead to a problem in which a player can build a dangerous system unhindered and control an entire section of the United States, but the rules caution against this - especially in the Northeast cluster of cities.

6.) Red Cities: Each city is a different color, and there are twelve more "new cities" that can be added to the board. But there are only three cities on the board that are red: New York, Chicago, and Charleston. Unlike the other colors, no new red cities can be added to the board. Add that to the fact that there is the same amount of red cubes that need to be transported, and those three cities suddenly become hugely important. This offsets the feel of the massive board, as players will gravitate their networks around those cities. When I first playtested the game, I thought that this would be a problem; but upon repeated plays I've grown to love the importance of the red color.

7.) Finances: In Age of Steam, a player can go bankrupt after only a turn or two, and be either run out of the game, or so far behind that they never have a chance of catching up. Railroad Tycoon is a much more forgiving system. A player can take a share (worth $5000) at any time, with the negative results being that they have to pay $1000 each turn for their shares, and lose one point at the end of the game. A player can still get into trouble - such as taking too many shares at the beginning of the game, but it's not nearly as devastating. I've seen players do well with as few as two shares, and I've seen players win with twelve shares - it's all a manner of play styles and how each game flows.

8.) Tycoon Cards: Each player has a secret Tycoon card that will award them points at the end of the game if they accomplish a specific task (have the most money, connect two cities, etc.) Some of them are more difficult than others; but they have a reasonable degree of being able to be completed, and they certainly affect players' strategies.

9.) Railroad Operation Cards: These cards are a key to the game and are unbelievable on how they affect the ebb and flow of play. At the beginning of the game, three "starting" cards and two times the number of players are turned face up. Some of the cards can be taken by a player in lieu of doing other actions; others reward the first player who completes a specific goal. It's these goal cards that change the game drastically. Some of them reward two or three points to the first player who delivers a good to a specific city. Not only does this cause players to head their networks to that city, but it causes bidding for that round to go up drastically. Other goal cards reward obscene amounts of points for connecting cities. I rarely have seen these cards completed, because of the expense and difficulty in completing the tasks; but when they are, the resulting points are worth it! (Although I have yet to see someone hook up New York and Kansas City - if that happens, let me know!) While the cards are powerful and useful, players who fixate on them can lose good track area and crucial cubes to other players.

10.) Empty Cities: Having a certain amount of empty cities end the game was a brilliant design decision. Not only does it impose a time limit on the game that doesn't feel artificial (number of turns), but players can increase or decrease it by clearing out cities and/or urbanization. Not only that, but the markers are "sweet", to use teen jargon.

11.) Track: There are only two basic types of tracks - straight and curved, with three different kids of crossings. This may cause some consternation to those who liked the multiple types of track in Age of Steam, but with the map so big, I never found this much of a problem. Yes, some cities can be cut off quickly, but that's part of the fun.

12.) Mean-spirited: During the game, especially during a game with a lot of players, a lot of interaction occurs. Players will cut each other off from cities; they will force other players to use their lines when shipping, etc. This is exhilarating to most people, and all in the spirit of the game. It is possible, however, that a player can simply do things out of mean spirit - building tracks way out of the way to hurt other players, putting them in the way of other players, etc. This will most certainly hurt the player doing it, but we made a house rule when playing that a player must not be mean spirited when playing. This is certainly not a tangible thing, but I'm sure you'll understand when you play.

13.) Fun Factor: For me, Railroad Tycoon was pure, unadulterated fun. Not only was it brilliant enjoyment to watch your network of tracks grow and expand, but the interaction with other players was tremendous, sheer fun. Completing a six link delivery (haven't had the guts to go up to eight links yet) produces some immense satisfaction, and connecting two cities to score a bonus produces a great high. I rarely play a two hour game five times in one week, but Railroad Tycoon delivers such a great experience that I love playing it over and over again.

14.) Variety: Because of the tycoon cards, the operation cards, and the distribution of the cubes - every game plays completely different. In some games, there's a fierce battle for the Northeast. In others, there's a race to connect Chicago to important outlying cities. It's unbelievable the sheer variety that one map can bring to the game; and if there's anything I love, it's variety.

I could say more to talk about how much I enjoy the game, but I could be playing another time already!! Railroad Tycoon is a game for people who love heavy strategy and for those who just want a fun, social time. It's as near to a perfect design that any company can get, and certainly the best game Eagle games has ever produced. If you don't own it now, then what are you waiting for! I'm going to play it again; you stay here and read this interview if you must.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

Johan's picture
Joined: 10/05/2008
[Review] Railroad Tycoon

Hi Tom

I like to read these reviews and if I'm going to get a game, I read the article first. Ever since I read this article I wanted to test the game.

A week ago I got the chance to play Railroad tycoon and I had very high expectations. I must say that in this case I nearly think that your article did not rely make this game justice ;). This is a brilliant game.

In a game designer's point of view, this game is a showcase in how to integrate a well working and creative mechanism with an interesting theme. The base of the game is easy to learn but the game is complex with a lot of options. I will introduce my wife in this game and she like games as Ticket to Ride, Carcassone and Bang.

Then to my point: The manual is a masterpiece. We opened the box (we had borrowed the game from a friend), read the manual loud once and then we started to play. Everything was intuitive. From a closed box to the start of the game took less then 20 minutes including rule walkthrough and the setup.
We only consulted the rules twice: The first was when the first train upgrade was done (if we had missed anything on the engine numbers but we had understand the rules right) and the other the costs for a city upgrade.

Finally, thanks Tom for very well whitened and interesting articles.

// Johan

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