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[Review] Russian Rails

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I’ve never played any of the Empire Rails series. For some reason, the “crayon-rail” games never had any massive appeal to me, but at the same time I wasn’t averse to playing one. It’s simply that the lack of availability in my gaming groups, coupled with a lengthy playing time, kept me from trying one out. This all changed when I received Russian Rails (Mayfair Games, 2004 - Jodi Soares). Finally, I was able to see what all the fuss was about.

As this is my first Empire Rails game to play, I can’t compare it to others in the series, but I will say that it certainly worked well for beginners and was a fun game to play. It was involving and thought provoking, giving a player a lot of options. The only problems with the game were the lengthy time of play (3+ hours) and the ample opportunities for analysis paralysis. But if you are willing to make the time to play this rails game, you will be rewarded by a tremendous, satisfying game.

A large board is placed in the middle of the table, depicting a map of the former Soviet Union. The map has forty-six cities, separated into three types: major, medium, and small and is divided up into a triangular grid of “milepost” dots. Next to each city, there are one to three icons depicting what kinds of goods that city produces. Each player takes a “train” token in their color, along with a special wipe-off crayon. Each player also receives sixty million rubles as starting cash and a Loco card that depicts nine speed and two goods. A deck of demand/event cards is shuffled, and three demand cards are dealt face-up to each player. The cards show three different cities on them, and the type of goods that each city wants along with the payout in rubles for supplying that demand. Stacks of chips representing each commodity are placed in a special area in the box, along with the rest of the Loco cards and the cash. The player who has the highest cash value on one their three Demand cards goes first with play proceeding clockwise around the table.

Each turn has two phases, the operation phase and the building phase. During the first two turns of the game, players skip the operation phase. During the operation phase, players can move their train pawn on their tracks on the map. The train starts the game in any city on the map, and then can move up to its maximum speed (9 or 12) each turn. Trains cannot reverse direction except at a junction and can pick up or drop off loads at any city. Players can move freely on their own tracks and must pay opponents 4 million a turn if they use their track. If in a city that has good icons, a player may pick up loads of those particular types if they have room on their Loco card (two or three spots) and if there are any chips of that type available. (There are three to four chips of each type.) A player can drop a load off at any city, discarding it for no reward; unless they have a demand card showing that the city they are dropping the load off at wants that type of good. When the player does deliver a load to its destination, they return the chip to the box, discard the card, and receive the amount of rubles shown on the card immediately. The player then draws a new Demand card, placing it face-up in front of them. If the player draws an event card, it is either placed face up on the table, or takes effect immediately (depending on the card), and the player draws another card to take its place.

In the building phase, a player can spend up to twenty million rubles to either upgrade their train or lay track on the board. If upgrading their train, the player pays twenty million rubles to the bank and takes a new Loco card of the next level, increasing either the speed (from 9 to 12) or the load maximum (from 2 to 3). If building track, the player can draw on the board with their crayon, connecting the mileposts at a cost. Players can build from any milepost from which they already have track connected to or can start from any major City milepost (twice a turn). Different terrain types on the board determine the cost for building the track, determined by the milepost built TO.
- Clear mileposts cost 1 million
- Mountain mileposts cost 2 million
- Alpine mileposts cost 5 million
- Marshland mileposts cost 3 million
- Small cities cost 3 million and have a maximum of two players who can connect to them.
- Medium cities cost 3 million and have a maximum of three players who can connect to them.
- Major cities cost 5 million, and all players can connect to them (a player cannot deliberately block another from connecting.)
- Crossing a river costs an additional 2 million
- Crossing a lake or ocean inlet costs an additional 3 million
- There is a ferry that crosses the Caspian Sea that also has some additional costs and special rules.
- Players cannot ever borrow from the bank but must use cash on hand.

Players have the option to discard all three of their cards, drawing new ones - forfeiting the remainder of their turn. Any event cards drawn must immediately be dealt with. The most important event card in the deck is the “Communism Falls” event. Most event cards are known as dual events. When played before Communism falls, the top half is used, with the bottom half being used after Communism falling. The fall of Communism also has the following effects. All players must immediately discard 20% of their cash, all dual events in play are discarded, and the Russian boundaries become effective. All over the board, the boundaries of Russia are defined but aren’t used when the USSR is in effect. After the fall, players must pay 2 million when entering INTO Russia. All the other events allow for special deliveries of goods, tax the players, use weather to keep players from moving, etc.

When one player has connected five of the six major cities on the board with a continuous line of track AND has at least 250 million rubles in cash at the end of their turn, the game ends with each player finishing up their last turn. If a tie occurs, play continues until one player gets 300 million rubles, in which case they are the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The board is six puzzle pieces attached together, which form a fairly accurate map of the USSR. At first the board looks a bit bland; but once players start drawing the track, it becomes intriguing, as one watches the train networks grow and expand. The crayons were effective and were easy to wipe off the board, but I question the effectiveness of the yellow crayon; it was difficult to see. While the crayons were good, I’m going to get some erasable markers, they’re just easier to use. The boards are of good quality; and while the graphics are plain and a bit bland, they are quite easy to see and differentiate. The paper money was passable, and the cards were useful and of good quality - easy to shuffle and use. The chips were small poker chips that needed to have quite a few stickers attached to them, but I’m coloring the commodities to make them stand apart more. There was a plastic tray in the box that holds money, cards, and chips effectively but with one problem. If the box is tipped on its side at all, all the chips fall out of their slots, mixing them together in a giant mess. This is easily fixed by putting them all in a plastic bag, but then you have to sort them all out at the beginning of the game. Not a big deal, but a slight pain - I might tape some kind of board over them to keep them in place when I transport the game.

2.) Rules: The rulebook was very clear; I’ve never played a crayon rail game before, but I easily understood it. The twelve pages of rules include several players’ aids that can be given to each player. The player aids show the location of each city on the map (the map is divided up into a grid), and the cities that provide each good. For people who are intimately familiar with Russian geography (me for sure!) these aids can become invaluable. Actually, I was impressed at how simple the game actually was. Whenever I had seen a crayon rail game in the past, I thought that they looked complicated and long. Long is correct, but the game play is actually quite simple.

3.) Length: The game is LONG. Even with a variant of moving the trains quicker, it still took a while. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my time of playing the game, but downtime can occur. I tried to speed up the game by encouraging players to plan their track building while others where moving, but a simple event card can mess up all your carefully laid plans and cause a person to rethink the map. Once a good is delivered, the player draws a new card, which also might affect what they do next. So there’s really no way around it, the game is going to take a while.

4.) Variations: There are some variations on play in the rulebook - two of which I think quite useful. One of them involves changing the speed of the trains to 12 and 16 respectively. This speeds the game up, while still retaining fairness and balance. Another variant allows the players to decide where in the deck the Communism Falls event card is placed. I HIGHLY recommend this variant, as the game can be too unpredictable otherwise. If you aren’t prepared for the fall of Communism, a lot of plans can be ruined and money lost. In fact, if a player’s train is outside Russia when the fall occurs, and they have no money (frequent in this game); they are effectively out of the game. I think it’s better to shuffle it into the bottom one third of the deck - still giving randomness, but a bit more controlled.

5.) Strategy and Fun Factor: Most of the fun of the game is involved with setting up your network of trains. It’s great fun to watch your network grow and expand, and delivering goods gives one such a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. Knowing what goods to deliver and where is the crux of the game. Do you deliver several small loads, taking a bit of money at a time, or do you concentrate on the very long but lucrative loads. Being in the right place at the right time also helps, especially when an event card is drawn. The event cards add some randomness to the game; but aside from Communism Falls, none of them are too detrimental to a player. The game starts off a bit slow, as players struggle to get one or two loads delivered. Then, as the game progresses, the game speeds up, with the networks completed, as players rush to deliver as much stuff as they can. It’s not too terribly interactive, but players get so caught up in their networks that they don’t care too much.

6.) Empire Rails: As I’ve never played the other games in the series, I cannot compare it; but I’m quite happy with the game. Others I’ve gamed with HAVE played other crayon-rail games, and they said that this one is similar, with the Fall of Communism providing the major difference. These opinions I’ve gathered have also been positive, saying that this is one of the better games in the series.

This is not the kind of game I’ll pull out to finish out a game night, nor is it one which I’ll pull off the shelves lightly. When we play this one, we are going to game - and game hard. At the same time, it’s not too terribly taxing on the brain, just immensely involving. Because it takes so long to play, it probably won’t get played that often; but when it does get played, the time will be memorable. I enjoyed the game quite a bit and recommend it to anyone who has wanted to start their own train empire. And the geography lesson about Russia certainly doesn’t hurt.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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