Trains, apparently, are a good theme for games.
When I first got back into board gaming as an adult, two of the first games I played were train-themed: Ticket to Ride and Mexican Train. Ticket to Ride is often described as a “gateway” game, seen as accessible to non-gamers, and a good way to get them hooked on the hobby, before moving onto more complex, detailed, time-consuming or expensive options.
The sheer number of train games out there is difficult to estimate: a quick search on Boardgame Geek gives a mere 2 pages of games with the word “Train” actually in the title, but a whopping 92 pages in the category “Train Games” – although, given the fact that this includes a seemingly never-ending list of expansions and modules for existing games, it’s hard to be at all definitive about exactly how many distinct train games are out there.
Train games range from the general, like Ticket to Ride, which can be (and indeed has been) re-applied to almost any geographical setting imaginable, to the marvellously specific Last Train to Wensleydale, where players are tasked with ensuring supplies of cheese and stone to remote parts of the Yorkshire Countryside.
We probably all know someone (including the person I first played Last Train to Wensleydale with) who is fascinated by Trains, and find the theme alone enough to sit down for several hours, but for most of us, something a bit more entertaining is required, and I think a lot of the train games out there have done a good job at being accessible to people with little or no interest in the topic.
In one particular area, I feel like the train-games highlight a growing issue in the board-games world generally, and that is expansions.
Even the superficially simple Ticket to Ride provides a good illustration of how out-of-control this sort of thing can get.
There are roughly 4 basic versions of Ticket to Ride – the original (USA), Europe, The Nordic countries, and the Marklin edition, set in Germany. Each of these is a fully-playable stand-alone game, which contains all the plastic Trains, map-boards, train cards and tickets needed to play. There are slight variations: Stations in Europe, Passengers in Marklin, and a more compact map designed for only 2 or 3 players in the Nordic Countries, but at heart, this is the same game. (There’s also the 10th anniversary edition, but as far as I can tell that’s just some existing versions of the game stuck in a single box together, so I’ll be ignoring it from hereon in.)
On top of these base games, both the American and European games have small expansions that can be added, offering a new set of journeys for players to complete, and an additional small mechanic. There is also an expansion which offers players the chance to roll dice instead of collecting cards to claim the routes across the map.
For those who already own the America or Europe boxes (but not Nordic Countries) it is then possible to purchase additional “Map Sets” – this offers the chance to play in additional locations such as Asia, India, Switzerland, the Heart of Africa, and the Netherlands!?! But these boxes do not contain the basic plastic trains or train cards required to play, so are not viable games by themselves. As well as the new map, many of these boxes come with an additional gameplay mechanic in the box – The Asia box for example introduces multi-player Ticket to Ride, or as it’s known in our house “Divorce in a Box.” This unusual variant sees two or three teams of two players each working against each other. Each time you pick up train cards, one goes in your hand, and the other in a shared pool. You both build from the same set of plastic trains, and pay for those trains with (partially) shared cards, but the routes you are trying to complete are kept separate, and you are not allowed to tell your partner where you’re trying to get to. Some may love the option to play Ticket to Ride with 6, but we played it once, and by the end of the night, only 1 team were still talking to each other (thankfully my wife and I were not on the same team).
Lastly, there is an expansion themed around a different train-based game from the same publishers, and an expansion which adds monsters (a dinosaur and a flying saucer if I recall).
Add in the Ticket to Ride Card Game, and that leaves you with no fewer than 16 official Ticket to Ride products (there are MANY unofficial fan-designed variants), taking a fairly interesting, light, family-friendly game, and flogging it to death. We own 4 if I recall correctly, but I can’t remember the last time any got played.
Sadly, this isn’t the most extreme case by any means. There are a lot of train-based games, often designated by little more than the number of a year sometime in the 19th Century, with a seemingly endless stream of expansions. It seems impossible to keep track of, let alone play them all.
Moving to the other end of the spectrum, this week, I got a chance to Play Colt Express, a newish game, set on a train, and currently entirely free from expansion bloat. It is also the recently-crowned Spiel des Jahres champion, which remains a high accolade for a Board Game. In this game, players take on the roles of characters trying to rob passengers on a train through the Old West. It comes with nice cardboard models of the train, decks of cards – for each player and to randomise the rounds, and little cowboy meeples. The characters are Wild West Sterotypes, each with a special power to reflect their unique skills: the Doc draws an extra card, the Squaw picks your pocket rather than just punching you and making you drop some loot, and you can attack the damsel whilst there’s another valid target available, because that just wouldn’t be gentlemanly.
The game is simple, but the mechanics capture the flavour well, and whilst there’s an element of abstraction (for example the question of how a player can move the Marshall in a different carriage), you generally feel like you’re doing the thing your character intended to do as you clamber between carriages, hide on the roof to avoid the Law, punch or shoot other bandits, and generally try to grab loot.
Getting shot is bad, getting loot is good – there’s also a bonus at the end for the character who has done the most shooting of their opponents, but you can’t shoot without a valid target, so there’s no use just blazing away madly and hoping for the best.
There’s certainly an amount of planning and strategy involved as you try to anticipate the movements of others, but there’s also a fair amount of luck (or bad luck, as I discovered) with which cards you draw. Each turn you draw 6 cards from a deck of ten to determine the actions you can take (typically 3 or 4), but each time you get shot, you have a dead card added to your deck, making it less likely that you will have the desired card – by the end of the game I had been shot 6 times and, fittingly, could barely move.
We played with 5, and 4 to 6 seems like it’s the optimum number, as with lower player-counts the ability to interact drops off a lot, making various elements of the game non-functional (several of the characters rely, directly or indirectly, on the presence of others to make use of their special powers)
All in all, the game is fairly light, fairly quick once you’ve done the set-up for the first game, with a bit of skill involved, but also a lot of luck. Based on a single play, I can’t speak with any authority for the re-playability, but it certainly seems like it has good mileage.
The buzz on Board Game Geek seems to be that there are no fewer than 3 expansions on the way. Whilst there’s clearly plenty of scope to add to the game, both in terms of varying existing elements of the game (new characters, round cards, stations etc) and adding new elements altogether (player-controlled Marshall, adding a stagecoach or being attacked by Indians), personally I hope they don’t get too carried away, and keep this one fairly quick and simple.