Martin Wallace / Glenn Drover
Artist: Kurt Miller, Paul Niemeyer and David Oram
Publisher: Eagle Games
Just Like Civilization, Silent Service and Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon is a computer game that I adored as a teen. Designed by Sid Meier and published by Microprose, Railroad Tycoon remains relevent with a hard core fan base despite coming out many years ago. Of course, Railroad Tycoon the Board Game cannot possibly emulate the entire computer game and does not strive to do so. However, I can tell you up front that the game successfully captures the essence of Railroad Tycoon in a 2.5-3 hour long game play. No surprise there, but for me, this is just a fantastic game.
Railroad Tycoon itself is just a branding move by Eagle Games. In truth, the predecessor of Railroad Tycoon, Age of Steam had already garnered critical acclaim by lots of gamers. To be clear, both Age of Steam and later on, Steam, are tactically and strategically more complex and brutal than Railroad Tycoon and not for the faint of heart. To capture the more general audience, Martin Wallace and Glenn Drover designed Railroad Tycoon. While Age of Steam and Steam are credited to Martin Wallace alone, the designer credits for Railroad Tycoon remains a controversial topic. There is some messy history between these two designers and their respective publishers but the truth is, Railroad Tycoon is just an outstanding game and as such, the fight to retain the rights to this game is a big deal. It seems that more recently, this controversy has been dealt with and a settlement of sorts have been reached. In the subsequent years since the publication of Railroad Tycoon, the title for the game has also been dropped and the game is now called Railways of the World. Apart from some tweaks to mechanisms, the game remains fairly similar, but now has up to a dozen additional expansion maps stretching across the globe (and also through time!).
So, is the game truly deserving of all the accolades? I would say that up till this point, Railroad Tycoon remains the best train game I have played. Yes, Ticket to Ride maybe a casual crowd pleaser, but I find Railroad Tycoon to be just only slightly more complex, but loaded with a ton more strategy. I never realized how simple the rules are and how light the game is rulebook wise, but after the first few rounds, players are quite aware of the different game phases and the general goal of the game. There is some ambiguity with track building, but the FAQs’ have largely cleared them up. That Railroad Tycoon can handle up to 6 players is fantastic but with 4 players, the game takes about 2.5-3 hours is a huge plus. This is not Twilight Imperium and the really reasonable play length is a huge positive in my book.
In Railroad Tycoon, players pick and play a Railroad Baron in the Eastern US, build a network of tracks between hubs to deliver goods to earn points. Good cubes of a specific color are pre-generated in each city and players must deliver these cubes to the appropriately colored cities to fulfill demand and get paid. This of course is an over simplification, but that’s essentially the entire game. Players must build enough of a network to ship good cubes but you do not need to own every link of your network to deliver goods, except for the very first link from the city of origin. Of course, ownership of each link scores points and so, you want to score as many points as possible for each delivery while avoiding helping out your opponents. Importantly, each link in the delivery requires an engine upgrade to match the number of links moved. So a 1st level engine can deliver one cube for one link. Delivering a cube 8 links away will require a level 8 engine. Each engine upgrade is sequential and is costly.
Scoring victory points will allow advancement on the Victory Point track which doubles as an income track. Unlike the VP track which increases linearly, the income track has an “inverted U-shape” curve. Income slowly increases with VP until the half way mark where it then dips. That is a clever part of the design that really makes Railroad Tycoon shine. Getting up the hill is crucial to earn more income which allows faster expansion, but the money will slow down as the game progresses.
Uniquely, players do not have any money at the start of each game and must generate money by selling shares of the company. Each share is worth $5000 and must be paid with dividend at the end of each turn and is worth minus one point at the end of the game. Deciding how much money you need and when to issue shares is a large part of the game. Moreover, at the beginning of each turn, players must decide who will be the starting player by bidding in an auction. Bidding ensures you get a first go in grabbing a card or building tracks. It is meant to make money even tighter. If you need money, you can always issue more shares. The relationship between raising capital for growth and expansion vs. a more conservative and prudent financial approach is very real world and is the best part of the game. Do you issue shares to upgrade your engine this round or do you wait for income to roll in before upgrading next turn? Each action is valuable and time is also ticking. The game ends when a certain number of cities are emptied out of good cubes.
To season the game with more thematic flavors, Railroad Tycoon incorporates Operation cards which give players a chance to pick up special cards that give you benefits or fulfill bounties. For example, some cards allow you to build more tracks per action or to repopulate a city with more cubes. In addition, one can also fulfill bounties or complete historic railway lines that earn you VPs’. For example, the first player to connect a half-continental railroad from New York to Kansas City gets 20 points. It’s first come first serve and whomever wins the bounty first will get the points. Finally, players also get to select a Railroad Baron with secret hidden objectives that score a modicum of points at the end of the game.
There is much to love and much to think about during the game. The rules, as I said, are quite straightforward. The first auction is critical as one gets to choose where to lay tracks. The NE corridor is jam packed with high value cities with lots of cubes. If you go first, you will likely build your initial tracks in that area. The bid can be furious but the question is, how much do you let the first person pay to go first? The higher the bid, the more you force a player to issue shares to win the auction, the more crippling it will be for them end-game. Similarly, if you are going second after the first guy, perhaps you can also build near the corridor to compete for business. The choices are as good as the emergent game play. For example, if everyone is issuing shares to build, is it better to be conservative or perhaps its better to join the crowd? Other interesting decisions to make include how or when to upgrade engines and when is it ok to use opponent networks to deliver goods. You want to ship long distances to score points but is it ok if you score 5 points will your opponents nets 2? All of these are agonizing trade-offs to make during the game.
Railroad Tycoon is likely the flashiest and most-overproduced version of the game. The bits are huge and chunky and the board is oversized. In some cases, the cubes are simply too big and makes it tough to identify the city colors. With all the overproduced bits, I still love it. Yes, I am being hypocritical here as I normally call out against elaborate, over-the-top aesthetics and can see why these gigantic props were phased out in later reprints of the game. But even I have admit, the game looks gorgeous and impressive when the network of tracks covers the map with the imposing empty city tokens dotting the landscape.
I have played Steam once, but it didn’t really make much of an impression. Just as well since Railroad Tycoon did. I am sure Age of Steam and Steam are excellent games, but I am content to keep this version. I have owned the game for a while and only recently pull it out for a replay. I regret stashing this game so far back as it should really be out front in the center. I can see that the game getting slightly stale with the same map if played repeatedly though the emergent game play will likely make the game different each time we play. Luckily, there are at least half a dozen maps out there for Railways of the World which is compatible with Railroad Tycoon. If I play enough of them, I’d be tempted to hunt them down. As it stands, Railroad Tycoon is a keeper and also should be hitting the table often. For a game this length and complexity, it’s good bang for your gaming buck.
Initial impressions: Great!