Helmut Orgler and Leonhard Olney
Artist: Martin Hoffman and Claus Stephan
Publisher: Hans im Gluck / Z-Man
Russian Railroads and The Voyages of Marco Polo entered the market pretty close to each other and both games were hits. Both Euros also garnered multiple industry awards, with DSP and IGA giving them the thumbs up in back to back years. I think both these games still remain in the conversation. Marco Polo has since been reinvented by Tascini and Luciani and published as Marco Polo II. Russian Railroads however, has been out of print for a very long time. Recent news of a Big Box reprint has gamers in a frenzy looking forward to new tweaks and repackaged contents. No doubt, it will probably include all the expansions, German and American Railroads, for a pretty penny. Not being a huge expansion enthusiast, I am more than happy to just grab a copy and play the base game.
Russian Railroads is a worker placement game through and through. I think the popularity of worker placement has aged quite well and is certainly well represented as a main mechanism for many games (hello Barrage). In the game, players compete for actions to lay track, upgrade engines and build factories. Points are scored each round for how far one has moved on each of the three tracks as well as the industry track where factories are built. However, don’t be mistaken that this resembles anything like Steam or Railroad Tycoon. There are no maps, no track tiles or actual factories to build. Everything in Russian Railroads is abstracted for one purpose: to build a victory point engine. That’s the game strongest selling point but also its biggest weakness.
Players construct three rail lines on individual players boards: Trans-Siberian , Moscow-Kiev and Moscow-St. Petersburg lines. These lines are nothing more than three VP tracks with scoring locations along each track. The Trans-siberian track is the longest with up to 15 stops on the track. Both the Kiev and St. Petersburg track have 9 stops. As players perform actions to advance their scoring tokens on each track, they will stop at each location to trigger special events, earn benefits, activate immediate scoring which in turn will earn them more points during the scoring phase. This is all pretty run of the mill stuff for a Euro.
Truth be told, there is also nothing special about the worker placement part of the game either. Players start with 6 engineer meeples in a 2 player game (5 for a 4 player game) and place them on unoccupied slots. It’s first come first serve as usual with some actions requiring 2 or more meeples. There are three major areas of action selection. First, players can advance their different track markers. Between 1-3 tracks of different types (more on that later) can be placed per action depending on the action selected. This is pretty straightforward. The second area of action selection involves building engines and/or factories. Both engines and factories share the same piece, printed on either side of a cardboard token. On one side, you have a set of locomotives ranging from 1 to 9 with the higher ranked locomotives being more advanced. On the flip side, you have factories with their one-time special benefits. What this means is that the locomotive/factory tile can only be used for one or the other and not both at the same time. Using a tile as an engine upgrade means that the tile is not available as a factory and vice versa. Engines are placed beside each track and the higher the locomotive number, the further you can reach for each marker you have on the track. In other words, if your marker is at stop 10 and your locomotive is at a 2, then you only score up to the second location. You need to advance both your track marker and upgrade your engine at the same time to score points. On the other hand, factory tiles are placed below the board to complete the industry scoring track. The industry track is “broken” at the beginning of the game. As players fill up the track with factories, the circuit is restored and the Industry marker can be moved along the track to activate these factories and for end of round scoring.
The third and final action selection type is hiring engineers. By paying a Ruble, players can hire engineers from the main board. These engineers are permanent and they provide additional actions slots for players to choose from. These action slots are personal and only the person that grabs the engineer gets to trigger the action. The actions are varied and some can be quite powerful, allowing additional track laying, moving of industry marker, scoring opportunities and many others. There is also majority scoring at the end game with players having the most engineers scoring a majority bonus. To round things up for action selection, players can also place meeples to pick up 2 Rubles, track multipliers or hire temporary workers.
If there is a novelty to Russian Railroads, it must be in the track scoring. Each of the three tracks are scored independently and for each track there are multiple markers for scoring. A black marker starts off for each track and as soon as it hits specific locations on the Trans-siberian track, new (gray, brown, beige and white in that order) markers are activated and can then move on some if not all the respective tracks. Hence, the Trans-siberian line can actually have up to 5 markers if all of them are activated. Importantly, movement of each marker follows this particular order and markers cannot leap frog over the one ahead of it. Each marker score points differently with the ones coming out later scoring more. For example, black scores 0 points while white score 7 VPs per stop. There is also a spatial aspect of scoring that is too complicated to describe, but suffice to say, scoring is unique and requires some forward planning. Since the latter markers score more points, it is imperative that the earlier markers, such as black, be moved further ahead to make space for movement of the latter high-scoring markers (such as beige or white). Since scoring occurs each round, it also means that players must attempt to progressively score more points with their engine they are building.
From the description of the game, it would seem like Russian Railroads is another run of the mill worker placement, which in some sense it is. So what is so unique then about the game to deserve all the praise?
I get the allure for Russian Railroads. From a gamer’s perspective, the possibility of multiple winning strategies is a strong reason to enjoy the game. Even after a few plays, it is clear as day that the game can be won in many different ways. You can focus on one or two paths and potentially eke out victory. I am not sure it is possible to only win with a single path, but with many other games, specialization is important, as is finding supplementary scoring. I think the joy of competing is to figure out how different paths can lead to victory, what are the viable combos and if specific avenues are stronger than others in the face of competition. Not many games that claim to have multiple winning strategies are truly so. Russian Railroads certainly feel like one.
One concern I do have is that the worker placement mechanism is not particularly robust for games with multi-path victory conditions that require substantial focus and planning. You will find that competition for action slots will be fierce and you may not always get your choice of actions. I often find that, worker placement tends to veer toward a more equitable distribution of actions. After all, it may be more profitable to take a high value alternate action than a very expensive primary option. So, while you may want to focus on building a specific track, you may not always have the option to do so. What you end up with is a mish-mash of different scoring options. Judging from the limited action slots and the spread of options, it may not be easy to craft a unique path. I could be wrong and more plays will tell.
Another common complaint is that the game promotes a snowball effect. As scoring occurs each round, a runaway engine (pun fully intended!) will result in the rich growing richer. While this may be true, there are some chunky points to be had in the hidden end game scoring. Some folks dislike hidden scoring particularly if the swings in scores are huge. It can be in this case. Love it or hate it, it does partially address the runaway engine scenario. You may decide to forgo short-term gain in points to compete for end-game scoring. A few end game hidden VP cards can score up to 30 plus points and thus allow a laggard to catch up.
There is one particular baffling design choice in Russian Railroads and that is the “?” chits. I understand why the need for some variety in scoring but one of the chits feels overpowered. This chit, is one of a half dozen where each player can select and place on the board when the prerequisites are fulfilled. This chit in particular, allows one to pick up an over-the-top special card plus an end game VP card. The benefits are enormous that one is obligated to select this chit during the game, if not the first one since each card is unique and can only be selected once. It feels like a no brainer. Why make this so overpowering that it is a must-do action? The easier solution would be to make players choose one or the other benefit. Perhaps I am mistaken but it feels OP.
My overall impressions of Russian Railroads is positive. The initial plays with 2p have been promising and tension-filled. I can imagine that tension would be amplified with 4 players. The multiple paths to victory beckons me to try out different strategies and I do feel the pull to replay. I started chuckling at the theme when I first read the rules, but I admit, there is small but not negligible feeling of railway building. I guess the mere movement of track markers and sight of locomotives is enough to provide the flavor….. but just barely.
In the end, there is no hiding the fact that this is a pure worker placement Euro with VP engine scoring. You know who you are. If you like these sorts of games, then you are predisposed to liking Russian Railroads. If you dislike worker placement or engine builders, then this will only amplify your disdain for such games. If you want a train game, go get Railways of the World or Steam. If you already own 59 worker placement games, then who am I kidding, you probably already own the game or will end up getting this one too.
Initial impressions: Good (maybe great!)