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Lancashire Railways is a train game about the birth of the first commercial railroads in Central England in 1829. The Silicon Valley of its day, Manchester was the hub of advanced engineering and manufacturing. Liverpool was the largest port and Manchester needed access for its exports of Cloth and Machinery. Lancashire Railways is set in this era of unrestrained growth and development. Players start railways, build right-of-way and finance these expensive projects with loans from investors and the Bank of England.
This is the third game that Martin has done for Winsome and the first thing to be made clear is that it is not number three in the Ferrocarriles Pampas/Veld Spoorweg series. Like the others, it is a map and crayons job, but that is as far as the resemblance goes: new game, new system.
The map shows the towns of Lancashire, together with a couple of overseas dependencies in the form of Stockport and Scotland. (Yorkshire is tactfully ignored.) Each town is represented by a dot and there are dotted lines joining the towns in places where the railway lines will be built. With the exception of a couple of small junctions, which are there for reasons of play balance, each town also has a box which is used both as a source of and destination for passengers and freight. The basic idea is that you will bid for stretches of line, colour them in to indicate ownership and then ship things round the network to build up your business. The more your lines get used, by you and others, the more your income will rise.
The game is driven by two decks of cards. The first deck names the various stretches of line and determines what is be offered for auction; the second names towns and generates passengers and freight. A number (equal to one less than the number of players) is drawn from each deck each turn.
The main parts of the turn sequence go like this:
- Acquire Bank Loans. Railway lines are going to be offered for sale later in the turn. They will be sold by auction and without money in front of you, you are not going to be able to compete. However, the interest rate is a swingeing 20% per turn and so this is your first hard decision. You already know which lines are going to be auctioned this turn. How much do you want them and is the debt you will be taking on worth it in both the short and long term?
- Service and pay off loans. In that order!
- Generate Traffic. This is where you draw cards from the second deck. Each names two towns and a token, in one of four colours, drawn at random from a pile of "commodity chips", is placed in each. These tokens are then there ready to be shipped to one of the towns that accepts that particular type of traffic. For example, holiday makers head for the coastal towns such as Southport and Blackpool, while external traffic needs to be delivered to Scotland or to one of the towns on the southern or eastern edges.
- Draw cards from the lines deck to find out which lines will be auctioned off next turn. So this is information you have before you spend your money this turn. As such, it gives you your next tricky decision. Do you go for one of this turn's offers or will you build up your cash ready for the one you really want, which is due up next.
- Auction off the lines that were revealed last turn. A player may buy at most one line per turn and that means that again you will have to decide what is most important to you and how much competition you are likely to have to face in order to get it. It also means that you have to go carefully when you start driving up the bidding in order to keep the other guy honest.
- Build Lines. Each line bought carries a number in the range 5 to 10. This represents both its value in the final reckoning and how hard it is to build. Roll two dice: if you match or exceed the rating, you build the lines you bought this turn immediately; if you fail, you can either stump up extra cash and build now or wait a turn and build for free. Another place where you have a real decision to take and it will often be a close one.
- Ship Traffic. Tokens transported can each go along at most five stretches of line and must finish their journey when they reach a town that accepts that particular type of traffic. For each stretch of line they go along, they add one to the owner's income. And this is a permanent addition: it represents the generating of business, not just a one-off payment. Each player is entitled to transport one token if they bought a line this time and two if they didn't. This "bonus token" is something else you need to bear in mind when bidding for lines, because the extra income that it generates can be very significant.
- Market Downturn: Depending on the result of a dice roll that applies to everybody, some of your "income per turn" is lost. The loss represents customers who have gone out of business or switched to other carriers and it works (roughly) on a percentage basis. The rationale, to be fully realistic, ought to allow for business to grow as well as to shrink, but simulating reality is not the real reason for the rule. Its function is to keep the leader in check by hitting him harder than the people at the back and as such it works very well, keeping the game open until very near the end and ensuring that the two options of borrowing in order to expand early and going more slowly in order to avoid big interest payments are in balance as strategies.
- Collect your income and then start a new turn.
I have gone through all that in some detail partly in order to give you a feel for how the game plays, but also to show that, while this is a very simple game to learn, it is not a simple game to get right. There are lots of decisions to be taken and they aren't always easy ones. This is a real game. It is also a very well constructed one in ways that don't become fully apparent until after you have lost a couple of times. I have already mentioned the effect of the "market downturn" rule. A lot of work must have gone into getting that right, but they have got it right. It keeps the game in balance and hits the leader just the right amount to keep things interesting. The way that 'traffic carried' turns into income is also cunning, because over the piece it rewards the player who has built up the network with the best links: the boost to your income when you can do a long run almost entirely on your own lines is very significant. Paul Heald was in the game I played in at Essen, he had played the game at an early stage of its design and was very impressed with the improvements that Martin and the Winsome team had introduced in the polishing and development stage. Congratulations all round are in order. Martin thinks that this is the best of the three games he has done for Winsome and I agree. I'd have hated it if he had got a game about my home patch wrong, but he hasn't. Quite the reverse. Recommended unless you are seriously allergic to train games.