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Re-gurgitating the same concept is a device that has never held any great fear for me. After all, I am the author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Rock/Rock Handbook, a tome with a history of reprints comparable to the Guinness Book Of Records; the great thing about pop stars is that they drop dead fairly frequently and so a major update is always on the cards.
Games are another matter. We have the Siedler franchise and the 18xx series. Currently putting both these to shame, though, is Winsome's line of Railway titles, a catalogue which could be construed as overkill if they weren't providing top-notch entertainment in a field hardly barren of quality.
Unless I've got this horribly wrong, Winsome Games' own John Bohrer is the talent behind their latest foray, Rebel Rails, a game set during the American Civil War. My hesitation is based on the Sequence of Play, two thirds of which (Auction and Route Value) owe a debt (gratitude or financial, John?) to Martin Wallace's "Rails" series. It's fair to say that you will slip into Rebel Rails like an old cardigan if you have played New England or Lancashire Railways.
The concept of RR is unique (well, it was to me). Rather than expand a burgeoning rail empire, players must strip their expendable assets in order to maintain lines. The choice of sacrificial lamb provides the key element to the game. I suspect that John keyed in on the maintenance problem and used this as the prompt for the design. If so, then he will be responsible for the gnashing of many dentures.
Lest we get carried away with the positive, a note of caution. The set-up, where companies are sorted into groups of varying values (strategic NOT monetary) and then dealt to participants is time-consuming. Furthermore, identifying lines is the responsibility of Lilliputian cardboard counters with a bland motif. During the early exchanges, we joined hands and prayed, hoping that the map (unmounted -- be gentle) would self-laminate and coloured marker pens would descend from the heavens. But, frankly, that was all we had to bleat about. Carping over, a constructive word about the preliminaries.
RR comprises 89 Confederate Railroad Deeds, made up of three types -- numbered (lines existing at the start of the war), 'X' (branch lines) and 'R' (railroads that were completed during the war). Initially, they are sorted by number (1-55) and placed in a variety of stacks depending on the game's make-up (it will accommodate from 2-6). The 'X' cards are then distributed to each stack. Ultimately, you will all get a hand, the balance (including 'R' Deeds) being used for the Auction phase.
Ownership is clarified by the aforementioned counters (180 of the blighters). A Masters degree in Geography will speed matters along, and knowledge of American postcodes even more so.
Things start to rumble in earnest when the Auction commences (the first round excludes Maintenance -- so shall I for the time being). Until the latter stages of the game, there are always three Deeds available for purchase, one remaining in the 'Not Auctioned' box. The other two find ownership in a traditional Round Robin auction. The highest bidder marks their acquisition. The early sparring will see values remain low, typically $2-$4 maximum. When those lines that connect East to West materialise, the equation becomes a little more fraught. No-one, to date, has gone 'barmy'. The marginal profits will drive off the Bull in you.
The final element is the selection of Route Cards (100 are included, both towns/cities and States). Two are revealed, and a possible connection is explored. If, for any reason, the run cannot be made, then the active player can choose which card to discard before drawing a replacement. Initially, a town or city may be isolated; latterly an existing line may have been trashed. When a link is made, the shortest route is established. A ready-reckoner provided with the rules short-cuts the maths, particularly in the game's early stages. As lines are decimated, routes are obviously extended, but, are, technically, still deemed the most direct. The dollar value for each line contained in the route to Ship Goods (non-specific) is nominally $2. However, you may choose to extend the journey, eliminating rivals from the financial rewards, in which case the per-railroad payout is $1. In both cases, the dosh is left adjacent to the Railroad Deed. The actual route undertaken MUST be less than or equal to twice the shortest route. eg Charleston to Bristol is rated '5', but you could incorporate a maximum ten lines in the despatch.
Although our early travails proved a little protracted, this element of the game involves all players, anxious for a piece of the pie. Stand firm, ye Confederate Barons, and be not swayed! Or something like that.
And now the beginning. Even after the first turn, a pattern of ownership emerges. It is likely that all players will have clumps of lines linked together, thus providing a potentially gainful source of profit. But when? You are wholly dependent on the Route Cards and cannot conjure them from thin air. And at this point, lines must be sacrificed. The calculation is simple. Total the number of deed cards with money attached, and divide by two (rounding UP!). This is the number of lines which must be torn up to provide resources for other, more potentially economic, track. ALL attached cash is then put into the individual player's pot, providing additional funding beyond the $25 float.
Players with an abundance of 'X' Deeds (dealt or purchased) can destroy with abandon, particularly if you have already had an earner. Despair descends when a handful of railroads are utilised in a delivery (and, therefore, solvent), and you then find yourself torn between those that must be eradicated. Whatever turmoil you find yourself in, it does reflect the adage "The Yankees are coming" as great swathes of track are blanked off. While I am spouting on about the history, may I mention the Designer's Notes, which really do encapsulate the industrial ingredient of the Civil War?
Matters rumble on until the decisive 15th Route Card with an Omega symbol is revealed (there are 17 in all). The game ends IMMEDIATELY -- no 'last turn catch up' here, and the victor is determined by cash in hand and that remaining on Railroad Deeds.
Although much of the essence of Rebel Rails will be readily familiar, the core idea of plunder and scavenge provides a telling edge. Whilst still an economic game, RR furnishes a boisterous narrative. Fiddly bits and lengthy set-up aside (which do not help the two-hour playing time), this Winsome concoction provides more than enough novelty to warrant a swipe with the debit card.
SWD: A bit more explanation of the somewhat fiddly set-up procedure that Mike refers to: The point is that the railroads in this game vary a lot in value. Some are key parts of the main routes; others are little branch lines that no one is likely to visit. Players receive an initial hand of cards (deeds) at the start and it is vital that these hands are balanced. This is why the more important railways are numbered in a sequence that reflects descending order of value and why the set-up procedure takes up getting on for 40% of the space occupied by the rules. The way it operates in, for example, a 5 player game is that 7 hands are dealt, each containing one randomly drawn card from each of the ranges 1-7, 8-14 and 15-21 and two randomly drawn cards from each of the ranges 22-35 and 36-49. To each of these hands the dealer then adds three `X' cards. (The 'X' cards are, as Mike states, the branch lines. They have little or nothing in the way of earning potential, but you need them for asset stripping purposes in order to keep your key lines running.). Each player is then given one of the 7 hands, with the remaining 2 joining the so far unused cards to form the draw deck. It is a procedure that needs to be redescribed for each of the 2-player, 3-player, up to 6-player versions, which is why it takes up so much space in the rule book. Actually carrying it out isn't too bad PROVIDED the owner of the game has sorted the cards into order before the other players arrive. They aren't going to be pleased if they have to sit and watch you do it.