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Each of the players fancies himself an engineer of the HellRail, conducting the souls of sinners to their torturous abodes in the great Inferno. But, only one of them will triumph and be spared eternal atrocity. Why not enliven your own gathering?
One could argue that HellRail is both a card game and a board game. The cards contain sinners (loads), brimstone (fuel), and track, allowing the cards to be played any of three ways.
Each player has a wooden train marker which he uses to mark his progress on the board. The cards form the track connecting the different levels of hell to the front gate and each other. The player's train is formed of sinners which require the expenditure of brimstone to move.
This is a fantastic game. In the original Galloglass editions of the game, you get 55 square playing cards that are flimsy but usable (don't play outside if there is any wind at all), various paper markers, a die and 4 pewter--yes I said pewter--train engines. [In the Mayfair edition, the cards are sturdier and the train engines are wooden.]
You start by laying out 10 of the cards so that they are touching at the corners only. These are the circles of hell where you pick up and drop off souls. These can be put down in various ways so the game is not always the same. Every card has track, a brimstone value, a pickup site, a drop off site and a car value on it. During your turn you may play as many cards as you want from your hand.
Each circle also has a special ability that you can use when you are there such as destroying cars in loaded trains, rotating tracks or stealing cards from opponents' hands.
When you go through the draw pile the discard pile is shuffled and used again. The game ends when there are no more cards to draw. This makes a fairly short game which some will like but you can extend it be adding another set of cards. This is a must buy in my opinion and one of the best 3 player games (can be played with 4) I have found.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review also appeared in Moves Magazine #108
Normally, I am not a big rail game fan. I must preface this, however, by saying that I haven't played very many rail games. Indeed, I have NEVER played any of the hard-core 'rail' games, such as the 18xx series of games. So, when I first heard about Hell Rail, I dismissed it as just one more in the seemingly endless line of train games. There seems to be more train games out there than there are actual trains!
However, a few years back, I began hearing some very good things about this game, so decided to part with some cash and purchase a copy. At the time, the game was being released by the tiny game company Galloglass Games, which is not a very well known name within gaming circles. When the game arrived, it was evident that it was clearly a homemade effort. The package was very basic, a thin cardboard box with a nice laminated design on the top and bottom. Most of the components were also of thin card stock with very basic artwork. The only exception was the playing pieces, tiny -- and I do mean tiny -- locomotives, which were finely crafted lead miniatures. Very cool.
The game, however, transcended this mediocre quality and was actually quite entertaining and challenging. Further, it played very well with 3 or 4 players and usually played in less than an hour. Clearly, this was a game that cried out to be released in a higher quality, professional edition by a more mainstream company.
That time has arrived. Hell Rail: The 3rd Perdition (Galloglass had released two previous editions, known as the 1st and 2nd Perditions) has been repackaged with more professional components and packaging and been re-released by Mayfair Games. Apparently, the railroad theme of the game attracted the attention of Mayfair, a game company who spends quite a bit of its time and resources on releasing and promoting rail games.
The new Mayfair version has kept all of the mechanics virtually intact. The only real thing they added was additional circle effects tokens. The effects are no longer directly printed onto the various circles of hell, but rather shuffled and distributed randomly. There are 15 circles possible circle effects, so each game should see some different ones appear. This is a nice touch. The components are generally better and a bit sturdier, with the exception of the train tokens. Gone are the really nifty lead miniatures, replaced with tiny wooden trains. They're cute and functional, but no where near as nice as the lead trains.
The theme is rather bizarre: You and your opponents are engineers in Hades delivering souls of the damned to their proper Circles of Hell. As engineers, you have a wide variety of tasks assigned to you, including the building of the actual rail lines, the loading of these damned souls and the successful delivery of your cargo to the proper circles of Hell. Players must be efficient, lest they incur the wrath of their infernal boss, who is notorious for his lack of mercy! The player who successfully delivers the most souls is spared bathing in the lakes of fire for one more day. Not much of a reward ... but I guess it's something!
Surprisingly, for a fairly mainstream company, Mayfair kept this somewhat politically incorrect theme intact. I'm sure the theme could have been changed to something less questionable and one with more widespread appeal, but, to their credit, they left it intact.
Nine Circles of Hell and one Gateway to Hell cards are set upon the table according to a diagram in the rulebook. Players begin the game with three cards apiece. These cards are multi-functional and deciding on exactly how to use each card is the tricky ... and agonizing part of the game. Each card can be used to perform a variety of functions, including:
Each card depicts track, a passenger car with a numerical value (which is the movement allowance that the card allows OR the value of the card if successfully delivered to the proper Circle of Hell), a Pickup number (which is the Circle of Hell you must be at in order to pick up the damned souls listed on the passenger car diagram), a Setout number (which is the Circle of Hell you must be at in order to successfully deliver the damned souls) and, finally, a Brimstone number (which is the number of cards you may draw from the deck if you discard this card, thereby ending your turn). That's quite a bit of information to be included on the small, 3 x 3 cards, but they are laid out extremely well and are easy to decipher after a few minutes experience.
On a turn, a player may perform as many of the above actions as he desires, provided he possesses the cards to do so. Managing these cards properly and deciding which task to perform and which cards to use for these various tasks is the key to success in the game. A card used for one task is thereby 'used' and no longer available for another task you may have had in mind. Choosing between several possible uses for a card, all of which may be equally attractive, can be quite a tough decision. This is the real feature of the game. Somehow, this 'multi-functional' card mechanism is much more satisfying and far less taxing in Hell Rail than in db Spiele's Yukon & Company, another game which uses a similar mechanic but with far less satisfying results.
The basic idea of the game is to move your train to various Circles of Hell and pick up damned souls, delivering them to the proper Circles of Hell listed on that card. Once you successfully arrive at a Circle which is the destination of one of your cargo cards, that card is then considered 'delivered' and will score its point value (the number listed in the passenger train picture) at the end of the game. The player who has the highest point value of 'delivered souls' wins the game. The game ends when there are no further cards in the draw or discard piles.
Before a player can begin the process of transporting these lost souls, the actual rail lines must be constructed. Each card depicts various tracks and the card can be rotated to properly fit and align with previously laid tracks. The idea here is to analyze your hand of cards and formulate a plan based on the cards you hold. What you desire to accomplish is the establishment of a route wherein you can pick up souls and deliver them quickly to their destination Circle. Constructing long, time-consuming routes is extremely wasteful, not only in terms of time, but in cards as well. You want to waste as few cards as possible to build track and move your locomotive. The cards are far better utilized as human (well, perhaps deceased human) cargo.
Movement is from track tie to track tie. In a clever and somewhat gruesome touch, the track ties are actually tiny bones. As mentioned, it is wise to create short routes so that you don't spend too many of your cards on movement. Another tip is to avoid ending a turn on open track as opposed to in a Circle. Why? Well, it is possible for other players to ram your train and force it onto a section of track you did not intend to travel. This could cause you severe headaches, as well as an abundance of cards, as you try to "get back on the right track", so to speak. Worse still is the possibility of being shoved completely off a track section which had not yet been completed. This is known as 'derailing' and has devastating consequences. If you suffer this dire fate, you must:
Ouch! Such an event can easily knock a player out of contention. At the very best, it will take him numerous turns to accumulate more cards and pick up new passengers. The lesson bears repeating: if at all possible, end your turn in a Circle, not on open, especially incomplete, track.
Keeping a steady and abundant supply of cards in your hand is also critical. Each player has the option of ending their turn by "fanning the flames". This is accomplished by discarding a card and drawing a number of cards equal to the "brimstone" value of the card you discarded. Thus, it is wise to discard a card with a high brimstone value; i.e., a 4 or a 5. Of course, you usually want to use this card in some other fashion during the course of your turn, but it is best to resist this temptation as it is far wiser to use it to draw new cards. Besides, from the fate of the doomed passengers you are transporting, you can see the dangers of temptation!
There are some additional features which add more spice to the game. As mentioned, in the Galloglass version, each Circle of Hell had a special power which, if evoked, could wreak havoc upon your opponents ... or yourself. In the Mayfair version, these special powers are not directly printed on the Circle tiles. Rather, the game includes 15 special powers, each on a separate circular token. These tokens are mixed prior to the beginning of the game and nine of them are placed randomly on the various Circles. Thus, each game will be a bit different.
Upon entering a Circle, a player has the opportunity to evoke the special power conveyed. These powers vary from causing a player to derail (with the same effects as mentioned above) to the removal or rotation of track tiles. Most of these Circle powers require a random resolution, usually involving the drawing of a card and comparing a value on the card drawn with some other factor. The potential effect may be beneficial or harmful to you, or perhaps an opponent. Sure, it's a chance, but one which can pay off handsomely if successful.
Lest the game grow stale, there are several variants included to keep things fresh. These involve the placing of the special Circle Effects face-down so that there powers remain a mystery until a player moves onto the Circle, as well as various starting layouts.
Hell Rail is quite simple to both learn and play. It packs quite a bit of challenge and fun into a small package. I don't fully believe it is terribly deep, but there is enough card management responsibilities to keep me interested and move the game beyond mere luck. Increased familiarity with the Circle powers will certainly alter strategies and help players keep the lead player in check.
The rules and the components are quite satisfactory, with the only real confusion arising over which symbol was the delivery circle and which was the pickup circle. Strangely, the cards don't line up properly with the player aid/locomotive card. It would seem that the transport cards should partially slide under the locomotive card, revealing the delivery circle but keeping the information on the player aid card un-obscured. However, if you arrange them in this fashion, the only visible 'circle' is the pick-up circle. The best method we could discern was to set the transport cards off to the right of the pickup circle and then overlap them. I don't think this is how you are supposed to do it, but a PhD and a bunch of college graduates sure couldn't figure out how the cards were supposed to align properly!
I applaud Mayfair's decision to add this fine little game to their ever-growing line of train games. Well, I guess it is not really a train game, but more of a tile laying and hand management game. Sigh. I guess I still haven't played a REAL train game!
Paradise regained! We're glad last year's infernal Best Family Card game is available again in this Mayfair edition. This time around, the special effects you can optionally activate upon entering any of the nine Circles are randomly determined by drawing a disk for each from a stack of 15. Your train starts at the gates of Hell. The cards, marvels of economy and function, are used to lay rails, move your train on them around the Circles, and tell you where to pick up sinners and where to deliver them to score. The player with the highest point value in delivered sinners wins. Are Mayfair's additions sinful? No way in Hell!
The devil made us say it: HellRail is the best damned card game of the year! The train you drive is definitely not bound for glory, but you're using it for a worthwhile task: transporting sinners to their proper circles of Hell. Ten cards, representing the Gate of Hell and its nine circles, are laid out in a pattern. The numbered circles have special effects which you can optionally employ when you land on one. The cards in the rest of the deck are marvels of economy and function. They act in several capacities: as rails, as movement cards, or as sinners waiting to be picked up and delivered. They also determine how much you score for relocating sinners, and how many cards you're allowed to draw at the end of your turn. After all cards in the deck and discard pile are gone, the winner is the person who has delivered the greatest total value in sinners. Even the forces of Chaos need some tidying up now and then.
You probably thought that if you didn't make it to Heaven but got sent to the other place, it was eternal misery -- end of story. But it turns out to be more complicated. First, Dante tells us that there are nine different circles of Hell where the damned could be assigned to spend eternity depending on their transgressions. But did Dante, or anyone else for that matter, think about the mundane matter of how these lost souls get to their assigned place of Doom? It seems that the answer is they are not being moved very efficiently. So the dark powers decided to improve the transport situation by starting a railroad! It is your job, as an engineer in Hades, to get these doomed souls to their proper destination. But it is not that simple. Hell, it seems, is a chaotic place. These transgressors are scattered throughout the underworld and there is no track connecting these 9 circles and the Gates of Hell!
The Nine Circles and the Gates are each represented on square playing tiles with a circle in the center and a link of track leading out to each of the 4 edges. They are set up with the lower corner of one tile touching the upper corner of the next tile, roughly in the form of 'V' with the top of the right diagonal of the 'V' bent inward. The track segments on each tile lead to a dead end at the start of the game.
Each player gets a train that starts at the gates of Hell and a hand of 3 cards. The cards are tiles of the same size as the circles but they have many uses. Each tile presents you with 4 potential options: laying or upgrading track, adding it to your train as a load of souls to be delivered, moving your train or discarding to draw new tiles at the end of your turn.
Each tile contains various types of track segments. The tile can played to create rail line routes that can connect the ends of the track from the Circles of Hell to each other. Any train can then move along the track to pick up and deliver their cargo of the damned. Tiles can also upgrade previous segments of track to add more connections. You may be interested to know that the rule, which seem common to many rail games, that says when upgrading track you must at least maintain the previous track segments in the same position, is in fact an immutable, cosmic, unchangeable law of the Universe that even applies in Hell.
Also on each tile is a train car listing the number of lost souls and what their sins were eg 6 Misbelievers, 5 Lustful, 4 Voracious, 5 Gluttons, 7 Backstabbers etc. This part was a learning experience. We pulled out the dictionary find out why being Edacious, Recusant or Apostate was enough for a permanent trip down under in this game
The card also lists at which Circle the train car can be picked up and to which Circle to which the car must be delivered. If you choose to use the tile as a load of souls, you simply add it to your train when you are at the proper circle to pick it up. When your train arrives at the destination circle to deliver the souls, you place it face down to use in scoring. Whoever delivers the most souls wins.
The number of souls on each car also is the movement value. If you choose to use the tile for movement, you discard it and move your train a distance equal to the number of listed evil doers.
The last number on the bottom of each tile is the Brimstone value. The number of cars in your train must be less than or equal to the Brimstone value on the card in order to use it for movement. Alternately, you can use the tile to "Fan the Flames" by discarding it and drawing an number of new tiles equal to the Brimstone value as the last action of your turn. This is important as you can do as many actions per turn as you have tiles in your hand. You draw one tile at the beginning of each turn so it is very easy to have no tiles left in your hand at the end of a turn. This can be a definite setback for your quest to be the hottest Train Engineer in Hell.
So you need to race around picking up souls, delivering them and building track to get your train to from one place to another. That all sounds very nice -- but this is Hell, not the other place so some nastiness is in order. Each circle of Hell gets a randomly placed event token that activates when a train enters that circle. They allow such standard darkside fare as thievery, deliquency (placing markers on key sections of track to try to force long trains to go around them), gluttony (steal a card from another player then you must play all your cards), false path (rotate any rail tile), heresy (allows you to change or ignore a circle effect), lust (trying to steal all the cards in players hand of one brimstone value), the Abyss (discard any tile played as a track segment) and of course Chaos (take all the circle tokens and randomly redistribute them).
And what would Hell be without event tokens for Geryon (if you are lucky you can make an immediate delivery), the Boatman (the boatman takes your train across areas where there are no track -- apparently all travel is by the River Styx until the railroading started) and putting Cerberus on guard duty at a Circle (You must discard cards from you hand with a total value of souls greater than the circle number that Cerberus is guarding).
If a train is in your way, you just ram it and move it ahead of you. If you run it off the edge of a tile, it is derailed and loses all its cars. If your train has a Soul Catcher on the front (another random event Circle) you lose the Soul Catcher but the train you rammed loses its last car. If that sounds tough, remember railroading is a tough business, especially in Hades.
When the draw pile is exhausted, you "Recharge the Brimstone" (the discard pile is reshuffled). The "End of the Line" comes when the draw pile and discard pile are exhausted. Each player turns over his delivered souls and counts them up. Whoever delivered the most is the winner.
There are optional rules for experienced Hellrailers that suggest secret circle effect tokens and alternative starting layouts.
The game is for 2 to 4 players but it is most fun with 4. It lasts about an hour once you know the rules and are familiar with the circle event tokens. We have had great fun with this game. Most gamers catch on immediately although not all have and some seem a bit confused at first by all the options. Since you will have the opportunity to go through the deck several times, I thought that the luck of the draw played less influence than in many card games. There was a lot of strategy in how and when to use the multiple options each card gives you. Since there was no limit on how many cards you could play each turn, hand size management was a key strategic issue. I give it a high recommendation for fun, originality and playability.