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I usually enjoy a good train game. Based on the Counter review, Iron Road sounded like it might be a fun little game to play while waiting for the rest of the group to show up for larger games or just to kill a little time. When I received the game, I was disappointed by the quality of the components when compared to the price of the game. If you don't like simple components, I would not recommend this game to you. The city cards are printed on unlamented, thin card stock and the train tracks appear to have been hand assembled by gluing a laser printed page to card stock. The game board itself is at least laminated to protect it. The rules cover about one page and take about five minutes to understand. To my first reading it seemed that the game would appeal more to those in the 8 12 age category than to teens or adults. To be honest I was not very happy with the game or the game components.
I've seen the game played twice since then. The learning curve is very low, with everyone picking the game up very quickly. The decision-making is limited though. One of the players that enjoy a more complex game did not seem too satisfied. Also, there is no way to interfere with any other players plans. Basically, to prevent someone else from winning you will need to win first, and that's usually accomplished not by building your own separate track but by connecting to other existing tracks on the board. Once everyone discovered this most rounds only went a few turns before most of the players were connected together. The game then became a race to see who could finish first.
Everyone did seem to enjoy the game as they played. Even when one player scored an overwhelming lead on the first turn of one game, there was some doubt over his ability to actually win the game that kept everyone playing. When most rounds were scored nearly everyone had connected to about the same number of cities, which made most scores fairly even.
I felt a little better about my purchase after these games. The overall opinion of all seemed to be that the premise of the game was ok but the components kind of distract a little from the game. I was very pleased to see that although the game mechanics are quite simple, choosing a strategy that actually increases your chance to win is a bit complex. I have since learned of Trans America from the same game designer but a different manufacturer, which uses a nearly identical game mechanism on a hex board rather than a square board and includes better quality components for the same price as Iron Road. If you're seeking a simple game that is easy to learn, plays quickly, and can withstand multiple plays, then that might be a better game for you. As for Iron Road, I'd like to give it three stars but due to the quality of the components and price, I'm forced to drop it to two stars.
I understand that this is the same game as TransAmerica. Buy that instead, save yourself $3 and get a real game with real components! This version is just a laminated color-copy board with plain cardstock cards. The components really are on the same level as a Cheapass Game, but the price is definitely NOT Cheapass!
Games from Winsome are usually about trains, are strategy games and have playing times around the 2 hour mark. This one is a departure. It is still about trains, but it is primarily tactical and is both short and very simple. Indeed, so simple is it that when you first read the rules your reaction is likely to be that there isn't a game here at all. You'd be wrong, as you will realise once you start to play. You aren't going to have an easier game to learn all year, but the play turns out to be a lot more subtle than you are expecting.
Iron Road is played on what is basically a map of the States, though the geographical purists at Winsome have insisted that all the cities be renamed on the grounds that the real versions aren't always in the places that the designer has put them. His reason for shifting them is that the map is covered by a square grid and the game play requires that all cities should lie at a vertex. There are 30 cities in all and they are split into five regions: eastern seaboard, western seaboard, north central, south-east central and south-west central. 6 cities in each. The other geographical features are the Mississippi-Missouri river and a couple of mountain ranges, which run north-south for almost the whole length of the map and which separate the two seaboards from the interior.
The other equipment is a set of cards -- one for each city and colour-coded by region -- and some track markers for each player. At the start of each round each player is dealt one city card for each of the five regions. The deal is done with the cards face down so that only you know what cards have been dealt. Your object is to connect all five of the cities on your cards. The first player to complete this task will score points; the others won't. What makes this a game rather than a very simple-minded race is that the connections can involve other players' track and so the aim is to exploit the work that the others have done.
Each turn you will have 2 "building points", which you can use either to lay 2 pieces of track on 'normal' segments of the grid or 1 piece of track on a 'difficult terrain' segment. The latter are the segments that either cross a river or are in the mountains. Your first piece of track can be anywhere on the board. All the subsequent ones must be connected to this first, but the connecting route does not have to be totally, or even partly, along your 'own track'. Once track is laid on the board it belongs to everybody.
As soon as one player has connected all five of their cities, the round ends and the successful player scores points according to how far each of the others is away from completion. Each of the unsuccessful players counts up to see how many building points they would have to spend in order to complete their network, assuming no help from any other player. The sum of these totals for all the unsuccessful players is the successful player's score. You then start a new round with a new starting player. The game ends after each player has been the starting player once and the one with the most points wins.
It is an elegant little system, but though giving a complete description of it is easy, you will find that you find that you have a fair amount to think about when you are playing and that each round is likely to offer you a different challenge, one that requires you to figure out where the others are trying to reach and then to try and exploit the work they are putting in. How best to set about this will depend on the cards you have drawn for this round.
It all makes for a most enjoyable game and one that doesn't last too long for what it is, though that last statement would be still true in the 2 and 3 player versions if the job of starting player did the rounds more than once and that is how I'd play it with either of those numbers. My only reservation about the game is that I'd like the scoring system to be more finely differentiated. When we played at Essen I had one spectacularly successful round where, in a 4-player game, I scored between 25 and 30 points. That was virtually "game over" after two rounds, though since I won the fourth one as well the others couldn't complain too much. One way to tackle this if you feel the same way would be to allow players other than the winning one to score points. The round would still end at the same point and the winner of it would score as before, but you could let the others score points for the players they finish ahead of. For example, suppose that when John completes his network, Alan still needs 2 building points to finish, Peter 3 and David 5. Then John scores 10, as per the proper rules. However, Alan would get 1 for his lead over Peter and 3 for his lead over David for a total of 4 and Peter would get 2 for his lead over David. David would score 0.