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Business is thriving in the switching yard. Players load freight from around the world onto their trains to fulfil certain orders from businessmen. If you are successful you gain profit, but beware. If someone fulfils the same order later in the game, they can steal away your profit. As more and more trains leave the switching yard, you get closer to the end of the game.
NOTE: This review was first published in Knucklebones magazine
Mayfair Games obviously loves train-themed games. In addition to their series of 18xx and crayon-rail games, they have released numerous other games which somehow incorporate trains or train rails. The latest in this seemingly endless series is Station Master by Chris Baylis.
Station Master is a card game wherein players assume the roles of, well, station managers, attempting to guide passengers onto the proper trains and make sure those trains are coupled with the most luxurious and desirable carriages. It is a fast- paced, easy to learn game that seems well suited for families and as a slightly extended filler for gamers.
The components are a simple lot: a deck containing engine and carriage cards, and an assortment of poker chips, six of each color. These chips represent the passengers that players will assign to the various trains. This austere collection is packaged in the familiar Mayfair small box, but it could easily fit in a box half of this size.
The cards are divided into two decks: locomotives and station master cards. Locomotive cards depict a numerical value, which determines the maximum number of carriages that train can contain, as well as the maximum number of passengers that can board. There are a few special locomotives – the Executive Class and Freight – which I’ll describe a bit later.
Most of the “station master” cards are either green or red carriage cars. The green cards are positive, ranging in value from 1 – 6, while the red cards are negative in value with similar ranges. There is also an assortment of special cards, which allow the players to perform sneaky maneuvers or otherwise alter the normal rules.
A number of locomotives equal to the number of players are revealed, and each player is dealt three carriage cars. After receiving their “passenger” tokens, the game is ready to begin.
A player’s turn is quite simple, as he has two choices:
1) Assign a passenger token to an available train. Place one of your passenger tokens directly onto the locomotive card. Each player possesses six passenger tokens, with values ranging from 1 – 3. These are placed face-down so that opponents do not know which ones have been placed.
Once a locomotive reaches its limit of passengers, no further passenger tokens may be placed upon that train … unless a special card is used. For instance, the “Standing Room” card allows a player to add an additional passenger token to the train, while the “Transfer Passengers” token allows a player to remove up to three passengers from a train and reassign them to other trains. The proper timing of the use of these cards can dramatically alter the potential scoring of the affected trains, and the subsequent placement strategies of the players.
2) Play a Station Master card and draw a new card from the deck. Carriage cards are added to a train by placing it behind one of the locomotives and behind the last carriage car currently in that train. Again, the number listed on the locomotive is the maximum number of carriages that can be attached to that train.
There are a few special carriage cars: 1st Class Passenger carriages and Executive Class Passenger Carriages. Each of these carriages depicts both positive and negative values. If these carriages are attached to an Executive class train, the positive value is used when scoring that train. If they are attached to any other train, the negative value is used. This allows players to either positively affect the ultimate value of trains upon which they have passengers, or reduce the value of trains that are heavily laden with their opponents’ passengers.
When a train reaches its maximum number of carriages – not necessarily passengers – the final “All Aboard!” call is made and the train leaves the station. This results in a scoring of that train. All passenger tokens on that train are revealed, and the total value of the carriages is determined. Add the positive value of all carriages on the train, then subtract all carriages with a negative value. Each player then totals the value of all of their passenger tokens on that train, and multiplies this by the total value of the carriages. The sum is the player’s score, be it positive or negative. These scores are maintained on a score sheet (not include in the game).
Each time a train leaves a station and is scored, a new locomotive card is drawn to take its place. The “Rush Hour” station master card can cause an additional locomotive card to be placed during the course of the game, permanently increasing the number of trains that can be constructed. Once the locomotive deck depletes and the final train leaves the station, the game ends. The player with the highest cumulative total rises to achieve the status of station manager legend!
The game is clearly designed to be a lighter, family-style game. There are certainly choices to be made, primarily where to place carriage cars and passengers, and when to use the special station manager cards. On the whole, however, it is primarily a game of “playing for fun”. A player’s fate is largely determined by the actions of his opponents. Once you place a passenger token onto a train, all of your opponents will have the opportunity either join you on that train, or affect its value. With more players, a player’s individual control plummets. It is easy to spot the trains wherein your opponents are concentrating, and place negative value carriages upon it. If the majority of your opponents are placing passengers on a particular train, you had better join them on that train as it will likely be filled with positive value carriages. There really isn’t long-term strategy here. It is more a matter of placing your tokens and carriages and hoping for the best, and taking advantage of the rare opportunities and special cards when they surface.
That being said, the game is still fun to play. It most certainly is not the next Puerto Rico or El Grande, but it isn’t designed to be. Instead, it is a very satisfying game that falls into the “light” category. It is one that suits its role well as an “opener” or “closer” in a game group, or within the context of a gathering of friends or family members. In this sense, the game is versatile, and there is always room for games with versatility in one’s game collection.