Railroad Dice: The First Rails
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A new country is discovered and laid out with tiles. Additionally, stations get built and connected through a railway track of dice. Five railroad companies compete against each other to transport as many passengers as possible to be successful at the end.
Knowing this was a limited edition from newcomer Jens Kappe and his Wassertal Spieleverlag company, I took a chance and pre-ordered a copy, securing it at the Spiele Faire in Essen in 2003. The game appeared to be interesting, but the rules were somewhat confusing. Coupled with this confusion was the fact that dozens of other newly acquired games were competing for table time. Finally, the fact that the game was limited to four players caused it to languish for 2-months before it finally hit the table.
As its name implies, Railroad Dice is a game about building railroads using dice. The abundance of dice each depict both straight and curved sections of track, as well as a stock certificate and a "?", which serves as a "wild card". Players build track, purchase stock shares, build stations and transport passengers, all in an attempt to gather wealth and become a wealthy tycoon.
First, let me state that I am not a railroad game fanatic. Railroad games do not send shivers of excitement coursing through my bodies. I don't go ga-ga over the thought of constructing track across the vast plains of America or the rugged mountains of central Europe. I've never played an 18xx game. The closest I've probably come is Age of Steam, which even the designer claims is NOT in the 18xx classification of games.
That being said, I'm also not opposed to playing railroad games. The only reason I haven't played an 18xx game is that I've never really had the opportunity. I don't own any games in the series and the length of time required to play one has prevented me from seeking one out during the conventions I attend. Perhaps I'll play one someday, but it just isn't a top priority.
Thus, Railroad Dice didn't hold an irresistible fascination for me, but it also didn't evoke feelings of aversion. The game seemed interesting, so I bought it. After downloading and studying the revised rules, I began to understand the rules and mechanics, so felt reasonably comfortable bringing it to the table.
The game is filled with clever concepts and original mechanisms. The board, as it is, develops as the game progresses, and actually has two views. The first consists of large, 4" x 4" tiles, with an 8x8 grid and various terrain superimposed upon them. Mirroring these large tiles is a set of smaller tiles, which depict the same terrain but not the grid. The track (dice) and stations will be constructed on the larger tiles, while the smaller tiles will be pieced together to form a map of the overall landscape as the tracks spread.
The dice are the central mechanism of the game, and their location -- whether in front of or behind the player's screen -- is important, as is the symbol depicted on its face. Here is how dice can be used:
All dice located BEHIND a player's screen are assumed to depict a "?", so can be used to perform any of the "Behind Screen" actions, regardless of what is actually on their face at the time.
How to use the dice is during the course of a turn is the major decision players face. I should say "decisions", as there are numerous options available. Since dice can be rolled and used in various sequences according to the player's desires, the options seem almost limitless. This also allows for some very clever uses and a game which plays very differently each time.
So just what can a player do on his turn? Let's see --
The ultimate idea is to construct stations that form a connected line; i.e., stations that are located along a series of adjacent tiles. At the end of a turn, the director of a company earns income (known as 'transports passengers' in game parlance) based on the number of that company's connected stations. Thus, the greater the number of connected stations, the more income a player receives. The incentive, therefore, is to grab control of the director position in companies that already have a large network of connected stations, or construct those stations yourself and maintain control of the directorship for as long as possible.
Maintaining control of a directorship is NOT an easy task, however. As mentioned, once all of the shares of at least four of the companies have been purchased, players are free to purchase shares directly from the director of a company. The director cannot refuse these purchases, and the consequence is that directorships often change hands with great frequency, particularly in the latter stages of the game. However, this change of status doesn't actually occur until after income is collected for the transportation of passengers, so the controlling player will reap the benefits for at least the remainder of that turn. Further, he will be compensated, as he receives the dice paid to purchase the shares from him and gets to place any dice taken as income during the following turn in FRONT of his screen. This is a very effective compensatory mechanism that works well.
A player may perform the above actions in any order he desires and, with the exception of (a) and (b), as often as he desires. The possibilities and options are numerous, and the decisions to be made as to which actions to take and how to utilize the dice are challenging and often agonizing. Dice used for performing one action may not be available for use in performing a different action. It is the clever combination of the above actions, along with a little luck in the rolling, that can often result in creative maneuvers and strategic opportunities.
After each player has performed all of the actions they desire or can, an "End of Year" phase is held. First, passengers are transported, with income being distributed to the directors as described above. Then, stock holdings are assessed and the directorships of each company are maintained or reassigned. Finally, the start player rotates and the sequence is completed. The game ultimately ends when one of the following conditions is met:
All of these are feasible endings, and three of these have been achieved in the numerous games I've played. Players can actively force the train line into a position wherein it cannot be continued, so the leader can certainly work towards achieving this before his lead evaporates. Likewise, the director of a company can actively attempt to construct all of the stations of that company, or cause the dice supply to be depleted. So, players do have some degree of control in forcing an end to the game. Very clever and an effective strategy.
After the game end is triggered, passengers are delivered one more time and income paid to the company directors. Players then tally their income and the player who has successfully delivered the most passengers is victorious.
Few games have left me as intrigued and with as much enthusiasm after my initial playing. Subsequent playings maintained much of that enthusiasm. There is SO much going on here and so much to think about. Decisions abound, and there are a variety of strategies players can pursue. At first, it all seems a bit much and it is difficult to get a grasp on the rules and how the various mechanisms mingle to form a cohesive whole. However, about midway through a game, the fog will lift and the various possibilities and opportunities become clearer. Generally, it will likely take several games at least to get a firm grip on how best to utilize your dice and optimize the various actions. That's the mark of a good game.
Are there problems? Sure. For one, waiting until the shares of four companies have been purchased before allowing players to purchase shares from their opponents simply takes too long. Shortly after the game's release, several folks came forward with suggested variants, including the reduction of this number to three or even two. After numerous playings, I completely agree with this modification. It does liven-up the game quicker, as this makes it very difficult to maintain control of a company for an extended period.
Some folks have expressed distaste for how the company directorship and share aspects are handled. For those who share this displeasure, numerous variants and modifications have been proposed. Although some of them do sound intriguing, I find the method as written to be quite satisfactory. Yes, the game can be quite fluid, but players still have control over their own fate. Clever maneuvers, proper timing, and skillful play will rule the rails.
For fans, expansions are also now available. Railroad Dice Deutschland has just been released and promises to add even more twists and features to the game system. I'm looking forward to see where these new rails take me!
Each year at Essen there is at least one limited-release game that gets plenty of buzz, and in most years that game ends up being a flop. This year, Railroad Dice may buck that trend as while only a few hundred copies were available and it sold out quickly, it also is a serious game that is quite original in concept and design. Fortunately, the designer plans to produce more copies soon and so those that missed out likely will have an opportunity to get their copy sometime in 2004.
Like many railroad games, this one is about building track across varied terrain, owning shares in companies and holding a plurality in order to claim directorship. But Railroad Dice does these in ways quite differently than an 18xx. The scoring in Railroad Dice is based on the number of stations built by controlled railroads. A player earns one victory point (a 1,000 passenger token) for each station built by railroads he currently controls in that railroad's longest line of connected stations. This is tracked by a clever use of map tiles that allow players to ``zoom in'' on the current area being developed.
The engine of game is the railroad dice themselves. These 40 six-sided dice each show a straight track on two sides, a 90-degree curved track on two sides, a share symbol on one side, and a question mark on the sixth side. Each player has a small screen, and principally this is used to designate the position of the dice. Railroad dice behind a screen are income, and their orientation is irrelevant. Dice in front of the screen are activated and cannot change their orientation, but instead are used for the purpose shown on the face-up side.
The last major component in the game is the five railroad companies. These companies each have 10 related shares of stock, and each has a card that holds its stations until they are built. The companies are not equivalent, as each company's stations can specifically be built only on certain terrains and so directing a company is highly influential in how the landscape will develop.
So, what do you actually do with all of this? Each round consists of one year, and in a round all players get one turn. On a turn, players can do five different things. They can do these in any order and in any combination, but some things can be done once while others can be repeated as long as resources are available. The ``once a turn'' items include taking income and rolling dice. Taking income means taking dice from the bank and placing them behind your screen. The more stations built by railroads you control, the more income dice you get, but you never get less than four. Rolling dice means taking dice from behind your screen and rolling them to place in front of your screen. Once rolled, their orientation does not change and they now become useful for different purposes.
The three other actions are real railroad game stuff - buying shares, laying track, and building stations. Shares are purchased with dice in front of the screen that show the stock symbol. One die, one share of stock in any railroad company. Laying track means just that - placing the dice physically on one of the active terrain tiles. This requires a more detailed explanation of the game map and how the terrain tiles are used.
The landscape consists of four types of terrain tiles - plain grass, grass with a lake in the center, grass with mountain ranges on two sides, and grass with mountain ranges on three sides. The game begins with a single plain grass tile in the center of the table. This is ``mirrored'' on the side of the table with a corresponding smaller plain grass tile. The smaller tiles build through the game to show the entire landscape, while the larger tiles in the center of the table are the tiles that can be currently developed. When a player constructs track to the edge of the tile, they then choose the next type of terrain to move into. This can be any of the four terrain types as long as they ``fit'' in the overall terrain being tracked by the smaller tiles. Track is laid and stations are built on the primary tiles, but once the rail line runs off that tile the stations are transferred to the smaller tiles for record-keeping. In this way, players actively work only two tiles at any given time but through the game develop a complete landscape that grows with the smaller terrain tiles.
Building stations is the final action, and it is the only action that earns victory points. Each director can build stations for the railroads he controls, if he can meet the conditions. The conditions include meeting the terrain specifics and being able to afford it. Each station requires a payment of three or five income dice, meaning dice from behind the players screen. Also, each railroad company can have only one station per terrain tile and stations of different companies must be separated by at least one track die.
That is the game - getting income, rolling dice, buying shares, laying track, and building stations. Each player is trying to be a director in the companies with the largest sets of connected stations in order to get the passenger tokens as victory points. Along the way, though, a lot of interesting ideas come along. The biggest of these is the ``question mark'' side of the dice. When dice in front of the screen show a question mark, this gives the player the flexibility to use that die for any of its possible purposes, or even use it as income in place of a ``behind the screen'' die. When rolling dice, then, the best outcome is to get question marks. The next well-designed idea is the fact that directorships in railroads are only awarded at the end of the year and after the passenger tokens are awarded. So, if I begin the year with directorship in a company by virtue of my four shares, I will stay that company's director through the awarding of points even if another player buys their fifth share during their turn. This becomes critical in the later phases of the game as railroad ownership with change hands regularly.
When buying shares, they are first purchased from the bank. But once all shares in a few companies are purchased, shares can be purchased from the railroad's director! This is not a negotiation - the director cannot stop the sale. This means that once a railroad has developed a good network of stations, the director will almost never be able to control it for the full game. Since shares purchased this way can only be bought from the director, the movement of companies is inevitable. When taking income on a turn, the number of dice taken equals the number of stations built by controlled companies. Thus, taking over the directorship of well developed railroads not only brings victory points, but also increases the dice income received during the income phase. Developed railroad companies are simply too valuable to let sit in one payers hand for too long.
The game also does not bog down as a result of bonus dice awards. Each time a new tile is added to the landscape, and every time a station is built, the player receives two ``question mark'' dice in from of their screen. In this way, the momentum actions of the game perpetuate themselves since those two question mark dice are very valuable. And to add to the feast, if question mark dice are rolled as part of the ``roll dice'' phase, a bonus die is taken from the bank to add to the roll. This makes perfect sense - since a question mark die is a joker usable for anything, there would be no incentive to re-roll it without the bonus. While logical, it also brings more dice into the game, and more dice means more income, more track, more shares purchased, and all-around more action.
The result is an original design that plays fast and yet is quite deep. The changing directorships create a natural ``catch the leader'' mechanism although early big leads are sometimes hard to overcome. Early on, it is hard to support two railroad companies since resources are scarcer. As stations are built and income grows, the pace of development and thus ownership quickens. Wassertal has done an outstanding job with production, and it is hard to imagine how they have made any money with such a small run given the large number of quality bits. The forty Railroad Dice and forty-four station markers (these are colored plastic dice with no markings) alone are more than you see in most games, and add to this eight large terrain tiles, dozens of small tiles, share markers, passenger tokens, and screens. Yet it all fits easily into the cube that is its box.
Railroad game fans can welcome these new ideas into their game libraries, but this game will appeal to general strategy gamers as well. It is among the best new things to come out of this Essen, and it seems ripe for expansions and/or new designs using the dice mechanics employed here. Go to
to register your interest in the next printing.