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Based on the award-winning Empire Builder System, Russia Rails lets players experience the unique challenges of rail-building in the former Soviet Union and the republics which have replaced it. Using erasable crayons, players design their own rail-networks across a geographically accurate map.
Russian Rails features a unique time line orchestrated by event cards and a distance warp to accommodate the vast distances of the Soviet Union region. The game begins in the post WWII era, with players drawing rail lines and delivering loads wary of the inevitable fall of the Soviet Union. Build an empire from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Since YOU decide where to build your rails, every game will be a different experience!
I’ve never played any of the Empire Rails series. For some reason, the “crayon-rail” games never had any massive appeal to me, but at the same time I wasn’t averse to playing one. It’s simply that the lack of availability in my gaming groups, coupled with a lengthy playing time, kept me from trying one out. This all changed when I received Russian Rails (Mayfair Games, 2004 - Jodi Soares). Finally, I was able to see what all the fuss was about.
As this is my first Empire Rails game to play, I can’t compare it to others in the series, but I will say that it certainly worked well for beginners and was a fun game to play. It was involving and thought provoking, giving a player a lot of options. The only problems with the game were the lengthy time of play (3+ hours) and the ample opportunities for analysis paralysis. But if you are willing to make the time to play this rails game, you will be rewarded by a tremendous, satisfying game.
A large board is placed in the middle of the table, depicting a map of the former Soviet Union. The map has forty-six cities, separated into three types: major, medium, and small and is divided up into a triangular grid of “milepost” dots. Next to each city, there are one to three icons depicting what kinds of goods that city produces. Each player takes a “train” token in their color, along with a special wipe-off crayon. Each player also receives sixty million rubles as starting cash and a Loco card that depicts nine speed and two goods. A deck of demand/event cards is shuffled, and three demand cards are dealt face-up to each player. The cards show three different cities on them, and the type of goods that each city wants along with the payout in rubles for supplying that demand. Stacks of chips representing each commodity are placed in a special area in the box, along with the rest of the Loco cards and the cash. The player who has the highest cash value on one their three Demand cards goes first with play proceeding clockwise around the table.
Each turn has two phases, the operation phase and the building phase. During the first two turns of the game, players skip the operation phase. During the operation phase, players can move their train pawn on their tracks on the map. The train starts the game in any city on the map, and then can move up to its maximum speed (9 or 12) each turn. Trains cannot reverse direction except at a junction and can pick up or drop off loads at any city. Players can move freely on their own tracks and must pay opponents 4 million a turn if they use their track. If in a city that has good icons, a player may pick up loads of those particular types if they have room on their Loco card (two or three spots) and if there are any chips of that type available. (There are three to four chips of each type.) A player can drop a load off at any city, discarding it for no reward; unless they have a demand card showing that the city they are dropping the load off at wants that type of good. When the player does deliver a load to its destination, they return the chip to the box, discard the card, and receive the amount of rubles shown on the card immediately. The player then draws a new Demand card, placing it face-up in front of them. If the player draws an event card, it is either placed face up on the table, or takes effect immediately (depending on the card), and the player draws another card to take its place.
In the building phase, a player can spend up to twenty million rubles to either upgrade their train or lay track on the board. If upgrading their train, the player pays twenty million rubles to the bank and takes a new Loco card of the next level, increasing either the speed (from 9 to 12) or the load maximum (from 2 to 3). If building track, the player can draw on the board with their crayon, connecting the mileposts at a cost. Players can build from any milepost from which they already have track connected to or can start from any major City milepost (twice a turn). Different terrain types on the board determine the cost for building the track, determined by the milepost built TO.
Players have the option to discard all three of their cards, drawing new ones - forfeiting the remainder of their turn. Any event cards drawn must immediately be dealt with. The most important event card in the deck is the “Communism Falls” event. Most event cards are known as dual events. When played before Communism falls, the top half is used, with the bottom half being used after Communism falling. The fall of Communism also has the following effects. All players must immediately discard 20% of their cash, all dual events in play are discarded, and the Russian boundaries become effective. All over the board, the boundaries of Russia are defined but aren’t used when the USSR is in effect. After the fall, players must pay 2 million when entering INTO Russia. All the other events allow for special deliveries of goods, tax the players, use weather to keep players from moving, etc.
When one player has connected five of the six major cities on the board with a continuous line of track AND has at least 250 million rubles in cash at the end of their turn, the game ends with each player finishing up their last turn. If a tie occurs, play continues until one player gets 300 million rubles, in which case they are the winner!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The board is six puzzle pieces attached together, which form a fairly accurate map of the USSR. At first the board looks a bit bland; but once players start drawing the track, it becomes intriguing, as one watches the train networks grow and expand. The crayons were effective and were easy to wipe off the board, but I question the effectiveness of the yellow crayon; it was difficult to see. While the crayons were good, I’m going to get some erasable markers, they’re just easier to use. The boards are of good quality; and while the graphics are plain and a bit bland, they are quite easy to see and differentiate. The paper money was passable, and the cards were useful and of good quality - easy to shuffle and use. The chips were small poker chips that needed to have quite a few stickers attached to them, but I’m coloring the commodities to make them stand apart more. There was a plastic tray in the box that holds money, cards, and chips effectively but with one problem. If the box is tipped on its side at all, all the chips fall out of their slots, mixing them together in a giant mess. This is easily fixed by putting them all in a plastic bag, but then you have to sort them all out at the beginning of the game. Not a big deal, but a slight pain - I might tape some kind of board over them to keep them in place when I transport the game.
2.) Rules: The rulebook was very clear; I’ve never played a crayon rail game before, but I easily understood it. The twelve pages of rules include several players’ aids that can be given to each player. The player aids show the location of each city on the map (the map is divided up into a grid), and the cities that provide each good. For people who are intimately familiar with Russian geography (me for sure!) these aids can become invaluable. Actually, I was impressed at how simple the game actually was. Whenever I had seen a crayon rail game in the past, I thought that they looked complicated and long. Long is correct, but the game play is actually quite simple.
3.) Length: The game is LONG. Even with a variant of moving the trains quicker, it still took a while. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my time of playing the game, but downtime can occur. I tried to speed up the game by encouraging players to plan their track building while others where moving, but a simple event card can mess up all your carefully laid plans and cause a person to rethink the map. Once a good is delivered, the player draws a new card, which also might affect what they do next. So there’s really no way around it, the game is going to take a while.
4.) Variations: There are some variations on play in the rulebook - two of which I think quite useful. One of them involves changing the speed of the trains to 12 and 16 respectively. This speeds the game up, while still retaining fairness and balance. Another variant allows the players to decide where in the deck the Communism Falls event card is placed. I HIGHLY recommend this variant, as the game can be too unpredictable otherwise. If you aren’t prepared for the fall of Communism, a lot of plans can be ruined and money lost. In fact, if a player’s train is outside Russia when the fall occurs, and they have no money (frequent in this game); they are effectively out of the game. I think it’s better to shuffle it into the bottom one third of the deck - still giving randomness, but a bit more controlled.
5.) Strategy and Fun Factor: Most of the fun of the game is involved with setting up your network of trains. It’s great fun to watch your network grow and expand, and delivering goods gives one such a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. Knowing what goods to deliver and where is the crux of the game. Do you deliver several small loads, taking a bit of money at a time, or do you concentrate on the very long but lucrative loads. Being in the right place at the right time also helps, especially when an event card is drawn. The event cards add some randomness to the game; but aside from Communism Falls, none of them are too detrimental to a player. The game starts off a bit slow, as players struggle to get one or two loads delivered. Then, as the game progresses, the game speeds up, with the networks completed, as players rush to deliver as much stuff as they can. It’s not too terribly interactive, but players get so caught up in their networks that they don’t care too much.
6.) Empire Rails: As I’ve never played the other games in the series, I cannot compare it; but I’m quite happy with the game. Others I’ve gamed with HAVE played other crayon-rail games, and they said that this one is similar, with the Fall of Communism providing the major difference. These opinions I’ve gathered have also been positive, saying that this is one of the better games in the series.
This is not the kind of game I’ll pull out to finish out a game night, nor is it one which I’ll pull off the shelves lightly. When we play this one, we are going to game - and game hard. At the same time, it’s not too terribly taxing on the brain, just immensely involving. Because it takes so long to play, it probably won’t get played that often; but when it does get played, the time will be memorable. I enjoyed the game quite a bit and recommend it to anyone who has wanted to start their own train empire. And the geography lesson about Russia certainly doesn’t hurt.
“Real men play board games.”
Note: Reviewing a crayon rail game is a bit of a challenge, as all of the games in the series use very similar mechanisms. Usually, there are only minor rules changes, with the major difference being the geographical setting. As such, most of the description of the game’s mechanisms will read the same from review to review. The emphasis will be on the differences in the particular game under consideration. With that in mind, much of the following description of Russian Rail’s mechanisms is lifted from my reviews of previous crayon rail games.
Russian Rails from Mayfair Games takes the crayon rail system to the former Soviet Union. The main twist is that during the course of the game, communism may fall, which results in some minor changes in the rules. The system is essentially the same as most other crayon rail games. Basically, each player is building rail lines across the map, attempting to link various cities and then pick-up and transport goods between various cities. Players receive payoffs on these deliveries, so developing direct routes and efficiently using these routes in your deliveries is the key to success in the game.
Rail lines are actually drawn onto the map with grease crayons, which are included in the game, or dry-erase markers, which are not supplied. Experience has proven that those crayons just don’t work properly, so we’ve defaulted to using the dry eraser markers. These, too, have their problems, but seem to work better than the crayons and are easier to wipe-off once the game is completed.
The map here depicts a broad section of the former Soviet Union, with the majority of the geographical area being Russia and the Ukraine. Superimposed over the map is a grid of points (known as “mileposts”), and rail lines are drawn so as to make connections between these mileposts. The cost of a connection depends upon the type of terrain being built to and can vary from 1 – 5 million rubles. Mountains, alpine areas, and rivers are the most expensive to traverse.
Players each receive a locomotive, 60 million rubles and three Demand cards to begin the game. Each player begins constructing track from major city and initially makes two “builds” – constructing up to a total of 40 million worth of track. After this is completed, the game enters its regular cycle.
On a turn, a player may move a number of spaces (milepost to milepost), not to exceed the limit of his current locomotive, which is 9 spaces for the initial loco. Locomotives can be upgraded during the course of the game at a cost of 20 million per upgrade, but this constitutes the entire “build” phase of a player’s turn. Upgraded locomotives are speedier and can hold more cargo. The maximum speed for the top-of-the-line loco is 12 spaces.
Once a player completes his movement, he may then build up to 20 million of additional track. Of course, this is further restricted by the amount of money a player possesses, which is in limited supply in the early stages of the game. The idea here is to build routes to the cities wherein you need to pick up and deliver the goods listed on your Demand cards. Each Demand card lists three cities, the type of good they are demanding and the payoff for successfully delivering that good. Each city on the board depicts the type of good that can be secured at that location. There is no cost to pick-up the goods, and players are free to jettison unneeded goods in any city. I’m not particularly fond of this aspect of the game, as there is little, if any, drawback in speculating by picking up unneeded goods, hoping to acquire a demand card that will list that good. One of my fellow gamer plays with a house-rule wherein goods can only be jettisoned in cities that either produce or require that good. This certainly makes for a tougher game.
When building routes, short, direct routes are beneficial, as commodities can be delivered quickly for a fast payoff. There are no bonuses for most track constructed or benefits for taking the scenic route. Since the only way to earn money in the game is by making deliveries, it pays to get the goods to their destination pronto. However, many goods are produced in the east and are demanded in the west – and vice versa. These require lengthy journeys, but usually result in much higher payoffs.
A player may use another player’s track as opposed to constructing it himself, but this is not always a good idea. Riding another player’s rails isn’t free – it costs 4 million per turn you ride an opponent’s rail lines. This is occasionally cost effective, but usually only if you can get through a track section in one turn. Sometimes it is completely necessary to use another player’s lines as the smaller cities only allow a limited number of players to build connections to them.
The ultimate objective of the game is to connect to five of the six major cities on the board and amass a wealth of 250 million by the end of a round. When playing with multiple players, the majority of the tracks are completed about 2/3 of the way into the game and the final 1/3 is occupied by swiftly racing along these tracks delivering goods. Thus, the player who has constructed the tightest line system and has carefully managed his Demand cards will be richly rewarded.
When a delivery is successfully made, that Demand card is discarded and a new one immediately drawn. The new card often requires the player to adjust his plans in order to take into account the delivery opportunities the new card offers. To shake things up, the deck of Demand cards contains numerous event cards that can be minor annoyances or major disasters. Most of these cause some delays in movement or force players to pay extra when constructing in certain areas. Watch out for those floods, however, as they can completely destroy sections of track and destroy some or all of the cargo a player is transporting. There are a precious few beneficial events in the deck, which usually cause extra money to be earned when delivering goods to certain locations.
As mentioned, the main difference in Russian Rails is the geographical setting and the nature of some of the events. The commodities are also typical of those produced in this area of the world, including vodka, caviar, uranium, etc. The big event – the fall of Communism – shakes things up a bit by forcing players to lose 20% of their accumulated cash to reflect the destabilization of the ruble. It also increases the movement costs when entering Russia from its former satellites. Unfortunately, this one card is mixed randomly into the sizeable deck of cards, so there is a decent chance that it will never appear. That diminishes one of the main potential features of the game. I would rather see the card shuffled into the top-half of the deck, which would virtually assure its appearance.
My assessment of Russian Rails is virtually identical to other games in the series. I am not a huge fan of the crayon rail game system. My main complaint against the system continues to hold true here: the games are the perfect definition of the term “multi- player solitaire”. Each player is basically doing his own thing with very little, if any, interaction or interference from his fellow players. It almost doesn’t matter what your opponents are doing or what goods they are attempting to deliver. There is precious little you can do about it anyway. Each player is simply trying to play his own game, optimizing his routes, massaging his Demand cards and making swift, efficient deliveries. Short of constructing rails aggressively so as to block players from connecting to smaller cities, there is little players can do to interfere with the progress of their opponents. I much prefer games that have a higher degree of interaction amongst the players and there are concrete steps that can be taken to interfere with the plans of my opponents.
The other drawback for me is the length of the game, which consistently clocks in at 1 hour per player. I don’t mind the occasional longer game, but often the winner of the crayon rail games can be determined way in advance of the game actually finishing. Investing that much time in a game that I consider “multiple-player solitaire” AND when the last few hours must still be played when the ultimate winner is not in doubt is not what I consider an enjoyable use of game time.
Now I say this in full recognition that the crayon rail games have a large number of fans. This group is sizeable enough to have spawned a gaming subculture and to continue to support the release of new games in the series. Some folks are enamored by the system and continue to purchase every version that appears.
That being said, I must admit that I am warming a bit to the system, and don’t mind the occasional playing – once a year or so is enough. Sadly, I don’t think Russian Rails adds much to the system. There isn’t anything refreshingly new or different. Even the “Fall of Communism” event doesn’t dramatically alter the game or give it a terribly different feel. My two favorites in the series remain Iron Dragon and Lunar Rails, both of which offer enough unique aspects to make them feel different. Russian Rails fails to deliver in this aspect. It works just as it is supposed to, but there really isn’t much new.