Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame
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Can you build a railroad empire from the ground up? Take the role of one of history’s railroad barons and see if you have what it takes to become the next Railroad Tycoon in Eagle Games' Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame.
Railroad Tycoon with its massive board and beautiful components is a streamlined version of the critically acclaimed Age of Steam by Martin Wallace. One of the best games from 2005, it translates the computer game into one that will reach a wide audience. A tremendous variety of options and strategy allow players to build a network of trains across the East Coast of the United States, transporting goods back and forth to earn the most money. High interaction is evident in this game for up to six players, and every game is different due to interesting Tycoon and Operation cards. Railroad Tycoon is a game that reaches both to strategic gamers due to the vast amount of tactics involved and to folks who simply want a fun, social time.
This game was highly recommended on several websites, and the owner of a game store that I frequent, upon discovering that I was interested in rail strategy games, while giving the thumbs- up to several railroad games that I had questioned him on, recommended Railroad Tycoon as 'the game to get'. My son bought this game for me at Christmas, so this is "the game I got". AND WHAT A GAME IT IS!!!
The first thing that you are struck by when looking at ‘Railroad Tycoon’ is the HUGE gameboard depicting the eastern half of the United States. You almost expect to find a blurb stating ‘Actual Size: Scale -1 mile + 1 mile’ somewhere on there (OK, so I exaggerate a bit, but it is quite large).
The quality of the game components is also outstanding. The plastic miniatures are pretty cool (and sturdy), and the brightly colored wooden blocks representing ‘goods’ are pretty indestructible. While cardboard counters would have sufficed, the wood and plastic pieces make it a lot easier on the eyes (especially those of us who are nearsighted). The cardboard track hexes are also quite sturdy. The massive gameboard allows for bigger hexagons (a really nice feature), and has a printed block that lists the actions that can be taken as part of a turn and the cost for building track over different kinds of terrain. And then there is the instruction manual, which contains a scant ten pages and is printed in color. It is clear, concise, and well organized. The only minor detail that was a bit of an annoyance was that the ‘blue’ cities appear a bit on the purplish side on our gameboard, which wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t also purple cities. So we just got used to the dark purple being ‘blue’ – not a major issue.
The game itself is not difficult to learn. Usually, by the end of one or two turns you can get the hang of it. You start out with no money and have to issue shares of your railroad company in $5000 blocks. You draw a Tycoon card to play as one of several railroad magnates, each of which has his own objective. A few other action cards are displayed, cities are stocked with goods, and you’re set to go. You use the money that you get to buy track, upgrade your train engine and urbanize towns, among other things. The idea is to create links between cities and deliver goods along those links. A turn consists of three phases: the auction phase, the action phase, and the income/dividends phase. The auction is to determine who the first player is for the turn, and the income/dividends is pretty routine. The action phase needs a little more examination.
The action phase consists of three rounds. Each player, in turn, performs one action per round, so in total there are three actions for each player per turn. An action is one of the following tasks: Build track; Upgrade your engine; choose a card; urbanize a town; deliver goods or; build a Western Link. Developing a strategy for which actions you do (and when to do them) is the deciding factor in succeeding. But don’t think that the same strategy will work all the time. The cards that that are revealed and what goods appear in each city are variables that keep each game fresh. The game can usually be completed in about 2 hours. It ends when a predetermined number of ‘Empty towns’ (dependent on the number of players) appear on the board. The winner is the person with the most victory points, which combines the action points you get during the game, any bonus points for completing the objective on your Tycoon card, and subtracting the number of shares you’ve taken.
You may say "Gee, that sounds a bit complicated… but is it any fun?" The answer is “YES! YES! YES!” This game is positively addictive. My son and I played back-to-back games (about 3-1/2 hours) on the first night and could’ve gone again if it wasn’t close to midnight! We immediately began thinking of people that we could teach it to. Though we’ve only played the two-player version as of this time, I think the game appears that it would be even more fun with more players (the game accommodates up to six players), each having conflicting strategy and objectives.
My only regret it that I have only two thumbs to put up, because I’d give this game three thumbs up if I could!
Although always enjoying boards games, I have most stuck to card games because of my love of thoughtful strategy over random success/failure. However, I am also a bit of a railroad buff and have enjoyed the computer simulation versions of Railroad Tycoon. So I grabbed the chance to join my friends when they got a copy of Railroad Tycoon. After playing once, I began looking for my own copy.
This game is so well thought out. It has great features that will
please railroad buffs:
1) The geography is realistic. Building from Washington to Ohio has similar financial perils to those that hindered the B&O.
2) Chicago is given appropriate prominence as the great link to the West.
3) The old "Water Line Route" of the New York Central can clearly be seen.
4) Most games will feature some congestion in the Northeast Corridor as people vie for the easy pickings of the densely packed cities.
5) The pain of paying stockholders when you are low on cash and desperately need to expand to survive.
6) The secret ambitions of the notorious railroad barons.
7) The size of the board gives you that feel of building an empire.
The only elements of randomness are added perfectly. The initial placement of goods makes each game unique, and the random appearance of the action cards is just before the auction, so you have to be willing to pay for your advantages!
This game must have been play-tested before release, because it is hard to find any faults. Also, it is cleverly designed so that even without the randomness, no one is out of the game. I have seen some great comebacks!
This game is worth the higher cost. The pieces are all well done and the game is sure to be a classic. Enjoy!
This is only the second railroad themed game I've played (the first being Ticket to Ride) and I was engrossed right from the beginning. We decided to play the simplified rules being all beginners (3 people), and it was extremely enjoyable!
The board is colossal! You need a huge table to play on. Coffee table will not do. We didn't even extend our track to the west side of the board. We found it wise to build tracks next to our opponents because sometimes they would have to use your track to deliver a cube. It was very important not to go overboard issuing stock for cash.
The parts are superb - plastic engines and wooden cubes are hefty. Hexagonal track is just right.
I can't wait to play this game again!
Part of this is because the game is a reworking of the all time great Age of Steam, by Martin Wallace. Add to that incredible system a pile of tremendous components (for which Eagle is well-known!) and a translation of the game so that it reaches a much wider audience, and you have a game that simply shimmers with greatness. One of the most amazing things about Railroad Tycoon is that it is fairly easy to teach and grasp and yet offers a tremendous variety of options and strategy. Railroad Tycoon is without a doubt a game in which "die hard" strategic gamers and casual social gamers can enjoy at the same levels.
Some comments on the game...
1.) Game Board: I will get out of the way my sole complaint about the game - and that is the board (at least in the first printing) has some severe warping problems. Fortunately, this can be fixed, and wasn't a major problem, but it did cause some sliding of trains in our first couple games. Also, the board is gigantic, and may be a little too large for some folks' tables.
2.) Components: And that's it - everything else is superb about the game. The box is quite large, and understandably so, since there is so much inside. The control locomotives are plastic trains in six different colors and look great on the board. The track tiles (of which are provided FAR more than will ever be needed) are simple and yet have different terrain on them so that they match the map. And since I've brought up the map, let me state that it's Eagle's best board to date, and that's beating an impressive lineup! While some people may cringe at the size of the board, to me it helped bring about a feeling of "massiveness" to the game. The goods cubes were large and easy to handle, and all the cards, especially the engine cards, were of the highest quality. Even the empty city markers, which are in the game simply to put in empty cities to help point them out to players, are four different buildings (which incidentally look like pieces of chocolate). It's these unnecessary but thematic touches that raise Railroad Tycoon head and shoulders above competing games.
3.) Rules: The rulebook is a mere ten pages long, with two of those dedicated to a history of the eight different engines used in the game. Formatted, and in color - they are very easy to understand and use. I've taught the game several times to over ten people, and all of them have understood the game almost immediately into playing. Some of the concepts are new to them, but the theme of the game is so strong that much of it is intuitive. The game looks complex, and indeed offers a lot of choices, but no one I've played the game with yet (and I've taught the game to some folk who play very few games) has had any trouble.
4.) Age of Steam: There is a contingent of people who are extreme fans of Age of Steam (AoS), and I count myself one of them. But one of the problems I've had with AoS is that it is undeniably hard on newcomers and is easy to feel overwhelmed by the tough system. So there was some talk of Railroad Tycoon as being a "dumbed down" version of AoS. And while the game certainly is easier to play, I feel that calling it "dumbed down" is a disservice to the refined system of Railroad Tycoon. With Railroad Tycoon, the "no playtesting" catcallers will be silenced, because the game has been playtested extensively (I even had a small part), and the end results show. There are a myriad of differences between the games, even though they do show several of the same genetic traits. Railroad Tycoon has a much larger map, cards, and fewer types of tracks. It has a more forgiving economic system, and (at least in my opinion), a wider variety of options. So the burning question is which should a player own, and is it worth it to own both? I own both games and feel no desire to get rid of either one of them. But only purchase Age of Steam if you want a tough yet fun hardcore "designer" game. Play Railroad Tycoon if you want beautiful components and a larger audience. Age of Steam still slightly edges out Railroad Tycoon for me, because there are tons of maps available for it. If Eagle starts producing maps for Railroad Tycoon, then it will easily surpass AoS.
5.) Map: The map is so giant in Railroad Tycoon that every game will play out differently. On a player's first turn, they have so many options as to where to put their tracks, and even though there will be fights to see who puts track down in certain areas, players will have plenty of room to build their own track systems. This can lead to a problem in which a player can build a dangerous system unhindered and control an entire section of the United States, but the rules caution against this - especially in the Northeast cluster of cities.
6.) Red Cities: Each city is a different color, and there are twelve more "new cities" that can be added to the board. But there are only three cities on the board that are red: New York, Chicago, and Charleston. Unlike the other colors, no new red cities can be added to the board. Add that to the fact that there is the same amount of red cubes that need to be transported, and those three cities suddenly become hugely important. This offsets the feel of the massive board, as players will gravitate their networks around those cities. When I first playtested the game, I thought that this would be a problem; but upon repeated plays I've grown to love the importance of the red color.
7.) Finances: In Age of Steam, a player can go bankrupt after only a turn or two, and be either run out of the game, or so far behind that they never have a chance of catching up. Railroad Tycoon is a much more forgiving system. A player can take a share (worth $5000) at any time, with the negative results being that they have to pay $1000 each turn for their shares, and lose one point at the end of the game. A player can still get into trouble - such as taking too many shares at the beginning of the game, but it's not nearly as devastating. I've seen players do well with as few as two shares, and I've seen players win with twelve shares - it's all a manner of play styles and how each game flows.
8.) Tycoon Cards: Each player has a secret Tycoon card that will award them points at the end of the game if they accomplish a specific task (have the most money, connect two cities, etc.) Some of them are more difficult than others; but they have a reasonable degree of being able to be completed, and they certainly affect players' strategies.
9.) Railroad Operation Cards: These cards are a key to the game and are unbelievable on how they affect the ebb and flow of play. At the beginning of the game, three "starting" cards and two times the number of players are turned face up. Some of the cards can be taken by a player in lieu of doing other actions; others reward the first player who completes a specific goal. It's these goal cards that change the game drastically. Some of them reward two or three points to the first player who delivers a good to a specific city. Not only does this cause players to head their networks to that city, but it causes bidding for that round to go up drastically. Other goal cards reward obscene amounts of points for connecting cities. I rarely have seen these cards completed, because of the expense and difficulty in completing the tasks; but when they are, the resulting points are worth it! (Although I have yet to see someone hook up New York and Kansas City - if that happens, let me know!) While the cards are powerful and useful, players who fixate on them can lose good track area and crucial cubes to other players.
10.) Empty Cities: Having a certain amount of empty cities end the game was a brilliant design decision. Not only does it impose a time limit on the game that doesn't feel artificial (number of turns), but players can increase or decrease it by clearing out cities and/or urbanization. Not only that, but the markers are "sweet", to use teen jargon.
11.) Track: There are only two basic types of tracks - straight and curved, with three different kids of crossings. This may cause some consternation to those who liked the multiple types of track in Age of Steam, but with the map so big, I never found this much of a problem. Yes, some cities can be cut off quickly, but that's part of the fun.
12.) Mean-spirited: During the game, especially during a game with a lot of players, a lot of interaction occurs. Players will cut each other off from cities; they will force other players to use their lines when shipping, etc. This is exhilarating to most people, and all in the spirit of the game. It is possible, however, that a player can simply do things out of mean spirit - building tracks way out of the way to hurt other players, putting them in the way of other players, etc. This will most certainly hurt the player doing it, but we made a house rule when playing that a player must not be mean spirited when playing. This is certainly not a tangible thing, but I'm sure you'll understand when you play.
13.) Fun Factor: For me, Railroad Tycoon was pure, unadulterated fun. Not only was it brilliant enjoyment to watch your network of tracks grow and expand, but the interaction with other players was tremendous, sheer fun. Completing a six link delivery (haven't had the guts to go up to eight links yet) produces some immense satisfaction, and connecting two cities to score a bonus produces a great high. I rarely play a two hour game five times in one week, but Railroad Tycoon delivers such a great experience that I love playing it over and over again.
14.) Variety: Because of the tycoon cards, the operation cards, and the distribution of the cubes - every game plays completely different. In some games, there's a fierce battle for the Northeast. In others, there's a race to connect Chicago to important outlying cities. It's unbelievable the sheer variety that one map can bring to the game; and if there's anything I love, it's variety.
I could say more to talk about how much I enjoy the game, but I could be playing another time already!! Railroad Tycoon is a game for people who love heavy strategy and for those who just want a fun, social time. It's as near to a perfect design that any company can get, and certainly the best game Eagle games has ever produced. If you don't own it now, then what are you waiting for! I'm going to play it again; you stay here and read this interview if you must.
"Real men play board games"
NOTE: This review was first published in Knucklebones magazine
I have been quite vocal through the years concerning my disdain for the lack of development of many games in the Eagle line. While the games are quite beautiful to behold, and contain many clever ideas and mechanisms, there were inevitably significant flaws and development oversights. This was quite frustrating, and potentially damaging to future game sales. I cried for Eagle to improve their development process, and to use outside game groups to play-test their games before final production.
Things seem to be improving lately. Railroad Tycoon is a top-notch game and one of 2005’s best releases. This should come as no surprise, however, as the game is based heavily on Martin Wallace’s award-winning Age of Steam. Indeed, Martin was the main designer of Railroad Tycoon, with some additions and modifications performed by Glenn Dover. Little wonder that the game is a winner!
Players take the role of wealthy railroad tycoons seeking to build rail networks throughout the eastern United States, and reap huge profits from the shipping of goods across their lines. Money is tight early, and players are forced to raise capital by issuing shares. Interest must be paid on outstanding shares each turn, and outstanding shares will deduct from a player’s final victory point tally. The wise player will be conservative in his issuing of shares.
Each turn begins a single auction, with the winner securing the privilege of going first in the subsequent three action rounds of the turn. In some rounds, going first can be critical, as there may be a valuable operations card available, or a track to build before an opponent scan scoop a valuable route. These auctions are often tense early, but lose some of their suspense later in the game as money becomes more plentiful.
After deciding the first player, each player will have three opportunities to perform actions. Actions include:
Players alternate taking actions until all have completed their three actions. At this point, income is earned based on a player’s position on the income / victory point track. Players must then pay $1,000 for each outstanding share they possess. Shares may NOT be paid-off during the game, so this is an ongoing expense.
When goods are delivered to a city, they are returned to the off-board supply. As cities are emptied of goods, they are marked with various markers, which are completely superfluous, but nonetheless quite attractive. The game ends when a certain number of cities are empty, the number varying with the number of players. Players must keep a careful eye on the amount of empty cities, as this is a harbinger of the game’s end.
At game’s end, players must subtract the number of outstanding shares they possess from their tally. Of course, the player furthest along the income / victory point track is victorious, and the new railroad tycoon.
The comparisons to Age of Steam are inescapable. Indeed, the game is its brother, with slight differences. Those differences, however, are significant.
Railroad Tycoon is, in my opinion, the best effort from Eagle games to date. This is largely due to the fact that the system has been adapted from Martin Wallace’s stellar Age of Steam. The changes are, for the most part, acceptable, and some are even quite good. The result is a game that is often tense, and forces players to make important decisions throughout its duration. While dominating the northeast can lead to victory, several players should be competing in this profitable area, making that strategy less likely to succeed with experienced players. The result is that there are numerous strategies to pursue, and no one sure path to victory.
Is the game as good as Age of Steam? That will certainly depend upon who you ask, and perhaps what you are seeking. Experienced gamers will likely prefer the purity and tightness of Age of Steam, while folks who enjoy games with a bit more randomness and freedom may well find Railroad Tycoon more palatable. Both are quite good, though, and should please the majority of folks. I hope Eagle opts to undertake more collaborations with established designers.
The Story: Railroad Tycoon is a tabletop adaptation of the great PC game of the same name. Players compete in 19th century America to be the top Railroad Tycoon on the continent. This is done by expanding rail lines, upgrading locomotives, and delivering goods throughout the young nation.
The Play: Railroad Tycoon was co-designed by Glenn Dover and Martin Wallace and plays like a lighter variant of Wallace's own Age of Steam (for many people the best train game ever made). RT is lighter than Age of Steam (by a good deal) and doesn't feature as many anguishing decisions. It also introduces quite a bit of randomness in the form of Railroad Operations cards (and, to a lesser extent, the Tycoon cards). The base game play is simple, but it is exceedingly clever and fun.
Players begin each round by bidding for turn order. It can sometimes be of utmost importance to go first, so the turn auctions are often tense and competitive. The winner of the auction, pays the amount to the bank and takes his or her turn. The turn can consist of a variety of actions, ranging from laying track to form routes between cities to upgrading the companies train technology. The eventual idea is to have routes between numerous cities that allow the player to deliver colored goods cubes to cities of the same color. Because there are limited amount of goods to be delivered and limited ways to go from one city to another, turn order can be very important. A player often can't take the risk that another player going before him will claim a needed route.
Delivering goods earns the player victory points and an increase in company income. This income is important because of a very clever game mechanism. Players start off RT with no money. Not surprisingly, building tracks, founding cities, upgrading trains, and bidding on an early turn number all require cash. The game handles this by allowing (forcing) players to issue stock in their company in exchange for cash. This means players are never out of cash which serves to keep the game interesting for all players, even when some have fallen behind on the victory point track. Of course, there is no such thing as free money, so there is also a downside—players lose victory points at the end of the game for each share they have issued. This keeps people from issuing stocks willy-nilly and trying to buy the victory and it forces players to carefully weigh each decision and evaluate the cost/reward ratio constantly.
As goods are delivered and cities are emptied of their goods, empty city markers are placed on the board. The placement of markers is the game's timing mechanism. The game ends when a certain number (based on the number of players) of empty city tokens have been placed.
My Take: Railroad Tycoon is the best video game to tabletop game adaptation yet. And don't think that I'm damning with feint praise either. Eagle (especially with Age of Mythology) and Fantasy Flight (Doom and Warcraft) have really raised the bar as far as the video game adaptation genre goes. I love the stock-issuing element and the bidding for turn order. The Operations cards add a bit more luck than I'd like sometimes, but the fact that they are played face up next to the board and are available to any player mitigates the luck quite a bit. The only totally random element that affects just one player is the dealing of Tycoon cards. These are cards with real tycoons from the period on them who have certain goals that, if met, provide victory points (for instance, one tycoon gets a victory point bonus for having the largest railroad network, another tycoon get a bonus for having the longest continuous network). I'll have to play a bit more to see if any of the Tycoon's are considerably better than others, but, for now, I do not think so.
Railroad Tycoon's theme is dead on and easy to get lost in. The player interaction (in a five or six player game—I haven't tried it yet with less) is ample and often contentious. There are a ton of non-obvious decisions to be made each turn Just deciding whether to issue a bunch of stocks and go for an expensive action or to conserve cash and go cheap is difficult. Still, I saw very little analysis paralysis in our games.
Finally, the components are simply gorgeous. Railroad Tycoon looks great on the table with its huge map*, colorful wooden cubes, plastic trains, and awesome sculpted empty city markers. The game is a pleasure to look at when set up.
* [A note:] The first printing of the game has some problem with the boards warping. Apparently, the factory didn't allow the boards to cure completely before boxing them, so when the humidity hits, they begin to warp. Our review copy exhibited the problem on first play. We stacked the boards up after the game and placed a pile of hardback books on top of them and left it there for three days. We haven't had any noticeable warping since then.
Pros: Tough, interesting decisions to be made each turn; Great match of theme and mechanics; Scores remain tight throughout (in our experience)
Cons: The board might be too huge for some game tables; The warping of the board, though repairable is annoying when it happens; Screwed up US geography make it a poor teaching tool for younger gamers
RRT has been called Age of Steam (AS) Lite. However, this is an unfair description. AS Simplified and Improved would be a better descritpion.
For those who have not played AS, the following comments may not make a lot of sense.
In RRT players bid for the right to go 1st in the turn order. Only the winning bidder pays. Thereafter play proceeds clockwise. In AS players bid for all positions. In AS turn order is not clockwise and turn order is different in different phases.
In RRT, hauling cubes is less time consuming. In RRT, a player can only haul a cube if he has track connected to the city where the cube begins the turn. This limits a player's choices and speeds the play.
RRT is far more forgiving with respect to early game errors. In AS, it was possible for players to be eliminated by bankruptcy in the early going. (I have seen this happen.)
The best part of RRT is that players are not struggling to break even in the initial turns. In AS, it was common for players to be unable to make their maintenance costs for the 1st 3 turns. In RRT, breaking even (or showing a profit) is very possible by turn 2.
In summary, RRT cleans up the game mechanics without sacrificing playability. If given a choice between the two, I would never play AS again.
We have played the game 5 times so far and every time the winner was the player that built his RR in the Northeast. Those that started in Chicago, the Southeast or the South were not competitive. Every other item in the game is excellent. It flows well (no long waits between turns). The mechanics are simple. The components are first class and the board is huge.
I have two complaints: 1) Too heavily weighted towards the NE (I suppose that is realistic) and 2) There are not any "Y" tiles and it is easy to get locked out of cites, especially in the NE (this is realistic also). However, what I an tell you at this point, the winner will be the player that gets the upper-hand in the NE. The rest of the board is almost irrelevant.
I want to give this game 4 stars because it is fun and beautiful, but the problem with the NE dominance keeps it at 3.5 stars.