ConTrack: Switzerland & Austria
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This is an expansion kit for the two Trainsport games, Trainsport: Austria and Trainsport: Switzerland. The former was reviewed by Mike Siggins in Sumo 33; the latter, which is exactly the same game but on a different map, was released last Summer. I picked up a copy at Essen. The Sumo review was one of those "Quite good, but" affairs, with the reservations prompted by a feeling that we had already got a good game of this sort in [page scan/se=0529/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Railway Rivals, did we need another, and reinforced by irritation caused by Mike's copy having a mysteriously rogue set of crayons. However, my group enjoys this type of game, so I bought it anyway and was pleased with the purchase. It is true that RR deserves the Hall of Fame spot, because it had the idea first and made an excellent job of putting it into game form. But Trainsport is not an inferior game. What it is is a different approach that is ideally suited to the scale and terrain to which it has been applied. RR calls for a British type of landscape: lots of towns, hills and rivers and a scale that enables you to get a good feel for the problems that the terrain creates. What it doesn't want is large, almost uninhabited tracts and serious mountains. For that you need a broader brush and that is what Trainsport, with its area-by-area development, has.
When the game was first released, there was talk of a third game in the series, one set in Britain, but from talking to Thomas at Essen I gather that that has been abandoned, wisely I think. The system needs areas of Alp-sized mountains and, unless they have been doing some major redevelopment in England since I last set foot in the place, we don't have them. So what we have been given instead is a different game to be played on the two existing maps. ConTrack is not a stand-alone game and for that reason is labelled an expansion set, but it is an expansion set of the type that the El Grande designers gave us with Knig und Intrigant. So we have the same board, and in this case the same building rules, but the cards that provide the engine at the heart of the system have been changed so as to leave us with a different game, calling for different strategies.
In the original there was a deck of cards, each specifying a route such as Graz-Vienna or Salzburg-Italy, and a number of them were exposed at any one time. If a player was in a position to run the route, they could claim the card and there were rules to deal with competing claims and to make life harder for players who had their eyes on more than one route in any one tom. Then, when a card was claimed and the payment for it made, a replacement was dealt. In the new game each player is dealt five cards at the start and each specifies five such routes. On your turn you build track (which in this game is a matter of establishing a presence in a region, rather than drawing the usual wiggly line), cash in one of your cards (optional) and buy a new card (also optional). The interest comes partly from the competitive track building and partly from what happens when you cash in a card. You are paid for as many of the five routes as you can run simultaneously and that last word is important. As in the Trainsport games, there is a rule that says that if a player runs more than one route, they must be disjoint, except for possible crossings at cities. This makes for some fine exercising of judgement: when to settle for what you have already got and when to keep building in the hope of squeezing a bit more revenue from the card. At the beginning it is not too difficult: you choose the most promising looking of your five cards and build for it until your initial capital runs out, at which point you clearly have to cash. This will sketch out a large piece of your network. Thereafter it gets harder as you have to extend it efficiently while trying to turn over the cash faster than your opponents and dealing with the fact that their lines are getting in your way. The result is interesting and fun and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who has and who enjoys either of the parent games.