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Those of you who think that I am dangerously close to being train obsessed haven't met Paul Heald, a man who once bought a pencil sharpener for no reason other than that it was shaped like a steam engine and who, at Essen last year, was to be seen looking longingly at the toy train that had been set up for toddlers in the entrance hall, clearly wishing that he was still young enough to have a go. He is also a good man for discovering games and on the opening day of the Fair he came dashing up excitedly to announce "I have found a train game. It is in Dutch, but it's quite simple." So off we all went and, having ascertained that the rules were also in German, handed over our money. Since then the game has been sitting in the "not yet tried; translate some time" pile. Recently, after a bit of prompting from Winsome's John Bohrer and Dave Metheny, editor of the Rail Gamer, I stirred myself and got to work with the dictionary. When I'd finished, I wasn't too impressed, because it read as though it was going to be one of those games where all the decisions you would be called upon to make would be obvious and where it would be largely a matter of sitting around politely while the game played itself and then told you who'd won. Fortunately, that wasn't the way it turned out. It doesn't quite make it as a great game, but it is an interesting one and we enjoyed it. So our thanks to Paul for making the discovery.
The board shows a map of the Netherlands, with the principal towns and cities marked and the rail network already in place, for this is a game, not about building lines, but about controlling stations. What is more, for the most part, control of a station is a temporary thing and so the game is a matter of moving in, taking a few turns profit and then moving on.
Each player begins the game with a set of numbered control markers, a 'central station' marker and what [page scan/se=0428/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]18xx players would recognise as a 4-train. The other main piece of game equipment is a collection of passenger markers in five colours, with each colour corresponding to a region of the board. These passenger markers also each show the name of a town and a number in the range 1 to 3, with the higher numbers going with the bigger cities. In the set-up phase four passenger markers of each colour are placed in their appropriate cities and then the players place their numbered markers on to the board, with no more than one marker being allowed in each town or city. The central station markers are not placed at this stage.
On your turn you take the control marker whose number is the current one. This is one in round one, then two and so on, cycling round when you get to the end. You then place it in a city that doesn't contain a marker and which isn't the one your marker came from. Next you run a route through the city where you have just placed the marker, with the length of the route being equal to the power of your train. Any passengers along this route earn you money. Money also goes to the owners of any station marker along the route.
You next have the opportunity to invest your money. This can be in more powerful trains, a local bus company or in a central station. The main advantage of a central station is that it generates extra money when a route passes through it, but it also has a strategic value, because a central station, once in place, is exempt from the "must move" rule that affects the others. Finally, as a last act in your turn, you place some more passenger markers, one of each colour.
The richest player at the end of the game wins. Investments don't count towards your total, only cash in hand.
The reason why I thought that this wasn't going to work very well is that I feared that most of the time there would be an obvious optimal place to put your marker each turn, everyone would do the obvious and the difference between victory and defeat would then be down to who got lucky with the placement of the passenger markers. It didn't turn out like that because of two good pieces of design. The first is that income comes from stations along the route and not just from passengers picked up. This means that it makes sense to keep your markers reasonably close together so that the extra markers that you are running through are more likely to be yours. Having them clustered near a well sited central station is also a good idea, because then the extra income that it generates can be claimed as often as possible. The second is the regionalisation of the passengers. By ensuring that the new arrivals each turn are spread round the board, you cut out the luck that would otherwise go with the inevitable and unforecastable clustering and you give players enough foreknowledge of where the demand is likely to be to make sensible planning possible. You also neatly simulate the drop in profits that comes when an area has too many companies competing for not enough business. The geography of the Netherlands is also a factor that works in the game's favour, because balancing the benefits that go with setting up a tidy provincial operation is the fact that there is a definite golden triangle of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht and these big cities attract a lot of passengers, meaning that it is not an area you want to give other players a free run at.
The components are quite good once when you make allowances for the fact that this is not from one of the major companies. The map is mounted and comes in eight A4-sized pieces that fit together jigsaw style, the passenger counters are thick cardboard and the station markers are round wooden discs of the sort you are familiar with from German companies. The play money and train cards are decent quality and the game comes in a strong cardboard box. The rules have one or two gaps where the designer has forgotten to mention something, but there is nothing of importance that you can't fill in for yourself.