Poor Engine, Engine No. 9. The nursery rhyme mentions the possibility of the train going off the track only because it must have been a common occurrence for this particular locomotive.
Which, if Mother Goose was playing the game in this review, might explain the unfortunate train’s being memorialized in this way.
How It Works
Engine, Engine No. 9 is a roll-and-move children’s strategy game for two to four players. Players are conductors trying to get all three of their trains into the depot first. The player who accomplishes this wins.
To begin, place the board in the center of the table. Each player takes all the trains of one color. The three colored track tiles are oriented in either direction and placed in their starting spot. Play begins.
On a turn, players will roll the three dice: one colored and two numbered. The colored die determines which track will move this turn into the empty slot on the board. The numbered dice represent the value that one of the player’s trains must move this turn.
Trains start at one of the three start spaces and will cross over the colored tracks on their way around the board, which might reroute trains or move them (if a train ends its movement on the colored track tile itself). If a train bumps into another train, the second train moves the remaining spaces on the roll. If the train goes off the track, the player removes it from the board. (If playing the advanced version, the player receives a repair token, which may be used on a future turn to determine which of the colored track tiles moves that turn.)
If a player rolls doubles, the player may take an immediate second turn but they must move the same train they moved for the first move. (There is thus an element of risk here.)
Once a train reaches the finish spot, that train is placed on the depot and may no longer be moved. The game ends once one player reaches the depot with all three of their trains. That player wins.
Will You Want Your Money Back?
I love it when games for children offer good decisions that keep adults engaged throughout. Alas! Engine, Engine No. 9 isn’t one of these games. I won’t be bringing it out with adults, and I’m selective in which children I’ll play it with. But it does have a place in my collection for now because it fills one particular niche better than any other game I have: games for children that offer immediate feedback on strategic choices.
Engine, Engine No. 9 is a roll-and-move game, a mechanism that has (rightfully) fallen out of favor in hobby games circles. However, it most of the time does more with this mechanism than simply forcing players to be at the mercy of their roll. Each turn, players choose which of their three trains to move.
And this is the main point of strategic thinking in the game. When one of my kids impulsively tries to move the train that’s farthest ahead, we can stop and examine whether this is a good choice. “Count out the spaces–do you really want to move this one?” I’ll ask when it’s clear to an adult that the train will go off the rails. This slows the game down, but it provides one of the redeeming qualities for the whole affair: kids can understand for themselves (with a little coaching) the outcomes of their strategic choices, and they can do this in the moment. (There are non-immediate strategic outcomes in the game, too, but these are harder to discuss when they happen two or three turns later.)
There are other nice parts about the game, but this immediate feedback is the main standout in what is, otherwise, a game I don’t much enjoy playing. And you might say, “Well, that’s because you’re an adult, and this is a kid’s game.” That’s a true statement, but even beyond this, the kids I’ve played this with, if they reflected on their experience beyond the theme, would realize they don’t enjoy it much either.
It is one of the key tensions in the game that as the game goes on and more of your trains reach the depot, you have fewer strategic options. This in itself isn’t bad: many of the best games limit your options as you become more powerful. (This is the core tension of one of my favorite games, Dominion: as you score more points, your deck becomes worse and worse, clogged with useless cards.) The difference in Engine, Engine No. 9 is that by the end of the game, players lose all* agency: once two trains are in the depot, the player is completely* at the mercy of the roll. And the result is sometimes mercifully short, but in most games I’ve played, nigh interminable. The tracks keep moving around, players jump the track and have to start all over, and while the kids are more visibly frustrated than I am, we’re probably all feeling the same on the inside: I want this game to end.
*This is why I would advocate playing with the advanced rules every game. They are, indeed, slightly more advanced, and you may need to coax your children to remember the option to use their repair tokens, but these generally shorten the game, make it more strategic, and give an immediate consolation prize when your child’s train jumps the track. AGAIN. That being said, these don’t completely remove the futility of that final train’s trip to the depot, but they can help speed it up.
Now, I said the main selling point of Engine, Engine No. 9 is its immediate feedback on strategic decisions, but that’s the main selling point for me. For my kids, it’s the components. The components for this game, especially when you consider its $20 undiscounted price tag, are very good–good enough that they can trick my kids into forgetting their frustrating experiences at the table and making them want to play again. The game comes with a large game board, chunky plastic trains, and thick tiles for repair tokens and moving tracks. The tracks mostly fit their slots on the board (although some better than others), and moving these around is a delight to children. It’s also worth mentioning the boast on the box that the game includes five rules or less. This is true and a huge boon for teaching. (I imagine the advanced game is only the advanced game because including the repair tokens would have introduced a pesky sixth rule, a bane to marketers.)
I’ve played this game with my four- and six-year-old kids and their seven- and nine-year-old cousins. How well it went is almost a direct correlation to their ages. Some quick counting skills are necessary for the game, so unless I’m feeling very patient, I usually play this one as a two-player game with my six-year-old. I tried a four-player game, and I don’t think I have it in me to do that again. (The frustration of four players, all at the mercy of die rolls and moving tracks, trying to land that final train in the depot…let’s just say that it ended as a two-player game.)
If it sounds like I’m ambivalent about Engine, Engine No. 9, I am. The components are great and I love about 60% of this game for children because it gives them immediate feedback on their decisions, but I don’t like how it devolves into chaos and frustration for the last leg of the game. That being said, my train-loving six-year-old really enjoys the game and requests it often, and even if I won’t play it with his three- and four-year-old siblings, they’re generally content to sit at the table and play with the chunky trains of unused colors as toys. This wouldn’t be my first choice of game to play with my children (it wouldn’t even be my first choice of train game to play with them), but when they choose what they want to play, this is at the top of their list, and that definitely counts for something.