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Preview: Trick of the Rails

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You’re not just riding the train. You’re building them. Or at least, you’re investing in companies that build them.

Your interest is purely mercenary, but in that interest you will work to connect some railways to busy docks and send others to the boondocks. Some railways deserve a powerful locomotive presence. Others can get by with handcars, as far as you’re concerned.

Rail baroning is a tricky business, and you’re determined to play the game, as long as you come away with the most loot.

How It Works

Trick of the Rails is a trick-taking stocks game for three to five players. Players invest in rail lines, extend their reach, and place locomotives to increase their holdings. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

Trick of the Rails set up for three players.
Trick of the Rails set up for three players.

To begin, players place the five station cards in a column in the center of the table. Next, players form the “trick lane,” which shows the action associated with each trick and what the winner gets. Players receive a number of cards from the deck. The remaining cards in the deck are placed as starting track next to the stations in the center of the table. The player who was last aboard a train goes first.

For each trick, the leader will play a card. Each card has a “suit” matching one of the five rail companies. Each player in turn must follow the suit if able; otherwise, they must play a card of another suit. The highest card played in the suit led wins the trick and gets to perform the main action; the other players perform a secondary action with the cards they played.

There are five "suits" in the game, each representing a different rail company. The colors are clear, and the symbols should provide differentiation for colorblind players.
There are five “suits” in the game, each representing a different rail company. The colors are clear, and the symbols should provide differentiation for colorblind players.

Each trick falls into one of three types: a stock trick, a city trick, or a locomotive trick. In a stock trick, the winner discards the share played and gets the share from the trick lane. Each other player gets the card they played in the trick as a share. In a city trick, the winner places the city card on either end of a chosen rail. Then each player places the card they played for the trick at either end of the rail matching the card they played. And finally, in a locomotive trick, the winner places the locomotive next to any rail company that doesn’t yet have a locomotive. All players then place the cards they played to extend the rail matching those cards.

Once all tricks are completed, scores are tallied. Shares of each rail line are worth the score of the best line of cards matching the number of the locomotive, minus the cost of that locomotive. The player whose shares are worth the most points wins.

Note: The photos in this review are of prototype components for the new Terra Nova edition of the game.

I’m the Engineer, or On the Rails?

A trick-taking game that is also a stocks game is one of those puzzling premises that you have to see to believe.  And even seeing isn’t enough: it’s not enough to read the rules or even watch others play; you simply have to play the game yourself to know what in the world is going on in Trick of the Rails.

And let me tell you, Trick of the Rails is certainly worth playing.

A locomotive will ultimately determine how much of the line scores (and how much its overhead will cost).
A locomotive will ultimately determine how much of the line scores (and how much its overhead will cost).

There are some games I play or books I read that, once I finish, I think, Well, I could have designed/written that. Never mind that I’m the lazy consumer and not the active artist: I still feel somehow cheated. Trick of the Rails is in no danger of this criticism. Just as I doubt a million monkeys on a million typewriters could ever reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare, it’s hard for me to imagine a game like Trick of the Rails simply appearing, full-born, from the ether. It is novel enough that, even knowing its lineage in 18XX games, it’s hard to trace its provenance.

Of course, novelty isn’t everything. There has to be something substantial to hang a game on. And thankfully, Trick of the Rails provides a fascinating hand management puzzle for players.

Each company has its own start card and rail line, which is expanded throughout the game on city and locomotive tricks.
Each company has its own start card and rail line, which is expanded throughout the game on city and locomotive tricks.

Players have a limited number of cards, and at the end of the game, each player will have the same number of stocks. The fun of the game is in trying to differentiate stocks from other players. This is difficult to do because of the trick-taking constraint: in every stock trick, players have to follow suit. Only the winner of the trick exchanges the card played for the share in the trick lane; all other players get the card they played as stock. Effectively, if everyone is able to follow suit, only one player will have differentiated stock.

This gets more interesting as the game progresses. There’s a good bet everyone will be able to follow suit in the first trick of the game, and maybe even the third, but as players shed their cards, they are left with the suits they were dealt. What this means is that usually the suit a player has the most cards in, they will also have the most stock in. So they must plan accordingly.

Three cards. Only one will earn the green share.
Three cards. Only one will earn the green share.

Of course, this is a difficult decision too, because any card used for stock is a card that can’t be used to increase the value of a rail line. And stock is only worth anything if the rail line has enough points to pay for its locomotive. I love this because players are pulled in so many different directions, and they have a limited resource (the cards in their hand) to accomplish all of their goals. Their cards can become track to increase the value of a rail line and stock to get points at the end of the game, but before cards can become either of those, they have a suit and a number and must be played in tricks to determine who gets to do what.

The addition of trick-taking is just fascinating here because even if players make a plan for when to play their cards, they must follow suit when another player leads it. In one round, I had grand plans for my red. I had high-value cards, and I was planning to lay them as tracks to make my red stock valuable. Instead, another player kept leading red on stock tricks, so all of my red became stock and not tracks. At the end of the game I had a pile of worthless shares thanks to his savvy play. (Granted, this was also annoying, but I had to hand it to him: he played the round well.)

An example stock tableau at the end of the game.
An example stock tableau at the end of the game.

This also illustrates another interesting dynamic: players don’t necessarily want to win every trick. Winning a stock trick where you exchange a more worthwhile share for a less worthwhile one is a big bummer. Generally, winning a locomotive or city trick is desirable, but in placing these, you can definitely make enemies, and sometimes the lower rank cards in a suit are worth more when played on a line. The game is really more about managing cards well than about winning trick to trick.

Trick of the Rails reminds me a lot of Carl Chudyk’s games. I’ve already used the descriptor “mind-bending,” but that’s the best way I can describe it: there’s a somewhat obtuse system that is ridiculously clever that all players are simultaneously trying to exploit. Trick of the Rails has simpler rules than most Chudyk games, and the cardplay feels cleaner–there are no special powers–so I think this is easier to get into. But how you feel about Carl Chudyk’s games might be a good barometer for how you’ll feel about Trick of the Rails. That is to say, it won’t be for everyone.

The city and locomotive cards. These are prizes for some of the tricks. City cards are wild track cards, and locomotives ultimately determine how much each rail line is worth.
The city and locomotive cards. These are prizes for some of the tricks. City cards are wild track cards, and locomotives ultimately determine how much each rail line is worth.

There’s one thing players might be less keen on in Trick of the Rails. For a game as thinky as this one is, the game can depend on luck. Players don’t necessarily want to win every trick, but there are some tricks in each game that seem crucial to winning, and if you don’t have high numbers, or if you have suits that no one else has, you will be stuck almost playing a side game while other players determine the action. In most other trick-taking games, players usually have an overarching strategy for the hand, and even if this strategy is frustrated trick to trick, it usually doesn’t derail the hand entirely. In Trick of the Rails, not winning tricks can ruin the plans you were hoping for. Someone might stick the “wrong” locomotive on the company you have the most stock in, or they might significantly boost the value of a company you are completely cut out of.

Now, it’s not impossible, even in this situation, to find your own niche (and possibly win), but it is a lot more difficult, especially if another player ruins the profit prospects of a company you own stock in. I have occasionally felt utterly at the mercy of other players. While this situation would usually frustrate me, it didn’t bother me as much here because part of the fun of the game is trying to steer the game even when you’re not winning tricks (as is the case in most trick-taking games). And the game is short enough that even if you feel the game treated you poorly, you can just deal another hand. In fact, I’ve seen some people suggest that players play three hands and total the score to determine the winner. If you’re concerned about the swings of luck from game to game, this is a great solution. A game takes 15-30m (closer to 15m once you know what you’re doing), so you can likely still finish your three rounds in a lunch hour. The game supports three to five players, and there is more control in the game the fewer players are at the table. I’ve played with three and four players, and I wouldn’t refuse the game at either count. (Some have suggested a partnership variant for four players, which might further reduce luck.)

The card backs in Trick of the Rails. It's easy to separate the start cards used in each game.
The card backs in Trick of the Rails. It’s easy to separate the start cards used in each game.

The look of Terra Nova’s new edition of the game is minimalist, but I like it. There’s enough to take in with the game’s rules that I’m grateful for a simple, clean, functional look. I can’t comment on Terra Nova’s update to the rules for Trick of the Rails as I was provided with the original Japon Brand rulebook. The game was hard to learn from this sheet, but I suspect it’s because the game is just a little hard to understand anyway. I had to read the rulebook a few times and look hard at the cards to puzzle out what the game is supposed to be just because this game is so novel. When I taught the game for the first time, the other players had confused expressions on their faces the whole way through the explanation. A few tricks in, though, they understood more or less what they were doing–or at least how the game operated on a surface level. But even now, with several games under our belts, we’re still figuring out what we should be doing.

The blue company in all of its glory (or at least potential).
The blue company in all of its glory (or at least potential).

And that is how I want it to be. Trick of the Rails is not a shallow experience. Each game is a satisfying hand management puzzle, but it’s not for the faint of heart. While the rules are simple (in that there aren’t many of them), they are not straightforward, and the game’s strategy is complicated enough that even with a firm grasp of the rules, your decisions aren’t any easier. Players are pulled in several directions, and the best course isn’t often clear. (This is a good thing: gameplay is dynamic enough to make it interesting play after play.) There is some luck of the draw involved, but in most aspects, players are captains of their own fate. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more grueling, yet fiercely enjoyable, way to pass twenty minutes. This is one train I recommend boarding–and fast.

The English edition of Trick of the Rails is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter through Terra Nova Games.

 

This article is a paid promotion.

I’ll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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