There was a time when trains were the pinnacle of industrial ingenuity, and they weren’t subtle about it either. Roaring engines and shrieking whistles, calling cards of impending wealth and prosperity. Building a railroad network will certainly do good for the American economy, but that’s a secondary concern. What you really care about is your personal bank account. The train revolution is coming no matter what, and you’re in on the ground floor. If it weren’t for those other pesky investors, you’d be sitting pretty. So you do what you do best, wheel and deal. You make temporary alliances, promises, and grand plans, hopeful that they don’t crumble around you. But, hey, no risk, no glory, right? So hunker down and get ready to build some American Rails.
How it Plays
American Rails has all the trappings of a train game. You build tracks and connect cities. But at its heart it’s a game about investments and cold hard cash. By investing in and controlling various railroad companies, your goal is to have the most money at the end of the game. Play is fairly simple and straightforward. There are six different railroad companies in the game, and each allows you to buy shares in them. Buying shares puts money into the company treasury, which will be used by that company’s shareholders in order to expand its operations. The more cities a company can supply, the more it will be able to pay its shareholders.
Each game is played over a series of rounds divided into three phases. Each player will carry out a single action per phase and on your turn, you will choose from one of seven actions on the board. If an action has been claimed by a player earlier in the phase, you cannot take it. The actions are arranged on the board in columns. The top actions are generally less impactful than the bottom ones, but where you are on the column will dictate turn order for the following phases. Take one of the weaker actions, and your chances for going earlier in the phase next turn increase. Take a powerful bottom action and expect to go near last in the future.
The different actions include Passing which will ensure you go first in the next phase. You can also choose to Develop in which you upgrade one of the cities on the board and increase the income of any company in that city. The Fund action allows you to add $5 to any company’s treasury. If you want to be a little more direct, you can take $2 into your personal fund with the appropriately named Take $2 action.
The Expand action allows you to lay down tracks tracks of a company that you own at least one share in. When laying tracks, you must place them adjacent to previously laid tracks of that company. There is also a cost to laying tracks which varies based on the terrain in which they are being laid. Plains cost $2 per track, for example, while mountains cost $5 per track. If there are tracks from another company already present in a particular space, you must pay an additional $2 per other company track. It is critical to understand that the money used to pay for these tracks comes from the company’s treasury and not your own personal money. When you make a connection to another city that company’s income increase by the amount indicated on the city space.
The last type of action is Auction. By taking this action you initiate an auction for a share in a company of your choice. It’s a straightforward affair. Going around the table, players can either bid or pass. Once you’ve passed, you can no longer jump back into the auction. The winner pays their bid directly into the company’s treasury.
At the end of the third action phase comes the income phase. Money is doled out evenly to the shareholders based on the company’s income. If, for example, a company has an income of $10 and you and another player each have a single share in that company, you will both gain $5. There are a few ways to trigger the end of the game, at which point you will count all your money and hope you have the most.
Thrown Into the Deep End
The scant two pages of rules belie a deep and intriguing game experience. Whether you describe it as elegant or streamlined, the fact is that you can get a new player into the game in about 10 minutes. But simply understanding the rules is just the beginning of what there is to learn. An experienced player will generally do better than a first timer. There are no built-in catch up systems to help you out if you start falling behind. Early mistakes can be costly, and a poor early game will require particularly deft play in order salvage a win. And I’m OK with that.
American Rails is a game that you learn over the course of multiple plays. You’ll learn the fundamentals during the first game, but you’ll master it over many dozens of plays. I’m by no means a master, but I’m enjoying the journey. I liken it to learning a sport. It’s unreasonable to think you’ll win your first game of basketball against someone who’s been playing for years. It can be a little frustrating going up against seasoned veterans as a newbie, but hopefully your opponents have enough grace and tact to give you some pointers and advice. And if they don’t, why are you playing with them? The flip side is that when you finally do gain competence and win a game, you can be fully satisfied that the victory is yours and not because of some Mario Kart-like blue shell. It’s a trade off I’m more than willing to make.
This is all philosophical and applies to my preference in games in general, but let’s get into some specifics. To start the game, every player is given an allotment of money and an auction is held for each of the railroad companies. Knowing how much to bid right off the bat can be daunting. Keep in mind that the money you’re bidding is essentially victory points. Auctions are also the main way to infuse companies with the capital needed to expand and increase their incomes. So getting a share for the absolute cheapest price might not give the company enough funds to expand. Spend too much money and you won’t have enough to compete in future auctions. It’s a delicate balance to strike, and your feeling for what a good amount to bid will get better with experience.
But it doesn’t end there. Winning one of the beginning auctions entitles you to place the first track for that company in an empty city on the board. It’s a decent sized board with lots of options. Do you start operations on the coast near the major cities and where connections are relatively short? Doing so could be extremely lucrative, but it also makes that company more enticing to the other players. If they decide to buy shares in your company, they will split the company’s income with you. So maybe you should start in the west where connections are farther apart and you’re more likely to retain full control of a given company and keep all the income for yourself. But don’t forget that not all companies are created equally! Some of them have less track available to expand with, so make sure you don’t start off in a place that will hamstring its potential growth. It’s a lot to take in right off the bat and you might feel overwhelmed to start off, but stick with it. The thrill of winning a key auction or goading another player to overpay is spectacular and justifies the growing pains.
I’ve always maintained that the greatest asset to creating a good game experience isn’t any particular component but the actual players at the table. What separates a well designed game from a great one is its ability to facilitate interesting and meaningful interaction between players. Playing American Rails without concern for other players’ motivations and actions in mind is a surefire way to defeat. You see, having shares in a single company between multiple players incites a form of competitive cooperation. While it’s true that the income must now be split across multiple shareholders, it also creates a common goal: the wealth of that company. Now everyone invested in the company wants it to succeed and increase its profits. But players may not be invested equally. I may have 2 shares while you only have 1. We both want the company to make more money, but I’m more motivated to actually take the time to make it happen. You’ll be more than happy to reap the rewards of my hard work, I’m sure. So a tension arises. How are my actions helping me in relation to how much I’m helping everyone else? Delicate alliances can crumble when you get a little too greedy and buy up too much control of the company. Now no one is going to help you build out the network you need to get any kind of return. Now you’ll be actively muscled out of lucrative shipping routes. Now you’re on your own.
Just because there is some shared incentives doesn’t make American Rails any less cutthroat. There’s only one winner in the end, after all. Cutting people off in the mountains or initiating an auction just to mess with someone’s golden goose are fair game. The brilliance of American Rails comes in trying to leverage everyone’s short-term goals of increasing their companies’ income to accomplish your long-term goal of amassing the most money. Let’s say you own shares in two companies that happen to be near one another on the map. It just so happens that you’re not the only shareholder in those companies, and you have to deal with two other players. If those two players force the companies to start fighting over track spaces, it could be expensive and lead to less overall income. What you try to do is convince both players that it’s in their best interests to get along and take the easy, guaranteed routes. You tell them that there are no losers in this scenario, everybody wins. Especially you. It’s this social maneuvering that elevates American Rails above a simple route-building game. It’s the conversations and pleadings that leave memories. It’s lost auctions that will have you replaying the same game in your head over and over again. It’s the people that make it shine.
The Long Tail
Every game of American Rails begins exactly the same way. There are no die rolls or card draws or hidden information to muddy the waters. This might lead you to believe that each game plays out largely the same or that replayability suffers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The number of significant, player initiated variables in the game is just enough to create new game scenarios without being too much to take in. The simple decision of where to initially place a company’s track have have huge ramifications. Place that track in a lucrative position and auctions for that company will be hotly contested. Place it poorly and that company may have very little impact on the overall game. Small decisions like this ripple out and have long lasting ramifications. These small decisions add up to over the course of the game to create completely different game states. Every game is a unique beast created on by the cumulative decisions of the players.
Having a lot of variables that can affect the game in real ways can be a real danger. Have too many variables and you can obfuscate the impact of the moment to moment decisions. When there are too many things to keep track of it can feel like your decisions are made in the dark with little idea of how they will pay off. Too few variables coupled with no means of randomization can lead to obvious decision making. If you are able to take into account all the possibilities and permutations available to you and work out what the best move is. American Rails strikes a delicate balance. There are just enough variables to make it near impossible to play out everything in your head without being overwhelmed. You have to take into account a company’s income, treasury funds, and how many shares are available. You’ll have to take into account other player’s current income, what shares they have and their current turn order. And of course you always have to pay attention to the table talk that’s constantly going on. There’s enough to get a good understanding of how things will play out and how you can manipulate the game state to your benefit, but rarely is anything 100% certain. The essence of the game will be the same from play to play, but how it pans out will likely never be.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss American Rails as just a stodgy train game, but don’t be fooled. What lies beneath the surface is a lively and vibrant game experience. I’ve had more impassioned discussions over American Rails than I’ve had over most games with dozens of plastic miniatures. I’ve been disappointed, elated and confounded over the course of a single game. Real emotion stemmed from real interaction with other people! And it isn’t just some happy accident or a byproduct of my particular play group. It’s built into the fabric if its design. American Rails is a hidden gem. It is a lesser known game that didn’t get much of a retail presence and it’s a few years old, which means you will likely have to track down a used copy, but don’t let that stop you from tracking one down. At the time of this writing, you can get yourself a copy from the Board Game Geek marketplace for a decent price, though supply is limited. And when you do get your hands on it, rest assured that you now have possession of one of gamingdom’s finest offerings.