You know I’d have a Johnny Cash line for this review’s title. Used to, songs about trains held a certain prominence in American culture. Lyrics often celebrated and lionized the mighty iron steeds so critical in building and sustaining this continent-stretching nation. And not just in poetic refrains. The music often imitated the mournful moans of a steam whistle or the beats the rhythmic chugging of hanger and piston. From the ballad of Casey Jones, to the old country Wabash Cannonball, to the swinging Chattanooga Choo-Choo, to the folksy City of New Orleans, to the soulful Midnight Train to Georgia, and the rocking Last Train to Clarksville, innumerable songs across every genre have recognized the railroad’s central place in the American story. It just so happens there have been a fair number of popular games about it, too.
How it Plays
Spike lets you recreate one of the railroad’s crowning legacies: connecting the cities of our sprawling country with the steel arteries through which the lifeblood of commerce flowed. While such an endeavor is indeed sentimentally patriotic and nationalistic, let’s also keep things in perspective. You’re a robber baron and in it to make a little – or fabulously wealthy – profit.
Your steam empire begins rather humbly. You pick a city to start in and receive a number of random contracts and one route card. You’ll likely choose your headquarters based on those assignments. That’s because every city provides one good – so it behooves you to begin near supplies favorable for fulfilling your orders. And the more cities listed on your route card that you can connect, the more points you’ll earn.
While you might imagine your mighty company operating tens and dozens of churning locomotives screaming across the landscape, Spike abstracts that fleet to just one. This is represented by your personal train board comprised of an engine, a tender and one or more freight cars. These neatly fit together with little puzzle connectors acting like couplers. At first you can only move one rail space, draw two track cards and carry one good at a time. However, you can upgrade by replacing and/or adding engines and cars to travel farther, draw more track cards and haul extra cargo. In addition to displaying that information at a glance, you’ll also use your train board to haul freight by physically placing cargo tokens on empty flatbeds when picking them up in cities.
Your ultimate goal is to amass a vast fortune, as any self-respecting Vanderbilt, Durant or Gould would do. Hopefully you won’t be as ruthless about it, but since you can block your competitors, it’s certainly possible. You earn money by extending your rail line, delivering contract goods and connecting to as many cities as possible on your route card. Points from the first two tasks are accounted for on a track (see what they did there) running around the board. Money from route cards is added at the end.
Game play is straight-forward and after a few rounds everything should be humming along like a well-run time table. On your turn, you take one action. If your train pawn is in transit between cities, it gets one free move first. Then you must do one of the following: draw track cards, construct rail, set your train in motion, use a movement boost or upgrade one of your cars.
Track cards come in one of six suits designated by color and line. These correspond to colored lines on the game board running north-south, northeast-southwest or northwest-southeast. Two colors run each direction and they connect the various cities. These serve essentially as an outline or pattern upon which you can lay track. When building rail, you must play cards of the same color matching the line sections that your rail traverses. Or you may exchange multiples of one color as wild cards to build a number of rails up to one less than the set you turned in. So, if you turn in three orange, you can lay track over two other colored lines of your choice. When laying track, you may only build out from your existing connections, cannot cross another player’s established line except through a city if possible, and must make a complete connection to another city. When connecting, you will score for the local commodity. These prices fluctuate based on activity and are manipulated on a separate market chart.
If you’re still between towns after your free move, you can use the boost action to move one more space. If already at the depot and ready to move out, you can set your train in motion to move on down the line. Any time you leave town, you can pick up the commodity it provides as long as you have an empty freight car to haul it. If not, you can always dump cargo to make room for anything new. Likewise, any time you enter town you can deliver your cargo, as long as that city is listed on your commodity’s contract card. Just offload the token and collect the specified dollar amount. You’ll only deliver each type of commodity from your contracts one time during the game. Plus once you deliver any commodity to a city, you can no longer use that location to fulfill any of your other contracts.
Finally, you can also upgrade your engine or tender, or add freight cars. There are two levels of improvement or additions per train section. The first costs $3 and the second will set you back $5. Upgraded engines allow you to move further (1-3 rail spaces). Better tenders allow you to draw more track cards when choosing that action (2-4 cards). And adding freight cars increases your hauling capacity (1-3 cargo tokens).
Players alternate taking their one action every turn. Once the track cards deck is depleted, the discarded ones are shuffled for a new round. You’ll do the same thing for a third round, but this time inserting special time-keeping cards into the bottom half of the deck. As soon as all three are drawn the game ends. Alternately, if someone genuinely has nothing left to do, each other player gets one more turn and the game similarly concludes. Everyone then scores their route cards, adds that to their running results and the wealthiest robber baron is victorious. Hopefully having future schools and libraries named after you will assuage the guilt of the ruthless steps you took to secure victory. Or maybe you don’t have a conscience…
The Golden Spike?
On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines met at Promontory Summit in Utah, driving the last and golden spike to create the first transcontinental railroad. Ever since then, designers have sought to capture and recreate the influential industry’s significance in tabletop games. Okay, so maybe that part came a little later, but just as in music, trains have long proven a popular theme in the hobby. There are many great titles, to be sure. However, when dealing with building, developing, route connections, economics and stock trading there is always a tendency towards the complex, long and convoluted. Many gamers would prefer a more streamlined title that plays in about an hour and still captures the railroad’s pioneering spirit.
The most accessible train game in the universe is likely Ticket to Ride. However, that mega-popular gateway game is not tremendously thematic. Perhaps that’s even a major understatement. You do connect cities with track and there’s a dandy-looking conductor on the cover, but that’s about it. Spike uses a set-collecting element for route-building very similar to Ticket to Ride, and then adds pick-up and delivery and basic market mechanics. Plus you get to move a little train pawn around your railroad. You can make all the choo-choo sound effects you like, but it’s not really effective unless immediately proceeded by the chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga!
Essentially then, Spike is the “after gateway” design. After all, you don’t want to graduate from Santa’s mall train straight to the Shanghai Maglev. In between, the Disney Monorail or a nice gentle CTA commute around Chicago’s Loop might be a good next step.
Spike weaves a handful of elements to create an interesting tapestry that most gamers will appreciate and enjoy. At the same time, it keeps them basic enough so as not to overwhelm casual players, nor totally lose the thematic touches. The set collecting element in building track is immediately recognizable by almost anyone, and not just because of Ticket to Ride. It’s a standard mechanic to classic card games that many already know. It’s also intuitive. If you want to connect Austin and Dallas, a quick glance informs you that that requires either one orange and one blue track card, or a black and a green one. Failing that, you could turn in a set of three identical colors to build both sections, regardless.
The market is likewise streamlined. It’s not really predicated on “supply and demand” because this aspect isn’t related to the pick-up and deliver. It does change based on activity, affected more by who gets where first. The 12 tokens representing the game’s commodities are randomly assigned to a market of four columns with three rows. The top row is worth $3 while the next is $2 and the bottom priced at $1. When a player connects to a city and scores for its commodity, she earns the amount indicated by that good’s location in the market chart. If it’s in the first or second rows, she’ll then bump it down to the bottom of the column, which pushes any previous goods of lesser value up one apiece. This mechanic is very well implemented. Players have control over it, yet can never run amok with wild fluctuations. And the $2 total difference between lowest value and top dollar isn’t significant enough to derail your earnings if you happen to be just a touch late in reaching those pigs that you wanted for three bucks.
The design’s pick-up and deliver element is tightly contained in its scope, yet still creates interesting choices. Some may find it restrictive; others will consider it a puzzling challenge. Yes, you only have 3-6 contracts to fulfill, depending on the number of players, and one route card to meet. This gives casual and family gamers a nice concrete goal, rather than have to flail around and scribble on a blank slate. While seasoned gamers would prefer a bit more of a sandbox, they can still find solace in working out the most resourceful means to accomplish the task set before them. It can be tight and definitely requires planning, because goods are only located in certain places and you can only haul one at a time until upgrading.
Strategy comes in balancing the means to earn money through connecting cities, fulfilling contracts and ensuring you hit as many stops on your route card as possible. An efficient player will kill three birds with one railroad, so to speak. That’s easier thought of than achieved, though. Commodity and city locations aren’t just going to conveniently line up with your contracts and route card. Some players may be in a more favorable position than others with the random assignments. Still, one-track minds focused solely on a single integer of the equation will likely fall behind. You want as small a footprint as possible to get the most out of the least. However, always be prepared for diversions. Running a rail spur out to a dead-end city may look wasteful – but could actually be vital to pick up needed cargo or take advantage of a quick connection to a high value commodity.
Timing train upgrades – indeed even their necessity – is another essential part of strategy, balance and efficiency. The extra boosts are important, but you might be able to afford passing on one or more depending on the situation and player count. In many games with this type of “optional” development, they’re actually necessary in reality – if you want a reasonable chance to win. In Spike, optional improvements are exactly that: optional; without always proving detrimental should you opt to skip a couple. That’s a welcome factor since those upgrades are costly and scores are generally close.
Play moves along at a nice clip, although the one action per turn is a bit of a mixed bag. It does keep downtime at a minimum. However, since the game requires moderate planning, a little time to think would be appreciated. As it is you often find yourself thinking about your next move only to be interrupted by someone prodding you take it already! Each action is typically resolved that quickly, which actually leads to some counter-productive analysis paralysis. It’s mild and never in enough abundance to derail the game, but will disrupt the tempo now and then.
The level of interaction is also a compromising medium. It’s not direct at all. The way the contract cards are assigned assures that no two players compete for the same commodities. Not that it’d really make a tremendous difference, anyway, since supplies aren’t limited. It could lead players to try and cut opponents off from certain locations, but each goods type is supplied by three cities, so there are other options. I would prefer a little more aggressive race. Still, you can certainly make it difficult for another player in the manner which you construct your own track. The commodities market is another point of interaction and again, not terribly spiteful. Beating an opponent to a top value item is as best as it gets. That’s rewarding, but hardly trash-talk worthy. The real robber barons would laugh at such tactics. It’s certainly no Credit Mobilier.
With such muted interaction, 2-player games are fine, but feel more solitary than 3- and 4-player sessions. It’s easier to get boxed in or cut-off with more railroads sprawling across the land. Likewise, it’s easier to rig your routes to get in the way of others. More players also leads to frequent city connections which means greater market changes. It’s not chaotic, by any means, but requires a keener eye.
The components are up to R&R Games’ usual standards. The publisher leans towards clean, colorful, clear and commercial. The train pawns and track pieces will really draw attention as networks expand across the spacious board. They’re bright evidence of the collective progress everyone is making. Beware, they are fiddly and one little nudge while moving your locomotive pawn risks tearing up the trails faster than a Sherman Necktie. The other components worth mentioning are the personal train boards. I’m a huge fan of the K.I.S.S. philosophy. The train boards are simple, elegant, intuitive, thematic and effortlessly functional. Need to upgrade a car? Just swap that section’s board out for the next one. Want another flat bed? Hook it up to the back. The iconography clearly identifies at a glance how far you can move and how many track cards your can draw. And the placing of physical tokens to denote cargo hauls is inspired. It’s all pure genius, really.
Stephen Glenn’s design delivers I think what it intends to. The theme is solid enough that you feel like you’re operating a railroad. You lay track, develop your train, deliver goods and play with a basic economy. Every element is cursory enough, though, that it doesn’t bog you down into recreating the B&O. It’s not immersive or detailed, and it proves repetitive towards the end. But while those can be deficiencies, they also strengthen its accessibility. If your collection pines for that lonesome moan of the steel schooner, but you’re afraid of getting tied to the tracks with a long convoluted ride, Spike just may be your ticket to get aboard the genre.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank R&R Games for providing a review copy of Spike.