There’s something satisfying about holding a small box card game. Admittedly, that is partly due to their diminutive size making me feel like a giant. Sometimes though, it’s the joy of knowing there is a whole game jammed into a small pack of cards. A small box game can’t hide behind fancy miniatures or flashy packaging, its mechanics laid bare for all to see. Also trains. Who doesn’t love trains?
How it plays
Isle of trains, published by Dice Hate Me games, is number 5 in their Rabbit card game line. At its heart, it’s a game of resource collection and hand management for 2-4 players. Each player is a train operator, collecting freight, building train sections, and loading cargo in order to complete delivery contracts. It’s about the size of a deck of playing cards (50 cards, 6 contract cards) and takes around 15 minutes to play once you’ve gotten the rules down for a 2 player game.
Each player starts with a Level 1 Engine and 5 random cards from the deck. Cards are either train sections or buildings. Train sections help you complete contracts and buildings give you bonus points. Set up the six Contract cards in the middle of the table to form a geographical tableau of the titular Island. The remaining cards, made up of train pieces and buildings, are placed face down to form the draw pile.
On your turn you can carry out any combination of up to two of the following actions:
Draw a card– Take one card from the draw pile. It goes into your hand.
Build– Build a card (train or building) by discarding cards from your hand equal to the cost. You can also upgrade a train section to a better version of the same type by paying the difference in costs. Each train card has a weight modifier, and your combined weight can’t exceed your train Engine’s power. You may use a Build action to scrap a section of your train (excluding your Engine, silly).
Load a good– Each card has a symbol (or symbols) representing one or more of three goods types. You can use these cards to load those resources into the corresponding train car, either on your own train or another player’s. If you decide to give your opponent that resource, you get to carry out a special bonus action.
Deliver goods– If you have goods matching one of the available Contract cards, you can remove those goods to claim the Contract card. These are worth points, and also provide two secondary contracts for additional ways to score points.
At the end of your turn, discard down to your hand limit (5 as default) and then it’s the next player’s turn. If the draw pile runs out, replace it with the shuffled discard stack.
Once the fourth contract card has been claimed from the centre of the board, each player has one final turn. When you’re done, add up the points from your completed contracts, train sections and buildings, including any bonus points. Most points win!
I choo-choo-choose you
Trains are a well-worn theme in table top history and there are a lot of small card games out at the moment, so what is there to set Isle of Trains apart from the rest? Its efficiency. It’s a very short game packed with important decisions. If you’re playing it right, no action is superfluous and one missed opportunity could spell doom for your fledgling rail company. It has that same sense of rush and momentum that Race For The Galaxy does, where you can see your opponents just chug-chugging to the finish line while you desperately scramble to fill out one last contract. Like Race for the Galaxy it also relies heavily on iconography; however it is quick to learn and becomes second nature by the end of your first game.
The decision of whether or not to load an opponent’s train can be agonising. You desperately need the extra cards in order to build a badass tanker but you can’t decide whether it’s worth putting your opponent one step closer to claiming another contract, and possibly triggering the end game. There’s also the question of timing. You know you have enough resources in hand to end the game right here by completing the fourth contract card, but you might also be about to complete a big secondary delivery. Should you wait and get more points or end the game now and hope your opponent doesn’t get a last minute point windfall? And what about buildings? Is it worth burning your entire hand to pay for a card that gives you half a dozen points? It makes for some tense and often brain-burny choices, which is refreshing for a game of its length of play and lack of complexity. If you and your gaming partner are similarly skilled, like we are, it soon becomes a game of outguessing your opponent; figuring out when your actions will have the biggest payoff. If you play just right, you can plan the end game a couple of turns in advance, setting yourself up to complete that big contract with your final card, while your partner curses your name because they didn’t see it coming. At the same time, it doesn’t really matter if you lose because it’s so short you can just hop back aboard and play another game right away.
I think the theme here makes sense. You have a train. You improve the train. You can’t make the train too heavy or it won’t be able to move. The building and upgrading process is super light but still makes sense in the context. Even though it’s a much smaller game, it’s certainly less abstract than say Ticket To Ride in its overall trainishness.
The artwork is really fun and original, and certainly indicative of the style and ease of play. The cards are of a decent production quality, as you would hope for a game which is just a pack of cards. It’s also got a very sensibly sized small box, which isn’t to be sniffed at in today’s ludicrously-oversized-box market.
If we’ve got any complaints it’s that the size of the deck is just too limiting. We felt that a bit more variety and twice the number of cards would upgrade this game from *groan* economy to first class. The small deck also lends itself to often quite treacherous strategies, for instance you can cripple another player’s train power if you happen to draw and then load all of the available engine cards (this happened in one of our plays). This can leave them struggling to produce enough goods to claim contracts and get points. We don’t feel like there are enough cards to satisfy more than a 2 player game, without drastically changing its feel. For one, it makes essential upgrades far harder to draw from the deck as with a 4 player game there are already 24 cards drawn at the very start of a game. If we wanted to play this with four people, we’d probably want to buy two sets and mix them up, perhaps defeating the point of it being a small box game in the first place. But it’s so cheap and fun that it might just be worth it.
It’s also, inescapably, fairly lucky. You can’t build a specific upgrade unless you draw one of those cards. To some people that would be a real turn off. Not so much for us; sometimes we just want a quick card game with a light to medium strategy. Like Star Realms, without the pew pew pew.
In the end, it’s a game we really enjoyed as a 2 player game, and the strongest showing of this line we’ve played. The artwork is gorgeous and quirky, feeling like a 70s cartoon. The theme is fine and the game play is tight.
Overall, judging it a 2 player only game. It really… [Ed. note: wait for it] DELIVERS.