The Journey is the Destination: A Review of Wunderland

By Jeffrey D. Allers
Publisher: Pegasus Spiele GmbH www.pegasus-spiele.de
Designer: Dirk Hillebrecht
Illustrations: Jarek Nocon
Graphic Designer: Jarek Nocon, Hans-Georg Schneider
Players: 2-4, ages 8 and up
Playing Time: 45 Minutes
Rules Language: English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Polish
Game Language: Language Neutral
Game Played: gift from the publisher
Games Played: two times with 3 players, once with 4 players.

Model railroads have fascinated me ever since I was a child. The opportunity to see an entire world from a bird’s eye view is irresistible when one is barely tall enough to see over the edge of the table.  In a miniature world, children are the giants.

Furthermore these worlds are alive with activity. While adults marvel at the attention to detail in each track-side scene, children follow the movements of the trains as they weave through the model towns and landscapes.  The anticipation builds with each switch and tunnel:  where will they move next?  From which tunnel will the next train emerge?

Like many children, I still remember the Christmas when I was given an oval track and my first electric train.  It was probably as much a gift for my father as for me, and we spent many years expanding the layout together, building bridge trestles and sculpting plaster mountains together.  The project was never finished, but that wasn’t the point. Building model railroads—just like the circular routes of the trains themselves—is about the journey, not the destination.

Some of the most prestigious model railroad manufacturers are based in Germany. It’s no wonder, then, that the largest digital model railroad layout in the world open to the public was built in Hamburg. Even before my sons were born, we made it a point to see it while my parents were visiting.  The Miniatur Wunderland is indeed breathtaking.  Not only does it cover almost two entire warehouse floors in the old harbor’s Speicherstadt, there are also scenes from many different countries around the world represented.  Large ships traverse a sea with real water, cars and buses move on unseen tracks under roads—and even blink their turn signals at intersections—and the “sun” sets every 20 minutes so that the lights in the cities—especially in Las Vegas—can shine and flicker.  It is also the most interactive layout I have ever visited, and children of all ages can activate dynamic scenes by pressing various buttons.

The Designer Diary that Never Was

Now that boardgaming is my main hobby, it probably comes as no surprise that I enjoy train games.  I am always open to learning new takes on the genre, and I personally own a wide variety ranging from Eurorails to Steam to Ticket to Ride.  But I have yet to see a game that captures the feel of a model railroad.

As a game designer, that was too much of a challenge to pass up.  I made my first prototypes of a model railroad train game back in 2006, and, just as I did with my model railroad when I was a kid, worked on it sporadically for the next several years.  Then in 2010 after having published several games with Pegasus Spiele, developer Andre Bronswijk asked me if I had any new family game prototypes to show him.  I told him about my model railroad game, and he was very enthusiastic.  After testing the game, he wrote back to tell me that he had been to the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg and had shown it to them, and they were interested in producing a game together with Pegasus. Excitedly, Andre and I set out to develop the game into something that would be tactical enough for gamers, yet accessible enough for the target audience, mainly visitors to the Miniatur Wunderland who were looking for a fun, interactive souvenir of their experience.

Over the next two years, I churned out several different versions, and many different developers provided their input along with Andre.  It became clear that the challenge of the project was mainly in trying to reach its diverse target group.  When the game was strategic enough for gamers, it was too long and complex for others, and when we streamlined it, the excitement was lost.

Finally, with the deadline approaching, and as I was considering an entirely different direction, Andre had to break the news to me that he had received another prototype that would work well for the game. It was not specifically a train game, but it was exactly what we were looking for: one with a central movement mechanism that was both simple to learn and tactical enough to hold the interest of gamers.

The Goal is Important, not the Winning

It was difficult news to hear after working so hard on a theme that meant so much to me, but after seeing the prototype, I had to agree with Andre that this was the best move for the game.

As is the case with playing a game, I worked on this design to “win” a publishing contract, but it was the goal that was important, whether or not the end result was a victory, and I have to offer my congratulations to designer Dirk Hillebrecht for creating a superior game.   And again, for me the journey was still worth the effort, whether or not the destination was what I had hoped it to be.

A Review of Wunderland

As a game designer, I usually avoid writing reviews of games because of my obvious biases.  In this case, however, I thought that the story of how this game came to be and how much I like the finished product, regardless of the author, makes this review unique.

As I mentioned, Wunderland is not really a model railroad game.  It is more of a travel game, much like 1998 German Game of the Year winner Elfenland.  One must visit specific locations in order to fill contracts or to collect postcards.

Wunderland_components

The large game board is, as one might expect, a map of the 8 different regions present in the Miniatur Wunderland layouts, which include places like Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the United States. Each region is color-coded and has several destinations that are joined by tracks, and each destination is represented by a photograph of a scene from that region. Each region—except for the starting one—also has a special space where one can acquire postcards from that region, and the postcards matching a region’s color are stacked up next to that space. These, too, depict different scenes from the actual model railroad, but all cards in a stack are equal in game terms.

Finally, around the edges of the board is a scoring track (literally, as it is graphically pictured with railroad ties and iron rails) and aides for the players to determine the postcard scoring at the end of the game.  Everything is laid out well graphically and fairly easy to read, although the location numbers—something vital to knowing where to go in order to fulfill contracts—are only oriented to one side of the board. This means that at least one player must be skilled at reading numbers upside down when trying to fulfill his or her contracts.

The small deck of 20 contract cards is shuffled, and each player is dealt a starting hand of 2 cards.  Each card depicts 2-4 locations that must be reached in order to fulfill the contract, along with a value of 15-25 points for doing so.  Whenever a card is completed, another is drawn to replace it, so that every player will always have 2 contract cards in hand.  The exception is when a player has already completed 4 cards, as completing the fifth card immediately ends the game.

Each player chooses a color and receives a train engine in that color to place on the scoring track, along with 8 wooden discs to place on the common starting location.  Again, there are stickers included for the discs that depict actual miniature figures from the model railroad.

The goal of the game is to move these discs around the board in order to fulfill contracts and collect postcards.  During the game, the contracts score the value of their cards, and the postcards are tallied at the end of the game as follows: the region for which you have the most postcards scores 1 point per card, the next most awards 2 points per card, and so on, with a maximum of 4 postcards scoring for each of the 7 regions.

The movement of the wooden discs around the board is what separates this game from every other travel game I have played.  On a turn, a player simply chooses one or more of her discs from any one location and moves them one or two locations connected by the track. Then, in order around the table, every other player who has discs in the same starting location may travel with that player to the same destination.

This is a very simple but innovative mechanism that lifts Wunderland above the average promotional game.  It provides a high level of interactivity along with clever board positioning.  Simply moving to the destinations and postcards spaces is not enough—one must try to use the movements of opponents in order to travel more efficiently, while trying to avoid doing the same for them.  All players are engaged every turn, so that there is no downtime. Furthermore, there is tension in deciding how many discs to move with each opponent’s movement, and there is a need for flexibility in adjusting to their moves.

In addition to moving discs, the active player may also score contracts and postcards at any time during her turn. To score a contract, the player shows the card to the other players and then removes exactly one of his discs from each destination that matches those on his card.  For the postcards, he removes any number of his discs from one or more postcard spaces and takes one postcard per disc from the corresponding spaces. The removed discs are then placed back on the starting space and can be moved again.

The game ends immediately either when a player completes her last contract, or when a player shows that she has collected postcards from all 7 regions (the starting region does not have postcards).

The game is easy to teach, is highly interactive, and plays quickly. I can highly recommend it as a “gateway game” for those who do not play games often, as a family game, or as an enjoyable “filler” for hobby gamers.

I have only a small number of criticisms.  First, there is the aforementioned issue with the location numbers on the board, which will be upside-down to some players.

Second, the end-game scoring of the postcards seems at first a bit convoluted to casual game players, especially when compared to the simplicity of the rest of the game.  This is not a problem after the first game, and certainly not an issue for more experienced gamers.

Third, and probably most importantly, the game wants to be played with a full compliment of 4 players.  The 3-player game is acceptable, but I cannot imagine that it would be very exciting with only 2, as the central movement mechanism would be minimized, and that is where the fun is.

And finally, although the graphic presentation represents Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland well with photographs on the board, cards and player discs, it really is an abstract game at its heart, and does not necessarily capture the atmosphere of a model train moving over a changing landscape, in and out of tunnels and over railroad trestles.

Ultimately, however, it accomplishes what it sets out to do.  Wunderland incorporates the theme in a way that is accessible for its audience while providing a wunder-full new mechanism that will satisfy gamers who desire interesting tactical possibilities.  And the high level of interaction will assure that all players will enjoy the ride more than the final point tally.  The journey is, indeed, the destination.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

W. Eric Martin: I’ve played Wunderland a half-dozen times – all with the same two opponents on a review copy from Pegasus Spiele – and the design nails the middle ground that Jeff describes above: simple enough to learn for mainstream players, yet tactical enough to hold the interest of gamers. (My mom was one of the two opponents, and she’s as mainstream as they come. My brother is as much of a gamer as I am, and we both competed for the win in all of our games, with my mom doing okay and improving over time – although my brother and I improved as well.)

The semi-cooperative moving mechanism is a novel design element that brings spice to the otherwise familiar “go there, score that” gameplay, and while I grasped the semi-cooperative nature of token movement immediately – which wasn’t hard given that the rules spell it out for you in 24-point type – it was only when we started our second set of three games that I suddenly saw TransAmerica in the gameplay. Success in TransAmerica comes from letting others do the work for you, having them lay down railroad track across all parts of the United States before you drop by to extend an existing route from Seattle to Portland or from New York to Boston, thereby piggybacking on their work and effectively doubling or tripling the number of turns you take each round.

Wunderland complicates this piggybacking system by allowing players to move any number of tokens from a space each turn. I can move one token two spaces, for example, and if you have six tokens in the same starting location, you can bring all of them along. If I move six and you move one, then fine, you’re the remora coasting on my shark; if you move six with my one, however, I feel like I’m being taken advantage of, so I’m unlikely to move again, waiting for you to do the work as you’re unlikely to strand a six-pack on the road for too many turns – yet I also need to keep moving in order to complete contracts, and if I strand someone out of spite, I might hurt myself worse than you.

This similarity to TransAmerica might have escaped me in the first three games as two players ignored postcards almost completely, while I dabbled in the first game (collecting only two, I think), forewent them in the second game (as my brother won in the first game by racing to five contracts), then collected a decent number in game three (but still lost to a contract rush). It was only after I pushed for postcards in game four – and won handily thanks to those points and contracts completed on the way – that the TransAmerica gene became obvious. In the next two games, we all paid more attention to postcard opportunities, especially when a player moved from start to within range of a postcard space. In those cases, you could follow someone on her turn with a stack of tokens, grab postcards on your own turn, then carry on with “normal” contract-focused movement on the subsequent turn. Of course, you’d do this only if the option made sense. You don’t want to bring one token onto a postcard space if an opponent leeches two or more tokens onto the same move. It’s all about looking for that edge on other players; sure, you can collect two postcards as long as I get three.

With more plays, you’d probably start acquiring TransAmerica telepathy – that is, the ability to suss out where a player is going in the early game so that you can wait for him to do most of the work. Wunderland is more complex than TA in that regard as the contracts have 2-4 locations on them, and you’d likely need to memorize which locations go with which for optimum telepathy. That said, I am starting to get a feel for that after six games, which is yet another reason Wunderland seems to nail that middle ground. Gamers will care about tracking such things and deciphering where you might be going to next, while mainstream players will go with the flow. Sure, plenty of gamers will dismiss Wunderland as being too light, too open to chance in terms of who draws which contracts, too frivolous an activity with only superficial challenges. After all they said the same things about TransAmerica and that game is merely a Spiel des Jahres nominee with a decade-long record of continued sales. I expect similar results for Wunderland, especially with the Miniature Wunderland tie-in that’s reminiscent of the historical and cultural appeal of Thurn & Taxis to German gamers and families.

Update from WEM: I’ve now played Wunderland twice with two players and disagree with Jeff’s expectation that the game wouldn’t be tense with two as “the central movement mechanism would be minimized”.

As in TransAmerica with two, each move becomes critically important because you have no buffer between you and your sole opponent, no one to help you get to where you need to go. You need to read the other player as well as you can, try to figure out where he’s going (which is where the budding contract knowledge comes in handy), and pick up small margins where you can, such as by shortening moves when possible to keep your goals unclear and to prevent him from swooping in for low-effort postcards. You also care more about when to claim contracts and postcards as ideally you time those in order to return to the start space just before he heads out with tokens of his own. Yes, he might not be going the direction you want, but forcing him to play under the thought that he might be helping you can push him to play more cautiously – or even force a fumble in some cases, netting you free movement or points that you thought you’d have to claim on your own. Good stuff!

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it
I like it – Jeff Allers, W. Eric Martin
Neutral
Not for me

Advertisements

About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Journey is the Destination: A Review of Wunderland

  1. Dave Vander Ark says:

    This sounds like a really fun game. Will it be available in stores or only through the miniature train attraction in Hamburg?

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    It should be available through normal channels, as that is what Pegasus always intended. Curiously, Miniature Wunderland had not yet advertised the game in their email newsletter.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    Eric does a great job of describing the timing aspect of the movement mechanism. In my last game, I seemed to always get my pieces back to the starting space right after my opponents left! The timing of when to score so that one can get more free rides out of that starting space is critical!

  4. Jeff,
    many thanks for review! You should really try the game with 2 players. It feels different, but it works great! And of course, the Miniature Wunderland has advertised the game in their email newsletter, it was at February 18th! They offered 500 games with autographs by Gerrit & Frederik!

    • jeffinberlin says:

      Thanks, Andre. I don’t know how I missed that, as I am on their mailing list. There is no mention of it on their web page, however.
      Yes, I trust Eric’s comments that it plays better than expected with 2 players. I have a hunch I will still prefer it with more, however.
      I am still amazed the game was not at least on the recommended list from the SdJ jury.

Comments are closed.