Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Russian Railroads

Russian Railroads

Russian Railroads Box

Russian Railroads Box

  • Publisher: Z-Man Games
  • Designers: Helmut Ohley and Leonhard Orgler
  • Illustration & Graphic Design: Martin Hoffmann and Claus Stephan
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 13+
  • Playing Time: 120 min.
  • Languages: English
  • MSRP $59.99
  • Reviewed by: Mary Dimercurio Prasad
  • Game Played: Review Copy
  • Number of Plays: 1 – 4 player, 1 – 2 player


The players embody railroad moguls who have been commissioned to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as two additional railroads. In addition to track construction, the players will purchase new locomotives, promote industrialization, and hire workers and engineers. All this is done in the lofty pursuit of acquiring the most victory points – the truest measurement of a player’s rail building skills. (From the rule book.)


Russian Railroads is a worker placement game with a lot of options for scoring. The game is fairly straightforward, although the 24-page rulebook may be a little daunting. But don’t despair, there are a lot of photos and the type is pretty big. Stick with it – the game is worth learning! There are 7 rounds in a 4-player game and 6 rounds in a 2 or 3-player game. These are clearly indicated by the engineer spaces on the game board. One engineer will be available each round for purchase. An engineer gives its owner an additional space (and associated action) for his workers alone; it is unavailable to other players. At the end of each round the engineers slide down one space, making a new engineer available for the next round. The newly exposed space shows the current round number at a glance. Scoring will occur at the end of each round.

There are two boards with which each player will be interacting, the main game board and their own personal player board, which are all the same, except in color. Each player will receive a starting locomotive (number 1), 3 black tracks (these start on first space of each of the three railroads on the player’s board), 5 workers (in the player’s color – 2 others remain in supply but may be obtained during the game), 1 rouble (money), an industry marker (starts on the first space of the industry track on the player’s board), 7 “?” tokens and their associated markers/tokens, and two pawns in the player’s color (one for scoring, the other for turn order). Players will each receive a turn order card as well, based on their position for turn order on the main board. To help even out the starting turn order advantages, each player EXCEPT the first player will receive an immediate use bonus card at the beginning of the game. These are selected in reverse turn order. Each round, players take turns placing workers and taking actions until all players pass.

Visuel_RRR_goodEach player’s board has three railroad tracks and one industry track, each of which earns victory points in various ways. This is what I like about the game – there are many ways to score points! This may seem a bit overwhelming in your first game but I think it will make repeated play of the game more interesting. I will not go into all the ways to score but just give you a taste here. The basic track scoring is done by moving colored pieces along the tracks. Players must do this in a specific way – black must be first, followed by gray, then brown, natural, and white respectively. These track pieces are moved in order, thus the black piece must be moved along the track before the gray can be moved. These represent upgraded track extensions. If a specific colored piece moves to a space with the same color pictured on the space, the player will get some type of reward. For example, if a player moves his black track onto the 2nd space on the first track, 3 gray track pieces are made available to him, although they start off the board; there is a picture of a black track in the space and a picture of 3 gray tracks below the space as a reminder. Note: each space is numbered sequentially so you always know what spaces your pieces are in.

Some spaces have an icon of a train in them as well. This means your locomotive must reach that space in addition to the track of the pictured color on the space, in order to reap its benefits. The locomotives are each numbered. Two locomotives can be associated with the first track (and are added together for how far they go) but the other two tracks only have space for one each. In addition, tracks score points for all pieces depending on how far along each piece is on the track and how far the locomotive will go. Each piece is progressively more valuable, i.e. initially black=0 points, gray=1, brown=2, natural=4, white=7, but this can change if you use one of the “?” tokens making brown=3, natural=6, and white=10. The first track also has 8 spaces above it for doubler tiles so whatever points are scored by the track in the associated space will double. Each space will only score one color – think of the track pieces as markers for upgrades to those spaces. The latest upgrade is the current color of that segment of track and will score accordingly. The colored track piece itself is just a marker of how far along the track it has been upgraded.

The third track allows players to score each round for how far the black track/locomotive combination reaches (normally black tracks are worth 0). The points are denoted below the spaces (e.g. the first space adds 1 per turn, the second space adds 2 per turn; if a black track/loco goes to the 2nd space, the player will score 3 points that round for those two spaces). A “?” token may allow a player to score for the gray track/loco combo on the 5th space – a whopping 20 points per round. “?” tokens are gained by moving black tracks/locomotives to the spaces denoting a “?”: one is available on the first track and two on the 2nd track. There is also an opportunity to gain one on the industry track. Once players have moved to those respective spaces, they may choose which “?” token to place and immediately use it. There are 7 choices, each with a distinct advantage. For example, one allows a player to choose a “?” card (another one time bonus) PLUS an end game bonus card (highly recommended!), another allows a player to advance 5 spaces on the industry track. All train tracks give a one-time 10-point bonus for reaching the last space with the black piece.

The industry track is different from the train tracks. Factories are required to fill in several spots of the path otherwise the track marker may get stagnated. When a player acquires a factory, he fills in the next available spot along the industry track. Each factory has a bonus associated with it.

Main Game Board

Main Game Board

The main board itself is where players place their workers and perform actions (with the exception of personal engineers). Spaces may require one, two, or three workers and/or roubles. Two spaces require roubles (may not be substituted by workers), but roubles may be used in place of workers during the game. Actions include: moving certain colored track pieces one to three spaces, turn order change, acquiring the next available locomotive and/or factory, moving the industry marker, gaining roubles, gaining doubler tiles, gaining additional workers, gaining an engineer (one available per round), etc. Generally the more workers a space requires, the better the action.

In addition to normal scoring, end of game bonus scoring occurs after the last round. This includes end game bonus cards and majority of engineers. After 6 or 7 rounds, depending on the number of players, the winner is the player with the most points.

Note: for complete rules visit the Z-Man Website for Russian Railroads and scroll down to the rules download.


I love worker placement games; this has fast become one of my favorites. I’ve played twice so far and enjoyed both games very much. The 4-player game took a lot longer but it was also the first time three of us had played. The game is good with 2 players but I think the sweet spot for me will be 3, although if people keep it moving, I wouldn’t mind playing with the max. The game is very engaging with a multitude of choices for workers. This is a game I’m excited to play again and again to try different strategies.

The boards are well laid out with lots of cues and excellent iconography. The rules are clearly written with many examples and full color pictures. The theme is slightly pasted on but it works. The first time I heard the name of the game, I was thinking train game, pick-up-and-delivery, but this is a strictly worker-placement/action strategy game. The wooden pieces, tokens, and boards are high quality. The artwork is clean without being distracting.

Russian Railroads is one of my favorite games of 2013, and possibly a top-ten game for me.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Lorna: Russian Railroads is a solid worker placement game. It feels very smooth and polished. It all flows together quite nicely. It doesn’t rate higher for me because I didn’t feel like there was anything terribly innovative in the game. The personalized actions you get with the engineers is nice, but that’s about it.

Ben McJunkin (1 play): I enjoyed my one play of Russian Railroads, but I feel no desire to revisit the game.  It is a rather typical worker placement game, in which players can take any one of a handful of actions that translate (relatively directly) to victory points.  The substance of the game was too abstracted for my tastes, as the majority of actions just moved your tokens along one of several tracks which provide increasing amounts of points at further distances.  The sheer number of available points in the game was also a little dizzying, with the winners finishing near 400 points and the losers close to or surpassing 300 points.  I much prefer games that provide players with few goals and more constrained options for reaching them.

Jonathan Degann (1 play): I agree with Ben that a problem with the game is its rather abstract nature.  Basically, it is all about moving markers ahead in order to score increasing quantities of points each turn.  Those markers have various constraints and multipliers, so you manage those.  Nonetheless, there were lots of nice puzzly things to work out.  You say you want to focus on the third rail line, but you can only advance so far unless you also invest in the first line – how do you balance those issues?  I was also concerned that there was a lack of instability in the game which could cause future games to suffer from some sameness.

Larry (2 plays, both with the prototype):  Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to play with the published version yet, but I really loved the two games I played with last April’s prototype.  I felt there were a ton of options, many strategic paths to follow, and a good deal of variety in the different kinds of things you could attempt.  To me, the innovation in the game is the way in which you score with the different colored tracks.  I agree it’s only vaguely train-like, but it does have a certain internal logic to it and it feels quite different than anything else I’ve ever played.  That more than makes up for the standard worker placement mechanics (which are still somewhat innovative, since routinely requiring multiple workers for a single action isn’t at all typical).  Obviously, I won’t be sure of my rating until I get to play the final version, but projecting my feelings from the prototype, this is my second favorite of the Essen games, behind only Patchistory (although Nations could conceivably pass it).  Even with more Essen games to try out, Russian Railroads figures to be one of my top games of 2013.

Tom Rosen (1 play):  Russian Railroads is definitely “not for me.”  I expect this game to be adored by many and to shoot up the BGG rankings for the same reason that I didn’t like it.  It’s very reminiscent of many recent Stefan Feld designs that seem to be widely adored, like Bora Bora, Castles of Burgundy, and Trajan.  I like the older and less convoluted Feld games, like Notre Dame, but this recent trend of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink designing does not work for me.  Russian Railroads is that school of design.  It is a classic “point salad” where you can get loads of points for doing all sorts of disconnected things.  You and your opponents will all earn hundreds of points, building an engine that churns out gobs of points in the later rounds.  Mechanically it’s a traditional worker placement game derived from Caylus, but with an added layer of innumerable point scoring opportunities that are entirely disassociated from the nominal theme.  I just don’t understand the appeal.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue (5 plays): I really like this game, probably one of the best Essen’s picks. It works well with 2, 3 and 4 players, better with 4. I really like the different scoring possibilities you have during the game and how the actions/strategies of other players influence your decisions. I consider the first track option a bit better but, of course, that means you have to fight hard to get the stars (needed to double the scores). I also like how the train/industry system works. It is a worker placement game and not really a train game. It has a great replayability and the small changes in the setup (actually just the order engineer cards will shows up) are enough to offer different emotions. I still have to fully manage the game’s options, that I consider something good after 5 plays. Really great.

Dale Yu: Times played: 5.  I have had a great time with the game so far, especially with two and three players.  The fear of sameness after repeated plays has not yet come true, and after 5 games, I have not yet settled on a “ideal” strategy.  I think that the big reason for this is that you can never fully plan for the choices of the other players in the game, and unlike Puerto Rico and its ilk, there does not seem to be set plays.  Admittedly, you could build a strategy around choosing specific actions to “own” and use repeatedly, but even if you had an ideal action, you can still only use it once per round.

The race for the bonus cards can be fierce, but as everyone else has mentioned, there are a multitude of ways to score points, so this just become one of the many things you’re trying to do each turn.

My only beef with the game is that the ever increasing scoring by round can be hard to track, especially for the arithmetically challenged.  I have moved a calculator from my (likely-to-never-be-played-again) Zavandor into this box to help with the math when needed.  We also kept score with poker chips to prevent accidental score marker movements from sleeves.

I have found that I love the game with 3, and I would play it with the right group with 4 – but it could have the potential to slow down with that number.  My most recent 3p game lasted 70 minutes, which was pretty good bang for the buck.

Nathan Beeler: Forget the train theme, as others have said, as this is really a game of engine building.  It just so happens that I have no particular love of train games, so that’s no loss to me.  I do, however, adore games with a compelling arc to them, which Russian Rails has, almost to a fault.  By the end of the game players should be scoring several orders of magnitude more points per round than they did at the beginning.  This does not mean points at the beginning are completely irrelevant, as all points count toward the final tally.  But it does mean that what players are building toward should be the main focus of play.  I enjoyed that, and felt like it gave me room to plot and scheme, and to jump on tangential opportunities as they arose.

The “points salad” charge is just silly, in my opinion.  Why should anyone care if you have many ways to score points, as long as that gives them options in how to play?  If you do better at your plan of concentrating on “foos” than I do at my plan of scoring mostly “blargs”, then you will win.  I truly don’t understand why this is a problem.  C’est la vie.

Finally, I do think there is something different going on in Russian Rails.  I can’t point to any individual mechanism that blew my mind with its novelty.  There were none.  But I do think the overall package felt unlike anything I’d ever played.  The game experience was novel, to me and the people I played with.  I’m fairly certain this game will wend its way into my collection in time.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it!  Mary Prasad, Larry, Joe, Liga, Nathan Beeler, Rick Thornquist, Dale Yu
  • I like it:  Lorna, Jonathan, Craig
  • Neutral:  Ben McJunkin
  • Not for me…  Tom Rosen

About Mary Prasad

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3 Responses to Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Russian Railroads

  1. Marc Gilutin says:

    Disclaimer: I frequently lag behind my friends insofar as the first game learning curve.
    Oh, how VERY tight money is.
    I played once with three players and felt like I lost because I was broke the whole game.
    And, for this first play at least, the multiple color scoring on each track is a little non-intuitive.
    That being said, I’m anxious for more.

  2. I mostly agree with what Nathan said. The main difference between Russian Railroads and many other worker placement games is that it is much more strategic. It’s an engine building game but with victory points instead of economy which is good since players who are behind can still do stuff during their turn. It has the backside that players have to commit to be successful with the risk that you only do your thing. I like it right now, mostly because it seems balanced and I am trying out strategies but I can see it drop considerably.

  3. Joe Huber says:

    Dale wrote: My most recent 3p game lasted 70 minutes, which was pretty good bang for the buck.

    I should note – as we play the game more, we’ve dropped even the four player game to an hour. My one two player game took 30 minutes.

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