Design by Helmut Ohley & Leonhard Orgler
Published by Hans im Glück / Z-Man Games
2 – 4 Players, 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Designers Helmut Ohley and Leonhard Orgler are train and railroad aficionados. They both have a history of designing train games, with a heavy concentration on games utilizing the 18xx system. They are quite popular within that world, but up until now, they have not really ventured into the realm of traditional European (German) games. Until now.
Russian Railroads is the train duo’s first major foray into the world of European game design. Set in Imperialist Russia at the end of the 19th century, the Tsar has ordained a major project: construction of the Trans-Siberia Railroad. To help usher Russia into the modern world, several lines on this railroad must be constructed. As these railroads progress, improvements are made, new industries arise, and brilliant engineers add their expertise, all helping the railroads to expand at an even greater rate. Russia will not be left out of the industrial revolution that is sweeping the world!
Interestingly, although the designers’ are heavily immersed in the 18xx world and system, there are few if any traces of that system in Russian Railroads. Rather, the game is unmistakably a worker-placement affair. Players will alternate placing workers on various spaces in their efforts to construct three railroad lines, acquire improved locomotives, recruit new workers, establish factories and more. Points come in droves, especially in the latter stages of the game. It is not unusual for players to score 400 or more points. Yet, with all of these points being scored, I’ve seen victories determined by just one point.
Each player receives a personal board whereupon they will track their progress on the three railroad lines they will be constructing. The industry track provides space to add new factories and record one’s progress in helping industrialize mother Russia. The larger central board depicts the possible actions and is where players will place their workers in order to claim and execute these actions. The score track runs along the edges of the board and will see lots of action.
Players begin the game with seven workers, a rouble (coin), a base locomotive and an assortment of markers, the latter being achieved and placed when reaching certain target spaces along the lines. Each player has one black track already constructed on each of the three railroad lines. These black tracks can (and will) be extended, making room for other colored track to be constructed. The additional colors–gray, brown, tan and white–become available when reaching specified target spaces with the black track on the Moskow – Vladivostok line. These additional colored tracks progressively score more points and unlock various benefits when they reach certain spaces along the three lines. One of the goals in the game is to obtain and construct these colored tracks…the earlier, the better.
Game play follows that of a typical worker placement design: place a worker on an empty space and perform the action the space grants. Spaces will require either one or two workers–and possibly a coin–and once occupied (with one exception), cannot be used by another player. Coins can be substituted for workers, but not vice versa. The spaces provide a wide variety of possible actions, including extending track (there are two available spaces for each track color), obtain a new locomotive and/or industry, progress one’s marker along the industry track, acquire or benefit from an engineer, and acquire coins, temporary workers or a “doubler” token. Workers are placed in turn order, which can be adjusted on future turns by placing workers on the turn order spaces.
Expanding track along one or more of the lines is essential. An important rule is that tracks must remain in the order specified above–black, gray, brown, tan and white–and one color cannot reach or pass beyond another one. Thus, players must continue to expand their tracks in order to make room to expand their other tracks. There is often keen competition for the spaces that allow the black tracks to expand, while the other track-expansion spaces see more action as the game progresses.
Reaching certain spaces along the three rail lines will trigger significant benefits for a player. Some simply require that a particular colored track reaches the space, while others also require that the player have locomotives of sufficient capacity to also reach them. Many will make additional track colors available, which, as mentioned earlier, score substantially more points as more colors are built. Two additional workers can also be obtained if a player constructs the appropriate colored track to those spaces. More workers means more actions, so reaching these spaces is something to strive for. Some spaces grant instant victory points, while others provide ongoing victory points during each of the six scoring rounds.
There are three spaces on the rail lines and one on the industry track that allow the player to select and place one of his seven bonus tokens. These tokens provide extremely beneficial bonuses–expanding tracks, advancing on the industry track, acquiring doublers, increasing the value of the various tracks, obtaining an end-game bonus card, etc. Reaching these spaces is certainly a goal, as the benefits derived from these tokens are significant, particularly the end-game scoring cards.
A player will only trigger certain benefits if he has locomotives of sufficient value to reach those spaces. Additionally, only the tracks that a locomotive can reach will score. Thus, players must increase the value of their locomotives by acquiring new, higher-valued ones. Locomotives range in value from 1 – 9, with a limited number of each value. Players acquire a new locomotive by placing a worker on one of the three locomotive spaces. They must take one locomotive tile of the lowest value available. The player may have two locomotives–combining their values–on the Moskow – Vladivostok line, but only one on each other line. Locomotives may be shifted between lines when a new one is acquired. Excess locomotives are inverted to their factory side and are available for anyone to acquire.
Progression along the industry track scores victory points for the player, but there are gaps that must be bridged. This is accomplished by constructing factories, which are acquired by placing workers on certain spaces on the central board. The factories grant the player benefits (acquire a new locomotive or factory, gain a coin or doubler, expand track, score victory points for engineers or locomotives, etc.) when that space is reached by the player’s industry marker, which is moved along the track by–you guessed it–placing workers on the appropriate spaces on the central board. Up to 30 points can be scored on this track, which is scored after each turn. One viable strategy is to concentrate on this track, which can yield an enormous amount of points. There is even a bonus token that allows the player to start and progress a second marker on this track, potentially scoring even more points.
Engineers are an important aspect of the game. Each turn, one engineer is available for acquisition at the cost of a coin. Two other engineers may be used in the same worker placement fashion as with other spaces. Engineers each grant a specific power–expand tracks, progress on the industry track, obtain a locomotive or factory, victory points, etc.–which can be beneficial. An acquired engineer can be used each turn by its owner by placing a worker upon the tile. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the potential victory point bonanza awarded by engineers during and at the end of the game. There is a special bonus card that allows a player to add the value of his two highest engineers. Engineers range in value from 1 – 14, so up to 27 victory points can be earned with this card. Further, at game’s end, the player possessing the most engineers earns a whopping 40 points, with 20 points going to the player with the second-most engineers. This is an enormous amount of points, perhaps a bit too many. If a player opts out of the engineer acquisition race, he must perform extremely well in his alternative strategy in order to win.
After each of the seven rounds–which ends once all players have placed all of their workers and/or passed–scoring is conducted. This phase can get quite “mathy”, but care should be exercised as there is a large number of points scored each round, particularly in the latter rounds. I actually won one game by just one point, so it is very important that calculations are meticulous and double-checked.
Here is a summary of the scoring conducted at the end of each round:
Railroads. Only spaces that can be reached by a line’s locomotive are scored. The value of each track is determined by its color. A track scores for the space it occupies plus all empty spaces behind it, as they are considered occupied by track of the same color. Scores can range from a low of 0 for black tracks to a high of 7 for white tracks. These scores can change if the proper bonus token has been placed by a player, in which case the scores increase for each track, up to 10 for the white track. These points can be doubled on the Moskow – Vladivostok line based on the presence of doublers located above the line.
There are bonus scores on various railroads, provided the specified track expands to those spaces and the player’s locomotive can reach it. For example, If the seventh space on the Moskow – St. Petersburg line is reached by both gray track and a player’s locomotive, the value of all scored spaces on that line are doubled. Reaching these spaces should be a priority, but these priorities can change dependent upon the strategies pursued by a player.
Industrialization. The player scores points based on his progress on the Industry track. Points range from 1 – 30, but as mentioned, gaps must be filled with factories or progress may be halted.
The game concludes after seven rounds, after which a regular scoring is conducted, followed by end-game scoring. In addition to the engineer bonuses described above, players will score additional points based on any end-game bonus cards they possess. These cards can yield significant points and are based on the qualifiers listed on the cards. For example, one card awards the player 4 points for each factory along their industrial track, while another awards 20 or 30 points dependent upon the number of doublers a player has placed. There are ten different bonus cards included, providing a variety of ways in which to earn bonus points.
Russian Railroads is a tense, exciting and challenging game, one that seemingly offers numerous viable strategies. One can concentrate on the lengthy, but eventually profitable Moskow – Vladivostok line, hoping to gain access to the valuable white tracks, expanding them along the lines for copious amounts of points. Steady progress on the Moskow – Kiev track will yield steady points, especially if a player is able to place his “Kiev Medal” token, which can score 20 additional points per turn if the gray track is constructed to it. The industry track can also yield steady points, as well as give handsome bonuses when the various factories are reached. Grabbing and using engineers can provide ongoing benefits and a potentially large end-game bonus. These and other strategies and tactics present players with numerous options, either alone or in combination.
As with any good worker placement game, there is tension generated by the placement of the workers. There is always more that you want to accomplish than you have workers to perform. Proper timing is essential , as if you wait too long to claim a space an opponent may occupy it first. Prioritizing one’s actions is essential, but a backup must be ready in case those dastardly opponents interfere with your plans.
There have been some complaints that certain strategies are too powerful. For example, some have argued that one must concentrate on the Moskow – Vladivostok line, getting the white tracks into play as quickly as possible. Others have said the engineers are too powerful, particularly the end-game scoring bonus they can provide. Both of these strategies are, indeed, powerful, and without competition from one’s opponents, can certainly be overwhelming. However, in games with three or four players, it is common for more than one player to also be pursuing these strategies, making it difficult for one player to secure all of the spaces needed in order to dominate these pursuits.
The game is only seven turns long, and it plays to completion in about two hours or so. Due to the minimal number of turns, it is difficult to shift one’s strategies mid-game. Players must have a clear plan from the beginning and doggedly pursue that plan throughout the game. Deviations are usually fatal.
Russian Railroads is top notch, and one of the best worker-placement games in the genre. It offers a fresh change of pace from most railroad games, wherein linking cities, building networks, delivering goods and/or purchasing and selling stock are considered the norm. 18xx fans may be disappointed, but folks immersed in the European gaming scene will likely find this to be to their liking. “Liking” may be too mild, as most folks with whom I have played have been very enthusiastic. For me, it has been one of the highlights of 2013, and even the past several years.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Joe Huber (39 plays) – You know, I’ve been meaning to write a review of Russian Railroads; perhaps this would be a good place for a few comments, since Greg’s already taken care of summarizing the rules.
To start with the conclusion – Russian Railroads is my favorite game to be released since Race for the Galaxy. While I’m not a big fan of worker placement games, this game avoids the most common trap I see in such games – making it impossible to carry out a plan, due to severe limitations on the available actions. Russian Railroads avoids this by the space which offers unlimited opportunities for players to advance their black and grey track. This being the basic action of the game, strategies can be slowed by clogging the better track advancement spaces – but not stopped.
One important aspect of the game, as Greg alludes to, is the need to focus on two or three of the available strategies, rather than trying to do everything. There are five primary means to scoring in the game – the tracks to Vladivostok, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev, the Industry track, and the Engineers. The amount of direct scoring from each varies wildly – there are more points available from the Vladivostok track than from anywhere else, for example, but it also requires far more actions to develop. But aiming for some progress on all fronts is a sure way to lose the game. I believe that most successful paths include either Vladivostok or the Industry track; I’ve yet to see Saint Petersburg as more than a productive tertiary path, but I’m planning to explore that path more. While I don’t find any strategy too powerful, I am afraid that the first player might not have a viable option to taking the first engineer. Which, if true, is unfortunate; however, that’s the only action I’ve seen any indication of being mandatory.
One key area where my experience varies from Greg’s is in the length of the game. While our initial games ran about two hours with four players, we now play easily in less than an hour. It’s also worth noting that there is just a hint of 18xx buried in the game; while the track colors in the published game (black, grey, brown, tan, and white) offer no clue, in prototype form the first three track colors were yellow, green, and brown – the same progression familiar to 18xx players.
Larry (10 or so plays) – I thought 2013 was an excellent year for games and Russian Railroads was my favorite design of the year. I find the decision-making very interesting and like the fact that there are so many paths to victory. What I like the most, though, is that the game plays so smoothly and so quickly. I think that Hans im Gluck did a great job in developing this and am quite encouraged by what appears to be a return to heavier games by one of my favorite publishers.
Craig (13 plays) – I’m really some place north of “like it” and south of “love it” and I can’t place exactly why this isn’t ending up in the latter category. So what’s to luck – my experience mirrors Joe’s in terms of play time. The first time I played, the game was 90+ minutes, but since then, it can really be done in less than 60 minutes and I have played a few games 4 player games with experience players that came close to 45 minutes. If the game goes longer than 60 minutes, I do find my interest level wanes when playing it. I do like the multiple strategies that all seem viable to pursue. I’m not sure I agree with Joe that the engineer choice for the first player is a must and have succeeded when avoiding the race for engineers. I can say with a great deal of confidence that they are totally unnecessary to succeed in a two player game and to a lesser extent in the three player game – both of which work very well. So the question is will this continue to hold my interest as we get into the fall and winter. Its a very good game, but I’m just not ready to give it the love it status which is really unusual for something that has already hit 10 plays.
Mary Prasad (5 plays) – See my full review and comments here http://opinionatedgamers.com/2014/01/06/mary-dimercurio-prasad-review-of-russian-railroads/
4 (Love it!): Greg J. Schloesser, Joe Huber, Larry, Ted Alspach, Mary Prasad
3 (Like it): Craig Massey
1 (Not for me):
This is actually a fairly simple worker placement game to play, but there is a lot of interaction and combos between all of the different tracks, actions, and bonuses that’s a bit more difficult to fully understand after just one play. Despite that, there are clearly several different viable paths to victory. The mechanisms are easy to understand and turns move quite quickly. About the only time the game can slow down a bit is when somebody is trying to decide which bonus token or card to take, but that typically doesn’t prevent the next player from going. The problem is that the other players might play so quickly that it’s back around to the other player that’s still trying to decide! Overall, I enjoyed playing this game and would definitely play it again, but wonder if it starts to feel a bit samey after multiple plays…
Jeez, couldn’t you find anyone who hated it? I’d have done it ;)
Sorry Martin, the game is just too awesome. In fact, we’re thinking of kicking Craig out of the group, just because he only liked it! :-)