- Designer: David Watts
- Publisher: Multiple
- Players: 2 – 6
- Ages: 10 and Up
- Time: 90 Minutes
- Times Played: >5 (On Various Maps)
Dampfross: A 1980 Nominee, the 1984 Winner
David Watts describes himself as a lifelong fan of railways, maps, and board games, so it is unsurprising that his most famous creation is a combination of all three. Watts first started experimenting with landscapes overlaid by a hexagonal grid when he was a teenager in 1948, but he didn’t develop Dampfross until he was teaching geography in Wales in the mid 1960s. He designed the game to help his students learn about the intersection of human settlement, geography, and rail traffic.
The game wasn’t popular with his students, but it was well received by his colleagues and other adults. Despite the popularity, Watts was unable to find a publisher, so he began self-publishing the game under the title “Railway Rivals” in 1969. The first sets consisted of a photocopied rulebook, a numbered hexagonal grid on A2-sized paper, and instructions for where to mark landmarks on the grid. Clear protector sheets and felt-tipped pens made the sets reusable.
The game gained popularity throughout the 1970s, and Watts started actively marketing the game in 1973. Play via postal correspondence was common, and Watts himself started a play-by-mail magazine in 1977. According to some anecdotal sources, it was the second-most-popular play-by-mail game of the late 1970s and early 1980s, second only to Diplomacy.
Walter Luc Haas, a Swiss journalist and founding member of the SdJ jury, was responsible for bringing the game to Germany. He published a review of the game in the first edition of his gaming magazine, and he had the game placed with publisher Bütehorn Spiele, who named it Dampfross (which reportedly means “steam steed,” a German nickname for “railway”). The first edition suffered from two major flaws: the publisher inadvertently left the mountains off the German map (which was one of six maps included in the set), and the company used crayons on paper, hindering replayability. That edition only sold about 1,000 copies.
Despite these setbacks, the game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 1980, ultimately losing to Rummikub. David Watts was honored, but the honor was all he got: Bütehorn Spiele went out of business, so the nomination didn’t spur any additional sales. Watts was never paid all of the royalties he was owed.
Schmidt Spiele bought the license and resumed production of the game in 1984. They initially published maps without consulting Watts, and the maps received criticism in the press for inaccuracies and gameplay issues. The company quickly reached out to Watts and corrected this mistake, just in time for Dampfross to win the Spiel des Jahres in 1984. Seven of the eight jurors ranked it first that year, and the jury praised the Schmidt Spiele edition, saying it had fixed many of the problems with the Bütehorn rendition.
In a sign of how strong the SdJ brand had become by just its sixth year, the Schmidt Spiele edition went on to sell more than 350,000 copies.
David Watts retired from teaching in 1983 and turned his attention to game design. Schmidt Spiele picked up another one of his creations, Piraten Insel, in 1984. Other than that, all of his games were self-published through Watt’s company, Rostherne Games, which he had founded in the 1970s. A British publisher – Games Workshop – finally picked up Dampfross in 1985: ironically, that publisher had turned Watts down before his SdJ win.
Watts designed more than 70 maps for Dampfross. In this regard, Dampfross was the first SdJ winner to have expansions and extensions, a trend that would become commonplace in the mid-1990s. Fans created many more maps, possibly as many as 300 (including a popular Middle Earth variant). For information about the numerous iterations of the game, and the maps included in each, I highly recommend this page at the Game Cabinet.
The impact of Dampfross is perhaps best summarized by Stuart Woods in his book Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games: “Railway Rivals is generally considered the first modern railway game and has spawned a number of similar titles in the U.S., most notably the Mayfair series of crayon rail games.”
Although no SdJ winner is truly obscure, Dampfross is arguably the most obscure of the SdJ winners. At the time of this writing, it has only 352 total logged plays on BGG. (For the sake of comparison, the average SdJ winner has almost 45,000 logged plays.) There were only four logged plays in the month of May (two of which were mine). The game has been out of print for almost 20 years, but you can find it without much effort or expense on eBay or the BGG marketplace. If you’re interested in purchasing the game, I highly recommend the Laurin Verlag Second Author’s Edition of 1993 (pictured above), which has beautiful color maps and historic notes on the game’s development.
The Gameplay: Building Lines, then Running Races
Each player receives a pen/crayon (used to draw on the map), a pawn (used to track progress during races), and 20 credits. The versions of the game I’ve seen do not come with money components, so credits are tracked on a sheet of paper.
Gameplay varies based on which map is used. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to avoid the details of any particular map, instead using general concepts. That said, because the Ireland map in the Laurin edition does not utilize many special rules, this review would be particularly well suited for understanding that map.
Gameplay proceeds in two phases: the building phase, and the operating phase. In the building phase players are drawing track on the board and earning credits for connecting cities. In the operating phase, players are racing between cities to earn credits, sometimes paying other players for use of their tracks.
In the building phase, the first player rolls a die and then draws railway onto the map according to the number rolled, which is the construction budget. Then, rotating clockwise, each other player draws on the map using the same construction budget. A new round then begins, with the next player clockwise rolling the dice to determine the construction budget and then drawing track.
At the start of the game, players must start drawing from a specified home terminal (such as Belfast or Dublin on the Ireland map), but after that, players may draw railway anywhere that connects to their existing rail lines. Lines are drawn from the middle of the hex to the middle of the hex. It costs 1 dice pip to cross plain country and cities, 3 pips to cross a river or build into or out of a mountain hex, and 5 pips to build between mountain hexes or cross a river while building into or out of a mountain hex. Connecting to another player’s line costs 1 credit in addition to normal costs (unless connecting in a city), and building parallel to another player’s line costs 2 credits per half hex. The first player to connect a numbered city to a railway line receives six credits. Other players may build into a previously-connected city, but they get no credits for doing so.
Building continues in this manner until the end of a round in which three or fewer cities are connected to at least one network. The operating (or race) phase then begins. Players start by rolling the red dice, which determines the tens digit of the starting city, and then the white dice, which gives the ones digit. The process is repeated to determine the destination. The shortest route between terminals must be at least six hexes or the dice are re-rolled.
Each player then decides whether to participating the race, starting with the player with the most credits. Once all players have announced whether they are in or out of the race, each participating player must announce their route and, if necessary, pay other players to use their tracks. Payment to other players is one credit per hex, but payment is capped at ten credits. (For example, a red player could travel 15 hexes on the black player’s track, but they’d only need to pay 10 credits.) The players then race by rolling dice and moving along the announced routes. The first to the destination receives 20 credits, and the second receives 10 credits. Others receive nothing. (Some maps have “special destinations” that are used in lieu of cities during certain rounds of the operating phase. For example, on the Kentucky and Tennessee map, some rounds will involve races to any space in certain adjoining states.)
After the trains arrive, the winners may spend part of their winnings to extend their networks. The cost in credits is the same as the dice pip cost during the building phase.
The game ends when a player attains a predetermined balance, ranging from 200 credits in 5-6 player games to 250 credits in 2-3 player games.
Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game.
I was very excited to try Dampfross. The idea of mixing rail building with racing and adding a dash of economics seemed intriguing. Unfortunately, after just a few plays on different maps, I’ve determined that Dampfross represents a different era of gaming.
The game has its merits. It is easy to learn, with a rules explanation taking less than three minutes. The groups I’ve played with have really enjoyed the construction phase, which presents a variety of interesting decisions. There is a great deal of strategy involved in picking routes, and setting yourself up for the operating phase is (much to my surprise) the most fun part of the game.
Unfortunately, the game seems to fall flat during the operating phase. This surprised me: I thought the race phase of the game would be the more exciting phase, but that hasn’t been the case. The decision about whether or not to race is generally an obvious one, and the race itself is simply roll-and-move. I don’t mind randomness in games (in fact, I generally embrace it), but the operating phase of this game seems too random for even me. There’s luck in which cities get selected, then a generally uninteresting decision about whether or not to race, and then luck again in who wins the race.
My biggest complaint about Dampfross, however, is that it overstays its welcome. The game is playable in 90 minutes, but I’ve had most plays go longer. That length of time is a bit much for what this game is. Even the most interesting part of the game – the construction phase – can feel like a drawn out geography lesson (which is, I suppose, what the game was designed to be). And the race phase can feel like an eternity. The administrative side of the game can also get tedious, especially without money components.
Would this win the SdJ today? Almost certainly not. Dampfross feels dated, and its central mechanisms have been done better by other games. I suspect that’s why this once popular game has faded into relative obscurity. Additionally, the component quality and overall presentation are poor (even for the relatively well-produced Laurin edition), and the game would need significant updating to have any appeal to the SdJ jury.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Patrick Brennan: The dice race at the end was just too big a disconnect with the planning and building aspects of the majority of the game. Too old school, traded away.
Greg Schloesser: I’ve played Dampfross several times and I think Chris’ assessment that Dampfross represents a different era of gaming is likely accurate. While I originally enjoyed the game, I found that the racing aspect far too luck driven and, as Chris points out, the game simply lasts too long. I parted with my copy years ago and don’t miss it.
Lorna: The game does feel a bit long at times during the construction phase but our group always had fun with 6 players to provide different choices for pairing up for the races. Perhaps not up today’s standards but we still have fun with this one and it hits the table every few years.
Larry: Only played once and that was enough. The idea of building a rail network to allow you to succeed in a series of races is an excellent one, but the execution here is faulty (or, at least, too old fashioned). As the others have said, it’s too luck-driven and way too long. Stefan Dorra’s Linie 1/Streetcar, from the mid-nineties, did it much better, although even those games haven’t aged that well. Even though I admire some of the ideas in the Railway Rivals games, particularly given that Watts came up with them 50 years ago, I have no interest in playing the game again.
Mitchell: As Chris Wray’s article suggests, Dampfross was very influential and ushered in many much more interesting railway/route connection games. The promise of Dampfross (building networks on a map) was always much more appealing than the actual play. Another historical note: David Watts also designed a handful of interesting abstract games, all self-published, including Winchester and Chafts. These were interesting and reasonably good, but unexceptional Chess or Checkers variants of one kind or another. They demonstrated how simple tweaks in such classics could reveal entirely new games.
Dale Y: I’ve probably played this about 7 to 10 times total, as one of the locals that I used to game with LOVED this game. I always found it a bit long for a game that turned out to be a dice fest in the end. I still have my copy on the shelf, next to a lot of other train and networking games that also haven’t hit the table in years (and also don’t have enough of a secondary market value to make it worth trying to sell)… I’m frankly not sure that I’ll play this one again — if it were somehow a 30 minute game, I’d probably do it, but not at the 90-120 minutes I remember it taking to play.
Joe Huber (1 play) – Dampfross is an odd game – I enjoyed my one play well enough, but it’s been 18 years, and I still don’t feel any loss at not picking up a second. I would play, if others wished to; if, as in Dale’s case, someone I gamed with wanted to play this a lot, I don’t think I’d be upset, though I might not join every time.
Dan Blum: I’ve played this three times and have never ended up enjoying it that much. I want to like it – one of my pet peeves with certain other train games is that they reward making inefficient connections between cities instead of efficient ones – but it just doesn’t do it well enough. The racing is too random and the whole thing ends up being tedious.
I have a copy of Watts’ follow-up game, Bus Boss, which supposedly streamlines things. I haven’t played it yet because I’m trying to track down the second edition rules for it.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Lorna
- Neutral. Patrick Brennan, Greg Schloesser, Mitchell Thomashow, Dale Y, Joe H., Dan Blum
- Not for me… Chris W., Larry