James Nathan: Mini Rails

Mini Rails
Designer: Mark Gerrits
Artist: Steve Tse
Publisher: Moaideas Games Design
Players: 3-5
Ages: 13+
Time: 40-60 minutes
Times Played: 5 times with purchased copy, 1 time with review copy
Previously Covered: Lorna’s Mini Review – First Impressions

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Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between what I want and what I think I want. Between what I like and what I think I like. One of the things I think I like is sleek rule sets and another is stock-holding train games, so when something like Mini Rails comes around, I’m a fish in a barrel (even though the outcome varies.) 

Mini Rails plays over 6 rounds; each round you’ll lay one track, and buy one stock. Victory is determined by the best return on your stock portfolio. If your copy didn’t come with money tokens, or card money, or paper money, or money cubes, that’s because, well, the money has been abstracted out.  (Maybe I should’ve said ‘take’ one stock.)  (No such thing as different terrain costs for laying rails, or dividends, or selling shares to get more money.)

Stock values aren’t tracked on a Big Board for each company. Instead, each player will track the net change of stocks since their individual acquisition on a personal board (resulting in the possibility of multiple tokens of one stock at different values).

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The game also uses the same component for track placement, stock ownership, and tax payments (woah, boy…we’ll come back to that)- something I-think-I-like: more track laid means less shares to own.  

So as I was saying, 6 rounds, 2 actions each round.  The other two big wrinkles are turn order and the previously mentioned taxes, and, mid-way through your first game, you’ll realize how these are quite intertwined. The game uses a turn-order system reminiscent of that found in Kingdomino; you’ll move a pawn from a row representing the current turn order to occupy a position in a second row which will become the turn order for the next round.  

At the start of each round, one of the turn order rows will have the player pawns (two per player), and the other will have a random assortment of company discs (two per player, and one additional); these will be the companies the players have to work with this round.  You can’t take a stock or lay a track in any unrepresented companies. As you take each of your two actions (one per pawn), you’ll move your pawn to occupy the location of one of the company discs – simultaneously choosing which company to affect as well as one of your turn order positions for the next round.

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If you choose to lay it as track, place it next to another of that color and adjust all players’ stock values in the company. If you take it as stock, place it on 0 (showing no net change since acquisition). That’s it. Those are your actions.

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So that extra disc – two per player and one additional?  Now we get to taxes. This is straight-forward (but a little wonky when I explain it, so I’m going to make up some theme).  If a company hasn’t paid its taxes, it cannot earn you positive returns, but can still lose you money (as the tax authority has taken away those profits for the taxes you failed to pay – if you lost money and didn’t pay taxes, well, then you are certainly losing money). If a company has paid its taxes, it can only earn you positive returns, and it will not lose you money (as you can write those losses off as a tax deduction). (This is another-one-of-those-things: I think I like games with a kick-you-in-the-butt mechanic at the end where some of your hard work gets thrown out with the bathwater. Or shredded by your accountant.)

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6 rounds.12 actions. Check for taxes. Best return on portfolio.

(I glossed over a couple things, but you get the idea.)

My Thoughts

Let’s get a couple things out of the way. Despite the components giving you a way to track which actions you have used this turn, and despite it not being difficult to track, componently, I would’ve liked to see…um, something different. It’s a minor quibble, but with each group I’ve played, after the first round we inevitably fail to use the given components properly, and largely give up on tracking at all, but it would be convenient if there was a quick way to tell who had taken track so far and who had taken stock.

The other item to dispense with is the token colors. I bought a copy from Japan in early June, and two of the company colors were too close to tell apart from an ease of play standpoint. A more recent copy I played came with a replacement set for one of the colors, but it was a still a little close for my taste.  (I’ve wholesale replaced all of my discs and have purple instead of the off-white/eggshell discs. TMI: I’m using the extra company discs from the first print run of Steam, and my copy of Steam now has wheat/veggies/and-what-not Agricola discs for some players.)  

As a player, and as a ludological ponderer, I think almost exclusively in terms of compare-and-contrast, and here that leads us straight to SNCF/Paris Connection. I had a love-hate relationship with SNCF, but we eventually decided to agree to disagree. The core of Mini Rails, for me, break downs into (a) limited company choice (b) taxation (c) turn order (d) elegance of actions.  What vaults this well past SNCF for me (setup time aside), is the limited company choice; it prevents a feedback loop of sorts where a game devolves into running each company in the ground.  (I’ve asked Mark about the inspiration and, yes, SNCF/Paris Connection, was in there, but he also cited Knizia’s Spectaculum for parts. I wasn’t especially aware of Spectaculum, but now your review comes with a “Further Playing” of sorts.  Speaking of choosing-from-a-limited-set-of-discs, I’ll add Rätsel Turm to that Further Playing – Whooooboy where were we….)

The map is also quite tight. I’m fan of maps (in real life and in games), and the map play here is interesting: with possibilities for cutting companies off, and sometimes the choice of a lesser stock bump now vs veering the company towards a more lucrative location, but also within track-laying distance of negative hexes.

As I said before, the taxation and turn order sort of go hand-in-hand.  While I haven’t found myself especially interested in going in the middle (yet), reasons abound for going early, late, or consecutively. The turn order hasn’t felt too open or too oppressive at the player count extremes, either.  (I haven’t explicitly said it, but the last few positions play a strong position in the tax game.)  There are times when I’ve let turn order positioning soley dictate my company choice.  (Further Playing break: Mark’s turn order design pre-dates the recent Kingdomino and Vikings on Board, but if you’re interested in that sort of thing, I’ll also point you to The Staufer Dynasty.)

I also asked Mark about the general streamlined nature of his designs (FP: SteamRollers), and he said that despite the design mantra of “simplify, simplify, simplify”, he finds himself starting very simple and needing to complexify.  He did say that Mini Rails previously had money (and originally dice), and that finding a way to eliminate it was the most important step in the design process.  

Ultimately, I’m an “are there tough decisions?” kind of gamer, and on that matter I’m torn. There are some turns and some positions and some situations that will play themselves. Sometimes obviously so, and sometimes after you think it out. Certainly during the first few turns in a less developed game, you are taking more strategic gambles, and later you are more tactically choosing who will mail off their Form 1120 on time. What seals it for me is, this is a game where I’m having fun regardless. I (largely) only notice any self-evident moves after some thinking, and sortof feel like the position I’m in is the fruits of my labor.  

I enjoy thinking this one out and adore the system. I’m glad Mark knows what I like.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Lorna: http://wp.me/p1gPzu-1JQ

Dale: I’ve play this twice so far, and I really like the tight minimalistic game play.  You have two options each turn, but there is a lot of decision making that goes on.  Choosing when to take stock, which train to run, where to go in turn order next turn, etc is a lot to think about.  The small form factor and the quick playing time are all great fits for me.  Like James Nathan, I have  a quibble about the components.  The tokens used to show track playing/stock acquisition are not great, and the natural tokens are still real close to the white ones. Using spare pieces for one of the disc colors has fixed on issue, and having a quick pre-game discussion on a convention on how to use the action tokens generally clears up that issue.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it! James Nathan, Dale Y
I like it. Lorna, John P, Karen M
Neutral. Joe H.
Not for me…

 

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