Mini Express

Designer: Mark Gerrits
Publisher: Moaideas Game Design
Players: 3-5
Ages: 8+
Times Played: 7 on a variety of copies, including a prototype they sent me

I first played Mini Express somewhere in the middle of unincorporated Macoupin County, IL.  In this game, that’s sort of the hex where you’d expect St. Louis to be, but it isn’t. I was on a train, and Moaideas had been kind enough to send along some files so that Rand and I could play it during RollingCon last year, our annual mini-convention of train games aboard a train as we take the Amtrak from Chicago to Dallas for BGGCON.

I was excited because the designer had put out a few intriguing train games previously, with SteamRollers (a roll-and-write take on the Age of Steam system) and Mini Rails. While I try below to focus on Mini Express, there are a few times I compulsively talk about Mini Rails.  If you’re not familiar with it, it won’t impede things; the talking points are that it is a svelte train game with minimal rules, no money, and only two actions: take a share or lay track.  (I mean, I’d get on that elevator with you.)

Mini Express keeps the same turn structure (acquire a stock or lay track) and absence of money as Mini Rails, but applies them to the “cube rail” genre, where colored wooden tokens are laid across a geographic hex map, usually aiming to hit certain cities; likely some sort of cost to placing in the same location as another company; and placement limits for certain hexes.  We have some of all that here, but a few things also have their middle parts turned topwise. 

(This is a handmade prototype, so components subject to change, etc.)

In the game, the player with the most points will win, and while those points will come from stock ownership, it isn’t in the way you necessarily expect.  Rather than each share of a company’s stock having a fixed value tied to their performance in the game, the value will vary depending upon the influence of the player in that company.  (Don’t search too hard for a thematic explanation in that.)

Let me explain. As the player’s acquire shares in a company, they physically take a stock certificate (and during setup, the players will draft pairs of stocks from randomly determined sets.)  As the trains spread across the board, the company values will increase, and that will raise the value of the company. However, that value has three possibilities within it for the certificates.  On a separate chart, the players will track their influence in each company. The player with the highest influence in a company at the end of the game will earn the highest of the possible company values for their shares of stock.  The player with the second highest influence will earn the second highest value, and all other players will earn the remaining value. (There are, of course, tie breakers.) 

Each company begins the game with a certain number of available share certificates and three available train tokens to lay track with. On your turn, acquire a stock in one of the four companies, or lay track in one of the four companies.  

To acquire a stock, a player takes the certificate, moves their influence in that company back by the amount of trains in the company’s track box, and then adds 3 trains to the box (to a maximum of 5).  Yes –the amount of trains a company has available determines the cost (paid in influence) of a company’s stock. No –you may not have negative influence. (Nice try.)

To lay track, a player chooses a company and can lay up to the number of available track. (Track, trains. Trains, track.  Same piece.) Any track played must end in a city, but can start adjacent to any hex where the company is present. As the company’s value is based upon the number of non-city hexes the company’s track passes through, there is also an obligation to use the shortest route possible to the chosen city.  Cities have restrictions of allowing 1, 2, or 3 companies to be present, but the rural hexes allow any number; if you lay track into a hex with another company already present, each such company has a train added to its available box.  

This is also where you get something! During setup, each city is assigned a random token that shows two of the companies in the game; the same company twice; or one company and a wild symbol.  When a player lays any company’s track into a city, the player moves up the influence track one spot for each half of the token.

Whew! What an action.  Let’s recap. If you lay track for a company: you will (almost certainly) increase the company’s value; decrease the cost of the company’s stock for a subsequent player; possibly increase the cost of other companies’ stocks (making more track available); and increase your influence by 1 in two different companies.  That’s like all the levers in one.  

(It’s a game of figuring out how to eat the cake you made.)

Play passes around the table, and after some time the game will end.  More specifically, once any two companies are out of available stock certificates, or have track in neither their box nor their supply.  The winner is the player with the most valuable stock portfolio (calculated as described previously.)

For a time I called the game “Mini Rails II”, and its original name was Intercity Rails.  There was a time years ago when it seemed like “Express” games were a thing, and at the time, it meant a short dice variant of an existing game (e.g. Risk Express).  Some were commercial releases and some were homebrews (Dark Moon began as BSG Express). 

Anyway, we’ll get off my lawn in a minute, but the name bugged me for a while as I struggled to get that connotation of “Express” out of my mind.  The name already has “Mini” in the name, and between the allusion to Mini Rails and, well, the word “mini”, everything was shouting this is a smaller, quickier, lighter game than Mini Rails.

But it isn’t. This is “Express” solely in the sense of Wabash Cannonball, err… Chicago Express.  It’s a meatier affair. In time, in decisions, in calculations, in rules. It’s closer to a traditional Winsome cube rail game, but…without money, and where your options on your turn are lay rail or take a stock, and…”Hey! Hey, that’s Mini Rails!”  (Now we’re back on the sidewalk getting wherever we were going.)

Viewing the name as the composite of Mini Rails and Chicago Express puts you on just the right track to know what you’re about to get yourself into.

I think I’m going with the word entangled to describe the game. Your turn options are simple, but the repercussions are not. If I choose to purchase this stock, I’ll move back in influence for that company, devaluing my shares, and increasing the value of Jason’s shares; it also increases the amount of track available for the other players.  Am I ok with that?

Maybe I need more influence in 2 certain companies, but can only get there with a train which I haven’t invested in.  Am I ok increasing the value of that company? I’m also making that company’s stock cheaper for a subsequent player to purchase.  Am I ok with that?

That last bit…I think a casual look at the game could be quick to take fault that some moves are scripted, and perhaps they are.  If play passes to you and there is a stock to be had for free…why _not_ take it? For me, it’s a distraction. The player before you likely considered the options and found the game state to be worth tempting you with that. Those free, or even cheap, stocks won’t gain you the influence in any companies that can make your personal cache more valuable. Maybe I put the cheap stock on the silver platter for you for fear Ryan would end up with it otherwise. Maybe I needed Ryan to have access to more trains for that company, so I am simply letting you fill up the track box.

(What I’m saying is, if I pass you a game state with a cheap stock, maybe take a look into that horse’s eyes.)

I’ve played the game in a few iterations, and want to call out the occupied hex payment as a key tactical lever that I was glad to see added. To lay track into a hex with another company already present doesn’t cost more for the new company in some way; instead, it enriches the already present company.  If my turn comes around and I see a stock that is a little too cheap for my liking, but doesn’t fit my current portfolio strategy, maybe I can find a way to build track into that company’s hexes in order to bump the cost of the share!

The decision to value companies at their number of non-city hexes is also an interesting choice. Traditional cube rail games tend to encourage company value growth through reaching certain cities.  Here, reaching those cities is already incentivized for the player through the influence gains. The influence for the companies has been split off and anchored instead to the distance to that city. It’s a change that was jarring to me at first, but has grown on me.  

There is a significant amount of binding with the turn order, as the train levels in the four company buckets will always be different for the next player and materially affect their decision. For me, this decision starts pregame with the stock draft. What did the player to your right draft and do you want to be invested in the same colors or different colors? I find the binding of Mini Express pleasant.

Wait, I just thought of something. (Starting at 1:35).

Each of those little bell jars is one of your decisions to lay track.  If you could delicately cut open one of the train tokens, you’d find the knots of the game’s mechanics. Winning is seeing how to untangle it and that pool table is your attitude looking back on what you’ve done.

James Nathan

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale: I was also interested in this as I loved (well really liked) Mini Rails. This game is more complicated and, at least at first glance, a bit more obtuse.  But in the good sense of obtuse. The strategies are not clearly evident from the rules read and certainly not through the first play(s). There is a certain art to figuring out how to buy shares (which lowers your influence in that train, and therefore likely lowers the value of the shares you own in that train).  Also complicated is the decision to lay track. Well, you really lay trains, but that sounds funny to say. When you build, you have to consider where you’re going – because this will help your influence in some trains, how far you are going because this might determine the stock price for the next player, how you are going to get where you are going, because as you place a train in a hex with another color in it, that other color will have a train added to their stock box which both increases its mobility as well as increases their stock price.  The distance in non-city hexes traveled will also increase the share value of the train you are laying; but how much it will increase it will depend on your overall standing in influence in that company… Confused yet? Yeah, I was too in my first game. But, it was fun trying to figure it out. There is another binding element which James Nathan did not speak of, just simple next player binding. So far, I think the best strategy that I’ve seen is to sit to the left of me. That person has always won in my games. Coincidence? I think not… :) But I hope to break that association soon.

Dan Blum (1 play): I like the ideas behind the older “cube rail” games and want to like the games… but mostly I don’t, for several reasons. I like auctions fine in many cases (some of my favorite games use auctions) but generally I find the auctions in these games to just be a crude attempt at avoiding having a stock pricing mechanism; they tend to make the games all about timing in a way I don’t care for (although obviously other people do). Many of the games also have weird share dilution rules I also don’t like. The only cube rails game I own is Coast-to-Coast Rails, which does have auctions but does not have timing issues or share dilution.

So I was predisposed to like Mini Express, and I do like it, but not just because of that. I have played at two other cube rails games without auctions and, while they are not bad, I don’t like them as much. Mini Rails is one; I thought it was interesting at first but the later rounds get very scripted, at least with higher player counts. Ride the Rails/Rail USA is the other; it too has points of interest, and I’d play again, but not having any kind of price for the stock at all I am not convinced works well. Mini Express seems to handle everything “properly” and so I am much more interested in playing it again than the other two.


Love it!:
Like it: James Nathan, Dale, Dan Blum
Not for me: 

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