Ride the Rails (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designer: John Bohrer
  • Artists: Ian O’Toole
  • Publisher: Capstone Games
  • Players: 3-5 
  • Time: 45-60 Minutes
  • Times Played: 2 (USA Map and France Map)

I am not a train gamer. There are times where I have dabbled a bit —  Railways of the World, Age of Steam or 1846, but for the most part, my train gaming has been dominated by the ultra heavyweight title Ticket to Ride. I always enjoy aspects of playing heavier train games. I love route-building, the movement of goods or people, and the investing, but for the most part, I don’t like the amount of time it takes to play some of those bigger games. Railways and Age of Steam pushed the limits of the time I want to invest in this style of games. 1846 pushed the limits and then freightrained me with great vengeance and furious anger. Never again — well, never say never, I suppose. 

Winsome Games have been a recent curiosity of mine after seeing several folks talk about them in various gaming circles. But their rarity and the odd leadership of the company always led me to just listen to people talk about them and say someday. The Winsome train games are the definition of mechanisms first design. Table presence was never a big, or necessary, appeal for the folks who enjoyed playing them. The mechanisms won them over and Winsome enjoyed what can only be compared to a cult-like following. Recently though, as these styles of games have gained a larger audience among the curious, other companies have reached out and began publishing them again. In the past we’ve seen companies like Queen, Eagle Gryphon, and Rio Grande pick them up and publish them to their audiences. The company that really got me to actually take a dive into the genre though, has been Capstone Games. They launched their Iron Rail series of train games in 2019 with Irish Gauge, which I immediately picked up, and sadly only got it to the table once. While we enjoyed it, I don’t think that it really excels at three players, which is how we played it. There also seemed to be a bit of a steeper learning curve than I expected with it, which kind of hindered the ability to get it back to the table quickly. 

Along comes 2020, and a new Iron Rail game ships out, Ride the Rails. In spite of what that annoying box art says, Ride the Rails was designed by John Bohrer of Winsome fame —  among other things. Ride the Rails, to me, looked like an easier entry into the “cube rails” family than Irish Gauge was. I mean let’s be frank here, I was going to buy it regardless, but that easier entry was a huge selling point after a bit of frustration in learning Irish Gauge

First off, this style of games are called Cube Rail games because originally that’s what the games used to replicate track, which got rid of the need for multiple track junction tiles or the need to draw them. Nowadays, we don’t like to use cubes, so both of these titles use small train locomotives of different colors to differentiate the track, like Paris Connection or Chicago Express — a couple other examples from the cube rails family of games —  used previously. 

Ride the Rails is a game where you invest in railroad companies as you and your rival railway magnates build tracks across America —  or even France or Germany, if you bought the extra map pack. The object is to move passengers on the map to as many cities as possible with the routes that you all have made, hopefully creating more profit for yourself than your rivals. The railroad baron with the most money from transporting passengers at the end of the game is the winner. Choo choo, Mister Falcon!

At the start of the game, you have in front of you a map made of hexes, and on some of those hexes there are cities. Each of those cities gets one passenger placed on them. The game setup is the same whether you are using the base United States map, or the extra Germany/France map. There are six different train companies in six different colors. Separate those out by color and then randomly determine a player order and you are ready to lay some track and move some passengers. 

One of my favorite things about the Iron Rail series from Capstone Games is that the rules for these two games are contained on a single rule sheet. Now, I most certainly need to use my old man readers to be able to read the rules, but one sheet of rules for games like this is really nice. The depth of the games is in the gameplay, not in the rules reading, most of the time. 

Ride the Rails is played over six rounds, with each round having three different phases. All of this is wonderfully illustrated along the bottom left of the game board, with each phase graphically described. Right above that is the round tracker, which also tells what train companies are available in each round. 

To start a round, in reverse turn order, each player takes a share. To do this, simply choose one of the available railroads and take one locomotive and place it in front of you on your player board. As you can see in the photo above, only two railroads are available in the first round —  blue and red. In the second round, orange becomes available, and so on. The final round has no new railroads, you have to work with what you got.

After each player has chosen a share it’s time to, in turn order, build some track. The maximum number of track/locomotives placed per player is decided by the number of players, in a three player game each player can place up to eight pieces of track, in a four player game five and in a five player game four pieces. On the map there are darker colored hexes, these are mountain hexes. If a player is going to build in a mountain hex, they get one less locomotive to build with. For example in a four player game, you would only get four locomotives to build with instead of five if you are going to build in a mountainous region. Even if you place in multiple mountain hexes, the penalty is still only the one locomotive. You do not have to place all of your locomotives on a turn, but that is the maximum that you can place. Rules for placement are fairly simple, the player must own a share of the railroad that they are building. So in the first round, only red or blue tracks will be built. 

When first starting a locomotive line they have to start in a city that displays that railroad’s color. At the start of the game with the United States map there are six cities to start from on the east coast. After a train line has been started, they may not start at a new city, they must start adjacent to at least one of the locomotives of their color. Each hex can only contain one locomotive of a color, no doubling up, but each hex can contain a maximum of two locomotives. The exception here is Chicago on the U.S. map, Paris on the France map, or Berlin on the German map. Those six cities on the east coast of the US map may only hold one locomotive and any railroad may only occupy two of those cities. There are cities on the US map that will give monetary bonuses for building into them, Chicago, or being the first to build into them. Along with those bonuses there is a transcontinental bonus on the US map for the first player to make that transcontinental connection. All of this is beautifully laid out in graphic illustration on the board. 

The final phase of a round is to Ride the Rails. Riding the rails is done in turn order with each player finding a passenger from the passenger’s starting city to a final city destination. The starting and ending city is chosen by the player, but the passenger must be in the city where the player starts. Transporting the passenger the player must follow a route from city link to city link. A link must be a single railroad that connects two cities. No looping is allowed, each city may only be visited once on a passenger’s trip. Every railroad that has a link used will gain dividends. The player does not have to own shares in that railroad to use it. Each railroad will pay out one dollar for each link used to every player per matching share that they own. Also, the player doing the transporting will receive one dollar per city that the passenger visits, including the starting and ending cities. That passenger who took the journey, is now removed from the board. 

After that third phase is completed for each player a new round begins, unless that was the sixth round. To start a new round, the player who has earned the least amount of money becomes the first player, and the rest follow in order of least to most, with the player with the most money being last in turn order. Bring the new locomotives into play for the new railroads and do it all over again. At the end of the sixth round, whichever player has the most money is the winner. 

There are a couple of differences between the maps that are interesting. The France map has no transcontinental reward, but each time you enter Paris, you gain ten dollars. Now the trick with that is that each hex around Paris can only hold one locomotive and each railroad may only occupy one of the hexes as well, so you have to branch out somewhere else, you aren’t running the tracks through Paris. Also on the France map there are impassable estuaries, meaning you cannot cross them. At the end of each round, if there is no passenger in Paris, another one is placed. Germany map has a greater Germany bonus, which rewards the first player who connects all the cities with a green link icon gains twelve dollars. Also, the orange railroad does not pay a penalty when building in the mountains. Berlin is two hexes, but only has one passenger, and when you build into Berlin, you gain three dollars. 

Being someone who hasn’t played many of these games, I don’t have a lot to compare Ride the Rails to, and honestly, I’m okay with that at the moment, as gameplay wise, Ride the Rails is a fantastic game. All my plays have been at four players, which after playing seems like it’s going to be the optimal player count, although I am anxious to at least try it at 5 once, maybe we will for the Germany map which I really want to see in action. 

Six rounds really isn’t all that long, especially considering you are placing limited track each round. Because of this, Ride the Rails isn’t a game where you can only rely on yourself to be effective, you have to have others on board as well. 

Therein lies my problem with the game. There is going to be a lot of mirroring. The person behind you taking the same as you or, maybe the first player taking a color and no one else following suit, leaving them out in a lurch. The mirroring is the biggest issue for me as it becomes really difficult to differentiate yourself score wise. Once someone gets ahead on the score track, they may just follow suit with the player closest behind them in points just to ensure that when their opponents are making money, so are they. It’s really difficult to separate. You have to run the longest routes that you can, the money made late in the game from running twenty stop routes is just too much to pass up. Most of the time, it’s too much to pass up even if you are scoring a bit more for someone else than you are for yourself, those dollars are crucial. Maybe it’s my group, but each time we have played, it has been two of us on top, and we’ve basically mirrored each other, maybe one of us has two of one railroad that the other has one of, but it balances out to about the same because you are going to use yours, not theirs. Our first game, I tried to short route the final round to not use anything my opponent would benefit from, but the route being shorter basically ruined me. Had I just ran the longest route, I would have been closer, but still lost. Second game was the same as far as portfolios, but I just vowed to run the longest route possible every time regardless and won that time. So, is this a problem with the game or is this a problem with the group? These instances I tend to lean towards group think being an issue, but Ride the Rails doesn’t do anything to dissuade that group think. Maybe it’s also just us and the fact that we don’t really have a depth of train/cube rail game knowledge. 

That all doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy Ride the Rails, I am pretty sure that everyone I have played with does, and I know that I do. It’s an interesting puzzle to think about and try to crack. I want to try to be a bit less risk averse just to see what happens. 

If I didn’t say it enough, or if it didn’t come through earlier, let me say, Ian O’Toole is on his game with this series of games, and maybe with everything he does — I don’t know, this may be my first O’Toole graphic designed game. The board is beautiful and even with the locomotives making the rails, everything is clear and easy to see. I like the scoring board and how the rounds are noted on the board. Once that first play is done, if you have any questions whatsoever, you can just look at the board and figure it out pretty easily. 

I am anxious for the next game in the Iron Rail series. I don’t have a clue what it is, but I’ll probably be pre-ordering it as soon as I see it up on the Capstone Games website. Speaking of which, is there a smaller U.S. publisher who has made a bigger name for themselves than Capstone has over the past three years or so? From being a company that strictly brought in heavy games that no other U.S. publisher was willing to touch, to a publisher whose output over the past three years is probably on par with anyone in the world. From working with Frosted Games, to their own Simply Complex line and now the Iron Rails line I think we are looking at a publisher that wants to be the go-to publisher in the future for designers across all levels of games. Cheers to Clay and the folks who have helped him out along the way. 

I look forward to our next game night, hopefully we are going to be playing the German map so we get to see if the Orange Railroad can get some love this time around. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it. Brandon

I like it. 

Neutral. Dan Blum

Not for me…

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers:

Dan Blum (1 play):I appreciate that this, unlike many similar games, does not use auctions; I have no general objection to auctions but I think they are overused in this genre. However, otherwise I wasn’t terribly impressed with it. I think the issues Brandon raises are significant – they aren’t caused by groupthink as the game mechanisms generally punish players who do their own thing. At most you can split into two effective teams if people cooperate. Having to form temporary alliances in a game like this is fine, and comes up a lot in Winsome games, but I think this game may overdo it since seems to be little scope for doing anything else – you have to go along with certain other players and maybe you can pick up one stock to differentiate yourself.

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2 Responses to Ride the Rails (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. will sargent says:

    As the web creeps towards a soggy mess of 99% sponsored content, I want to thank OG for its honest reviews and overviews. I don’t care if the reviewer often overhypes his free game from time to time from another industry friend, ust as long as Larry and Jonathan are there to put the whole thing in perspective in the final comments!

  2. slyestfox4425 says:

    The person in the lead can’t follow the shares of the person behind them, because shares are chosen in reverse turn order — which is hugely important for this game to function well. This means that all other plays can respond to what the players ahead of them choose. It is also very important for two players that *are* mirroring each other to realize that only one of them can win. This “am I winning and how do I fix it if not” question should come up for every action that any player is about to take. In games like these, almost every action has the potential to be critical.

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