Switch and Signal
- Designer: David Thompson
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 10+
- Time: 45-60 minutes
- Played with review copy provided by Thames&Kosmos
In this cooperative logistics game, players work together to deliver the 8 goods to the port city. The board is double sided with one side giving you a map of Western Europe (recommended for your first game) and the other showing the Continental US. Both maps are full of cities, connected with a bunch of tracks, coming together at 3-way and 4-way junctions. At the start of the game, black switch discs are positioned at the intersections so that only one path is open through each intersection. In your very first game, you are asked to copy a setup illustration from the rulebook, but later games give you rules to follow to make your own setup. Around the periphery of the continent, you will find orange hexagonal starting locations for trains.
Additionally, a green signal disc is placed around each city to show which route is open from that city. Each of the four cities gets 2 cubes in its color placed on it. The two decks of cards, the departure cards and the action cards are shuffled and placed on the board. Players get a hand of 5 action cards. Finally place the 7 time tokens on the clock on the board.
The game will be played in a number of rounds with one player being the active player – though many of the decisions will be made cooperatively. The game is won if all 8 goods are delivered to the port city (Marseille on the European map). The game is lost if all of the departure cards have been played – you start with a deck of 17 cards – without all the goods being delivered.
Turns have three phases: 1) Reveal Departure Card, 2) Play Action Cards, 3) Draw new Action cards
Reveal Departure Card – Take the top departure card, flip it over and do the things on it from top to bottom. If you have to deploy a train, you can choose which color train you want to put on the board, then roll the 2d6 to determine where it goes on the board. If there is already a train on that spot, you do not place a train, and you take a penalty and must remove 2 time tokens from the clock.
Next you move the trains shown (if there is a wild color train, you can choose which one to move). For each train shown, roll a die of matching color to see how far it moves: the black trains move the fastest, brown in the middle, and the grey trains are the slowest – the numbers on their dice reflect this. One pip is used for each piece of track moved over and each city entered. Movement is always in the direction that it is facing, though direction can be changed in a city. At intersections, you only can move through open routes, and at signal points, you can only move through green signals. Trains can never simultaneously occupy the same track/city/starting space.
If the full movement number is not used, you remove 1 time token for each point unused. The exception here is that a train has to stop in goods cities and the port; you do not get penalized for unused movement points on this occasion. Trains may not collide, if a rear-ending is going to happen, the moving train stops just before hitting the other train, and a penalty is taken for lost movement. If there is a head-on collision, you lose 2 time tokens per movement lost AND the moving train is removed from the board. Finally, if a train drives onto a starting location, it is lost, and there is a penalty of 2 time tokens.
Play Action Cards – now you can play any or all of your action cards. There are 5 main action options here
- Signal Setting card (green dots in corner) – transfer a green signal disc to cover any red signal space. You must have at least one signal disc per city at all times though.
- Switch Setting card (black dots in corner) – pick any intersection and move the black discs around as you like
- Train movement card – choose any one train to move, roll the appropriate die, and move that train per the roll (all the rules/penalties described above still in effect)
- Wild action – discard any 2 cards to take any above action
- Load goods – You can load a goods cube onto an empty train in a city by discarding any action card. Once the train is loaded, it can only be unloaded in the port city when it delivers the cube
Draw new cards – draw 5 new cards from the deck and add them to your hand. You may not have more than 10 cards in your hand. The next player then draws the next departure card to start their turn.
There are a few other rules not yet covered. First, what about those time tokens? Each time you discard the last time token on the board, you must burn the topmost departure card from the deck; your group now has one fewer turn to finish the game. As you remove the last time token and burn the card, replenish the supply on the board.
Also, note that there are 3 helpers in the corner of the board; each of these gives you a one time special action:
- Logistician – reroll a rolled train die
- Dispatcher – on this turn, trains may move through any city as if all signals are set to green
- Train Conductor – on this turn, all trains of one color shown on the card do not move
As each is used, cover them with a marker showing they are no longer available.
The game again continues until either all 8 goods are delivered (you win!) or the last departure card is used (and you lose).
My thoughts on the game
I generally like logistics games, and the whole idea of cooperative games has been growing on me in the past few years; so I think I was predetermined to like this. After a few games, my thoughts fairly align with my predictions. I like the game a lot, it provides a nice puzzly experience as you have to figure out how to get all the trains to the right places at the right times.
The game offers multiple ways to change the experience to suit your group. If it is too hard, you can add in more departure cards, give your team extra green signals to start the game or start with extra time tokens on the clock face. If it is too easy, you can remove departure cards or you can try to deliver 10 goods instead of 8. The setup can be made variable by placing the signals and switches how you like in setup. You can also use tokens to randomize the positions of the starting train locations. I love the fact that you are able to make the game as challenging or as easy as you like.
The real puzzle here is figuring out how to get all of the trains moving to the right places. You’re constantly evaluating the track, trying to foresee which trains need to go to which places (all without really knowing what will move each turn). The start of the game focuses on getting the starting trains moved and getting space for new trains to come on the board. Next, you start loading goods and moving towards the port. But, timing becomes crucial here. At least on the Europe board, all the trains have to make it to Marseille – but you’ll end up with all sorts of penalties and collisions if they get there at the same time! So, instead you must manage the trains on the rails – staggering their arrival in goods cities and the port city. You also can try to manipulate the switches to keep the trains from hitting each other.
As far as the cooperative part goes, it works well enough. The game reminds me of the first generation cooperative games, in the sense that this one is eminently quarterbackable. Though players each take turns, and the rules say that whoever is the active player is the ultimate tiebreaker if an agreement cannot be had amongst the players; each turn here is essentially the same. Flip over a card, play as many cards as are useful (usually all 5), then draw 5 new cards and repeat. There is essentially no scaling in the game here other than setup – the departure card deck is set from the start of the game whether you play with 1 or with 4. Yes, I know the rules say that this is a 2-4 player game, but I taught myself the game with a solo game, and it works just the same with 1 as with 4… well, maybe slightly less conversation with 1.
Unlike other recent cooperative games, each player does not have a unique ability which would cause the group to try to modify their actions to take advantage of those asymmetrical actions. The cards in each player’s hand are also generally similar as there are only 3 different varieties, and you can make a wild action with any 2 cards. The end result is that most of the turns are essentially similar, it makes no difference who is the active player. Well, unless you have someone who can’t roll well (like John) because then you’ll have to endure his bad rolls every fourth turn.
The advantage of having multiple players is that you have multiple brains working on the puzzle, and let me tell you, there are a lot of things to consider, especially when trying to get the switches and signals in the right position for the next turn. You have a lot of things to consider, especially since you have to account for many possibilities as you aren’t sure what will move next turn until you flip the next Departure card up. I ended up preferring the game with multiple players as it was interactive enough to keep everyone involved in the game.
The graphics are overall pretty good. One weird anomaly – there is a destination card that wants you to move all the trains currently on the tracks, but the icon for this is 3 multi-colored wild trains. This is super confusing, and I’m not sure why this particular card just didn’t say “Move all trains” or have some icon which better represented the idea, maybe a multi-colored train and the infinity symbol? Other than that glitch, the rest of the graphic design is clean and pleasing to the eye.
As far as difficulty goes, we found the base rules to be a tad on the easy side. Admittedly, both of my first two games came down to the last or second to last card, but we didn’t seem to have much issue with clock markers or timing. For my likes, I would have wanted a bit more tension in the game. I think that a cooperative game that is too tough for the first few plays is preferable – this makes it a challenge to try to figure out how to beat it! I’m currently 4 for 4 in victory, and while I am increasing the difficulty level per the recommendations in the rules (using two less clock tokens) – this one doesn’t have me aching to figure out how to beat it like Samurai Spirit or Ghost Fightin Treasure Hunters did.
The designer is perhaps better known for his military themed games, but Switch and Signal has proven to be a clever cooperative design. It is easy to pick up, accessible to most, and with the extra components provided; the game can be tailored to almost any level of difficulty desired. A solid cooperative game with a theme that my group likes.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
James Nathan (2 plays, once on each side): I’m also predisposed to enjoy this one and was relieved that my expectations were met. It’s a treat. I have a preference for the North American side, as the 2 destination cities present a more interesting puzzle (in ways I’ll leave for you to discover), and will echo what Dale said about wishing it was just slightly harder. Yes, we can adjust that difficulty, but for me, there’s nothing like the first few plays of a difficult coop where you almost win and have a primal compulsion to keep trying until you beat it. Somehow winning is a let down, but losing keeps you pining for more. The size of the deck and it’s composition of “just” 3 card types seemed like something that was going to bother me in theory, but in practice, I liked the way it worked out as you tried to see how much you could leverage the turn order cycle and each player’s current speciality.
Dan B. (1 play): I agree that the base game is too easy – there was very little tension in the game once we got going. I appreciate that there are ways to make it harder, but I just didn’t enjoy it enough to explore them. I am a harder sell on cooperative games than many people: I tend to prefer either ones that are very simple or ones that have a strong narrative. This doesn’t fall into either group. At heart it’s just a moderately complex optimization puzzle, which is fine as far as it goes – I like puzzles – but I don’t find this particular puzzle to be that compelling, and I don’t think making it a multiplayer game adds anything to it.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! James Nathan
- I like it. Dale Y, John P
- Neutral. Dan B.
- Not for me…