Dale Yu: Review of Pioneer Rails

Pioneer Rails

  • Designers: Matthew Dunstan and Jeffrey D. Allers
  • Publisher: Dranda Games
  • Players: 1-80
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Played with preview copy provided by publisher

Says the publisher:  “In Pioneer Rails, you represent a railroad owner who has seen an opportunity to expand your empire across the new lands of the frontier. You’ll be competing with other railroad owners to plan your railway in the best way possible to connect establishments to the railroad and satisfy the demands of the locals. Pioneer Rails is a Flip & Write game where you’ll use poker cards to extend your railway tracks and build a poker hand at the same time.  Each turn you’ll choose one of the revealed poker cards. The suit of the card helps you extend your railway, connecting you to new towns and surrounding features. When you connect to a town, you’ll gain the ability to do a one time bonus. When you surround a feature with your tracks, you’ll activate it for end game scoring. The value of the card is added to your poker hand, which you’ll score additional points for at the end of the round. Each game you’ll also be competing over 3 goals, meaning every game you’ll be pulled in different directions. The mechanism of surrounding features to activate them gives Pioneer Rails a satisfying ‘puzzley’ feel to the game. The variable objectives and the poker cards give enough replayability so no two games are ever the same.”

I got an early prototype set to try out, and we quickly got it to the table after it arrived.  Each player gets a sheet (which will be double sided), and all players must use the same side in the game.  There are three small decks of goal cards, and one card of each type is chosen at random and placed faceup for all to see.  One player is made the Dealer, they get the Dealer token and the deck of poker cards – a special deck of 20 cards which has the 10, J, Q, K and Aof the four usual suits.

The game will be played over four rounds, and each round has 5 turns.  In a turn, the dealer flips up the top 3 cards from the deck.  He then takes one of the three and places it in front of him.  Each of the other players mentally chooses one of the remaining two cards.  All players then use their chosen card in two ways – add it to their poker hand on their sheet and to extend a railway on their sheet.

Near the bottom of your sheet, you have an area for four poker hands, one for each round in the game.  Write the rank of the card (not the suit) you chose in the next available space for this round’s hand.  You can see the scoring for the different types of hands to the left of this area.  In each of the five turns of the round, you will add one card to the hand.

You also use your chosen card to extend a railway.  You use the suit of the card to determine which line to extend.  You will draw 3 tracks on the edge of hexes – they must either emanate from the station of that suit or from an existing line connecting back to that station.  Lines always end at cities (yellow splotches at intersections).  Other features seen are activated when there are at least as many tracks drawn in around it as the number on the hex.  Cattle hexes are activated when they are separated from other cattle hexes by tracks.  As you activate features on the map, circle the next available matching icon in the scoring section of your map, found on the right side.

Towns are circled when the first track connects to it, and you circle one on your sheet.  Later in the game, you can cross out a circled town to take one of the 5 special actions which are seen just below the town area:

  • Draw track over water
  • Draw track between two mountain hexes
  • Draw track to connect two opposite corners of a plain land hex
  • Branch a new line off your track
  • Change the suit that you draw track from this turn

At the end of the turn, check to see if you have completed any goals.  If you are the first person to complete a goal, score 10 points.  Anyone else who completes this goal on a later turn will instead circle the 5pt mark.  Discard all three cards dealt this turn and pass the deck and dealer marker to the next player.  Continue until 5 turns have been taken.

When the round ends, all players score stars based on their poker hand; doubling it if you have activated the saloon bonus for the round.  If you do not have a saloon bonus, cross it out so that you cannot circle it later in the game.  Continue the pattern to complete four rounds.

At the end of the fourth round, there is some final scoring: sum the oints from your four poker hands, as well as each of the areas in the scoring area on the right side of your board (for gold nuggets, banks, forts, cattle, rail yards and towns).  Finally, add in your points for completed goals.

The player with the most points wins.  Ties broken in favor of the player with the best score from their poker hands.

There is also a solo version of the game which cleverly uses the goal cards.  Your goal is to always reach a target number of points (Starts at 60); you have an increasing number of goal cards in the game to change the difficulty.  At the end of the game, you add 10 points to your target for each goal which you did not meet.  You win the game if you have scored more points than your target.

My thoughts on the game

Pioneer Rails has been high on my investigation list since I heard about it at SPIEL 2022. I had a nice set of demos at the Dranda stand, and I was instantly interested in this one – mostly because it involves two designers whose games I tend to love.  Disclaimer: Jeff D. Allers happens to be one of the Opinionated Gamers, but even if he wasn’t, I’d still be following his games as the usually are in my sweet spot.  Additionally, the recent success of Dunstan’s varied XXX and write games make this a must try.

The game feels to be on the more complex side of the XXX and write genre; here the action feels like it replaces a strategy game.  There are a lot of things to consider while you mark up your map, and it definitely takes a few games to get the basics figured out – in part because there are so many ways to score points; and it’s hard to figure out what it the best way to put those options together in a plan.

The biggest decision each round is what card to choose – regardless of whether you’re the dealer or not.  The poker hand scoring is not game breaking, ranging from 1 to 6 points per hand (though don’t forget that the scoring can be doubled); but it’s strong enough that you won’t want to simply ignore this part of the game.  Of course, only the rank is used for the poker hand, and there are plenty of reasons to choose a card for the suit instead as this determines where you draw on your sheet.

For me, the rank is slightly more important because you at least have an ability to use a town special ability to virtually change to suit of the card whereas you have no chance to change the rank – therefore, I usually focus on the rank and figure the rest out later.  Keep a careful eye on the cards that have already been revealed and discarded; this will help you figure out what possibilities are still valid as the round progresses.

Each of the buildings offers a unique ability, and you will never have enough rails to fill in your town board, so you’ll have to prioritize paths early on.  The stronger buildings (especially the Fort) require multiple actions to activate – you have to fill in 4 sides of the fort – but the payoff is quite good, especially if you’re able to get all three of them circled.

The cattle scoring was the hardest for our group to figure out, but once you realize that the cows treat the rails like fences; you just have to figure out how to fence a cattle icon in so that it can’t reach any other, and then it is easy to do.

There are a lot of things going on each turn, and we have started to cross out the cost number at the bottom of a hex to show that we’ve made the appropriate mark on the right side of the sheet – and also to not try to activate it again on a later turn. There is a lot going on, and it would be easy to make a mistake – so this method helps us keep things in check.

In the end, there are plenty of ways to score points, and nearly every action that you choose to do will lead to some positive action – your job is to figure out how to score more points on each turn.  Trying to maximize the special actions of the town reward as well as luck of the draw in the card flip will determine your possibilities.

The game does take awhile to play, especially with your first few games, as there are a lot of things to consider each turn.  But, the 

Components – at this point, as I’m playing with a prototype, it would be unfair to mention anything about the physical components.  The artwork is quite thematic and definitely brings a lot of flavor to the game.  There is an additional deck of poker cards included in my prototype set which allows the artist to showcase even more art – though I’ll mention that these cards are probably more for looking at than playing with given the odd placement of the pips as well as being only single indexed, sometimes only on the top left?!  The player sheets are fairly well organized, though with all of the background art of the buildings, we found that we really needed to use a dark pen in order to be able to see our markings.

Pioneer Rails is slated to come to Kickstarter soon (sometime in 2023), and if you are interested in following it – https://www.drandagames.co.uk/pioneer-rails.  So far, I like what I have seen, though I suspect that there will still be some changes to come through comments in the campaign.

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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