Tuesday, January 11, 2011

HOT BOX - Settlers of America: Trails to Rails (Review - Part 2)

This is Part 2 of my review of Trails to Rails - see Part 1 of the review if you haven't read it yet or want to review (press to the right on the 5-way on your Kindle, then press Back to come back here after reading it)

(STRATEGY ALERT: Further down you will encounter some strategy related information. If you don't want to read strategy don't read the specially marked section at the end -- until that section you should be safe. If I accidently help you with strategy elsewhere -- oops, sorry!)

Ok, so I covered the basic mechanics in my previous post. Then, when I started this post I started covering the rules in more detail. It was working out to be a nice rules summary. BUT, I've decided that's not what my blog is really about - anyone can read the rules in detail for themselves here: Settlers of America: Trails to Rails rules

My blog is about an assessment of the game itself in my opinion and perhaps the opinion of others that I played with or noticed on Board Game Geek. Therefore, I have removed the rules details unless it pertains to the discussion.

Oh, by the way, one rule I didn't mention before was the victory condition: You win when you deliver all of your goods! In a 2- or 4-player game you deliver 8 goods. In a 3-player game you deliver 10 goods.

So, here's the scoop:

I really enjoyed playing Rails to Trails. Both the regular 4-player game and my friend Bob's modified 2-player variant. This game is very different from Ticket to Ride and that range of games. It is also very different from the Age of Steam / Steam types of games and most definitely different than the Winsome types of train games. This is a train game of a different breed (or at least one I haven't seen myself yet)

To start off, the wooden components are excellent. Each player has a set of nicely painted wood components consisting of 10 cubes, a set of 12 houses (3 start on the board, then 7 or 9 that you use for settling cities), a set of 30 rails, 2 trains and 2 covered wagons for your settlers to travel around in.

And, of course there are the standard resource cards, cardboard gold tokens, cardboard number tokens (for use on the ? and ?? spaces), a set of development cards, 2 dice and a wooden outlaw token. All of these are perfectly serviceable - nothing outstanding but no complaints about them.

The only real complaint I have with the components is the player reference cards that each player receives - it is missing one critical piece of information - that you can trade in 2 gold coins for any 1 resource 2x during your turn. There is an identical cost chart on the board that has this information, so this card is superfluous to begin with, and it's missing information. Also, it doesn't distinguish between what are 'buying' options, what are 'trading' options and what you are limited to doing on the 'extraordinary builds' that occur between player turns. Someone needs to make a replacement reference for this game. Maybe I'll do it sometime....

The board itself is fantastic with the hexes laid out across the United States in a manner that more or less matches the actual landscape of the US. You can see the great plains of wheat, the wooded Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians and the vast desert of the south west.

The hex graphics are easy to distinguish between and are numbered just as you would see in Settlers of Catan with the number and a set of dots below each indicating how likely that number is to come up when being rolled. Plus, as mentioned before, some hexes have ? and ?? instead of numbers which are covered with removable discs for different setup and interactive game play.

You also see city sites with actual city names in all of the (roughly) appropriate locations. What? No Eugene, Oregon!? At least there's Portland I guess.....  ;)

4-player game
Ok, so how does this game actually play? Well, I'm not going to tell you. After all this build-up I'm just going to wait for another day to post.


Just kidding!

This game fundamentally plays a lot like Settlers of Catan. I've mentioned this before. I also mentioned that I'm not a big fan of vanilla Settlers. I'll play it, but I have some issues with it.

BUT, this game has a LOT more meat on it, and there's a lot more here to help mitigate the luck:
* You start with 3 cities on the board (note that cities only give 1 production, no doubling or upgrading of cities)
* You get a gold if you don't get any resources - these are valuable in more ways than one
* Plus it's a lot easier to build cities than in Catan because all you need to do is build a settler/wagon (wood, wheat, steer) and move it (1 or 2 wheat to reach most city sites) - once it arrives you get the city automatically. This is really interesting because, if you wanted to, you could spend a bunch of wheat and travel all the way across the board in one go!

And, because of the larger board along with this fairly easy ability to move across it, you have lots of choices of where to build a city and get the various resources you need (and with better die roll numbers). For instance, there is not much ore or coal available in the eastern US where you start, so you have to work your way across towards the rockies to get to more of these resources. Plus, there is value not only for the resources and the numbers, but also the locations that you will then be able to build your track from and send new settlers out from. I love this new dimension of logistics that has been added.

Another interesting aspect is the movement of the number tokens for resource production. These start in the east and move west with you as you migrate. The disk that moves to a new location always comes from the top-right most hex space. This means that sometimes you are racing to get perhaps a currently available 9 onto your ?? resource hex instead of being stuck with an 11 which would be available next if someone else got the 9 instead.

In addition to your migration and city building, you are also trying to build rails in such a way as to get to cities first before other players (to get the gold bonus for reaching 'isolated cities'). You also want to build rails that allow you to ship goods to other players cities since you can't ship to your own cities. The more you can build directly to those cities the less you end up having to pay in gold since you must pay each other player a gold if you use any of their rail links. The payment is just 1 for travelling on all their rails, but it can add up easily over time and if you are short on gold, this can be a real problem.

The other thing that, I think, ultimately makes this game is what is called the 'extraordinary build' phase. This phase happens BETWEEN player turns. During this phase, as the dice are passed from one player to the next for their turn, everyone gets to perform any build/buy actions they want. This is limited to building rails, trains and wagons, plus buying development cards. No trading is allowed, including 'trading' in 2 gold for a resource. Also, no movement is allowed.

There are 3 benefits to this that help mitigate the luck and also give you an opportunity to build something before your chance is missed by your next turn:
1. If you had some really good rolls and got a lot of resources, you can spend them before the Outlaw (roll of 7) shows up.
2. You can buy a development card that you can use on your next turn - even if you are immediately the next player.
3. You can build something (usually rails to get in to where someone else is headed before they do)

Finally, there is the race to get your goods delivered - this is the ultimate goal and how you win the game. Sometimes this turns into a bit of a game of chicken...should you ship to that city before someone else does? Are they really going to ship there now or can I wait another turn so I can do something else with my gold that I would need to ship over blue's rails? This is the sort of agonizing decisions you must make in this game.

All of these elements together make for a much meatier and interesting game for me. Don't get me wrong, I love me a simple, less meaty game as much as many other gamers. But, sometimes vanilla Setters of Catan just seems to be 'not enough' for it's length. And, if you're really unlucky with the dice you just get screwed. The first time I played I just sat there waiting to get enough resources to even consider making a decent trade or building something and was never really in the game. In general, you aren't going to run into this problem in this game. YES, the dice can still be cruel to you. But I say you have many more opportunities here to get yourself out of a hole. I haven't really found myself too strapped for resources by the time my turn comes around, but I think this also requires some careful planning (see Strategy Tips at the end of the article)

2-player variant
The two player variant Bob put together is as follows:
* Same as 4-player setup rules
* 2 neutral players are included and, whenever one person builds something or moves something, the other player gets to do the same thing for either of the two neutral players.
* Each player rolls the dice TWO times before their actions. Both rolls are allowed to have the same number result (this is different from some other regular Catan 2-player variant rules).
* Extraordinary builds occur between the dice rolls (see link above for details). This was Bob's addition to the variants he was seeing. He missed this phase and I agree it's needed - this phase is what really makes the game complete, both for 2- and 4-player games.
* Adds 'Commerce' chips. You start with 5 and accumulate more for various actions. These chips allow you to either move the Outlaw (to kick him back to the desert) or to do a FORCED trade with the other player (randomly draw 2 cards, then return 2 cards to them after viewing the drawn ones). Payment is 1 chip if the score is tied or you are behind, or 2 chips if you are winning (most goods shipped).

This variant worked great and made for a very tense, close game most of the way, plus kept enough buildings on the board to ship to but also keep it tight and interesting. The Commerce chips are borrowed from other Catan 2-player variants and were a nice addition here. And keeping the Extraordinary builds was Bob's own idea and, I think, key to this variant being terrific. and I'm looking forward to playing it again.

I will say it didn't play quite as smoothly as the 4-player game, mainly because playing the neutral players is a whole other strategy to keep in mind and add a lot of extra mental work. I think with experience with the game you can really use them to your advantage and I just had a hard time seeing how my first time out. BUT, this variant definitely kept me engaged and I didn't feel like anything major needed to be changed in it because it actually felt very true to the original design of the game for 4 players. Maybe a couple of tweaks, but nothing much more beyond that.

One final note: the 3-player game is said to be even longer (probably too long) as you must ship 10 goods instead of 8 as in the regular game. I think the idea is to ensure the board stays tight enough to keep it interesting. I haven't played 3-player so I have no idea if there are any issues or not.

So what do I REALLY think of this game?
I already noted at the beginning that I really like this game - quite a bit actually. It IS a kind of long game (2-3 hours if playing carefully - i.e. thinking through your moves, plus for a first game the rules and setup can take quite a while, so expect 4 hours your first time out) but it's intense and engaging, so a longer game isn't a problem for me if I don't notice the time flying by.

Do I like it enough to want to purchase a copy of it? YES!
Do I have to get it right now? No.
Do I want to play it again? Yes please!
Is there anything you didn't like about this game? Overall I had no major complaints about the game at all in terms of components or game play. I will say near the end of the game a winner or winners seemed to emerge and there didn't seem to be any definite ways to stop them, especially if the other player(s) were down on resources. However, as this was maybe the last 15 minutes of a long game it wasn't a huge proportion of the game.

And, I think with more experience under all player's belts there would be more noticeable things to do to mess with the potential winners to keep them from delivering good and allowing for some catch up. In one case, one of the other players built a connection that gave him gold but gave me a final location to build my last goods cube and win the game. If that hadn't been built the outcome would have been different.

I definitely would like to pick it up (and probably will), but since Bob has a copy and I'm most likely to play only with him (whether 2-player or 4-player) currently, I'm probably going to wait at this point as it isn't that high on my priority list. Don't get me wrong - this is a great game and my wife ALMOST bought it for me for my birthday (There was a 40% off coupon that she was going to use @ - sorry it's no longer valid. Watch the BGG Hot Deals section for another coupon in the future hopefully), but we decided to wait. This shouldn't stop YOU from taking a shot at it!

One word of caution if you are considering this game. This is NOT a family game in my opinion. I could probably play this with my 7 and 10 year old kids, but there are so many choices and things to think about I'd probably be helping them out as much as doing my own turn. Playing a 2-player variant was a bit of a stretch due to the extra challenge of the neutral players and, having to help my kids 'do good' while also playing well myself would be really taxing. This is NOT Age of Steam or Winsome difficult, but challenging nonetheless.

To me in a family game, I expect the kids to be able to play their own turns themselves and perhaps offer a bit of advice here and there, not have to be a major contributor to their actions and that's where I feel this game is at. I myself was a bit overwhelmed on my first couple of turns and it took a bit of time to absorb everything and form a coherent strategy. It should probably also be shorter to fall into this category. Theme-wise this is great for families, but it's difficult to fully recommend specifically as a family game.

So, get this for you and your gaming buddies, not family game night (or when the kiddies are older)

The Deal
A quick search on shows Time Well Spent having the best price for it right now for $41.50 + shipping. Borders and Barnes & Noble has also been carrying it in some of their stores and with some of the coupons you get if you're a member, you can get a decent deal on it there as well.

Now quit reading and go play a game! (oh wait, you can also read the strategy info below if you want)

(see more gaming reviews and topics discussion at

(** STRATEGY TIPS AHEAD! Alert! Strategy tips ahead! Stop here as there's nothing else for you to read after the tips if you don't want to read those! **)

Matt's Basic Strategy Tips:
* Settle, settle, settle. Especially in the early game. And pick a good variety of numbers and resources with preference toward needed resources even if the numbers are just 'ok'. Settling frees up your goods AND gets you (hopefully) more resources. It also blocks OTHERS from those resources.
* Gold is good! Remember you can get gold from someone by trading them a resource.
* Look for opportunities to get quick gold by building rail links to isolated cities.
* You will need more wood, wheat and steer at the beginning, a balance in the middle, and wood, coal and ore near the end. Don't forget about each during each stage of the game, especially that you also need to build a few rails in the early game.
* Buy some development cards. Hold them for when you really need them, but don't be afraid to use them too early either. You can only play one per turn, but the right card at the right time might win or lose you the game (or maybe even prevent someone else from winning their next turn).
* Look for opportunities to make more than one delivery at a time (yes this is legal - your train can move through more than one city delivering goods at each one)
* Spend your extra resources (over hand limit) on the 'extraordinary build' phase.
* Practice rolling the dice.
* (just kidding on that last one)

Also, remember these are guidelines that I thought might be helpful to get you started. YGMV! (your game may vary)

(**** End of Strategy tips! ****)

Ok, NOW you can go play a game!

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