Monday, November 18, 2013

All Aboard the Deck-building Train!

Designed by Hisashi Hayashi
2-5 Players
Published by AEG
Deck-building Game (with a board!)

Background / Introduction
It seems like trains are "all the rage" these days when it comes to board games. There seemed to be an explosion of train themed games after the tremendous success of Ticket to Ride around the world. I like to actually call this effect "The Twilight Effect" (referring to the endless amounts of vampire themed books, movies, and TV shows after the success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight book). Now, of course there were train themed games prior to Ticket to Ride (TTR), but when the money train took off that is TTR, everyone heard the conductor shouting "All aboard!" and many game designers and publishers jumped on board.

I really enjoy trains. Trains contributed to the rich history of the west and they play a very vital and interesting role in our society today. For those familiar with the TV show "The Big Bang Theory," I feel that one can get just as excited about AEG's game Trains as Sheldon can about the real deal (or a model). One family vacation years ago, my family decided to fly somewhere only 530 miles away and then take a train ride back. Part of the fun for the trip was that I hadn't been on a plane or train before this point. It was definitely a great experience and one that has stuck with me. Riding through mountains and beautiful countryside on a passenger train is an experience that not many know (those in Europe may be more likely to have this experience as they are still used frequently for passenger travel between towns and countries).

I will tell you right now that Trains has easily become one of my new all-time favorite games. I really enjoyed Dominion when it first came out a few years ago, and when I heard about Trains for the first time, it sounded pretty similar with the type of cards and mechanics used. I was intrigued. A deck-building game that utilized a train theme and added a board to the mix (now that was different!). Building and balancing a deck full of cards while trying to create the most beneficial railway system on the map. The cards are very well themed for use in the game, and the concept of "waste" cards being added to your deck as you progress in the game is really fun. The game provides many different strategies that could be used for victory.

Components / Rule Book
Trains retails at $59.99 and it includes a good amount of content. In the box, you will find 530 cards (yes,
you read that correctly), 124 wooden rail and station tokens, a double sided board, card dividers, a card tray in-lay to keep your cards organized, and the rule book. Besides the double sided board that is provided in the game, you can download and print other maps from online to play with (fans have created a bunch already including a "Middle Earth" from Lord of the Rings). The different maps add a great deal of replayability and can be a nice change for each game. The quality of the components are all really nice. The cards have a glossy type finish on them which seems pretty good. I did seem like I wasn't able to shuffle the cards as well with this type of card (they clumped up a little more so that I didn't feel like I was getting the best shuffle every time - this could just be me and how I shuffle the cards).

I guess there could be some resemblance... 
Really, the only things that I'm not too crazy about regarding the game Trains fits into this category
(components / rule book) - so, let's get them over with now so that we can focus on how the game is so amazing the rest of the time. While the cards fit the train theme really well and I like the artwork, the game pieces that you actually play on the board are just simple wooden cubes (for the railways) and white wooden cylindrical pieces represent the stations. These pieces are great quality, but I do kind of feel that they are little abstract and they could have improved upon the game by making tokens match the theme (little wooden rails or trains, with little wooden or even plastic stations).

The other thing that I found a little lacking was the rule book. It really isn't a bad rule book, but there just a few things that could have used some more explanation or detailed examples. It would have been really nice to have a FAQ section, or a separate book that discussed each card with perhaps some more detail. Not a huge issue, but it would be convenient to have answers to these very common questions in the rule book (perhaps future printings could include such a sheet for clarifications).

The setup time for Trains isn't too long, but it can take a little while to actually sort through and pull out all 16 decks that you will be using for the game. You can speed this process up by everyone helping out. In each game, there are 8 kind of cards that are used each game and there are 8 other cards that are randomly chosen from another 30 different types of cards (huge replayability here folks as each time you can be playing with a different conglomerate of cards).

Each player starts the game with a deck of 10 cards (7 normal trains, 2 lay rails cards, and 1 station expansion card). These cards will be shuffled creating the players starting deck and they will draw 5 cards that will make up there hand. The starting player is chosen by determining who traveled most recently by train. To start the game, each player will choose a starting location on the map (yeah, you would also need to decide what map you will be playing) and place a rail token. The token may not be on a water space, a remote location, or on a location already claimed by another player. Then the game gets chugging.

Goal / Gameplay
The goal of Trains is to have the most victory points at the end of the game. The game ends when either of the following are met: a player runs out of rail tokens, all the stations have been built, or 4 decks from the supply are emptied (waste not included). You obtain victory points through various means. You can gain victory points from the board by building railways in cities with stations (city with no stations = 0 points, 1 station = 2 points, 2 stations = 4 points, and 3 stations = 8 points) and building railways to remote locations (point value shown on board). You can also obtain victory points through victory point cards.

Gameplay is very simple. You start each turn with 5 cards drawn from your deck. You then use these 5 cards for their special actions or abilities and their income. You can buy cards from the supply to help strengthen your deck, and/or you can build your train empire on the board with lay rail type cards or by building stations. The cards are color coded and their are some basic categories of different cards available to you (blue = trains (income), green = laying rails (also reduce cost of building), purple = stations, red = actions, and yellow = victory points etc.).

As you progress toward your inevitable victory or demise, you will be gaining waste cards. Lots and lots of waste cards. This is a really cool concept in my opinion. Whenever you do something that may be really beneficial, you usually will gain a waste card that will go in your deck. You lay a rail (waste), you buy a victory point card (waste), you enter a city already occupied by another player (waste), will the waste ever end? Well, there may be some handy cards available in the supply that allows you to avoid gaining these wastes, or maybe it allows you to dispose of them (properly of course, we wouldn't want the EPA after us). Balancing your deck is very important. You may be able to live with a few waste, but you will want to get rid of waste as often as possible. You can take a complete turn to dispose of any waste in you hand, but that could be a very vital turn you just missed out on. This is a very important part of the game (and really, if you think about it, we create lots and lots of waste each day - how do we take care of it and where does it go) and will be vital to victory.

I won't go into any more nitty gritty detail of the rules, but will rather talk a little about what I like about the gameplay. I really enjoy the deck-building and balancing aspect of the game, but what makes this game really different than those other deck-building games is that Trains has a very well put together board element to it as well. The deck-building element is really similar to other deck-building games, however, the waste cards and the concept of gaining waste (or useless cards) into your deck as you perform actions that gain you points (or place you in a better position to do so) provides a nice new game mechanic that works extremely well.

The rail laying portion on the maps definitely adds to the fun factor and the strategic elements of the game. choosing where to build and how quickly can make a big difference in the outcome of the game. With the double sided board and the maps available online (or if you are feeling creative, you could make your own) there is a nice replayability there to keep placement of rails and board strategy different each time.

Final Thoughts
AEG has now perhaps my top 2 deck-building games (Trains and Thunderstone). I am giving Trains my highest rating, a big Thumbs Up (or 10/10 stars). Even though the playing pieces are a little abstract, they are still great quality and they work well enough. The rule book isn't amazing, but it does well enough. I enjoy this game a lot. It really doesn't take long to play, the general gameplay is simple, and the game provides many different variations to keep each game fresh and different than the last. There are always multiple ways to find victory and each player must adapt to other player styles as well if they want to be successful. Is it Dominion meets Ticket to Ride? Maybe a little bit. Either way, the game is definitely one that I would recommend to everyone out there! Christmas is coming...and that is How Lou Sees It!

A big SHOUT OUT to AEG for providing this review copy and making this possible. The review itself was in no way influenced by the receipt of this complimentary review copy.

Christmas is almost upon us! My next set of reviews will be on some "stocking stuffer" type games. Games that are small (easily travel), and easy on your pocket book too! These games would make for great stocking gifts, neighbor gifts, or would be great for anyone looking for some simple, quick, less expensive type games. I also will have an exclusive coupon code for some of the card games - so keep your eye out for the next review!

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