Sunday, 15 November 2015

Russian Railroads

Plays: 2Px5.

Russian Railroads won many awards, the most prestigious one being the Deutscher Spiele Preis (2014). It also won the 2013 Meeple's Choice Award and the 2014 International Gamers Award. It was nominated for the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres too. I had read positive comments and was interested to try it out. Unfortunately when it was played at I couldn't make it, so I missed that opportunity. Then for my birthday this year my wife Michelle said she wanted to buy me a game. This was the game she had her eyes on. She seldom plays boardgames now. She has other interests and hobbies. However since this was a birthday gift, naturally it came with "play with me" vouchers (figuratively speaking).

The Game

Russian Railroads is a worker placement game and a development game. You are industrialists building railroads, developing steam engines and growing industry in Russia. The design is very Euro, very multiple-ways-to-score-points-y. There are four main paths you can pursue - the three rail lines plus industrialisation.

This is the player board. There are three railroad tracks, and the series of purple hexagons at the bottom is the industrialisation track. The black markers on the three railroad tracks indicate how far you have extended the railroads. Some spots on the tracks indicate benefits you gain once your markers reach those spots. After you build your railroads, you can upgrade them. Black is the lowest grade. You can upgrade it to grey, then brown, then biege, and finally white. Upgrading must be done starting from the left, just like how you advance the black markers. Higher grade markers may never overtake lower grade markers, so you need to push your lower grade markers ahead before you can do upgrades to higher levels.

The Trans-Siberian Railway (the topmost) currently has two trains valued 2 and 1. That means my train can only reach the 3rd spot on the track. Some of the benefits on the tracks can only be claimed if your trains can also reach the specific spots. Thus the need to upgrade your trains.

To advance along the purple industrialisation track at the bottom, there is a type of industrialisation action you can take. It's just a simple matter of advancing the purple hexagonal marker, which scores points for you every round depending on where it is. However the higher half of the industrialisation track is broken up, and you need to build factories to link up the fragments before your industrialisation marker can advance further. Factories that you build (for now there's only one here) give benefits when your marker lands on them.

This is the main board. This is a worker placement game, so most of the board is spaces for you to place workers and take corresponding actions. This side is for 2 players. The other side is for 3 and 4. The actions on the left section are for building tracks of specific grades. The actions on the upper right are for things like developing better trains, building factories, collecting money, and advancing industrialisation. The characters on the lower right are the engineers. Engineers are additional spots to place workers on to execute actions. These actions are usually stronger. Every round there is one engineer offering an additional placement spot on the main board, and there is also one engineer who becomes available for recruitment. If you recruit him (by paying money), or her, you get a private worker placement spot. At game end there is a bonus scoring done based on everyone's engineers too.

The game comes with many engineers. These are but a subset.

Some spots take one worker, some spots require two. There's one here which requires one worker and one coin.

The train tiles are at the same time also factory tiles. The back side is the factory side. The factory ability is shown as an icon in the top left corner of the train side, for the convenience of the players.

The number of rounds is fixed. You try to maximise your scoring within this limited number of rounds and actions. There are many ways to score, but to score big you need to specialise. There is no direct conflict. Competition is mostly of the I-got-it-before-you-nyah-nyah-nyah type.

The Play

When I played with Michelle, I only realised I had made a rule mistake by our third game. We had played with too many train tiles. The number of train tiles in play depends on the player count. Having too many in play meant our train development was very slow. When you claim a new train, you must take the lowest one available. So having more in play meant we were stuck with lousy trains for a long time. Our first few games were a bit off.

The worker placement element is not particularly outstanding. It works, and that's about it. The track upgrading mechanism is something new, but that doesn't carry the game. What makes the game attractive to me is the many little nooks and crannies in the strategy space. Yes, you do keep returning to one or two of the four broad strategies, the three railways and industrialisation, but within these broad strategies there are many very specific tactics which you can exploit to score you many points. To make the most of such special powers or scoring categories, you need to do much aligning of stars. This means you can't afford to try to do everything. You need to do a few things that synergise very well, and you need to be disciplined in pursuing your strategy. Flail about, and you'll end up neither here nor there.

In the strategy space there are many small corners to explore, and it'll take many plays to try every one of them. You can try to start a game with one particular tactic in mind, but it will not always work out. It depends on the kind of engineers available, and the actions of your opponents. Also some bonus scoring cards are randomly removed at the start of every game. You may anticipate to claim a particular card only to discover at mid game that it is not in play.

In this game I focused on the Trans-Siberian Railway. My black marker is at 11 now, getting ready for the final push to the end. The grey, brown and beige markers are chugging along. The Trans-Siberian Railway has 8 slots for x2 markers, which double the railroad track score for the corresponding sections. A beige section has a base value of 4VP. When doubled it's worth 8VP. I have 3 beige sections now, which is 3x8=24VP, a quite respectable amount. There is a price to pay for all this though. My other two railroads are completely neglected. The black markers are still at 1.

The factory on the left allows all engineers you own to score once, so usually you trigger this after you've employed some high valued engineers. The factory on the right gives you two x2 markers.

In this particular game I focused on the third railway and industrialisation. I have completed the railway (black marker at 9), and my train (level 9) is able to travel all the way to the terminal station.

The orange discs are special ability discs, all very powerful. Everyone gets a set of six, and you will be able to use at most four in a game, if you meet all the criteria. In this photo I have triggered two of them and thus I have placed them on my player board.

I find that I tend to prefer working on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In this photo, the orange special ability disc I have picked increases the base values of my brown, beige and white tracks. Their values are increased from 2 / 4 / 7 to 3 / 6 / 10. This works very well with a Trans-Siberian strategy because it has the track score doublers. That said, upgrading tracks to the max level takes much effort and persistence, so usually you only get to score big by the last or second last round.

In this particular game I emphasised the first and second railroads. At the top right corner I have three engineers and I have assigned workers to work with some of them.

The Thoughts

Russian Railroad is a very Euro Eurogame. That can be good or bad depending on your personal preference. It's a medium-heavy strategy game. The game quality is solid. It is not ground-breaking or particularly innovative, but there is decent depth and replayability.

Michelle has yet to win a game. In the last two games we both thought she was going to win, but after the final tally it turned out that I was victorious again. I probably want to keep it this way. It seems that the longer that she doesn't win, the more keen she is to play and to beat me. Nowadays getting 5 plays out of a new boardgame is a minor achievement worth celebrating. I look forward to more plays and experimenting with tactics I have not yet tried.

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