Monday, 2 May 2016


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Trambahn is a two-player card game. The setting is transportation tycoons building tram networks, but the game mechanisms are quite abstracted. So the setting is just a nice-to-have. In this photo you see a player's hand cards. Each player has a hand of six cards. Most cards are in one of four colours and have a card value (small number in the corners) between 1 and 10. To build your tram business, you play cards as tracks, which are sets of the same colour with numbers in ascending order. Each track must have a station card. Each track has potential to score points for you during a scoring round. There are 10 scoring sounds. The game ends after the 10th.

The first thing you must do on your turn is play one or two passenger cards. This just means playing a card from your hand to one of the four terminals. The terminals come in four colours, and the card you play must go to the terminal of the matching colour. So there are actually two ways you can use your cards - as passengers going to a terminal or as sections of tram tracks. Passenger cards trigger scoring. When a fourth passenger is played at any terminal (e.g. the yellow passengers in this photo), scoring for that colour is initiated immediately. Tram tracks of that colour score for their respective owners. After scoring is done, the four passengers are discarded. The terminal needs to accumulate four passengers again before the next scoring is done.

Playing at least one passenger card is mandatory. After you do that, playing tracks and buying stations are optional. Playing tracks simply means starting a new track or extending an existing track. You can have two or more tracks of the same colour. Every track must have its own station. When a track scores, you look at the large numbers at the top centre of the track cards. Sum that up, and then multiply it with the multiplier value of the station card. Station cards come with a x2, x3 or x4 multiplier (the large number at the bottom left). The game starts with small stations (x2), which are the cheapest. As players buy up the cheaper stations, the more expensive and more powerful stations come into play.

Before you end your turn, you have the option of discarding cards. Discarded cards are turned face-down and become your money, $1000 per card. Finally you draw cards up to your hand limit of 6. If you do nothing on your turn other than playing the one mandatory passenger card, you can discard all five remaining cards to earn $5K.

The basic colours are four, but there's a special type of card which is grey - the jokers. They can be used as passengers or as track sections. In both cases they can be considered any colour. If played as a track section, a joker has no value and isn't restricted by previously played cards, nor does it restrict cards played to this track afterwards. You sometimes want to play a joker to extend a track because when a track reaches the 8th card, it gets a one-time bonus scoring. Getting 8 cards is not easy without the help of jokers.

The 10 scoring rounds are all triggered by the two players. You have control over which colours get scored and how soon scoring happens. The dynamics in scoring is an interesting and crucial aspect of the game. If you commit many cards of a colour to build a nice long track, you may lack cards to use for scoring that same colour. This is a dilemma that often happens, unless you are exceptionally lucky to draw an unusually large number of cards in one colour.

The Play

I played against Allen. We were both new to the game. Jeff taught us. My biggest impression of the game is how important the tempo is. In the early game, Allen and I worked on different colours. When one of us triggered scoring, only that person had the appropriate colour to score points. We didn't help each other score. Later on our colours started overlapping, and we had to consider more when we played passenger cards. I had to consider whether scoring a colour would help Allen more than myself, and even if it wouldn't, I still had to consider how much more I would be scoring compared to him. Starting a colour which your opponent already has is usually a good thing, because you are forcing him to help you, or at least you are neutralising him in that colour. However you need to consider whether it is worth the effort.

Quality vs quantity is another consideration. Do you make many weak tracks, or focus on a few strong ones? In the game I played, I went the quantity path, while I think Allen gambled on making a strong track. I tried to do scoring often. When I outscored him, I only scored a little more, but I tried to do this often. I wanted to end the game before he could make a strong track and score it many times. Making a strong track was not easy. He had to collect more cards, and he had to save enough money to buy the large stations. Since I was going the reckless and hasty path, quite often I discarded all cards in hand (to turn them into money), and just hoped for the best when I drew back up to 6 cards. I wasn't trying to make any perfect track anyway, so less than ideal cards was not a major concern. I am guessing Allen probably had some good cards in hand, and he struggled whether to play or to discard them. He was more deliberate when mulling over his cards.

My strategy worked out well for me. I forced the game end and had a commanding lead. However I don't think this quantity over quality strategy will always work. There are 10 scoring rounds, and it is not exactly easy to speed it up. At most you can play 2 cards as passengers on your turn, and sometimes you may not want to play passengers of certain colours. If Allen had successfully made a strong track and scored it once or twice before the game was up, the story could have ended differently. In this game it is important to watch what your opponent is doing and to guess his intentions. Then you decide how you should be tuning the tempo.

The Thoughts

Trambahn was a pleasant surprise. It is for the most part just cards numbered 1 to 10 in four different suits, not so different from a standard deck of playing cards. Yet the game feels unique and much more than just a traditional card game. Reiner Knizia has many card games using mainly numbered cards in different suits. Trambahn reminds me of the fact that clever games can emerge from such simple components. It does not resemble any Knizia game that I know of though. It doesn't have a Knizia feel. Maybe's there's a little Lost Cities in there, but that's just a minor element of Trambahn.

One sign of a good game is the difficult decisions it forces you to make. Trambahn has this. When you want to work on one colour, you need to use the cards for both track-building and scoring, so you're often torn about where to use a card of that colour. You are often in dilemma over whether to hold on to certain cards while waiting for other cards to appear, e.g. holding on to the 9 and 10 while hoping for 6 to 8 to come. However the more cards you keep in hand, the fewer you will get to draw, thus reducing your chances of getting those cards you want. Playing a passenger card, as simple as it sounds, can involve deep considerations. Normally you'd want to advance the colours where you will score more than your opponent. However if you think deeper, you will realise that sometimes it may be good to force your opponent to score a track while it is still weak, before he adds on even more cards. Similarly, sometimes you want to hold off scoring your own track because you want to wait for more track cards to be laid. Playing a passenger card is mandatory. This is risk management. There is also a brinkmanship to it. How close to scoring do you want to set a colour up? Will you be able to control when it will eventually score, such that it happens at a time most advantageous to you?

You need to watch your opponent. You need to manage the tempo and tune it to your advantage. Trambahn is quite a unique package. The gameplay that emerges from the simple rules and components amazes me. There is luck of the draw, but that's the whole point - this game is all about how you manage what fate deals you.

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