It was inordinately cold last night. Seriously, I just cannot get a grip on this weather – muggy and hot one day, freezing rain the next. And the cold last night heralded the coming of Russian Railroads, a game of building trans-Siberian and other rail lines across the frozen Russian countryside. Or at least that’s what is vaguely implied. In all actuality, you’ll get very little theme from this game.
But that’s okay. If my love of Glass Road is any indication (oh my god, stop talking about Glass Road already), we can enjoy a good Euro without all those pesky trappings of theme. And Russian Railroads is a good Euro, full of worker placement, point optimization, point optimization and more point optimization.
In fact, there is so much point optimization and so little theme, I was very wary coming into the game. I mean, how complicated and intricate would a game have to be to hold my interest by solely asking me to collect points? In the case of Russian Railroads, the answer is “complicated enough.” The game’s many systems are all well-crafted, well-balanced and woven together in such a way that difficult and interesting decisions are always right around the corner.
A quick overview of these many systems: Russian Railroads is a worker placement game in the very basic sense – take turns placing workers to take actions that block other people from taking the same action. At it’s core, the main thing you’ll be doing is building rails on one of three rail lines. As you advance your main (black) rails, you can also start improving your lines by building different color rails (grey, brown, beige and white) on top of the black rails. The purpose of building rails is two-fold: the first is simple points – each improved rail space will give you a number of points depending on the color at the end of each round; and the second purpose is that at specific spots on the rail lines, when you advance a specific rail color to the that spot, you will get some benefit – more points, extra workers, unlocking new colors of rails, valuable bonus tiles, etc. The trick is that in most cases, in order to take advantage of a rail spot, you not only need a colored line on the spot, but you also need the locomotive power to reach that spot (you can attach locomotives to each line and the strength of the locomotive determines which spots you can activate).
So the worker placement comes in to grab action spots that advance various rail colors, gain locomotives and factories (one-time action tiles), advance your industry track (more points), buy an engineer (personal action space) or use engineers you own or one on the board (these usually also advance rails). Everything but the engineers is static – the same spaces are available every round, every single time you play the game. The engineers are the only variable. They are in a line that essentially functions as a turn track. Every turn one is available to buy and the next two in line can be used as actions. At the end of every round, all the engineers move forward in line and when you run out, the game is over.
And I think that more or less covers it. Phew, like I said, complicated inter-woven systems.
So the deal is that I liked the game. It held my interest despite its abstract, mathy nature (be warned: there is a lot of math) because I enjoy learning new systems and figuring out the best way to optimize the way the system works. It was fun for me, but some aspects still troubled me.
Like the persistent lack of sheep. Seriously, guys. What happened to all the Euros with cute farm animals?
In all seriousness, though, one of my troubles is that there is a lot of player interaction, but a lot of it seemed accidental – not on the designers part, but in the sense of, “Oh, you wanted that spot? I had no idea.” Or at least, that happens half the time. The other half it’s, “Oh, of course you wanted that spot. That spot was obviously the best choice for everybody.” And neither of these cases feels like good player interaction to me. Good worker placement interaction is studying what other people are doing and then getting in that block right before they get the action, but the forethought there is the key for me, and in Russian Railroads, you’ve got so many systems on your own board to deal with, it’s hard to imagine, after one play at least, that I’d be able to also study the systems on another player’s board and figure out what they want. There’s enough analysis paralysis as it is, and this is compounded by the second, larger issue that some action spaces are significantly better than others, such that taking the optimal space for you precludes any sort of strategic blocking you would do.
Take the engineers for instance. Buying the engineer is the first move taken every turn, every game. It’s the move the first player takes every time and if you want to buy an engineer, you had better use your first action to take the first player spot for next turn so that you can get that first player privilege. If you are the first player, though, you’d better watch out because after you buy that engineer, the next spaces that are going to go are the locomotives, since every player absolutely needs locomotives to get anything done in the game. And only once the engineer, the first and second player spots and the locomotives are gone can you actually start to make decisions about what the next best thing for you is. This whole process of obvious best action spaces left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It reminded me a bit of Coal Baron, though I think the mechanic of placing more workers than the last guy to take the action again was a better implementation of that design.
This also manifested itself in the bonus tiles certain track spaces offered. Invariably, the first bonus you’re going to take is the 2-card bonus that gives you access to an endgame scoring card and one of 5 major bonus cards. It is so clearly the best choice that it is silly. The only time it wouldn’t be the first choice would be in an instance where another choice immediately granted you access to a second bonus tile. It’s just sort of off-putting that you are given the illusion of choice, when in fact it is a non-choice. This only seems like it would lead to situations where new players make the wrong “choice” and end up crippled because of it. It reminds me of Myrmes, where there is only one viable strategy on the first turn of the game, and if you do anything other than that specific set of actions (because, say, it’s your first time playing), it will invariably lead to your defeat an hour later. Not fun.
The other major trouble I have is the lack of variability in setup. The only thing that changes from game to game and even turn to turn are the engineers. And, judging from my limited number of plays, the engineers didn’t seem influential enough to keep the game fresh over a large number of plays. There was the one engineer that allowed you take a previous action a second time, which was super-powerful, but the rest seemed like just slightly better versions of actions that were already available. Obviously having them was great, but having a specific one versus having a different specific one didn’t seem to influence game play a whole lot.
I’d very much like to play this game again, as there are a number of different paths to victory to pursue and I’d like to play around with those interesting, interwoven systems a bit more, but the real question is how many more times would I want to play this game before the systems were fully explored and the lack of variability dulled the games shine?