Let’s talk transit. I’ve been playing a trio of games out of Japan, lately, all from different studios, but primarily concerned with one thing — how do we get from one place to another? Do we build a complex series of highways, as Tokyo Highway challenges us to do? Do we explore the trains and subways via MetroX? Or do we just hop on the bus and have a wonderful time in Let’s Make a Bus Route? As you might guess, for this review, we’ll choose the last option.
In Let’s Make A Bus Route, you play as competing bus drivers in Kyoto, attempting to pick up and drop off tourists, commuters, students, and the elderly for a lovely day in the city. Naturally, you have a route you’re trying to reach, but that’s definitely a secret bus thing. Will you be able to avoid traffic and have a very nice day downtown?
The game’s setup isn’t too bad. There’s a central board:
Put the Bonuses Board nearby, so that all players can see it:
Give each player a player board:
A discerning eye might notice that the player boards are not identical; more on that later. Give everyone a marker, as well.
Shuffle up the Bus Route cards and deal each player two:
These will be used to determine starting position. Shuffle up the Route Planning cards and give each player one:
You should be about ready to start!
So, as I mentioned, your goal is to try and pick up and drop off passengers around town as you attempt to follow a route. Your Route Planning card will be instrumental in this, but you only need to visit each destination; the order in which you do so is entirely up to you.
Before the game can start properly, have the players choose a start location in player order using the two Bus Route cards they’ve been given. Each should have a number on it corresponding to one of the numbered locations on the board. Once they’ve chosen a spot, have them circle it and then continue on to the next player. After everyone has chosen, shuffle the 12 Bus Route cards and you’re ready to begin the game for real.
On a turn, the Start Player will make the first move. The designated card-flipper for the game will flip over one of the bus route cards, which might symbolize one of the following moves:
- Move 1
- Move 2
- Move 3
- Move 2 / Move + Turn
- Move + Turn
- Move + Turn + Turn
Note that each player has a different player board, meaning that they have different outcomes for a given card draw. When you Move, you draw a line on the board between two intersections. Moving multiple times means that you continue in that straight line. Turning lets you turn left or right and then move. There are some caveats around moving, though:
- Don’t draw clean through an intersection. It makes the game harder to process, visually, and also just looks messy. Just stop at the ends.
- When you start your turn, you may start your movement in any direction. Your orientation when exiting an intersection spot is totally up to you.
- You may never visit an intersection twice. If you do, you’re immediately eliminated from the game.
- You may never double back on your own route. If you do, you’re immediately eliminated from the game, also.
- You must take your full movement action. If you are only two spaces away from a turn with a Move 3, you must take the full Move 3, but you’ll have to take a Penalty.
- If you cannot take your full movement action, you must incur a penalty. A Penalty is taken from the pink Penalty box and lets you switch any Move step with a Turn step, instead. This means you can take two Penalties to turn a Move + Turn + Turn into a Move 3, if you want. If you ever need to take a Penalty but cannot (all the circles are filled), you disregard the Bus Route card and just perform a Move 1 action, instead.
If, on your turn, you want to move along a route where another player has already drawn, you are free to! Put your line next to the line that’s already there. Unfortunately, this causes some traffic to form! Check off one bus on your player board’s outer edge for each line you draw on the same space as another player’s line (the number of lines on the space already does not matter). This might lead to penalties at the game’s end.
Anyways, that’s moving. Where you go matters a great deal, as well. Let’s talk about each one.
Tourists are camera icons on the board, and you pick up a tourist whenever you go through a space with that icon on it. When you do, check off the leftmost open circle in the topmost available row. You cannot hold more than four tourists at a time, however, so you’ll need to drop them off at a Shrine or a Pagoda. Whenever you drive through one of those, you drop off your current row of tourists and score points:
- 0 Tourists: 0 points
- 1 Tourist: 2 points
- 2 Tourists: 5 points
- 3 Tourists: 9 points
- 4 Tourists: 14 points
Yes, if you go to a Shrine or Pagoda with 0 Tourists, you score 0 points. That also knocks out one of your three available scoring opportunities for Tourists, which is a huge bummer, so be careful!
Commuters work much the same way as tourists. You pick up Commuters at their spaces and then drop them off at Stations (blue boxes with letters on them). When do you, you score points:
- 0 Commuters: 0 points
- 1 Commuter: 2 points
- 2 Commuters: 4 points + one Elderly Person
- 3 Commuters: 6 points + one Tourist
If you gain another person by dropping off Commuters, check off the relevant space on your board. If you cannot, well, you just … don’t gain that person.
Students are pretty straightforward. You can hold six, and you check them off one at a time as you pick up them. In order for them to mean anything, though, you need to also stop by Universities. When you do, rather than dropping them off, check off a University box on your board, as well. At the game’s end, you’ll score (Students Collected * Universities Visited) points. Isn’t learning the best?
Elderly People are the simplest scoring of all. You just check one off as you pick one up, and you sum the column at the end of the game for your total.
The last thing you can encounter is a Green Light. If you end your movement there, well, beep beep; you must take another Move 1 action, for free. That’s always nice.
There are also Bonus Categories that you can earn over the course of the game, depending on which Bonus Cards are flipped:
- Visit 3 Shrines
- Visit 3 Pagodas
- Pick up 5 Tourists (this includes Commuter Bonus Tourists)
- Pick up 5 Elderly People (again, includes Commuter Bonus Tourists)
- Pick up 5 Students
- Pick up 5 Commuters
The first player to achieve each goal gains 10 points; all subsequent players gain 6 points.
After all players have taken a turn, pass the Start Player token to the left and implore the new start player to say “Beep, Beep; I’m the bus.” to start the next round.
Once all 12 Bus Route cards have been drawn, the game ends! Tally up your points and “award” a negative penalty to the player with the Most Traffic. If you have managed to take no traffic, gain 3 bonus points.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
The two major differences at increasing player counts are that you’re going to see more downtime for players (as no player can always make a move without full information, as that affects traffic and planning) and you’re going to see an uptick in traffic. It seems unrealistic to me to expect anyone in a 5-player game to avoid taking any traffic, but never say never. I’d probably hang out closer to the 2- or 3-player area of this game unless you play with particularly fast players who aren’t as vulnerable to AP.
- The game is shorter than you expect. Plan accordingly. You’ll place > 26 segments on the board (assuming you hit at least one green light), sure, but that’s not as many as you might think. Plenty of players get surprised when the game’s two cards away from ending and they’ll be unable to complete one of their goals. Don’t let those players be you. Remember to mark off cards you’ve used on your player board, as well, so that you’re not miscalculating.
- Don’t get too into avoiding Penalties and Traffic. Sometimes the best move you can make is expensive. Sometimes you’re going to take the most traffic. At its worst, it’s -5 points. If by taking the most traffic you can drop off an extra Tourist, that might be cancelled out. Always be mindful of your options.
- I focus on achieving the Bonuses while trying to get through my route. If you try to just do your route, you’ll likely finish too early and then have to try and scrounge for points on a super-busy board. That’s not particularly ideal, especially since you’ll likely end up taking more penalties in the process.
- The edges of the board are very rich but fairly dangerous. There is a much higher penalty potential, there, but if you can make it work there are double-spaces which will give you two different passengers. If you can swing the ones that count towards both bonus categories then you’re cooking with gas.
- Sometimes it’s fine to ignore the Bonus cards. If your bonuses are 3 Shrines and 3 Pagodas, you should really only do one of those; the opportunity cost of both is stupidly high.
- There’s not really a way to usefully mess with other players; I wouldn’t recommend trying to find one. Even if you know their route, you might be able to place some traffic in their way, but going out of your way to do so is just … such a profound waste of your time. You’re better off just focusing on scoring as many points as possible.
- Don’t forget to visit one University. Otherwise, all those students you spent time collecting will be worth 0 points. That’s … an extremely unfortunate outcome, and I’ve seen it.
- Remember that you can accidentally render certain scoring categories useless. If you hit three stations or Shrines / Pagodas too early, you’re going to be unable to take more Commuters / Tourists. This might also mean that you cannot score the Bonus Categories anymore, if you’re not careful. Remember to plan ahead or you’ll get stuck.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The theme is so … wholesome. It’s an incredibly pleasant game about driving people around Kyoto on your bus. What’s not to like? Literally, nothing. It’s bright and colorful and whimsical and I really appreciate that after playing a bunch of gritty and dark and sad games. It’s a nice contrast, honestly.
- An interesting spin on the * and write genre. I like the central shared board, a lot. It makes the players’ moves seem less isolated, which is a problem I’ve had with games like Avenue. It also presents the full game state in one place.
- The routing aspect of the game makes it easy to fix mistakes. It’s very easy to work backwards and eventually figure out what you missed or picked up, which I appreciate.
- Plays pretty quickly, if your players aren’t vulnerable to AP. A game takes about 30 minutes.
- Seems like the kind of game that would be rad for expansion content. I’d love to try bus routes in different towns or do a Ticket to Ride-style thing where different maps had slightly different rules or passenger types. I feel like there’s enough buzz around the game that I’d love to see something like that happen, and I’m not the only one?
- It can be hard to write on the central board as the game gets more crowded. For some reason people aren’t inclined to just … take the central board and put it back once they’re done with it, but I’m not really sure why that is. I’ve been encouraging it more.
- Box is kind of a weird size. I found a place for it, but it was a tight fit there, for a bit.
- The player elimination bit earns an eye-roll from me. I get why it’s there, but we generally just tell the player to backtrack until they can make a different move. It’s annoying, but we’re not in the business of knocking players out of games if we can avoid it.
- There can be some significant downtime between turns. Since you need to know all the routes before you can move (because of how Traffic works), you’ll often see players waiting until its their turn to do any planning, which slows the game down nontrivially. There’s not much you can do about this (it’s kind of baked into the design), but it’s a bit unfortunate as it means that some players (especially at higher player counts) are going to be sitting for a while between turns.
- It’s very difficult to play this if you have an altered color perception. I played with a friend who has deuteranopia (red-green color vision deficiency) and essentially he’d have to retrace his path every turn if there was traffic, as it was difficult to tell. Also, the Bus Route cards are the same design in multiple different colors (no shapes or textures to suggest a different color), so if you perceive colors differently you’re likely to confuse cards unless another player is working with you. If a second edition gets made, it would be really nice to have some sort of subtle effect on the cards / player boards to show which cards correspond to what routes to help players that might be otherwise unable to see it.
- Availability in the states is pretty low. I’ve mentioned a few times that I have a slight antipreference for reviewing games that are difficult / impossible to buy, but I’ve been pushing back on that idea a bit in the hopes that talking more about these games will lead to more demand and people hopefully making it easier to purchase them. I’m not 100% sure where I fall within that debate, but it’s worth mentioning that this is not a particularly easy game to get your hands on if you don’t live in Japan (and even then, I have no iea how easy this game is to get).
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, Let’s Make A Bus Route is superb! The color perception friendliness bit is disappointing, but hopefully there are steps made to make it more inclusive for the next edition. Beyond that, I really do enjoy the game and have played it a lot, lately. Most of my coworkers have asked to play it again, since the theme is light and upbeat and fun, and I’ve been more than happy to oblige them. It’s nice to see more innovation happening in the * and write space, with games like this, Boomerang, and more coming out to challenge the idea that you can only play games like these with dice. I wish it were a bit easier to transport so I could take it with me more frequently, sure, but I expect this to be a popular game in my circles for a long time, yet. If you get a chance to check this one out and you enjoy bright colors, fun challenges, and light themes, Let’s Make a Bus Route is an excellent choice for your next game!