You ever uh, get a persistent sense of deja vu? That odd feeling that you’ve been somewhere or had some sort of experience already, yet here you are, experiencing it again? No? Okay, must just be me. Anyways, let’s talk about Railroad Ink.
In Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition, you are attempting to build a great network throughout town of roads and … railroads so that trains and cars can make their way downtown walking fast faces past and they’re homebound, etc. However, your construction strategy remains … erratic, I suppose, so you may build roads, may build rails, may mix them up completely. Will you be able to build the best transit network? Or will you end up all burnt out?
There’s basically no setup. Take the dice:
Set them aside, for now. If you’re playing with The Lava expansion, also take the Lava Dice:
For The Meteor expansion, use the Meteor Dice:
Again, give every player a player board:
And that’s it. Before we go further, though, I just wanted to (again) comment that the backs of the player boards form another quite lovely panorama:
This one is kind of striking! Again, I’m going to use the dry erase markers from Let’s Make a Bus Route because they’re fun and colorful. Once everyone has a marker, you’re ready to start!
Though this may seem familiar to you, Railroad Ink is a roll-and-write where you use two types of things to write (generally) — rails and roads. Your goal is to make a superior transit system and impress your opponents by connecting in-roads from the edges of the board, known as Exits. You do this by connecting roads and rails to one of these 12 paths leading off the board around your player board. Each round, you’ll roll the dice and, again, you must add all four paths on the dice to your board, even if you’d prefer not to do so. Let’s go over the caveats again:
- You may only add a rail or road to an existing rail or road. They cannot spontaneously burst into being; you must connect them to Exits or other rails / roads, though you don’t have to connect them all to the same one. This might surprise you, but, your first rail / road placement must be connected to an existing exit. Then, you can go wherever you want, as long as where you want to go is connected to an existing rail or road or exit.
- You may mirror or rotate any dice face. Flip them around, turn them; doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you cannot turn dice faces into other dice faces — a turn cannot become a straightaway, for instance.
- You cannot connect rails to roads or vice-versa except via a Station. Generally speaking, as a life pro tip, driving a car onto railroad tracks or a train onto the highway is both mildly dangerous and Generally Frowned Upon. Instead, use stations to connect your rails to roads (they are black boxes). They still count as part of the same network, but you avoid all the logistical nightmares of trying to figure out how to use a train on a highway.
- Any road or rail that does not terminate will be considered an error at game end. This mostly means that every rail / road should be connected to an exit, yes, but you can also connect rails / roads to the edge of the board without a penalty, which may be useful. There’s currently no way to make a loop beyond abusing the Lava dice, so don’t worry about it.
You may also, again, once per round, use one of the special routes on the top of your player board before or after you place any of your dice. They’re basically any combination of 4-way roads / rails. You may only use one per round, and three per game. You use it and then immediately lose it.
In general, it’s helpful (and somewhat compulsory) to put the round number in the top-right corner of the box as you fill it in; that helps avoid surprises and allows you to track the game’s state, in case you can’t remember which pieces you placed this round, which can happen.
Either way, play continues until the seventh round, at which point the game ends. First, put a big “X” (and then circle it) in front of every road and rail that does not terminate; then, you score, left-to-right, as follows, on your player board:
- Exits: Check your networks; you may have more than one. A network is a connected set of exits. Note that stations can cause multiple groups of rails and roads to be connected, but there is one road / rail overpass die face that does not connect the road and rail. For each network, you score points for each exit it is connected to:
- 0 points. Come on.
- 4 points.
- 8 points.
- 12 points.
- 16 points.
- 20 points.
- 24 points.
- 28 points.
- 32 points.
- 36 points.
- 40 points.
- 45 points. I’ve managed to do this … twice, lifetime? Impress me and show me your best score.
- Longest road: Count the number of tiles in your longest single contiguous road (Stations do not interrupt roads, and rail-to-road / road-to-rail tiles still count as a rail tile). Score one point for each tile.
- Longest rail: Count the number of tiles in your longest single contiguous rail (Stations do not interrupt rails, either, and rail-to-road / road-to-rail tiles still count as a rail tile). Score one point for each tile.
- Center tiles: For each center tile you’ve filled in with any game feature (rail / road / lava / meteor), you score 1 point (max 9).
- Penalties: For each X, you lose one point. Sorry, but you have to spend that money on signage. Can’t afford to have someone fly off into the abyss; people will get jealous.
- Expansion points: Ignore these for now; I’ll talk about them later.
The player with the most points wins!
The Meteor Mini-Expansion
So this is the most aggressive of all the expansions. As with the others, you’ll only have 6 rounds for the game, so good luck!
When you start the game, put a dot in the corner of the Center Tile as a reminder. On every turn, you’ll roll the Meteor Dice and the regular dice. When you do, a meteor strikes your board! Check the dice to see both the direction and the distance, and then measure them from the space with the dot. Remove the dot, add a crater to the indicated space, and then place a dot there so that you can use that space as a reference for the next round. Note that uh, if there’s already a route there, the route gets cratered. That’s a bummer, so if you’d like to avoid that, you may burn a Special Route to not crater that spot. You’ll still put a dot on that space, though, so that you can measure from it next round. That does count as using a Special Route this round, though, both for your game limits and also in case you wanted to actually place one this round. If you use all your Special Routes, as you might guess, you can no longer ignore meteors. Tough luck, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
If the Meteor would go off the board, continue its movement backwards from the edge of the board. If it would strike a spot that’s already cratered, continue another space along in the same direction it was previously moving. Meteors are so conscientious. Except when they’re destroying your transit networks.
If a crater is bumming you out, you can replace it with a route on any turn. It’ll use up one of your four, but, I mean, then you can actually cross the gap.
You may wonder from the photo above why I have so many routes connected to craters; did I just get unlucky? Why else would I build six routes into meteor craters? Well, they’re connected to valuable mines. At the end of the game, you score two points per route connected to a crater. That’s pretty lucrative! Almost makes up for you getting your routes devastated.
The Lava Mini-Expansion
The Lava is actually the simpler of the two expansions. Start off by putting a (crudely-drawn, but you didn’t come here for my art) volcano in the center of the board. The volcano spews lava in all four orthogonal directions, so try to build around it! It’s hot, but scenic. As with all the other expansions, you’ll only have 6 rounds to play, so keep that in mind.
On your turn, you roll the two Lava dice with your Route dice. Unlike the Deep Blue expansions, you must use one Lava die every turn. If you’d like, you can make a new volcano somewhere else, as long as it doesn’t start adjacent to any lava. I think your goal shouldn’t be to connect the volcanoes, since that’ll definitely hurt your score (and you’d prefer a higher score, if possible).
Speaking of scoring, at the end of the game you score your Largest Lava Lake. Before you do that, any open ends of the lava lake count as Errors; you can’t just let lava do whatever. That’s a safety hazard. Once you’ve done that, you score 1 point for each space in your largest lava lake, and 5 points for each lava lake that’s completely closed. So in the example above, I’d score a bonus 20 points. Not too shabby for a volcanic disaster, if I say so myself.
Player Count Differences
Again, no player count differences, though the dice are small so I’d probably try to avoid this with 100+ people unless you’re streaming the dice faces. As with most games of this type, the primary indicator of how long the game will take is “who is the slowest person in your group”, since turns are all simultaneous.
As a result, no preference.
This all seems so familiar.
- I tend to focus on one exit at the start. I prefer to branch out, rather than try to condense paths to a single point. I think that’s just kinda how my brain works, as well, and it’s a bit easier for me to process it.
- Don’t forget to use your special routes. They’re essentially free spaces, so, I mean, worst case you can use them in a corner to try and get a free left or right turn, but you’d be astonished how many people, in round 6, are like “oh no I didn’t use any special routes” and it’s too late for them. Don’t be like that person; I usually try to start with one in Round 2.
- I try to use my special routes on the center spaces. Being able to hit more central spaces is really useful, even if I do end up with some errors as a result of poor placement.
- Be careful with the overpasses. A lot of players will assume that rail and road are connected, but they are specifically not. Don’t fall into that trap and then cost yourself a bunch of points.
- Focus on exits, primarily, not doing anything fancy. I once played a game where I did a bunch of cool connections and really made a pretty network, only to realize I accidentally only connected 6 exits and I lost the game with 40 points. Don’t make my mistakes.
- Try to avoid switching from roads to rails all the time. You really want to have a very long road and a very long rail, ideally, to maximize points, and if you’re constantly flipping between the two you’re not going to get that. You’ll just end up with mediocre instances of both.
- Adding another volcano is usually a good idea. You kind of want to have a small boy in the corner that you can cut off easily (bonus +5 since it’s easier to close off than the massive volcano in the center). Also, it allows you to keep progressing if you accidentally cut off the volcano in the center and completely close it off to more lava.
- Using the lava routes to contain it is risky but useful. Certain Lava Dice faces allow you to play a route along with the lava, but that closes it off. It’s nice, as it adds another potential network component to your board, but if you use it at the wrong time, well, then you may end up losing more than you gained.
- Prep for at least one route to get meteored. If you know that that is going to happen and you’ve built a fair bit of infrastructure, well, sure, it’s going to be frustrating to have to rebuild that road or lose the road in the first place, but you could just as easily build 4 Routes that all terminate at the crater, which would be 8 points. That’s not too shabby, ether.
- Your scores will be lower in meteor mode. Be prepared; there are more meteors crashing down, fewer rounds, and hardly any good way to stop them happening. You should plan for like, mid-forties, maximum.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
Hm. These also seem pretty similar, but to what?
- Blissfully easy to set up. Basically you think about it, and it’s done. No work whatsoever.
- The art is so pleasant. I wish there were more of it, but it’s so nice and whimsical. I particularly like the art in the blue version, but this is so vibrant and like, aggressive, but in a good way? The backs forming a panorama is super nice; reminds me of the art on some of the attractions in Unfair.
- The dice are a nice weight. They’re heavy and fun to throw. I wish they were bigger, is all.
- Getting to draw things is always a lot of fun. It reminds me of Harvest Dice, but in a very good way.
- I really like the compact nature of the game. It’s easy to bring it on a plane and bust out a solo game (or play with 6 other people on a trip!) and I appreciate that portability. There are many good games coming out that are great for travel, and I’m really interested in more of those as we enter the period of time where I’m traveling more for work.
- Unpopular opinion, but I like the versioning. I like that there’s a Red and Blue version, but not just for the Pokemon callback; I think it’s a nice bit of thematic style that I’d love to see in other games, where it makes sense. Like, I’d definitely buy a Verdant Green edition (though that’s kind of redundant) where you’re building rails and roads through forests and parks; that would retain the game’s whimsical charm while adding another cool set of dice and expansions. I think some people think that it’s an aggressive cash grab, but, I mean, I don’t know; the expansions feel like they’re worth it, to me? Hard to say, I just like them.
- The dry-erase markers are kind of weird. For one, the eraser is on the bottom, meaning it usually pops off when you try to erase (unlike Kokoro, where it stays firmly on the entire time, since it’s also the cap). For another, the printing on the markers isn’t very good; it’s already almost completed faded off my markers, which is super weird. Apparently the eraser can take it off? Seems like it was missing a protective layer or something.
- I wish the solo mode were more well-defined. I think it’s just “play the game solitaire; you win no matter what” which feels kind of empty? I’d love at least challenges or achievements or a score to beat, but the rulebook doesn’t even mention those things. It feels like an oversight.
- The meteor expansion is aggressive and can be hard to get used to. It’s pretty interesting that we’re getting meteors just like, cratering our routes, but there’s a lot higher penalty for frustration in this game, as it’ll force players to make harder trade-offs and also just kinda wipe out your hard work from the past. That can be a disaster for some.
- Zero player interaction will turn some players off of this game. Some people really want games where they’re involved in everyone else’s lives. This is not that game.
- It’s definitely possible to just copy another player’s route choices. You want to avoid that because it makes the game uninteresting (like NMBR9). You could, if you want, add a few “starting conditions” by giving each player a different die face to start with from a standard die, but there’s some arguments for how that would affect balance. Either way, just don’t spend the whole game copying an opponent’s strategy. That’s weird.
- As with all path-creation / network-building games, there’s a high potential for analysis paralysis, here. Just remind players that it’s a 20-minute game; I find that should usually help.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, I really like Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition, too! As you might guess, I have a soft spot and a preference for blue, but the core game is good enough that I hardly care which I play. Out of the two mini-expansions for this set, I definitely prefer lava; meteor is almost take-that, courtesy of the game, and it tends to keep scores low because so many networks in the center get broken up. While it’s easily the most exciting and dynamic, it can also be a bummer unless you choose to eschew the center altogether (and its valuable points). Lava, on the other hand, is quite challenging to do right, but very interesting as well; do you press your luck and hope for a massive lake? Or do you try to close it off early and make smaller lakes elsewhere, trying to get that 5 point bonus if they’re all closed? Either one is ambitious, and I think that’s what I love about this game series — the press-your-luck aspect of most roll-and-writes comes out in spades, here, because you’re trying to bet against the odds to build the perfect network. I’d probably pick up Deep Blue before Blazing Red, if I were to do it all again, but I enjoy them both quite a bit. If you’re looking for a high-stakes challenge (as opposed to a relaxing aquatic experience), I’d definitely suggest this one!