Full disclosure: A review copy of Railroad Rivals was provided by Forbidden Games.
Sometimes the timing just works and you can get a game reviewed. The expansion to Railroad Rivals, Robber Barons, hits Kickstarter on 2/26, and I figured why not review the base game, see how I feel about it? Thankfully Forbidden Games had sent it after I finished up work on Extraordinary Adventures: Pirates, and now it’s back on the Forbidden Games train, literally.
In Railroad Rivals it’s the mid-1800s (peak train time) and you’re vying to boost your stock in 12 of the major American train companies during that time period by building lines between major American cities and transporting goods. Unfortunately, your rivals seek to do the same thing, and you worry they might be better at it. You’ll have to think fast and move faster to outpace them (and, of course, move some trains). Will you be able to make a name for yourself as a trained innovator? Or will your entire plan for success end up running off the rails?
Setup isn’t too bad. Take the City tiles:
Remove Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinatti:
Shuffle them, reveal one face-up in the center. That’s your start tile. Return the other two to the stack, shuffle thoroughly, and give every player 2 to form their starting hand. Also shuffle the Stock tiles:
Nobody gets any of those, yet. If you’re playing at two players, remove one of each Company’s Stock tiles and 6 random City tiles.
Give each player a set of trains:
These should correspond to their double-sided character cards:
Also, add goods tokens to the included bag, depending on your player count:
- 2 players: 16 Brown + 10 of whatever color you want.
- 3 players: 16 Brown + 10 Yellow
- 4 players: 16 Brown + 10 Yellow + 10 Black
- 5 players: 12 Brown + 6 Yellow + 10 Black + 6 Grey
Choose the player order randomly and represent it with the character cards near the the scoreboard:
Have each player donate a train. First player gets 6 points, second gets 8, third gets 10, and so on. Put each train company’s stock marker off to the left; they’re not worth anything yet:
Once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much ready to start!
At its core, Railroad Rivals is sort of an introductory train game. It’s a lighter version of your more common railroad management games, for people interested in that lifestyle but not the time commitment (like me!). Generally you earn stock and move goods to try and boost the value of that stock, which pays out at the end of the game. The player with the most points at the game’s end wins!
A round typically progresses in a few phases: Bid for Turn Order (you’ll skip this in the first round), Draft Tiles, Play Tiles, and then Move Goods. You do that until the last City Tile has been played from a player’s hand, at which point the game ends.
Bid for Turn Order
So, at this point reveal X tiles from the City stack and the Stock stack (each), where X is the number of players. This allows for some context on the bids. If the City stack has run out, reveal twice as many Stock tiles.
The player currently last in the turn order makes the first bid, and you bid with points. Each player can raise the bid or pass, but once you pass, you cannot bid further. Once all players but one has passed, that player is the first player for the round and moves their Character Card to the front of the line. No other players change turn order. For a more exciting variant, you can play such that the first player to pass becomes last, second player is next-to-last, and so on. It’ll … change how you bid, for sure.
Either way, once you’ve established the turn order, move on to the Draft.
Players will, in turn order, choose either a City tile or a Stock tile. Once everyone has chosen a tile, each player will, again, in turn order, choose either a City tile or a Stock tile. The only catch is that a player cannot pick the same type of tile that they picked this turn, generally speaking. This means that each player will end up taking a City tile and a Stock tile during this phase.
At some point in the game the City stack will run out. At that point, each player drafts 2 Stock tiles.
Once you’ve done this, you can place tiles.
Tiles may be placed on the board by placing a tile adjacent to another tile such that the edges show the same railroad. This creates a rail between them, and the player then places their train on both tiles, connecting them. You may make connections between more than one tile with some wise placement, but you only need to make sure that one of those connections is valid in order to place. (This might mean that you connect SP to SR on one side, but IC to IC on the other, which is legal; you just wouldn’t place a train on the SP – SR connection, as that’s invalid.)
When you place a tile, draw Goods from the bag equal to the number on the tile randomly and place them on the tile. These can be shipped later.
If you cannot match any ends of any tiles, you may place a tile with a blank edge adjacent to another tile with a blank edge so that the blank edges connect. This will not let you place a train.
If you cannot even do this, you do not place a tile this turn. Rough.
Now, in turn order, each player may take a good from one City and move it to an adjacent city via a train line of their choosing. If you use another player’s train line to ship a good, that player gains two points. When you move a good, you gain points as well:
- 3 points if you are the first player this turn to move that color good
- 2 points if that color good has been moved once
- 1 point if that color good has already been moved twice (or more)
In a two-player game, all tokens are considered to be the same color.
Additionally, move the stock token corresponding to the line you used up one on the scoreboard; that stock is now more valuable.
End of Game
The game ends when any one player runs out of City Tiles in their hand. Finish out the round, and then evaluate how much your stocks are worth (they pay out their value on the scoreboard, each). The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
I mean, the major difference is how much more contention happens at higher player counts. At two, you can mostly ignore each other and kinda stick to your own stocks, if you want (though thankfully there are three of each stock, so you can’t end up with even splits), but at higher player counts player order matters so much. It’s pretty great, to be honest. The bidding is interesting, the map becomes more interesting; the whole thing just kinda sings. I still enjoy the two-player game, but, honestly, it’s just a much better game at higher player counts.
- I mean, a decent strategy is to slowly accrue Stock tiles until you have three. The obvious problem with that is that if people see you doing that, they won’t boost that stock. If you can figure out how to do that secretly / covertly, well, it won’t matter.
- One thing that I do is build out paths for a stock I want to boost, and then boosting it when I have nothing else to do. Say I have UP, or something. If I have a bunch of links I control with UP, I don’t necessarily have to move those cubes now; I can move them later and save up cubes for that stock.
- If you have the opportunity to move a good, move a good that your opponent placed. They likely put that tile to boost their stocks, but if you can build off the tile you can move that tile’s cubes on your network instead, which will give you extra cubes towards boosting your stock. In all likelihood, if they notice, they’ll use the rest of those quickly, but hey, bonus cube.
- It’s not a bad idea to build dead ends. If you make some dead ends, then other players can’t do to you what I just described above, as there’s no place for them to connect to your City tiles. It’s also helpful if you do that such that players who have Stock in the companies on that tile’s edges cannot meaningfully establish routes off of that tile, so that they can’t boost those stocks.
- Remember how much going first is worth. At the bare minimum it’s 3 points, since you’ll almost always move a good first. If you look at the stocks, players will likely take either the most valuable stock or the stock they currently have a lot of, so that they don’t have to share it. You should incorporate that value into your bid as well. Additionally, it’s potentially worth even more if you already have stock matching that one that you might take, but you don’t want to spend all the points you’d make in a turn.
- Keep an eye on what cubes are available to your opponents. If you can play such that you know what cubes your opponents are most likely to move, you can move that same color first and devalue their moves. It might be enough to force them to do something different (and potentially boost a stock you own). It’s rude, but, I mean, you gotta do it sometimes.
- It’s a decent idea to be in first place before you run out of City tiles. In my opinion, they’re a bit harder to place explicit value on, whereas the Stocks are much easier to value, so the bidding gets a lot more aggressive towards the end of the game (or at least it did when I played). If you can get ahead in the player order, you might be able to ride it out until the end of the game.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I think this is the first auction game I actually enjoyed. I just feel like I understand how the bidding is supposed to work, which makes me feel a lot better than most of the other bidding games I’ve played. Maybe I’ll go back and try Modern Art again, who knows.
- The art is really good! Seriously, the whole game looks great. Part of that is their commitment to actually doing the research and due diligence to make the game authentic, too.
- You know, I always raise an eyebrow at the phrase “historical accuracy”, but I think they actually went for it in a really cool way? They used authentic logos from the train companies and had each of the city tiles feature a building that would have been in that city at that time. It must have taken a while to do all that research and the game looks really good as a result. I guess that’s less “historical accuracy” and more “thematic authenticity”, which I definitely really like. It makes the game feel very vibrant and fresh inside of its own theme, which makes the games feel more interesting.
- Got a great table presence. It does look really good on the table; the trains and the cubes help a lot, along with the gradual asymmetry of the map. It’s a specific look, but I really like it.
- The components are really nice. The City and Stock tiles are a nice weight, the trains look good, the scoreboard looks good as well. The cubes, well, they’re cubes. Not much to say about that.
- Sigh. I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t mention one of my co-players complaints. He is mildly miffed every game because the tiles don’t end up in a geographically-accurate configuration. I’ve told him I would raise it with the publisher. Consider it raised.
- I find the two-player game underwhelming. I still enjoy playing it but I vastly prefer more players. There’s more happening, bidding for turn order matters more; it just feels more lively.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Railroad Rivals is pretty great. I mean, I don’t think you’re going to be able to convince me to play an 18XX game anytime soon, but if this is what they’re like (albeit an abridged level) then I can see why people are so enthusiastic about them. It’s a nice mix of drafting, tile-laying, and route building, and the auction mechanic is significant within the game but it feels like the actual value of what you’re bidding on is easy enough to parse that new players aren’t as inhibited by it as I’ve seen in other games with major bidding mechanics. Add in some pretty fantastic art and a solid playtime and you’ve got a really solid contender of a game going. I think the 45 – 60 minute time point is a great place to hit, as it’s not too long of a game that it’s intimidating but it’s also got a fair bit of time to do what it sets out to do, which is teach the basics of a railroad game to players. If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for, I quite enjoyed Railroad Rivals; hopefully you will too!