#767 – Railroad Ink Challenge: Lush Green Edition

Base price: $20.
1+ players, provided you have enough player boards.
Play time: 15 – 30 minutes. May be longer if you’re using expansions.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 3

I backed like, three Kickstarters in the last few years. Part of it was I was moving, and I’ve been trying to cut back on ordering games that will ship at some indeterminate point in the future, and part of it was that I’ve been trying to commit to backing fewer Kickstarters because I have a finite amount of room in my house. So I ended up backing two games that are way too heavy for me to get reviewed in any reasonable amount of time (Spirit Island: Jagged Earth and Millennium Blades: Collusion) and a continuation of one of my favorite game series: Railroad Ink! This is the first of what will likely be many reviews of those sets (it came with like 7 mini-expansions!), so, get eventually excited for those.

In Railroad Ink Challenge: Lush Green Edition, you’ve decided to take to the forests and leave the rivers and lakes that you’re used to behind (along with the meteors and volcanoes, which, is probably for the best). A dense array of flora awaits you, as well as surprisingly hikeable pathways for various folks. That’s nice! It’s nice to change things up every now and then. But this is Railroad Ink Challenge, so, a lot’s changed! You’ve heard rumors about buildings you can take advantage of to bolster your construction and goals that challenge all players at the same time (so much for zero player interaction) and also, uh, the dice are different? What new opportunities await you on the highways and railways of Railroad Ink Challenge?

Contents

Setup

As usual with other games in the series, not a ton of setup. Choose a player board:

Each player gets one!

Set out the dice:

If you’re playing with one of the expansions, add those dice to your pool, as well:

Last thing is Goals! Shuffle the Goal Cards:

If you have any additional Goal Cards from other sets, you can mix those in. If you’re using an expansion, use two of the standard Goal Cards and one Goal Card from the corresponding expansion:

Write the three Goal Card letters on your player board, in the Goal Card Zone. Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start!

Gameplay

Railroad Ink Challenge! A revamp of Railroad Ink, one of my favorite roll-and-write games. In this, you’ll be rolling, writing, railing, and roading as you build a perfect network to connect various routes on your board. Player who scores the most wins!

Each round, a player rolls all four Route Dice and then players must add all four dice faces to their board, simultaneously. You can only connect roads to roads and rails to rails unless a station was rolled, which will allow you to switch between the two. Just be careful! New to Railroad Ink Challenge are essentially dead ends, which terminate a route at a station. A few caveats:

  • You can always connect to one of the 12 exits, if you haven’t used those spots already. Those are essentially your starting spots.
  • You can extend any existing route, and you do not have to use all of your dice on the same route in a round. You can split them up or work multiple different routes at the same time! It’s all valid.
  • The only way to not write a route is if you can’t write it.
  • You cannot add a route to a space that already has one. You can’t augment already filled-out spaces or pass through them, even if the routes would otherwise not intersect.
  • You cannot add a route such that a road connects to a rail or vice versa. They only change at stations, which are on the die face.
  • You may add the dice faces in any order, even if adding them results in you being unable to add another one. There may be some strategy to this.
  • When adding a route, place the current round number in the top-right corner. This will help you keep track of what round it is (and which dice you’ve used).
  • One die face is an overpass, which has a rail going below a road. Those two aren’t connected. Be careful with that! It may trip you up.
  • You can rotate or mirror any die face. There’s a station that only makes a certain kind of turn; you can flip it if that’s what you need.

In addition to the dice, you may, once per round and up to three times per game, use one of the six Special Routes at the top of your player board. You may only use each route once, so cross it off when you add it to your board. These four-way routes often have a station in the middle and can be a huge help (or a potential liability!).

As you add routes, you may activate a Special Building by adding a route to the space containing that building. The three Special Buildings have three different effects:

  • Factory (Gray): You may duplicate any route die (white) one additional time this round.
  • University (Green): Check off one of the University circles (next to the Special Routes). If you fill in all three, you may immediately add a Special Route to your board (crossing it off when you do so). This does not count against your one Special Route per round or your three Special Routes per game. This means that you may end up being able to use four Special Routes per game!
  • Village (Yellow): If you add a route with a station to a Village space, check off one of the Village circles. Each checked-off circle is worth two points at the end of the game.

Activating one Special Building may, if you’re drawing an extra route, cause you to activate more Special Buildings. That’s fine! There’s no limit to how many you can activate on one turn.

At the end of the round, check to see if any player has completed a condition on any of the Goal Cards. If they have, they score the leftmost-available number on that card and then cross that number out. If they would cross out the 1, don’t cross that out. Every Goal is, at a minimum, worth 1 point for completing it.

End of Game

After 7 rounds, the game ends. Once that happens, players score:

  • Connected Exits: Look at the various networks (groups of connected routes) on your board. Each connects to 0 or more exits. For each network, count the number of exits connected to it and score them accordingly (the section with the up arrow will tell you how many points you get for a network with 2+ exits connected).
  • Longest Highway: For each space that’s part of your longest highway, you score one point. Your highway can cross itself, but you can’t count the same exact stretch of highway more than once. Stations don’t break up your highway, but railways do!
  • Longest Railway: This scores the same as Longest Highway, but for railways instead of highways.
  • Central Spaces: You score one point for each space in the 3×3 center of the board that you’ve filled in.
  • Village Points: You score two points per Village circle you crossed off during the game.
  • Goal Cards: You score the total value of any / all of the Goal Cards that you completed during the game.
  • Expansion Points: If you’re playing the base game, just put an X here. I’ll cover this later.
  • Errors: To finish up, look at your routes. Any end of a route that doesn’t connect to another route or the edge of the board is worth -1 point. Routes connecting to the edge of the board aren’t errors, even if they don’t connect to an exit!

Add up your total points, and the player with the most points wins!

Forest Expansion

The forest expansion adds trees! Green up your player board by building scenic forest routes, but be careful! The roots and your routes may not get along, depending on your pronunciation. Your goal is to build the largest forest you can, but a second, smaller forest is also a good idea.

In the Forest Expansion, a game only lasts six rounds, and has the following changes:

  • You do not have to use the Forest dice, if you don’t want to. You can ignore them, unlike the route dice.
  • The Forest dice do not have to be connected to existing routes or trees. You can place them anywhere, if you’d like.
  • Every group of adjacent spaces with trees in them are considered a “forest”. Note that they must be connected orthogonally; diagonally doesn’t count!
  • Forests score bonus points at the end of the game. When the game ends, choose two forests on your board. One scores 2 points per tile it occupies, and the other scores 1 point per tile it occupies. As you might guess, you want to score your biggest forests!

Trails Expansion

The Trails expansion adds Trail dice! These trails are essentially a third network that aims to connect stations to make your railroad paradise a bit more walkable. That’s nice, if you’re into hiking, I guess. This one is tricky.

In the Trails Expansion, a game only lasts six rounds, and has the following changes:

  • Like the Forest Expansion, you do not have to use the Trail dice if you don’t want to. They’re kind of helpful, though, so consider it?
  • The Trail dice do have to be connected to existing routes or trails. This is different than the Forest Expansion, so watch out!
  • Trails with open ends do not count as Errors at the end of the game. They’re just scenic!
  • Trails travel through corners. When you add a trail, it connects the corners of your spaces. When a trail touches the same corner as an adjacent space containing a station, the trail automatically connects to that station. That’s convenient! It connects via the shortest diagonal path.
  • Trails score bonus points at the end of the game. Treat trails like a third network, connecting stations instead of exits. Count the number of connected stations, and then score half of what a network connecting that many exits would score (rounded up). You cap out at 23 points, however; any additional stations don’t score additional points, but it is impressive.

Player Count Differences

Not many! Railroad Ink, in its original form, is mostly defined by its near-complete lack of player interaction. Railroad Ink Challenge addresses this a bit with its Goal Cards which are essentially just player objectives that happen to be competitive. First person to complete one gets 4 points, second person to complete one gets 2 points, and all subsequent players to complete the Goal get 1 point. This isn’t … a huge game-breaking change between player counts. It’s a significantly milder racing effect than, say, Welcome To, where missing a goal can be a huge points swing. At higher player counts, like most goal-based games, you have a lower chance of getting all the Goals because players can specialize, leading each player to prioritize a Goal (and earn it more quickly). It’s just … not a huge deal because the points threshold isn’t that high. If you get them all first, that’s 12 points. You can do better than that by just hitting a few extra exits. Overall, I like Railroad Ink Challenge at pretty much any player count.

It’s worth mentioning that in the solo mode, your Goals expire in the 3rd / 4th / 5th round, but that’s about the only change when playing with a single player.

Strategy

  • Railroad Ink Challenge is a pretty tactical game; you gotta roll with the punches. It’s good to have a general strategy like “I want to connect as many exits as possible”, but you’re also going to be in a game where you might just never get any railroads to come up. That legitimately can happen. It’s unlucky and unfortunate, but you need to be able to be flexible if you want to be able to come out ahead. Sometimes that means converting all your rail lines to roads and just having a massive road network instead. Sometimes it’s using Special Routes and hoping for the best. And sometimes it’s relying on the extra dice from the expansion to bail you out. They’re all valid, but you’re not likely to get the exact route you have in mind at the start of the game. And if you did, that would be kind of boring? Half the fun here is having to change your plans because the dice aren’t your friend.
  • Keep in mind that you can only use one Special Route per round, and only three per game. A lot of players forget to use their Special Routes until it’s too late, which can hurt their ability to branch out and connect multiple paths to the same network. Those big connectors can be huge if you want to try and get all the exits connected (a Herculean feat, but one worth attempting). Whenever I’m playing, I usually drop a reminder around Round 4 that players can only use one Special Route per round and three per game, and that usually motivates some people to think if they want to use them.
  • That said, it may actually benefit you to not use all your Special Routes. As you approach the end of the game, you might find that a brand-new four-way connector might just lead you to more Errors than additional routes. It can happen; it’s possible. So in those cases, you might end up not using all of your Special Routes and just being content with what you already have. It’s probably a Christmas Miracle or something. Either way, it’s useful to not just plop Special Routes because you think you want more routes; go in with a plan.
  • Special buildings are super helpful! But the Factory may not always be worth activating without a strategy in place. Same here with the Factory. Duplicating a route die might be super useful, but it’s not necessarily going to be helpful if you’ve only got garbage dice this round (or none of the dice particularly help you. Instead, plan and wait for the ideal tile to present itself. Or, you know, use your Factories before the end of the game so that you don’t waste them. Either way is good, probably.
  • It’s also worth keeping some options open, in case a dead-end gets rolled. Recall that you have to use all the route dice, if you can, and so if you roll a dead-end, you might be messing up your ideal route if you don’t have other lanes available. I end up usually leaving Villages empty for a while. If they end up getting dead-ended, well, a station goes there and I get points. If not, then I can put a Special Route on there and still get the station on that spot (and the points).
  • There are a lot of different ways to put stations on your board, but placing them on Village spaces can be extra helpful. Like I said, you want stations on Village spaces. Dead-ends are an ideal spot, but the Special Routes can also be helpful. There are also a few new T-shaped spaces which can make Villages handy, as well. Just keep in mind that two of the Special Routes and that overpass die face are not stations, so placing them on Villages is effectively unhelpful.
  • You’ll especially want a lot of stations if you’re playing with the Trails expansion; use them to criss-cross your trails all over the board. Stations are even more useful with Trails, since they’re the primary connection point for your various trails all over the board. As mentioned, trails auto-connect to adjacent stations (if they share a corner with a station space), so having more of them can be a helpful way to connect trails that are near each other without having to put all of your trails adjacent to each other (since a station can bridge a gap between two trail spaces). Remember that you get half as many network points for stations connected by trails as you do exits, so that can really add up! An extra 20 points or so is nothing to sneeze at.
  • For the Forests expansion, keep in mind that you can score two forests. Try to keep two big sections segmented to maximize your points, and connect your smaller forests to make larger ones! While having one massive forest isn’t bad, having a ton of tiny forests is kind of unhelpful. Instead, try to connect your small forests into one or two large ones, if you can, and use the various forest + route dice to try and bridge gaps through your forests.
  • Also watch out for forests cutting off your routes, if you’re not careful. Some of the forests are impassable, which effectively puts up a wall between routes. That might be worth it if your biggest forest cuts off a few routes or so (since they’re worth so many points), but if you’re just blocking yourself and causing downstream Errors, you may want to rethink your forest placement.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • The watercolor art style really works, for me. I think it’s super pleasant and I like that it allows for various depths of colors, from pale to deep. I’ve always really liked the Railroad Ink art style, and I’m glad they kept it consistent for these newer games, as well. Even simple games deserve to have great art, when they can.
  • I actually find this green very soothing! It’s a very pleasant color to look at, I think. I’m glad that they added a green version. After rivers and lakes, forests seemed like a logical follow-up.
  • I really like that the player boards form a panorama, as well. I’ve always loved that about the series, and they continue that in both Lush Green and Shining Yellow. It’s a nice touch, product-wise, and it shows that they’re being thoughtful about form as well as function.
  • The changes between standard Railroad Ink and Railroad Ink Challenge are compelling. I like most of them quite a bit! I love the new dice, in particular. The dead-ends are frustrating, but the additional curves and t-shapes are really interesting and they totally threw me off in the first game I played. I didn’t expect them! The Special Buildings are a lot of fun, as well; I like how they incentivize moving into certain spaces, though I kind of wish the Special Buildings could be moved around between games. Their static nature kind of means that I think about certain overarching strategies more than playing tactically. I’m a bit split on the goals. Sometimes I find them very fun (the expansion Goals, in particular), and other times I dislike that they’re essentially just “first to six connected highways” or something. There are a lot of changes! They also updated the player boards to show all available dice faces, which is nice. Now you can mark those off each round to keep track of which dice faces you’ve already used, which is a problem I always have when I play. It really does seem like Railroad Ink Challenge is an iteration on Railroad Ink, and that’s great to see.
  • I really like the Trails expansion. It’s probably my favorite? It definitely messes with your board, but it’s so fun to try and place stations to maximize your trail connectivity, and even more fun when you place a trail that suddenly has a cascading effect through a bunch of stations and expands your path. Plus, it’s fun from a metagame standpoint! I like the idea that you’re trying to make your whole location walkable for interested parties, even if I don’t have any interest in hiking. I like games about hiking, though! So that’s almost the same thing. I think I generally prefer expansions that add a third network to the game.
  • The trade-offs of the Forest expansion are interesting, though I think I prefer Rivers. I think it’s neat to have to plan around otherwise-impassable forests and try to work on getting a big forest across your board, but, yeah, I like the “third path” that rivers create in the Rivers mini-expansion. It’s not that I dislike the Forest expansion; I just was thinking about where it stacks up in my Expansion Hierarchy and it’s probably gently below Rivers.
  • The portability of this series is a really big win, for me. These boxes are so small! Plus, I can usually throw a few sets of expansion dice in and pack two boxes, meaning we have the base game plus another eight dice worth of mini-expansions. I like how everything fits together and I love that the box has a magnetic clasp. It’s a very well-designed little box, and the ease with which it can be taken places is very appealing.

Mehs

  • This game can be significantly more mentally intense than standard Railroad Ink. I’m side-eyeing whoever put the playtime at 15 minutes on BGG. I can’t even draw that many routes in 15 minutes, much less think about it! Plus, the additional Special Buildings and Goal Cards slow the game down a bit. Not in a noticeably bad way, but in a way that’s like, oh, there’s more stuff to do.
  • Interesting! They lowered the number of player boards from standard Railroad Ink. That one took me a while to notice, actually. I’m not really opposed to it, since I almost never play Railroad Ink with more than … two … people, but blah blah “value” blah blah cost per player blah blah blah. I’m not particularly bothered by it in the grand scheme of things, but I want to make sure that you, dear reader, are aware of the change if that would influence your personal feelings about it.
  • The Trails expansion doesn’t really work with the game suggesting you write the round number in the corner, which is a little funny. It asks you to add the trails through the corner of the space, but you also need to write the round number in the corner of the space. That’s an … odd collision, for sure. Not a ton to be done about it beyond just trying to make it work, but keep in mind that you’re going to be putting trails through the exact corner that you want to write the round number. I just kind of try to write around it, and that … mostly works?
  • Also, this isn’t really a complaint, but whatever they use to mark the pens does not work; the ink comes off the pens after like, two games. Either everyone I play with has unbelievably sweaty hands or this is just a problem with the ink used on the markers. I’ve already partially rubbed the train off of one of them, and I know that almost none of my original Railroad Ink markers have anything on them, anymore. It’s not really a problem in a way that makes the markers harder to use or the game harder to play; it just seems like a weird quality control miss on an otherwise high production value game.

Cons

  • You know, I never noticed this until now, but I tend to preference the top-left corner of the board because my hand usually rests on the bottom-right, which smudges any paths I draw there. This is actually a lot worse in Railroad Ink Challenge, since I’m often marking on the top part of my player board and I need a place to rest my wrist. I’ve smudged the bottom-right corner of my board quite a few times. I think I just need to lift my board up and hold it when I’m making those changes. I’m still figuring that part out, honestly. I’m not sure why it wasn’t as big of a problem in the original, and I think it might just have been that I wasn’t writing on the top of the player board nearly as much as I do now.

Overall: 9.25 / 10

Overall, I really have been enjoying Railroad Ink Challenge: Lush Green Edition! It was close between this and Deep Blue, but I think the simplicity of Deep Blue (and the included mini-expansions) narrowly edged out Lush Green for my Favorite Railroad Ink Set. That said, I think I enjoy Railroad Ink Challenge and Railroad Ink (sans expansions) about the same amount? I thought a lot about it, and the base game is simpler, yes, whereas Railroad Ink Challenge’s new dice are maybe more interesting? They’re at least new, and more complicated, so that may be more interesting, long-term. The Special Buildings are fun as well! I just think I would like them better if they had more possible configurations than the locked-in locations that they have on each player board, if that makes sense? Their individual actions are interesting, though I’m gently underwhelmed by the Village’s “do X, score points” thing. Like the Buildings, the Goals are “sometimes interesting, sometimes not”, so my general take on Railroad Ink vs. Railroad Ink Challenge kind of oscillates between “parts are better, and parts I prefer the standard game”. Which is good! It means there are a nice set of differences between standard Railroad Ink and Railroad Ink Challenge. The biggest point of divergence, however, is the expansions. Which, I mean, makes sense. If they were the same expansions, I’d be irritated. Forests is neat! You draw happy little trees and try to build large connected groups of trees, potentially at the expense of your routes. Trails is probably one of my favorite expansions, as it just adds a mess of new routes that connect station to station and create hiking trails. It creates this nifty web of hiking pathways between stations and gives you another neat thing to manage on top of your other routes. I really like how the various trail options spread across the board over the course of the game. It’s a nice contrast to some of the other expansions in other sets, though it still craves that sprawl like Volcanoes, Canyons, and Lakes. Maybe that’s the meta-theme. Unclear. That said, at its core, Railroad Ink Challenge is a step up on the roll-and-write difficulty curve, and I think that’s a step forward for the series as a whole. If you’re looking for a roll-and-write that’s got a little kick to it but is still pleasant, low-interaction, and path-build-y, I’d definitely recommend Railroad Ink Challenge, particularly the Lush Green version! I’ve had a blast with it, and I can’t wait to dig into some of the additional mini-expansions and Shining Yellow.


If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s