This is going to be a fairly large undertaking. I have seven Railroad Ink mini-expansions, a lot of time to kill, and a love for the series. So … we’re gonna review all of them! This will probably take most of the rest of the year (and likely a bit into 2023), so bear with me. That’s half the fun, anyways. Since today is Halloween, I figured we could start with the Mandatory Spooky Expansion, so, Eldritch! Let’s see how it plays.
You’ve made railroads and you’ve made highways, but have you made spooky railroads? Cursed highways? It might be time to try that out. Tap into your knowledge of the Old Ones, create Madness Networks, and figure some things out in your own investigations. There’s also occasionally a giant tentacle, but that’s probably nothing to worry about? I assume those kinds of things happen. How will these new dice change up your networks?
Setup is pretty simple! You have four dice:
Each expansion uses a different one! Pick a die and you should be ready to start!
So there are four different expansions, and each play pretty differently. Generally speaking, they’ll change the game up by adding a new die into the mix, potentially changing the number of rounds, and ultimately earning you points (or costing you points) that you place in the star space on your board at the end of the game. Let’s go into them!
Ritual is likely the hardest expansion in the set, so we’ll lead off with that. In the Ritual expansion, cultists are trying to create a Madness Network of Portals connected to Ritual sites. It’s nice that they’re giving you points for it and all, but people get a little … strange if they try to use the Madness Network for their normal roads and rails. Maybe try not to mix them.
A Ritual Expansion game lasts six rounds, instead of the normal seven, and introduces other changes. For starters, the Ritual Die’s result must be drawn on your board each round, but you don’t have to connect it to any preexisting routes. You can draw it anywhere you want on the board, following normal rules. At the end of each round, you may create a Portal on any road or rail that connects to the edge of the board (but not an Exit). That’s just an arc on the edge of the route that leads off the edge of the board.
At the end of the game, you score your standard Networks as normal, but you also score any Madness Networks that you’ve created! A Madness Network is composed of sets of connected Ritual sites and Portals. Use the standard Network track to score any Madness Networks created, with one caveat: if any Exits are connected to your Madness Network, they don’t count towards your standard Networks. They just get ignored. Each Portal and Ritual connected to each other count as Exits when scoring a Madness Network (in that, say, a set of two Portals and four Rituals would score 20 points).
As usual, the player with the most points wins!
Getting to think with Portals can make your Networks even easier to manage, as long as it’s not too much stress on the mind to pass through them. Most of the commuters say it’s fine, and the others just mumble something incomprehensible with a glassy-eyed stare after their passage through. That’s probably okay. It probably wears off.
A Portal Expansion game lasts the standard seven rounds. There are a few more changes, though! This time, if you choose to draw the result of the Portal Die, you must follow the standard placement rules. This may mean you drawing a Portal. If you do, they’re marked with letters A / B / C. Once you draw a second one of a given letter, you cannot draw a third. Portals effectively connect roads and rails, even if a road is connected to, say, Portal A, and a rail is connected to the other Portal A. One nice thing, though! Portals continue your Longest Highway and your Longest Railway, so you may go through them when scoring.
Beyond that, though, there are no scoring changes for the Portal Expansion. The player with the most points wins!
This one’s a bit odd; some large tentacles have shown up from portals beyond the edge of reality? Probably not great, but they’re respecting the rules of the road, so you’ve decided to let them stay. It only seems to affect people who drive or ride rails near them, so the town is turning that into a tourist attraction. Let it make them weird.
A Tentacle Expansion game lasts the standard seven rounds, with its own unique quirks. Each round, you may, after drawing your Routes, draw one Tentacle. The Tentacle must have a length equal to the number on the Tentacle Die, and start from the outer edge of the board. This means that the Tentacle will be, essentially, invading. That’s half the fun. That said, you may make each square of the Tentacle straight or curved, as you like, as long as it forms one big Tentacle at the end of the turn. Tentacles can be drawn on spaces with existing Routes, so long as they are either straight or curved. For straight routes, the Tentacle underpasses underneath of it; for curved routes, the Tentacle curves in the opposite way. For any special routes, a Tentacle cannot go through that space. When you finish drawing a Tentacle, add a little pointy end; make it creepy or whatever. Note that while Tentacles can go through existing Routes, Routes cannot go through existing Tentacles. Don’t block yourself off.
Once the game ends, you score 2 points per Tentacle on your board, as well as 1 point for each space with both a Tentacle and a Route. The player with the most points wins!
Alright, you’re sick of all the weird stuff happening in your transportation network, and you’ve decided to sleuth it out. Unfortunately, you’re on foot, so run around and find clues to solve this mystery!
An Investigation Expansion game only lasts six rounds, instead of the standard seven. Before you start, though, choose an Exit and draw a little stick figure person next to it; that’ll be your Investigator. Drawing the result of the Investigation Die is optional. Additionally, if you do draw the result, draw the magnifying glass, not the footprints. The footprints are Movement Points, which you can spend each turn to move your Investigator by erasing them and drawing them in a new position. Each of the two actions costs one Movement Point:
- Move your Investigator to an adjacent space connect via a Highway.
- Move your Investigator from a Station on your space (or a Railway Exit) to a space with a Station. You must stop at the first Station along your path (you cannot skip over Stations).
Either way, if your Investigator lands on a Clue after spending a Movement Point, circle the Clue! The game otherwise plays normally. At the end of the game, you score 1 point per Clue you’ve circled, and 4 points if you’ve circled all Clues.
Player Count Differences
This is probably going to be fairly common across all the Railroad Ink expansions, but there are generally not a ton of player count differences across the Railroad Ink series. You’ve got a bunch of players more or less working on their own boards, with only a few opportunities for overlap or interaction. This set doesn’t add anything in the way of player interaction, so, not much to worry about there. If you’re playing with Railroad Ink Challenge instead of Railroad Ink, you’ll have Goals to worry about, but there are no Eldritch-specific Goals to speak of. As a result, no player count preference for these expansion dice.
- [Ritual] I tend to push my Madness Network towards the center of the board and build my standard Network around it, so that there’s no interference. This is where the underpass and multi-turn die faces that everyone hates actually come in really handy; they’re very good at isolating certain networks. The underpass, in particular, lets you cut through another space without connecting to it, which can help your Madness Network reach the outside of your board (so that you can make portals and score more points. It’s nice to see the more-maligned die faces come in handy, for once.
- [Ritual] Regardless, do not connect Exits or your standard Network to the Madness Network; it will just invalidate that standard Network. It’s tempting and easy to forget! I love connecting my entire Network to form one massive mega-Network, and this expansion is specifically designed to thwart me at great personal cost. Watch out for things like Special Routes, since they’re all connected at the Station, and make sure you’re not accidentally mixing up what is and isn’t in your Madness Network. The absolute worst possible outcome is your entire Network getting conflated with your Madness Network and becoming worthless. Make sure that you don’t do that by mistake!
- [Portal] Ideally, your Portals will be of the same Route type, so that you can continue your Longest Highway or Longest Railway through them. I keep forgetting this when I play. Try to make sure that your A Portal is, for example, always road-to-road. This means that a Longest Highway can connect through that without stopping. I usually forget this, which means that my Network is connected, granted, but I’m not scoring as much as I could be.
- [Portal] If you can’t get your Portals to continue your Longest Highway or Railway, use them to connect disparate Networks so you can get the maximum points from your Networks (since the Portals themselves don’t score you any bonus points). Yes, this is the consolation prize. Just watch out! Since Portals make it easy to connect different parts of your Network, there’s some temptation to get a bit sloppy and just let random Errors start to crop up, as well. Making one massive Network is definitely a draw, but don’t neglect the other things you usually score for, like Goals or the center spaces.
- [Tentacle] This is an expansion that benefits a lot from straightaways, since you can cleanly underpass them. You can’t do much with T-shapes or Special Routes, sadly. Ideally, you can use the straightaways to make a ring around the edge of the board so that you can push inward with your various tentacles, but regardless, you do want spots where Routes and tentacles share space so that you can get more points.
- [Tentacle] Leave yourself room to place tentacles later in the game! If you fill up your edges too quickly, you’ll either have to block Exits or you won’t be able to place the tentacles that you want to gain extra points. This is a mistake I made during my photography game; I went very hard on connecting the right side all at once to get a Goal, and used a lot of T-shaped pieces to do so, making it impossible to add tentacles later and having to miss out on points. That was sad, especially because I missed out on drawing some enormous ones, which was particularly a bummer.
- [Investigation] Note that the station-heavy focus of the Investigation Die makes it much easier to score bonus points for Villages. Like I said earlier: just because you’re playing an expansion doesn’t mean you should lose track of your basics. You have a die that adds a few extra possible stations into your mix, which can help you pull even more points from Villages, so lean into that! Just don’t lose sight of the Investigation goal, either.
- [Investigation] Try to use your Investigation Die incrementally, where possible; it’s very helpful to just be able to pop over to the next Clue and score the maximum 10 points. I find it easiest to just have a branch that’s all my Investigation Die results in a chain, if I can swing it. Best-case, it helps add to my Longest Railway or Longest Highway, as well. Then, my Investigator can just pop over every round and score a bonus 10 points at the end of the game. It’s not much, but it’s honest work, I suppose.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This is a pretty silly expansion set, which I like. It’s hard to take the idea of eldritch abominations emerging from the deep to bring madness and just kind of mildly inconvenience your commute all that seriously. It’s goofy. Railroad Ink doesn’t really paint itself as a silly game, at its core, but it very much is. The expansions prove it, and I love that for them. You’ve got Investigators looking for clues, underpassing tentacles just causing some routine madness, and cultists doing God-knows-what. It’s a hoot.
- The dice look nice! Good color scheme and I like the transparency. I really can’t help it; I think custom dice are the best. The etching on this is super nice, and the dice are subtly transparent, which look great (even if it makes them a bit tougher to photograph).
- It also gives you some fun things to draw. I mean, I’m bad at drawing stick figures, but I enjoy drawing the various shapes and working on some of my other skills. As you might notice in the photography, I’m not great at any of them, but I’m having fun.
- I particularly like some of the buckwild route shapes you can get from the Ritual dice, and some of the interesting routes available in Investigation. There are some truly bizarre routes on some of these dice. T-shapes where part of it is disconnected to form a Madness Network? Love it. Stations where the left or right side is different from the other parts of the T? Can’t get enough of it.
- The expansions are very easy to transport, generally speaking. I mean, if you want, you can even just slot them into the expansion slot that comes in a normal game of Railroad Ink or Railroad Ink Challenge; sub out the Trails or Lakes or whatever comes with your copy. If not, they usually fit just about anywhere. Pockets, bags, suitcase places; the whole thing. It’s a really nice portable set, though I would kind of just like a box that fits everything somewhat flat.
- As someone who doesn’t much care for Lovecraft, I appreciate having an Eldritch-themed expansion that’s not particularly Cthulhu-y. Sure, it’s got the Madness and all that weird culty stuff, but I’m glad we’re avoiding at least some of what made the original Lovecraft tick. Especially all the racism. Never gonna miss that.
- I like the range of difficulties of the expansions in this set, as well. The Portal and Tentacle ones are pretty easy and the Ritual one is pretty hard! There’s a good amount of difference that you can really learn a lot about how to play from trying each expansion for a while. I like games that have a range of difficulties available, and so I’m pretty stoked about this one.
- I find it kind of wild that you can mix multiple expansions together at once, but do so at your own risk. You have to be using the Giant Board, granted, but they have compatibility notes for every pairing of expansions, which I also think is wild. I keep accidentally reading it and once you start, it’s hard to stop.
- Portal can be a bit of a frustrating game, just because there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually roll compatible Portals at any particular juncture. It can be really funny if you just roll the A Portal the entire game, for instance. You may roll the same one all game, or you may just not get the particular combination of Portals and roads / rails that you needed to extend your Longest Railway or Highway. It can be a bit annoying.
- Towards the late game, many players will find the Tentacle Die useless since they may have no available locations to place one to start. That’s just a bit disappointing since the Tentacles are both the whole point of the game and fun to draw. I struggled a bit, early in the game, because I was just rolling pretty much only T-shapes, so there was no way to get a Tentacle to underpass that space. There are some variations that make these expansions a bit less compelling, but, that’s dice for you.
- The Ritual squiggles and the Investigator / Clue really assume that I have access to finer-point markers than the game gives me. It’s a bit frustrating, just because erasing the Investigator and redrawing them really makes me cognizant of how much I end up smearing my board over the course of the game. I had to redraw a few routes because the eraser isn’t that precise, and anybody could tell you that I’m not quite dexterous enough to draw the Ritual squiggle in a way that’s actually legible. I kind of wish the Railroad Ink markers were finer-point, and this expansion definitely cements that.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think the Eldritch Expansion for Railroad Ink is pretty great! I’m going to regret slapping a number on this one until I’ve thought through all of them, I bet. Run it through a ranking engine and there you go. But, more specifically, I was pretty surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. I genuinely tend to stay away from eldritchy things, as a point of practice. Just not my general scene. And Railroad Ink gave us something vaguely eldritchy. Cultists? Madness? Strange tentacled abominations? All there, but in a way that’s almost goofy enough to mildly distract you from a fun and challenging roll-and-write game. I was impressed that they went a bit sillier, for these expansions, and I find that pretty funny. That’s not to say that they slouched, though; these are interesting takes on this route-building game, and they provide different ways to think about your ongoing strategies beyond just making the same general roads and rails you’ve gotten used to. The Eldritch expansion even punishes players like me who want one massive Network by introducing the Ritual Expansion’s Madness Network, which needs to be its own separate thing. I love that challenge! It’s a new way to think about a game I already love. I do kind of wish the drawings didn’t feel like they needed to be as precise as they do, given that the markers aren’t really built for precision, but them’s the breaks, sometimes. I do wish there were a bit more variety from the Portal and Tentacle expansions, but, they’re relatively benign (and meant to be less-complex), so I’m not terribly bothered. A good, goofy way to introduce some spooky games, all things being equal. I’m impressed with what Railroad Ink has to offer with the expansions, and looking forward to trying more! If you want to make your networks a bit more horrifying, you enjoy portals and rituals, or you just feel like you want to change up some of your Railroad Ink strategies, I’d recommend checking out the Eldritch expansion! I was pleasantly surprised.
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