First, the basics: Deckbuilding train game. Designed by Hisashi Hayashi. Originally from Japan, and published by AEG in the US. Retails for $60.
Now, onto the actual content ….
OK, take Dominion (if you haven’t played Dominion yet, then I would suggest that it’s safer for us all if you go back to 2007), then remove the once-per-turn limits on playing actions and buying cards. Call the money-generating cards Trains instead of Treasures (the basic Train cards even have almost the same production values/cost as the basic Dominion Treasures). OK, that’s the re-hashed part of Trains.
Now, the new bits: you’ve got a board (and not that Thunderstone board either – I like the Thunderstone Advance board, but it’s ultimately just a really nice playmat – but a real live game board that matters). A double-sided board, actually – one Osaka side and one Tokyo side. Each is a hex map, where each hex is a city, “remote location,” or some sort of terrain. Money costs to lay rails increase based on the terrain, and increase a lot for remote locations or heavily occupied cities.
Then, you go back to your setup of supply cards, and add two kinds of cards that interact with the board. First, there are cards that lay rails – the basic Lay Rails, and some fancier versions that let you ignore the money cost of laying rails. Each [Lay Rails] symbol lets you put one cube of your color on the map next to an existing cube (everyone starts with one cube each already on the board, naturally). Second, there is exactly one card called Station Expansion that adds a station onto a city on the board (capacity of 1, 2 or 3 stations, as indicated on the board).
The other big addition to Trains is the Waste deck. Many deckbuilding games involve a lot thinning your deck of the original junk cards you start with, while adding more and more powerful cards to it. That’s not how it works in Trains. Trains is almost devoid of ways to remove the standard starting cards from your deck. And throughout the game you will add Waste to your deck – whenever you lay rails, build a station, or buy a VP card from the supply. Waste doesn’t have any active negative effect, but it doesn’t have a positive effect either. So unless you do something about it, the waste will slowly choke your deck.
What can you do about it? The main thing is the rulebook “super-Rest” action, which lets you take your entire turn to return all the Waste in your hand to the Waste deck. There are some supply cards that remove Waste as well – some are potent, others are weak).
So, you’re buying better cards into your deck, laying some rails, buildings some stations – how does this all add up to winning? There are three, sometimes four, sources of victory points. First, if you build a rail into a Remote Location, you get a number of victory points equal to the value printed on the hex. Second, if you there are any stations in a city where you have a rail line, you get two points per station (doubled for the third station, if it’s one of the two cities on each board who can take a third station). Third, you can buy VP cards – but note that these are much less efficient than Dominion VP cards. There’s also a Train card you can buy that’s worth a VP every time you play it.
The game ends when (1) someone runs out of rails; (2) the global station pile runs out; or (3) four supply cards (not counting the Waste) run out.
Deckbuilding games are often about maximizing efficiency. You do not go about this in the same way in Trains. You cannot simply ignore the board, build an efficient engine, and then buy VP cards to win – the Province equivalent still costs 8, but is only worth 4, and you get a Waste when you buy it (you should probably still buy it when you can, but you can’t just coast on them). You absolutely cannot just ignore the board.
With that said, you don’t necessarily have to just go after the board right away either. If you start laying rails and building stations right away, then you’ll start adding a lot of Waste to your deck right away, and you’ll have a harder time every getting much of anything that costs more than 5. A lot of this is because playing stations does not actually equal points that matter, contrary to the impression you might get from reading the rules. Yes, most of the points in the game come from stations. But if there’s one thing to remember when you first play, or to emphasize to others on their first play, it’s that station points are not yours. You’ll probably have a rail in wherever you drop the station, so you’ll get those two points. But if you build early then someone else is probably going to build into that city as well before the game is over. Stations are not about simply dropping points on the VP track, they’re about positioning – where can you put them so that you won’t end up having to share them, or only have to share them with one other player?
What’s the optimal way to go about managing these two considerations? Well, that I’m not going to claim to know.
When assessing cards, keep in mind how bad the average card in your deck is going relative to some other deckbuilders because of the accumulation of Waste and your inability to get rid of Normal Trains (the Copper equivalent). Card draw is less good than it might usually be in comparison to things like just producing more cash (because the average cash value of what you draw isn’t that great). But card filtering is more useful than it might otherwise be, because there’s a pretty good chance you’ll want to get rid of the top card of your deck.
Also think about how often you want to be laying Rails and building Stations – as the game goes on you’ll see your Lay Rails and Station Expansion cards less and less frequently (you start with two Lay Rails and one Station Expansion in the deck) , unless you buy more. But how many more do you really want? If you’re trying to get more efficient early, you definitely want to hold off for a bit, but at some point you will need to invest in more Lay Rails so that you can get over to that nice juicy block of built-up cities that your neighbor has been constructing for you. And so you can make sure you actually end up with a Lay Rails and a 5 money in your hand at the same time so you can afford the cost to lay rails into that built-up city. Station Expansion you may or may not want to ever add a second copy of, and if you do you’ll want it late. Dropping stations late means that you can build them after players have committed to construction in a particular way, and so hopefully in places where they won’t get shared by your buddies.
The rules suggest that you use the Landfill card in your first game. Don’t feel the need to follow this advice. The Landfill card costs 2 and removes all the Waste from your hand. It’s a fairly weak card I’m inclined to think you should never buy. Yeah, it will pick out a few Waste from time to time, but at a cost of having yet another card that doesn’t actively accomplish anything. You can manage your waste just with the rest action (rule of thumb: if you have 3+ Waste in your hand, or 2 Waste and junk, rest), and every other card that removes Waste is way better.
The box says Trains plays in about 45 minutes. That sounds right. The game is fully functional at 2, 3 or 4 players, although having 4 instead of 2 on the map makes a big strategic difference. With only two players, you’re basically guaranteed to have the game end from someone running out of rails to lay. With four, I’ve had the game end or come very close to ending from all three endgame conditions. All other things being equal, I’d rather play it with more players.
The deckbuilding aspect of Trains really does draw heavily on Dominion. Not just the very similar sets of three kinds of basic money and three kinds of VP cards, but there are quite a few exact “clones” (a Wishing Well, a Throne Room, a Mine), and a couple of close ones (a Library, except it doesn’t need the +1 Action, an Adventurer, except it costs 1 less). There’s no way to avoid the comparison when you’re playing Trains (unless, I suppose, you’re one of the five gamers left who hasn’t played Dominion, in which case this review, lacking a gameplay explanation that doesn’t reference Dominion, probably makes no sense at all).
But, of course, there’s substantially more to Trains than just the Dominion-ish portion. And, as you could probably tell from the Strategy section above, there’s more to the strategy of the game than just a deck efficiency engine (note: I think Dominion is a really good game that brought a really good mechanic to gaming, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pretty focused sort of game). And the way that the Waste works turns the efficiency engine part on its head a little bit – and managing to do it in a way that is still really fun. By making the gaining of Waste always be something that affects you in the future, and giving you a proactive way to trim your deck back down, and not actively punishing you for having a lot of waste, Trains manages to use a negative incentive without being frustrating to anyone (whether you personally like it or hate it, you’ve got to admit that negative incentives like “feed your workers” annoy a reasonable chunk of gamers). And needing different kinds of cards (cash, lay rails, stations) can affect how certain cards play – the Temporary Timetables (discard from deck until you hit two Trains) can be really handy because it lets you rip through waste, but too many of them and you’ll end up discarding all of your Lay Rails/Station Expansions and have a hard time actually getting those VP from the board.
There’s enough in common that, if you like Dominion, you’ll like Trains, and if you hate Dominion, you won’t like Trains. So that means most of the people who read this sort of thing are going to like Trains. Even some folks who aren’t fond of Dominion will enjoy Trains, because there’s the interaction of the board. There’s enough different that, even if you’re kind of getting tired of Dominion (which I am), Trains livens up the experience enough to bring out to the table.
What I’d like to see out of Trains going forward is some more inventive cards. The base game comes with 30 different options for the supply (in addition to the 9 always-in-the-game cards), but that doesn’t go as far as you might think. Some of it is because they’re Dominion copies. Some of it is because all of the Lay Rails upgrades are kinda same-y (Lay Rails, ignore the extra money cost for a particular condition). Some of it’s because there are some cards where the pricing seems a little bit off – there are some cards like Command Central (the Wishing Well clone) that are useless, and others like the 4 money Freight Train (a Train that lets you get rid of all of your Waste and gives you money for it) and Tourist Train (bonus VP every time you play it) are extremely powerful. The replayability of a deckbuilding game is extended when your strategy varies more with different arrays of cards. When cards are of relatively equal power level, this makes synergies more important and varies strategies. When the cards are of relatively unequal power levels, it lends to just buying the best cards no matter what shows up (see, for example, just buying Chapel/Silver/Smithy/Gold in a game of base Dominion).
And, on the bright side, Trains has a Thunderstone Advance style box, so when they come out with expansions I can actually fit them in the base game box.
So I’d like to see more cards that do things like mess with the board or interact with laying rails or building stations more creatively. I’m looking forward to more boards (some PnP ones are available on the web, but, well, I like the real thing). I’m looking forward to being able to play Trains with a lot of folks who are heavy gamers, and a lot of folks who aren’t heavy gamers. I can’t put Trains in the ZOMGamazing category, not until it has more variety, but it’s definitely a good one.