Sunday, July 05, 2015

Flying Off the Rails

It might just be that there are more Euro games about trains than any other subject -- and several good ones at that. So I wasn't exactly in the market for another train game. But my good friend, an even bigger board game enthusiast than I am, sold me on checking out German Railways. And he did it by describing the intriguingly different mechanic at the heart of the game.

Like most train games, German Railways features several companies working to connect different cities. Like some train games, companies are not directly controlled by a single player; instead, shares in each company are sold, and then players jockey to try to make the companies they've invested in do well. So far, there's nothing at work here you can't get from, say, Union Pacific. But there are two twists.

First, there's the way in which each rail company must be infused with money. When a player buys a share, that money goes into the company's coffers. And only that money can be spent (by any shareholder) to build track. When the company runs out of money, someone has to buy a new share (using the dividends they've received from ownership of other stocks) to infuse the company anew. It's a fairly clever game system that captures an economy more elaborately than most games attempt to do. And it's surprising how well it works in practice.

The second mechanic is a highly unusual way of determining player turn order each round. There are as many actions up for grabs as there are players in the game. Whichever players is "winning" (measured by having the highest potential dividend payouts among his railway shares) gets one token in a cloth bag. Second place gets two, third place three, and so on. Then tokens are drawn out at random. It's a theoretical catch-up mechanic, where the leader has very little chance of even getting a turn in a round, while other players might even get to act multiple times. In theory, it's a rather clever gimmick.

In practice, random chance is angry and fickle. I played in a four-player game, and I'm sorry to report that it's unlikely any of us will ever play the game again. In the first two rounds of the game, the same player didn't get a single turn. (He was nominally in first, but hardly by any amount that mattered, given that the game had just started.) Then, in four of the last five rounds of the game (all but the final round), I myself didn't get a single turn either. (This despite being in first only one of those missed rounds, and in third for two of them.)

Thus the flaw in leaving up to chance such a vital mechanic as getting to actually play the game. My friend sat there doing nothing for the first 10 minutes of play, all of us learning the ropes as he sat out. Then I did nothing for almost 30 minutes at the end of the game, knowing any chance of pulling out a win was slipping away from me and being powerless to do a thing about it. It's the sort of frustrating randomness I associate (unfavorably) with a game like Fluxx -- but at least with Fluxx, you know from the start that you're signing up for chaos, more activity than game. German Railways felt like it snuck up under false pretenses and punched me in the face.

So, with apologies to the friend who recommended it, I have a copy of German Railways for sale. Not that I'd actually encourage any of my readers to buy it. I imagine that the experience could be better when the odds don't defy you. But I had an absolute grade F experience. And the fact that the game has no rules to limit that sort of thing makes it hard for me to grade it any better than that.

No comments: