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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Tangled Trains

2014 is the year that Japanese boardgames—particularly the Japon Brand—break out into the mainstream. After all, two Japanese games won Origins Awards in 2014, both published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Love Letter won the Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game and Trains won the Origins Award for Best Board Game—how long until one wins the Spiel des Jahres? Of course, Japanese boardgames have not sprung from nowhere, there having been a number of them published in English over the past few years. Among the first was String Railway, designed by Hisashi Hayashi, who also designed the excellent Trains and recently had the interesting Sail to India published by Alderac Entertainment Group.

The 2013 UK Games Expo Best Abstract Game Winner, what sets String Railway apart from almost every other railway board game is in the title. Railway board games fall into two types. One uses hexes with players laying railway tracks to connect towns and cities, whilst the other has the players drawing lines with crayons on a map to connect towns and cities. In String Railway the players connect railway stations, not by hexes or crayons, but string—thick, bright lengths of string.

Now published by Asmodée Éditions, String Railway is designed for two to five players, aged eight plus, each of whom is the president of his railway company. A game lasts about thirty minutes and the aim is to have the most profitable railway by game’s end. 

Its play surface is the table itself with the play area formed by a string loop that is pulled out to form either a triangle, a square, or a pentagon, depending upon the number of players—a triangle for three players, a square for four or two players (in a two-player game, each player plays with two starting stations and two sets of strings), or a pentagon for five players. Inside the play area is placed a grey loop to represent the mountains and a length of blue string that runs to the edge and represents a river. Each player then receives five strings of various lengths and a station of the same colour, the latter being placed at a corner.

On his turn, a player draws a station from the deck of thirty-four station cards. He is free to place this station wherever he likes, but he must also use one of his strings to connect this new station to a station his network is already connected to. He is free to run the string through any other station he likes as long as the new station is placed at the end of the string.

The player then earns Victory Points for the station he has placed and any stations that he has run his new placed string through. Each of the eight types of stations scores differently. For example, the Central Station scores three Victory Points, but can only be connected by five players; an Urban Station scores a player three Victory points when placed, but will lose him a Victory Point to a rival if another connects to it, up to a maximum of five players; and a Scenic Station will earn a player one Victory Point if placed on the plains, but five Victory Points if placed in the mountains. Victory Points are lost if a string crosses either the river or another string. Of course, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Play quickly becomes harder and harder as more strings are placed. Players will work hard to place their stations where they can score, but their rivals cannot and work harder to place their strings to their best advantage. Even if that means pulling them to their full length or twisting them again and again; this is what makes the game fun.

String Railway is a nice looking game and the rules are easy to read. Its core mechanics are tile drawing and placing and route-laying, both quite conventional, but the placing of the strings gives the game a physicality that very few games possess. The fact that each player only has five strings means that each only has five turns, making the game quick. (The fact that both players have ten strings in a two-player game is offset by the number of players). Everyone’s last turn usually takes a little longer as they try to maximise points, but that is true of many games. 

Bright and colourful, String Railways is a solid filler. In adding a physical element to the train game genre, String Railways shows how messy and tangled up the laying of railway tracks can get.