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Friday, 30 January 2015

1984: Railway Rivals

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Back in the early 1990s, TSR held European GenCon at Camber Sands, a windswept holiday camp on England’s south coast, much to the shock and amusement of any visiting American guests. The fact that it was within sight of Dungeness nuclear power station only added to the weirdness—and that became a joke in Shadowrun supplement. It was there that I had my first exposure to Railway Rivals to the sound of designer Jack Jaffe extolling you to come and play Save the President. I joined a game run by David Watts, the designer of Railway Rivals, which was played using a map of Ireland. I certainly did not know that I was playing with the designer and I certainly did not win the game, but I enjoyed playing what was essentially my first exposure to railway games. I thought that the idea of drawing on the map to be novel and clever. This memory was enough a decade later to purchase the Games Workshop version of the game and then two decades on, to purchase the original version that came in the heavy cardboard tube that could hold multiple maps.

Railway Rivals is a very stripped back game. It consists of a single six-sided die, six trains (or simply tokens), and a set of washable felt pens that match the colours of the tokens, but at the heart of the game—its maps. Each depicted a geographical area—Eastern USA, London & Liverpool, Germany, and so on—marked with cities, hills, and rivers on a hex grid. Each map sheet is laminated so that it can be drawn on—and that is the point of the game. Each player was setting out to build or draw his own railway network that connected the cities on the map. Then the players would race their trains over their networks to score money.

At the beginning of a game each player receives a train and a pen in a matching colour before rolling for his starting city. Then on his turn a player rolls the die to determine his income which he spends to build, or draw, new track in his network. Most of the maps consist of open plains which are cheap to lay track over, but hills and rivers cost more to cross, as does having to cross or parallel a rival player’s railway line. Money is earned for connecting your network to the cities on the map.

As soon as all cities have been connected, the game’s second phase begins. Races are set up between random cities and the players compete to get there first. Money is awarded to players arriving in first and second place, but must be paid to any railway rival whose track you used as part of your move. This is likely because it is rare for a player to connect to every city on the map. At the end of the game, the player with the most money wins.Once all cities are joined by railway tracks, the second part of the game starts. Players race their trains along the tracks between randomly chosen pairs of cities; just as in real life, players must pay other players to use elements of their track if they do not have a complete route of their own to the current target city. The choice of routes raced is random; each city is used one or more times. Money is awarded to the trains that arrive first and second, and the player with the most money when all routes have been raced is the winner.

By modern standards, Railway Rivals looks simplistic, but that would be an unfair assessment. The laying of the track across a map offers some tactical choice as each player attempts to make the best advantage of his starting position and map’s terrain. Often, this focuses upon certain choke points, typically to cities only accessible via gaps in the surrounding hills that are expensive to build through or to groups of cities, like those of New England.* In such a situation, when it comes to laying track, a player needs to ask himself if it is cheaper to build through the hills or lay track alongside that of his rivals.

*Note that this is typical of most railway games set in the Eastern USA.

Racing the trains in the second phase of course does involve more than a degree of luck, both in terms of rolling for the starting and finishing cities for each race, and rolling movement each turn. Each race will proceed without any complications when a player is travelling over his own network, but should a player need to switch to a rival network to get to a destination, then he needs to pay for the track use. Which loses him money—and thus a potential victory—to his rivals. He can offset this by spending the money he already has to build new track, but again, the cost and any advantage it gains a player needs to be carefully weighed up.

Once all of the races have finished, the players need to total up their money. The player with most is the winner.

Railway Rivals was self-published for many years, but versions have been published by Games Workshop and Queen Games. Despite having won the Spiel des Jahres in 1984,* Railway Rivals is a forgotten classic, having been out of print for almost two decades now. After all, winning the Spiel des Jahres back then did not have the same prestige as it does now, and barring Settlers of Catan, which won in 1995, few winners are remembered from before the rise in popularity of the hobby board game in last fifteen years. Surprisingly it did find a home as a PBEM, or Play-by-E-Mail, game played via fanzines, its simplicity nicely supporting this type of game play. 

*It is unlikely that a game like Railway Rivals would win the Spiel des Jahres today. Arguably though, Railway Rivals was the Ticket to Ride of its day.

Of course, Railway Rivals lacks the sophistication of the modern game. Indeed it looks very plain, but this plainness  suits the simplicity of the game and the simplicity of its game play. In fact the maps are clean, simple, and elegant. The only real complaint about the game is how messy it is—having to wipe a map clean after a game is over is a chore. Yet this write-on, wipe-off feature lies at the game’s heart—prefiguring the crayon games series begun with Empire Builder from Mayfair Games by several years—and makes the game most replayable. Some thirty-five official maps were released for the game, many of them classics in terms of locations for railway games—Germany, New England, France, and so on.

Railway Rivals is all about the maps and getting the chance to draw on them—again and again. Getting to scribble like this has a little of the childhood pleasure to it, but this is a game and a rather charming one at that. Simple and fun, Railway Rivals is not just about lay tracking, but drawing them!