Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Dominion of Trains

Let go on record and simply state that I do not like Dominion. This does not mean that it is a bad game. The 2009 Spiel des Jahres winner from Rio Grande Games is an innovative design, being one the the first deck-building card games, but I find it too mechanical and lacking in theme. So I do not own a copy and rarely play it although I know that it is a popular game. I do though, own and like Trains, a deck-building board game from Hisashi Hayashi, the designer of Sail to India and String Railway, and arguably that is very much like Dominion, both in terms of its design and the fact that each has won an Origins award—Dominion for Best Traditional Card Game in 2008 and Trains for Best Board game in 2013. Fortunately, Trains has a number of features that make it more interesting than Dominion.

Trains is not just a deck-building card game. It is a deck-building board game. The difference being that the players are building their decks to take actions on a board all of which consist of creating their railway networks—laying track and building stations. For in fact, Trains is also an area control game. Designed for two to four players, aged twelve and up, Trains sees the players compete to build the most valuable railway networks in the area surrounding the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Osaka. What this means is that there is direct competition between the players rather than just a race to acquire the most Victory Points.

In terms of set-up, each player receives an identical ten-card deck consisting of three types of card—Normal Trains, which generate money for a player; Lay Rails, used to expand a player’s network and to connect to features on the board that will score him Victory Points; and Station Expansion, which let a player build the Stations in the towns and cities to score Victory Points. On his turn, a player uses a hand of five cards drawn from the deck to carry out actions—generate income, purchase new cards, and use the actions on the cards to do various things, but primarily building his network on the board. Where possible, a player’s cards are used to generate both income and actions and a player is free to make as many purchases as he can afford and take as many actions as he can. Once done, a player’s hand of cards goes into the discard pile. Lastly he then draws a new hand of five cards and thinks about what he will do on his next turn. The latter action—thinking about what he will do on his next turn—is explicitly stated in the rules. As part of the game, it is a welcome addition counter to players prone to ‘analysis paralysis’.

Another aspect of the set-up is that the range of cards available to purchase varies from one game to the next. Every game has the eight default cards available to purchase—Express Train, Limited Express Train, Lay Rails, Station Expansion, Apartment, Tower, Skyscraper, and Waste cards, but the remaining eight are randomly determined from the thirty available. This not only makes play different each time, it also allows the game to be tinkered in terms of options. Want an easier game? Then for example, make sure that the Landfill card is available so that players can use it to get rid of Waste.

The cards are categorised into five colours. Purple cards allow a Station Expansion, whilst green cards are construction cards that either Lay Rails or nullify the extra cost of construction, such as Collaboration, which cuts the cost of building track where another player already has track. It also prevents a player gaining Waste from any construction that turn. Blue cards are train cards. The standard Train cards simply generate a player income, but others grant an action or bonus. For example, a Tourist Train grants a Victory Point every time it is played, whilst an Early Train lets a player put purchased cards on the top of his deck. Yellow cards, like the Tower and the Skyscraper grant Victory Point at game’s end, but do clog up a deck. Red cards are action cards that grant various benefits. For example, the Ironworks generates income for each track laying green card played that turn, whilst Station Crew gives a player the choice drawing another card, gaining income, or returning Waste to the Waste stack.

Most deck-building games have an aspect of their design that clogs up each player's’ deck. Usually, this consists of two types of cards. The first type consist of cards that are less effective as the game progresses, typically being replaced by better and more effective cards. The second type consists of Victory Point cards, purchased towards winning the game, but doing nothing else. Trains has both of these, but takes the concept further with Waste. Every time a player lays track, builds a station, or constructs a building, he earns a Waste card—and a Waste card does nothing except clog up a player’s deck and when drawn, his hand. 

What does Waste mean? Its effect forces a player to balance his hand and deck. It also curbs a player from expanding too quickly. Yet Waste cards do not wholly impede a player—one or two Waste cards in his hand from one turn to the next will not prevent his making purchases, laying track, expanding stations, and taking actions, but any more Waste cards  than that and a player may find himself unable to act. Fortunately, a player can forgo his turn in order to divest his hand of all Waste and there are certain cards that will let him get rid of Waste, such as Landfill.

The obvious aim of the cards is to lay track, but this is primarily a means to an end rather than a means to scoring Victory Points. The main means of scoring Victory Points is by laying track into a city and then building stations. Cities can have between one and three stations, the extra stations after the first being more expensive to build, but scoring a player more  Victory Points. The second means of scoring Victory Points is to lay track to a Remote Location on the edge of the map—typically this involves building through expensive terrain like mountains. The third method is by buying Yellow cards, though this is also expensive.

Once a player has built into an area, it does not mean that another player cannot build  into the same space. It does make it more expensive though, and whilst this serves as a barrier, a player can lay track into an area held by another player to cancel out any potential Victory Points he might gain by building a station there or by laying track into a Remote Location.

Play continues until a player places his last rail cube as track or places the last station, or four piles of the cards available to purchase have been exhausted. Once one of these conditions has been met the game ends and the player with the most Victory Points wins.

Trains is a nicely presented. Both the rules booklet and the cards are easy to read, the double-sided board is clear and functional. The cards themselves are nicely illustrated and do feel good in the hand.

The question is, is Trains really like Dominion? The answer to that would be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. There are many cards that look and feel familiar—such that one gamer I know refuses to play it because it is too alike—but the gameplay is different. It is more streamlined, there is less emphasis on setting up your deck as an ‘engine’ that runs perfectly, and a player needs to balance both his deck and his hand as the game progresses. Trains is easier to learn, both because it is more streamlined and because the theme is more accessible. That theme is nicely implemented both through the cards and the maps, though the latter do offer little in the way of variation between the pair of them. The range of cards available and their random determination each game means that every game is different—and that adds to the replayability.

Trains is not quite an introductory deck-building game—Star Realms might be better at that—but it is not a difficult game to learn by any means. It is a medium-light Euro game, just a step or three on from Ticket to Ride in terms of complexity. Overall, Trains is a very accessible, likeable deck-building that makes much of its theme.