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Friday, 4 September 2020

Friday Filler: Railroad Ink: Blazing Red

‘Roll & Write’ games—the mechanic of rolling dice and writing down the results—go all the back to Yahtzee, but that design is over sixty years old and game design has come a long way since 1956. These days, ‘Roll & Write’ games involve ‘write-on, wipe off’ surfaces, so a game can be played, the playing surface written upon, then wiped clean, and played again. Railroad Ink is typical of this. Published by Horrible Guild, Railroad Ink is a family game which combines competition and puzzles for between one and six players, aged eight and above, that can be played in thirty minutes. Over the course of the game, players roll dice and draw the symbols on the dice on their maps to build networks. After seven rounds, they score points for the number of Exits they connect, their longest rail and road networks, and lose points for dead ends created. The player with the most points is the winner. Then, everyone cleans their board, ready to play again. The result is a game with simple mechanics, but thoughtful gameplay as each player tries to connect up the symbols on the dice, all using the same symbols as everyone else, but in a different mechanic.

Railroad Ink comes in different colours—Railroad Ink: Deep Blue and Railroad Ink: Blazing Red are the most commonly available. They differ primarily in their colour and in the expansions available in each. Railroad Ink: Deep Blue adds the Rivers and Lakes expansions, each River symbol making connecting route that much more difficult, whilst Lakes can connect your networks by ferry. Railroad Ink: Blazing Red includes the Lava and Meteor expansions. The Lava comes pouring out of an erupting volcano and can expand to destroy routes, as can meteor strikes, but the craters can be for precious ore (or points). Apart from these expansions (and those in the other editions), the game play is the same between Railroad Ink: Deep Blue, Railroad Ink: Blazing Red, and other editions. Both Railroad Ink: Deep Blue and  Railroad Ink: Blazing Red can be combined to enable as many as twelve players to player—something that few games can do! Of the two, it is Railroad Ink: Blazing Red which is being reviewed here.

Railroad Ink: Blazing Red comes in a little box containing six player boards, six markers, four Route dice, two Lava dice, two Meteor dice, and the rulebook. Each player board consists of a grid, seven squares by seven squares, with three exits on each side. The nine central squares are of a different colour and if routes are built across them, a player will score more points. The back of the player board folds up and serves not as a shield to hide a player’s layout from his rivals, but includes a scoring track, a means to track the dice symbols used each turn, and presents six special symbols which can be used during play. These consist of crossroads of various types, a player being allowed to use one per turn, but can only use each symbol once and cannot use more than three special symbols per game.

The basic dice—all of which are white—consist of two types. One has type has sections of curved, straight, and tee-junction highways and railways. There are three of these. The other type, of which there is only one, shows an overpass and stations at which highways and railways can connect. These connections can be straight or curved. The full colour rulebook runs to sixteen pages and does a decent job of explaining how the game is played. It is not a large rulebook, so it does need a careful read-through to spot everything.

Game set-up is simple. Each player receives a player board and a pen. Game play is also simple. At the beginning of each turn, the four dice are rolled. The players then draw those route symbols onto their player boards, ensuring that the routes connect to either an exit or an existing network. It really is as simple as that. A player can also draw in a special symbol from those listed on the inside of his player board, up to a maximum of three per game. In total seven rounds are played before the game ends. Then a player will score points for the number of exits his networks connect, the longest highway, the longest railway, and the number of central squares he has drawn routes through. Points are deducted for dead ends.

However, the puzzle element of Railroad Ink: Blazing Red means that a player will be constantly working to make the efficient connections and wondering how he can best use the routes marked on the dice that turn. It means that there is a luck element to the game, but a player can work to try and mitigate the effects of what might be a bad roll for him, whilst that roll might be better for another player. In effect, a player is building a puzzle from turn to turn, but does not know what pieces of the puzzle he and his fellow players will receive each turn until the dice are rolled. The game is mechanically simple, but there really is a neat little challenge to it from start to finish, and it really feels satisfying when the dice are rolled and the right symbols come up to make connections and draw an efficient network.

The Meteor and Lava Expansions are optional and add complexity to the game. Both shorten game length to six rather than seven rounds. The Meteor dice are rolled along side the standard dice and indicate the direction and how many squares away a meteor will hit on a player’s board on the next turn. If this means it lands on a route—highway or railway, it is destroyed. A special route can be sacrificed to ignore the effects of a Meteor strike and Meteor craters can be built over. However, dead ends which connect to an existing crater will score a player points as he mines the crater. 

The Lava Expansion adds a volcano at the centre of each player’s board as well as the two Lave dice to the basic dice rolled at the start of each turn. The Lava dice depict the sides of a lava lake, some adjacent to a railway or highway, most not. When they are rolled with the basic dice, a player must use one of the Lava symbols shown to expand the Lava lake. If he cannot do that, he can either start another volcano else where on his board or the lava lake is forced to expand and erase a highway or a railway. Open Lava Lake sides will lose a player points at the end of the game, but a player will score points for each fully enclosed Lava Lake and for his largest Lava Lake.

Both expansions give more for a player to work with and draw, but also make the game play more involving and longer. The Meteor Expansion is the more complex one as there is slightly more to keep track of, but both make the game more challenging. So are probably better suited to older players.

Another way in which Railroad Ink: Blazing Red can be played and that is solo. This is playing the standard game without any competition to see how high a score you can get. However, it is not as much fun as competing with other players, and in some ways, it just highlights the fact that even with other players, Railroad Ink: Blazing Red still feels like a solo game since there is no interaction between them. This does not mean that Railroad Ink: Blazing Red is a bad game, but it is still quite light in terms of its puzzle and challenge factors, so ideally, it should be mixed in with other games or played as filler (as a ‘Friday Filler’ or otherwise). For a family audience this should be less of an issue, but for veteran players or fans of train games, it might be too light (in which case Railway Rivals is a good alternative).

Overall, Railroad Ink: Blazing Red is a very nicely done mix of puzzle and challenge which looks and feels good in play. A charming little filler worth bringing to the table amongst a mix of other fillers. 

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