Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, but it also publishes board and card games and roleplaying games too. The latter includes Gran Meccanismo: Clockpunk Roleplaying in da Vinci’s Florence, Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, and Heirs to Heresy: The fall of the Knights Templar, whilst the former includes titles such as Undaunted Normandy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Village Rails: A Game of Locomotives and Local Motives. The latter is rail-themed board game designed for two to four players aged up fourteen and over, and designed to be played in less than an hour. It has a delightfully cosy feel to it, being set in the English countryside during the Age of Steam during the thirties, forties, and fifties. Play is simple with each player only having to make a few choices and the game ends once everyone has taken twelve turns after which each player’s tableau or rail network is scored and the player with the highest score wins.
Village Rails: A Game of Locomotives and Local Motives consists of eighty Railway Cards, thirty-eight Terminus Cards, four Reference Cards and four Scoring Dials, Border Pieces, and almost fifty coins. The Border Pieces and coins are done in thick cardboard, as are the Scoring Dials, which do require some assembly. The Border Pieces are marked with the start of seven railway lines and are used to create an ‘L-shape’ into which the Railway Cards are placed as a three-by-five twelve-card grid. The Railway Cards are double-sided. On one side is Track, which depicts two single tracks running across terrain such as fields, pasture, forest, lakes, and villages. The Track side are also marked various symbols, including Barns, Farms, Halts, and Sidings. When they appear on a completed line, these will all score a player points, except for Sidings which are scored at the end of the game. On the other side of the Railway Cards are Trips, which score a player if their conditions are met. For example, ‘2 per type of feature on the line.’, ‘No Bulls on the line: 4 points’, and ‘Only straight tracks on the line: 6 points’. Terminus Cards earn a player money when played, the amount depending on the indicated features on the cards, for example, the number of tractors on the line, number of different terrain features on the line, and so on. The greater the number of features on the line, the more money a Terminus Card will earn.
At the start of the game, each player receives an ‘L-shape’ border and £5 in coins. Once the Railway Cards are shuffled, cards are drawn to form two markets—the Track Market and the Trip Market. These are two lines of cards from which a player can select a single Track card and a single Trip card respectively on his turn. The first card in each market is always free to take, but the cards further along the line and closer to the deck must be purchased, with cards closer to the deck being more expensive. This money is placed on the cards further away from the deck and if a player subsequently selects one of the cards with money on it, he receives both card and money. Each player receives three Terminus Cards which he keeps secret until played. On a turn, a player can conduct two actions. The first is to build tracks, which the player must do, the second is to plan a trip, which is optional, but can be done before or after building tracks. Planning a trip always costs money and the Trip card selected is placed next to the player’s L-shape border at the start of a line. Each line can have two Trip cards like this. When selected a Track card is placed into a player’s tableau, either next to a border or another Track card. If as a result of a Track card being placed, a railway line runs from the player’s ‘L-shape’ border to the edge of his tableau, it is considered completed and can be scored. Points are scored for the features on the line, for the bonus provided by the adjacent Trip card, and money if a Terminus card has been played. The Reference Cards help scoring easy for each player.
In Village Rails, each player is working to complete his own tableau and the game does not involve any direct interaction with each other. The interaction comes indirectly through the game’s two markets—the Track Market and the Trip Market. Here each player will be watching them for the best cards to become available, hopefully free in the case of the Track Market and cheap in the case of the Trip Market, and before another player takes them. Another reason to take a card is that it has money on it. Money will enable a player to purchase a better Track or Trip card than before another player can, or simply just buy a Trip card, and the right Trip card will score more points. What this means is that the players have to spend their money with care and take the opportunity of their Terminus cards to earn more. A player will always have three Terminus cards, so fortunately, there is always the opportunity for him to earn money when completing a line.
Placement of the Track cards also takes care and players tend to place their first Track cards at the outer corners of their L-shape and work inwards to fill in all twelve spaces in their tableaus. This is because those placed at the corners can often be completed first, scoring a player some points and potentially earning him money. It also initially gives a wider choice as to what cards a player can draw and play, but as more and more Track cards are placed, the choices begin to tighten as a player tries to balance trying to find the right Track card to add to a tableau and purchase the Trip card which will score him the most points. Throughout, a player will always be considering how he can maximise the number of points he can score and how much money he can earn. Play continues until every player has placed his twelfth Track card and the final scoring is done for the Sidings.
Physically, Village Railways is delightfully and sturdily presented. The first thing that you notice upon lifting up the rules booklet from the box is one single piece of design to the components—and not to the components of the game, but the packaging of the components that the players pull out to assemble the Scoring Dials and the Border Tiles. There is a notch in the corner where a finger can be inserted and the thick sheets of card pulled out. This only has to be done the once, but it just makes things that little bit easier. Otherwise, all of the game’s components are sturdy, appropriately cosy in theme, and easy to use, although the symbols on the Track Cards are not always easy to spot, especially on the Track Cards with a darker theme, such as the forests. The rule book itself is clearly presented and includes a good example of a single turn, and the artwork has a lovely period feel, especially the locomotive illustrations on the Trip cards.
If there is an issue with Village Railways, it is that it pitches itself as a railway game set in the English countryside where the locals are happy to allow tracks to be built by the players or railway companies, but make specific demands of them. Which sounds like the players are laying tracks, but where they go will often be dictated by intervening or vociferous busybodies or persons of note, but it is not that. It is instead, more of a puzzle game in which each player attempts to fill a grid with tracks and maximise their points. Essentially, Village Rails combines drafting from a marketplace, tile placement, and route planning and building with the almost puzzle-like element of placing Track cards and connecting railway lines in a way which every player hopes will optimise his railway network and his score. Not as light a game as it first seems, Village Rails: A Game of Locomotives and Local Motivess is simple to learn and quick to play, but it is more challenging and thoughtful than the average filler game.