Railroads are coming back. The Iron Horse may seem so 19th Century, yet between tighter energy supplies and a crumbling and congested highway system, rail is looking better. Obama may or may not have the political – or financial – capital to push through his plan for high-speed rail. But to see how decaying railroad infrastructure can clog a growing economy, see this NYT piece on Indian railways.
So what a great time to play some railroad games! Fans of Sid Meier’s legendary Railroad Tycoon series of computer games will be glad to know that the master’s deftly digital hand is back at the throttle with “Railroads” (scheduled for October release). In the meantime, for my choo-choo fix, I turned to a board game (remember cardboardware?).
“Railways of the World” is a series of 19th Century rail-builder games from Eagle Games. I tried the base game, which sets up to six players building railroads across the Eastern United States. The first thing that strikes you about this game is its components. The box must weigh 10 pounds, jammed full of trains, water towers, cards, cardboard markers and a large map of the U.S. There’s enough plastic in this game to send the price of oil soaring.
Each turn in Railways of the World is divided into three rounds, during which players can lay track, ship goods, or draw or play cards. Players earn victory points and money by shipping goods. There are five types of goods – denoted by different colored cubes – that are randomly placed on cities across the map. Some cities on the map also have colors, and game play boils down to shipping, say, a blue cube to a blue city. The longer the route, or rather the greater the number of cities that the route passes through, the more you earn for each delivery. Problem is, there are only a limited number of rail routes into each city, and if another player is the first to lay track on the shortest route from Baltimore to Philadelphia, you’re either shut out of that market or you build track on a longer route.
And there’s the rub. Laying track costs money. Money is raised by shipping goods. But to deliver goods, you need to first lay track, which also requires money. So you have to take out loans, which means interest payments to bondholders. It’s tempting to go on a track-laying frenzy to sew markets, but it’s a mistake that no one (notably me) will ever make after his first game. The resulting interest payments (curiously, loans never can be paid off) drain your revenues and stifle your growth. Winning in Railways of the World is a delicate balance between expansion and parsimony. As realtors says, location is everything. The Northeast abounds with cities that allow short rail connections that are cheap to build. But there are beaucoup bonus points for building links to the West (which on this map, begins somewhere around Minneapolis).
Cards add a nice random touch to the game. They offer bonus points for being the first to complete certain goals, such as shipping four different colors of goods. Or they allow players to change the color of a city, creating instant markets.
Did I learn a lot about real-life railroads? Not really. But I learned about cutthroat capitalism, and the fine line between ambition and megalomania. Railways of the World is addictive. My board game group has been playing it for months. The randomness of the cards and the random setup of goods make every game different. I hope railroads will come back. But I’m glad that rail games are.