I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for expansions. If a publisher adds on to an existing board game, odds are I’ll end up getting. Often expansions add more content, simply adding on to the base game (Descent: Journeys in the Dark). Others make changes to the original game that some argue are critical to truly enjoying the game (Twilight Imperium 3rd edition). You also have expansions that give you new ways to play the existing game (expansion maps for Power Grid). Rails of Europe is the first expansion for Railroad Tycoon and it is a mix of all the above; thankfully it turned out to be great.
First, a bit on Railroad Tycoon. As the name implies it is a rail game where each player works to build the best rail company they can. The game features a hex map of the eastern United States. Cities of various colors are located around the map and each starts with a certain number of randomly-colored cubes. Ultimately the goal is to build links of track and deliver these cubes to cities of the matching color. You earn a victory point for each link of yours that the cube travels over; it is possible to use other player’s links to get to your destination but you feed them points in the process. The number of links you may use per delivery is based on your engine size which may be upgraded over the course of the game. Whoever has the most points at the end wins.
One of the more interesting concepts in the game is that you start with no money. Income is based on how many victory points you have; outside of that you must take shares to get money. Shares are subtracted from your income at the end of the round (considered to be paying dividends) and each share is worth minus one victory point at the end of the game. You may never get rid of shares so each one you take is one less point for you when all is said and done. Early on you need to take shares so you have enough money to get started but take too many and you are hurting yourself in the long run. Planning early short deliveries to earn points to get you going while setting up long routes and getting your engine upgraded is where the real fun of the game lies.
All of this works really well and the core mechanics are solid. Unfortunately a few things hold Railroad Tycoon from being great. First, the map of the United States is way too crowded in the northeast and far too sparse everywhere else. You can’t let one person control the New York area so you’ll have two or three players fighting it out there while others pretty much do their own thing in another part of the map. Play with less than six and you can go the entire game without ever having to run into another player. Second, the track laying rules are far too ambiguous when it comes to rivers. You are supposed to pay an extra $3000 when crossing a river but there’s always arguments over what is considered “crossing” thanks to how the map is drawn. Third, there are cards dealt out each round that players may purchase to give them extra bonuses. Some cards are actually bonus points for successfully connecting two cities. It is impossible to plan for these because you never know if or when they’ll come up so it actually feels a little random when people manage to score those points.
(image courtesy keithblume2 @ BGG)
Enter Rails of Europe. The core mechanics are all the same: lay track, deliver goods, earn points. What you get is a new map, a new deck of cards and some rule changes.
First off, the Europe map is awesome. It may not quite be as accurate a representation of Europe but it is perfect in terms of game balance. Cities are spread out nicely and there are far fewer of them meaning everyone is going to be thrown into the fray. They also cleaned up the track cost rules, getting rid of the highly ambiguous river crossing. Now if there is any water in a hex it costs $3000. It might not be quite as realistic but I think the simplicity really helps the game flow much more smoothly and makes the map more balanced. Another very nice change is that the city connection bonuses are no longer in the deck of cards but are all printed on the map and available from the start of the game. It allows players to build strategies around these connections and get some bonus points early on to help offset the much more challenging map build conditions.
Essentially every single complaint I have with Railroad Tycoon is fixed with Rails of Europe. The map is better, the rules are simpler and the game play is tighter and far more fierce. Our group has played several games of Railroad Tycoon before but when we set up Rails of Europe for the first time we just all stared at the map, uncertain of how to formulate our strategies. It really is a different game.
There’s really only one remaining issue: the color choices for the cities and cubes are terrible. In the original print of Railroad Tycoon they did a very poor job matching the dye colors of the blue and purple cubes to the blue and purple cities on the map. They’ve since fixed that but now it is difficult to tell the blue and black cities apart, especially when you have bad glare on the glossy map. With so many colors and hues to pick from I’m not sure why they had to pick ones that look so similar. Thankfully there aren’t many cities in Rails of Europe so it is easy to point out which cities are what color and people can easily remember. Still, I’d love to see them fix up the colors some day.
Outside of that I honestly think Rails of Europe fixes everything that was wrong with Railroad Tycoon. As Rails of Europe only supports five players and Railroad Tycoon supports six the only time I’ll probably ever play the base game again is if we have the full compliment of six. I’m hoping that Rails of Europe does well because I would really like to see Eagle Games put out more expansion maps. If they can keep up this level of game play quality I think having a variety of maps will really add a lot of life and replay value to the game. Rails of Europe easily bumped Railroad Tycoon up several notches for me and it is a game I will always be willing to play. It really hits that sweet spot of complexity, depth and play time.
Finally, I will mention this is another game where you will want poker chips to replace the paper money. Paper money equals bad, poker chips equal good. You would be wise to remember that.