Board Game Review: Railways of the World

I admit that, at first, I wasn't even remotely interested in a game about trains. Why, you might be idly pondering, would I want to avoid a genre that I think is ripe for grand board gaming fun? Because, quite frankly, every train or series of connected "things" game that I've played relies either solely or heavily on a set collecting mechanic, which is one of the very few mechanics I truly despise. Resource collecting, money collecting, card collecting - which could all be reasoned to be some form of set collecting, I suppose - are fine with me. It's just that when I start collecting sets just to "lay them down" and form a line, I get supremely bored. Two specific examples that come to mind are Ticket to Ride and Thurn & Taxis. It's not that I hate these games, per se (I own copies of both of them), it's just that I tend to get bored quickly.
The box.

Then, along comes a game with trains that's actually about building a railway! Railways of the World, which is published by Eagle Games of Fred Distribution, is big game with simple mechanics that delivers a really strong dose of the feeling of being a true railroad baron. It is apparently a reboot of Railroad Tycoon, which I've never played.  It also didn't hurt that one day, when I showed up at my LGS, Big D just happened to have a copy sitting out on the new shipment table.  And just a week after I showed him some pictures of this game I thought were snazzy.  He's perceptive.

In RotW, Players take on the role of a penniless entrepreneur out to make a fortune by establishing links between cities, upgrading their engines, urbanizing underdeveloped cities, and delivering good cubes to make income. With the addition of railroad operations cards and railroad baron role cards technically as an "expansion" to add spice to a solid base game, RotW delivers a great experience.

Like I mentioned above, the rules are really simple. The game board is a hexed map of the Northeastern United States (with an alternate board for Railways of Mexico included in this box) depicting various cities with various colors - red, blue, black, yellow, or purple, with a good deal of them grey - representing cities that are not urbanized. Each turn consists of three rounds, in which each player will take one of five possible actions each round. The beginning of each turn is a round of bidding, where players will pay for the right to go first. At the end of the third round, income is awarded and then dividends must be paid on each bond a player possesses.

The actions are: lay track, upgrade your engine, urbanize, deliver a goods cube, or select a railroad operations card. To lay track, you pay for it (hexes with water or mountains or ridges cost a lot more than open ground) and can lay a maximum of 4 each round - but any unfinished link (one that doesn't connect from city to city) is discarded at the end of the third round, and you don't get any money back. You have three rounds to complete a link, and you always want to finish your links.

Components - there are TONS of track tiles!
Urbanizing a city costs a ton of money - $10,000! - but it allows you to place a new city tile of your color choice and add two random goods to the board on that city, which really helps you plot out your links. Delivering a goods cube is simple: take any color cube from a city you have a link to and deliver it to a city of the same color (red, black, blue, yellow, or purple). For each link you traverse, the owner of that link gains an income point. So, you could conceivably deliver across three links, all owned by separate players, and gain an income point for each. You are limited in how far you can travel by the rating (number) of your engines. You start with level 1 engines, so you could deliver from one city to another. The interesting thing is, a link is defined as "City A to City B." The actual number of tracks laid doesn't make a difference - whether it's 1 or 20.

The real botomline is, how do you pay for everything? As you gain income points for delivering goods, you move up on the income track, which represents how much money you will be paid during each income phase. But you don't start with a dime; how do you get started? The answer is simple: debt! At any time, you can take bonds to fund the purchase of track, urbanization, engine upgrades, or even bidding. But bonds are scary - you have to pay $1000 per bond you have during the income and dividend phase of each turn, and at the end of the game you lose on VP per bond you have taken out. And... *gasp* you can never pay them back! This is debt that you can't get out of.

I first thought that this was an extremely difficult and unforgiving rule, seeing as when my wife and I finished our first game, she ended with 19 bonds and I had 4. She was automatically at a 15 point deficit for end scoring.  I even thought about house-ruling it.  Maybe something like, "You can take an action to repay bonds at 4x their face value."  However I began to see the cleverness to it. It adds a level of stress on the player that I came to value the more plays we got in. When do I expand?  How much? Is this purchase worthy enough of a bond?  It makes decisions a lot harder, in a good way.
The Northeast - very profitable.

So what do I have to gripe about? Not too much. The plastic and cardboard components are fantastic and well made, but the bonds and the paper money will likely not survive a ton of plays. I may replace the money with poker chips and possibly laminate the bonds (which are a smooth-plastic finish on very, very light cardstock). Also, the components contain these really neat "empty city markers" that you place on a city tile when it's resources have been exhausted. These pieces are super cool - water towers, mining towers, and a theatre, etc. And yet...they do nothing. They're just place holders! I thought it'd be great if you could actually invest in the various cities and erect these structures for some kind of bonus - like, "this town has a water tower so it produces a blue good at the end of each turn" or something.

The rules were clean, but they lacked sufficient examples and explanation - it took some time to reason out how some of the mechanics worked. Also, in a few places on the board, the delineation between "water hex" and "not water hex" was difficult.  This makes a big difference on how much it costs to lay a track - mountains and water add substantial cost. Mountains all have a white dot in the middle, so there is no confusion - why not put a blue dot in the middle of all water hexes?  It'd be good to rule on any questionable hexes at the begining of the game so there's no bias to rule during play.

My New York to Kansas City route.
My last issue with the game is simply that it is simply brutal on beginners who are too loose with their money. Granted, they shouldn't be - and I guess you learn the hard way! - but with no mechanism on relieving bonds, you get stuck with your choices early on. This doesn't bother me personally, but I could see it as an issue with some players.  If you're teaching this game, be sure to stress the importance of handling bonds well. The railroad operations cards really help to give some sort of catchup mechanic and they can't be ignored - I'd recommend using them from your first play onward.

What RotW does well:
  • The theme is really connected with game play, and it made me feel like a true railroad guru.  Where'd I put my monacle and top hat?
  • Simple rules with pretty deep strategy - lots of hard choices that don't weigh the game down mechanically.
  • Most components were nice, the board is attractive, looks pretty good.
What RotW doesn't do well:

  • Some of the components are flimsy and paper money always wears out.
  • I felt that the rule book was lacking in examples and clarity in some respects.
  • Not easy to catch up when you get down - you really have to stay with the pack to compete.
Final Thoughts: This is a solid game with an easy-to-learn design that delivers a pretty enjoyable railroad baron experience.