Choo Choo Island
Bad little boys are laid on the tracks,
— lashed in place with rusted old chains —
locomotives splitting clean as an axe,
when sent by grandma to the isle of trains.
That’s what old gran used to sing to me as a young child. Ever since, I’ve had a peculiar paranoia of islands packed with trains. Who put these evil trains on an island? Why are they so mean to lost children? Were these the little engines that couldn’t? I used to stay up nights pondering the answers to these questions. So when the card game version of Isle of Trains fell into my hands, it was a good four months before I got up the courage to play it. Turns out, it’s a perfectly pleasant hand-management game. Huh!
Like some of my favorite games, Isle of Trains is one of those ditties where every card does a bunch of different things. If you don’t believe me, just take a gander at all those indecipherable icons. Not only does each card represent a train car, with engines for pulling, tankers and hoppers and boxcars for hauling, and cabooses because it’s fun to say “caboose,” but they also represent weight limits, victory points, shipping bonuses, and the cargo that gets loaded and hauled and deposited to fulfill contracts. Oh, and the cards in your hand are also your currency.
This has the upside of making the game far deeper than its slim deck of fifty or so cards might otherwise accomplish. When every card has two or three gainful uses each turn, it’s worth working the angles to determine whether that supertanker should be added to your train, loaded aboard a boxcar as cargo, or cashed in to build something cheaper. On the other hand, this surfeit of options also transforms the game from dead simple to pretty dang tricky, at least if you’re trying to operate efficiently — and I’m reasonably certain train games are 90% about efficiency, if only because people are always bragging about how on-time their country’s stupid trains are. To say that the first few rounds will leave new players clueless is an understatement; even veteran players will have to brave the occasional long turn as they stare intently at the array of possibilities before them.
But this is where Isle of Trains really gets to shine. Your goal is to build big long trains, maybe a station too, and use them to fulfill shipping contracts — you know, the usual train stuff. However, this isn’t as simple as it might sound. In order to score points, you need to ship a bunch of goods. To ship large quantities of goods, you need high-quality cars. To buy high-quality cars, you need a lot of cards in your hand, often six or seven at once. And at the end of every round, you’re forced to discard down to five.
See the problem? With only two actions per turn, you might ship some goods for extra cards, only to be forced to dump them a moment later. In the train business, they call this a problem. Occasionally a quandary.
Well, there’s a solution, and it’s a doozy: by loading cargo onto your opponent’s cars, you get special bonuses. Sometimes this means a free action, which is nice, but the real reward is a stack of cards. Through careful timing, you can load an opponent’s train and then use your new gains to buy what you need. Of course, you’re potentially handing a rival the cargo they need to fulfill a contract or earn some cards of their own, adding yet another element to agonize over.
For such a trim design, Isle of Trains is fiendishly clever, presenting you with these little sacrificial moments over and over. Sure, you could just load your own cars and sell the goods like an honest yardmaster… but it offers such a better payout to just load an opponent’s train and hope they can’t capitalize on it. Sure, you could hold onto those useful cards and hope your hand doesn’t get too backed up… but maybe it’s easier to just cash them in now and hope you draw something else useful down the line. Sure, that R3-D Boxcar would make you the freight king of Chicago… but can you really afford a nine-card expenditure right now?
That Isle of Trains accomplishes so much with so little is hardly surprising, considering that one of its duo of designers is Seth Jaffee, creator of the excellent Eminent Domain: Microcosm. Between him and Dan Keltner, they’ve created a game that costs less than ten bucks yet still causes some serious mental strain. At once simple and deeply confounding, this is the sort of card game that can run a little long, sometimes resorts to “virtual” cards when its draw pile comes up dry, and tragically features trains as its subject matter, but still provides a heap of good thinky fun.