Stop the Stop the Train!

I like it when game titles use the imperative.

Everything about Stop the Train! screams “velocity.” The speed of the train, of course. But other details also pitch in: the countdown to the train’s arrival in Paris, the bomb that will go off if it doesn’t halt before reaching its destination, the rapid turnover between turns. It helps that trains are the perfect setting for mystery stories. By extension, a train should be the perfect setting for a social deduction game.

So why does this particular engine trundle along at the pace of a kiddie trolley? Let’s break it down.

except, hear me out, must we?

A train! We must stop it!

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s give some impression of how Stop the Train! plays.

Speaking broadly, social deduction games can be broken into two camps: team games, in which two groups are placed in opposition to one another, and lone infiltrator games, in which everybody is on the same page (again, speaking broadly), while a single rotten apple strives to spoil the barrel. Stop the Train! falls into the latter category. Everybody aboard the 19:05 to Paris harbors a slightly different agenda, but they’re in agreement about not wanting to perish in an inferno. Apart from the Saboteur, that is, who would very much like the train to smash into Paris and go kablooey, whether or not he’s aboard when the fireball licks the sky.

There are three key details that give Stop the Train! its shape.

Detail the First! Every turn, the train moves forward a few spaces. Anywhere from one space if the train is traveling slowly to six if it’s moving at top speed. Naturally, the Saboteur wants it to move as fast as possible. Everybody else wants it to move slowly, because moving slowly increases the chances that it will stop before reaching Paris.

Detail the Second! This being a social deduction game, the aforementioned formula is often disrupted. The Speedster wants the train to go fast in order to break its land speed record, so she’s often mistaken for the Saboteur. The Prisoner of War and the Stuntman want to get thrown off the train, so they’re incentivized to pretend to be the Saboteur. The MI6 Agent wants to keep the Saboteur alive for questioning. And so forth. These disruptions are further disrupted. Whenever the train goes through a tunnel, the current player can steal a “permit to travel,” which lets them forego their usual victory condition. So there’s some element of counting out the number of spaces and trying to make sure you’re the one in command when the passenger cabin goes dark.

Detail the Third! How does this all happen? Rather simply. Every turn sees one player drawing three cards, tossing one out, and passing the remaining two cards to the next player, who selects one to determine whether the train will accelerate, decelerate, maintain speed, or one of a few other effects.

But when nearly all of them can win by taking a "permit to travel" and stopping the train, the game sort of stops functioning, you know?

There are plenty of hidden roles.

If this sounds familiar, it’s broadly the same structural approach taken by Secret Hitler. This isn’t to say Stop the Train! is playing copycat. Their only real similarity is that both games utilize that structure: draw three, pass two, pick one. Even how they frame this sequence of choices is divergent. In Secret Hitler, the players who are permitted to do the drawing and selecting were elected; here, the table progresses clockwise.

But Secret Hitler is a useful comparison because it’s the very definition of propulsive. Every decision is impactful. Every inkling of information is precious. Every turn feels like a missed opportunity. Even though it’s about elections and legislative processes — and even though each individual round is far weightier than any single turn in Stop the Train! — its pacing is breathless. Contrast that with this train’s pokey journey around the track and a question arises: why does Stop the Train! feel so darned slow?

There are two intertwined answers, one thematic and the other more theoretical.

Within the game’s setting, the answer is straightforward: Stop the Train! feels slow because the progress of its train appears slow on the table. Its track makes a sharp U-turn before reaching the game’s first major decision, when everybody votes on which of three routes the train will follow. By sticking to the fast track, the train must move about 80 spaces before reaching Paris. The viaduct adds around five spaces, while the scenic route adds ten. Recall that the train moves between one and six spaces per turn. Also consider how many spaces you’re likely to count — how many before each tunnel, before each bridge and its opening to forcibly eject somebody from the train. If the answer is greater than “ten,” you’re almost certainly fibbing. The track is so long, and the train’s progress so incremental, that their quantities become abstract rather than concrete. Every passed law in Secret Hitler is impactful not only because they eventually confer special bonuses, but also because they represent an appreciable fraction of the game that now lies firmly behind its players. Stop the Train! doesn’t deal with its subject matter so tangibly. Its central indicator of passed time is the gradual inching of the train along that oh-so-long track.

I'm bored just looking at this.

The train moves between one and six spaces per turn.

The more theoretical answer compounds this problem of perception with an issue of diminished player agency.

To begin, consider the central conundrum of Secret Hitler. Every round concludes with a single dollop of information going public: the law that was passed, whether liberal or fascist. Drawn from a single shuffled stack, the ratio between these laws is crucial. Six liberal, eleven fascist. Not quite 1:2, but close enough to act as a memorable baseline for making informed decisions about what the people at the table are telling you. Furthermore, each round’s election makes it possible to alter who is passing whom those tiles, letting you mix and match the people being tested. Now you have the fundamentals of a strong social puzzle. The status of the information on the table is reliable, but there’s just enough static in the social space above the table, thanks to the luck of the draw and the dishonesty of your companions, that you’re forced to determine how that information came to exist. Stability as processed through instability.

Stop the Train! goes the opposite direction. Its deck is large at 66 cards, spread among a wide diversity of offerings. Most force the train to accelerate, whether by a little or a lot. A few permit the train to slow down. And others present a decision between altering speed or, say, stealing a permit to travel. I won’t comment on the ratio except to say that over two-thirds of the cards make the train speed up, which is suitable given the solitary nature of the Saboteur. But there are so many of the things that it’s all but impossible to glean information from any one hand. Instead, information is only assembled over the course of many rounds, sometimes by choice but more often through nothing other than dumb luck. It isn’t uncommon, for example, to be faced with a decision to accelerate straight to the train’s top speed of 180kmh or to increase its speed by 30kmh — except you’re already barreling toward Paris at 180kmh. Not exactly a Sophie’s Choice.

In other words, far too many turns go through the motions. Literal motions. Drawing, discarding, passing, discarding, revealing. Anything other than leaking kernels of information to your fellow players. Stop the Train! even seems to recognize this. Because player agency is so scant, there’s almost no social deduction to be had. Instead, the game offers two mitigating factors: permits to travel, which players will regularly steal from one another, and single-use “intervention” cards. The first, as I’ve noted, let their owner bypass their secondary victory condition. This does offer player agency; you’re choosing to win! But it’s rarely interesting, since once again the player likely did nothing to earn a permit or to deserve its loss. Intervention cards manage to upend the formula enough that they’re appreciated when they work, but it isn’t uncommon to never need one, or worse, to draw cards that might benefit a different hidden role than your own.

Choo choo!

The track takes a moment to piece together, but it’s nice to look at.

Stop the Train! adds a whole lot to the social deduction formula. Problem is, more isn’t the same as better. It makes sense that a game about a runaway train would produce a smokescreen. Too bad that in this case, all that smoke proved not only distracting, but suffocating.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on March 16, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Alexandre Limoges

    Surprised you talked about this little game that went unnoticed on KS. My group has played it a few times along with Bristol 1350 when we had a larger group. I would agree that there’s an issue with player agency. They probably needed something more on top of choosing to increase or decrease speed (which is not even a choice often). The worst about this is that you lose even more agency as the number of players increase, while the game screams to be played with more than 5. Missed opportunity.

    • The designer reached out and asked if I would write about it. That’s really all there is to it. Apparently Bristol 1350 is also on the way, so I hope it proves more interesting!

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