I’ve been playing a handful of train games lately. Try not to faint. I’ve suffered through by reminding myself that the trains aren’t the actual focus.
Honestly, I’m glad I did. Amabel Holland’s 2015 Trans-Siberian Railroad recently earned a reprint from Rio Grande Games, which means its winsome self has been trotted out for the enjoyment of a new generation. It’s bursting with ideas. Sometimes in a good way.
How many overlapping conceptual spaces are explored in Trans-Siberian Railroad? Keep count with me.
Stocks! Like many train games, the real focus is on the purchasing and valuating of stock certificates. That puts it in familiar Holland territory, effortlessly generating incentives for everybody to maximize and plunder. At any given time, you’ll likely be invested in so many companies that your rivals will be partners and your partners will be rivals. This can lead to knotty entanglements, such as wanting to siphon as much profit from a company as possible, but also maybe not wanting it to succeed too much because someone else has invested far more money in it.
Leasing! The Tsar has commissioned a grand project to connect the remotest edges of the Russian Empire. However, the scarcity of population centers means there aren’t all that many worthwhile hubs near waves generally at Russia’s middle, north, and east. Because of this, companies are competing to lay track between destinations, but nobody expects you to build parallel tracks. Instead, you’ll lease finished connections from the company that owns them. It isn’t long before you realize it might be possible to keep a floundering company afloat by leasing its track to another company you have a controlling investment in.
Tempo! There are only a few actions. Actually, “few” might give the wrong impression. It would be more accurate to say that there are as many actions as a poorly preserved mummy has fingers. However, Holland uses these actions — buying stocks, laying track, and passing — to create a miniature game of carefully controlled company purses and longer-term finagled tempo. It’s cheap to build a single track, but that might see your company falling behind the competition. For a premium, you can build two rails instead. Also, you’ll bump up the timing track, bringing you closer to dividends and, more importantly:
Nationalization! Of all the ideas in Trans-Siberian Railroad, this is the one to which all rails wend. Turns out, the Tsar is a bit of a bully. Who could have guessed? As the game progresses, so do his expectations. After a period of time, he’ll begin to gobble up any company with stock values beneath an ever-increasing threshold. This bedevils every action with a sense of urgency. Gradual expansion is affordable, but it might also be a death sentence. Fast expansion will keep a company ahead of its competitors, but also attracts the Tsar’s gaze. Oh, and it might run out of cash before it reaches its maximum potential.
Smash those ideas together and you have something that’s both supremely interesting and frustratingly delicate. To some extent this is true of many of Holland’s designs, from the niche to the commercially viable. That’s what gives Holland her nimbleness; her work is unpredictable and daring, and her experiments pay off more often than not.
At the same time, there’s the frustratingly delicate part of that past sentence. From the very first moment, Trans-Siberian Railroad asks a lot of its players, and its requests are often both opaque and far-reaching. For example, its opening bidding war for starting stock certificates requires proud new owners to make two decisions, one interesting and one sticky. In the first case, choosing where to lay your initial track is an excellent conundrum, prioritizing access to potential expansion and some early income. You’re effectively declaring your company’s intent, but it’s the sort of declaration that might be walked back a few turns later when a rival company cuts you off at the pass. The second decision is, as I noted, significantly stickier. Right away, you’re required to set a stock price for your company. Hence a big question: do you hope to lure in investors with cheap stock, or try to amass some starting capital with higher buy-ins? Be careful. Depending on the mood at the table, this could determine many things about your company’s future.
Other decisions are similarly ambiguous, mired as they are in the peculiar dynamic this game slums in. Around the game’s midpoint, two new companies are put on auction. These will likely fail thanks to their proximity to the Tsar’s burgeoning appetite for the train game of his own devising, but it’s possible to succeed with some cooperation and a whole lot of seed money. On the surface this might seem like an opportunity for those who’ve invested in failing companies to pool their resources and swing back into action; in practice, it’s generally an exercise in the rich getting richer, except one of the rich players might sink too much money into a failed venture.
There’s nothing wrong with these ambiguities on paper. They certainly don’t fail to be interesting. The trouble is that the game is so compact, so shorn of frills, so (pardon me) on-rails, that it peaks early and just keeps on going. Simply put, there are more ideas than there are ways to interface with them. It’s like purchasing one of many tickets in Moscow — some for coach, some for sleeper cars, one for a private car fit for the Tsar himself — and making friends and acquaintances on the journey, and then, eventually, depending on a handful of hazy factors made long ago, including whether you bought the same type of ticket as someone with whom you’re only tangentially associated, being permitted to continue onward to your holiday destination or shuffled onto an engine bound for a labor camp.
Fascinating stuff. Then again, for all my appreciation of ambiguous social spaces in board games, I tend to prefer my path be strewn with a few additional switches and brakes.
I’ll put it another way. I was sent two Amabel Holland train games, Trans-Siberian Railroad and Iberian Gauge, and repeatedly played them side by side. At first I preferred Trans-Siberian. It was strange and exciting, especially when its companies exerted their limited, waddling control to stay ahead of the Tsar’s chubby clutching baby hands. After a few plays, however, its strangeness became brittle, more irritating, less prone to disruption or clever turnaround, whereas Iberian Gauge’s appeals grew more pronounced. They were similar in a number of ways, but one of them felt like the fuller game.
Tomorrow, I’ll write about the more recent Iberian Gauge, a game that isn’t as interesting on the surface, but that proves smoother and smarter in the long run. For now, I’ll only say that I’m glad to have played Trans-Siberian Railroad, for it was indeed interesting and I don’t begrudge the journey, no matter where it took me — but what a difference a couple of years makes.
A complimentary copy was provided.