Love Is a Ghost Train Howling
There is something initially morbid about London Necropolis Railway, and not only because Daniel Newman’s latest offering is set during a cholera epidemic and will release in the third calendar year of our own century’s mismanaged public health crisis. The historical Necropolis Railway was the solution to the bodies piling up in the streets, a line only twenty miles long but devoted entirely to the business of death and mourning. In Newman’s care, the whole thing takes on the pallor of a funeral celebrant both jaunty and jaundiced. More than that, it’s imbued with an uncommon dignity.
The first question everybody asks is, “Is this a train game?”
You must understand, “train games” are a breed of their own, vicious teeth hiding behind handshakes and business smiles, and hallmarked by the laying of track, the buying and divesting of company stock, and the giving of bad advice to newcomers so that the givers of the advice can scoop up all those devalued company shares. London Necropolis Railway is not, then, a “train game,” but a game that happens to contain trains.
If anything, I would call it an “upgrade game.” Your goal, as the operator of the newly founded London Necropolis Company, is to ferry coffins and mourners from London to Brookwood. There are three separate but connected aspects to this business, all of which have yet to be improved: the terminus in London, the rail line itself, and the mortuary twenty miles away. Each of these undertakings (sorry) is endowed with its own necessities and bottlenecks, each of which need to be carefully met in order to succeed.
Aboard your trains, for example, there are separate cars for living and deceased passengers. New cars can be added or improved, increasing their respective capacities. As these passengers arrive in Brookwood, coffins are ideally interred in the resting places desired by their surviving relations for some extra cash. If that isn’t possible, either because you lack the groundskeepers and burial workers or because you have yet to sufficiently expand the necropolis, coffins may be deposited in a potter’s field. According to the game’s final tabulation, which consists of the sort of math that benefits from a working knowledge of multiplication and order of operations, those coffins are worth barely anything at all. Far better to inter the deceased where they’ll turn a profit. Fancy crypts, various classes and religions duly sorted into their properly segregated resting places — these are the means by which your company will prosper or flounder.
In gameplay terms, that means keeping pace with your opposition across multiple parallel races. Historically, only one company was given the care of London’s dead, so players are granted some mumbled explanation about drafting design proposals rather than building the railway itself. The result is a heads-down game for the most part, concerned with optimization over competition, and producing only the occasional sideways scowl when a neighbor claims a card you wanted or lucks into a bunch of purple coffins.
The optimization, however, has a cutting edge. As I mentioned, your company requires employees, both in Brookwood to dig and maintain all those graves and crypts and in London to staff the fine offices you’ll hopefully renovate in order to attract mourners and their pocketbooks. Employees, however, must be paid, and train cars must be upgraded, and cards must be squirreled away for bonuses. Meanwhile, the trains must arrive on time. The action selection system is the sole crossroad where players cross paths in the mist, choosing a card and a pair of action discs. These discs enable actions, which are further restricted by what’s shown on your chosen card, along with upgrading your company’s prestige and claiming the occasional bonus. As an added incentive, your train will only trundle as far as the movement icons on the actions you happened to select. Counting on my fingers, that means every selection is fulfilling, oh, a half-dozen needs at once.
To some degree, this gives London Necropolis Railway a somber sense of pacing, almost funereal in its own right. There are choices aplenty, but they tend to be fine-drawn rather than loudly stated. To give two examples, upgrading a portion of your terminus increases your income of coins, mourners, and coffins whenever your train returns to London, a trickle rather than a deluge, but a trickle that congregates into significant gains; meanwhile, purchasing an expensive marble crypt encourages you to inter a column of matching coffins in the column beneath it instead of spacing out their burials for some additional coin.
For an optimization game, these strokes are surprisingly human. It’s tempting to say they clash with the thrill of a perfect turn, when you manage to trigger every action and push your train all the way to Brookwood, where you then plant the deceased in their final resting place in such a way that your final payout will be hearty indeed. The reality, however, is that there is no clash. I recall the funeral of my uncle, only a month or two after the funeral of my grandfather, and how the manager of the funeral home joked quietly to my father that the third ceremony of the year would be complimentary. His soft tone spoke of a man who took pride in his business, and my father laughed, momentarily comforted by the gentleness and certainty of death, and rather than forgetting our mortality we regarded it as a solace, a fact of life no more turbulent than birth or puberty or marriage, and possibly less so. London Necropolis Railway manages something similar, bridging the joy of a game well played and the reminder that we are temporary things, which will one day be handled and moved from air to earth, a crated component of the bereavement business, but hopefully no less delicate or dignified for it. This is a game about upgrades and optimization and a lengthy but satisfying arithmetic equation, but it’s also a game about endings, and finality, and how it matters very much to some folks that they be buried in the proper spot, under the proper placard, beside the proper people.
London Necropolis Railway isn’t a perfect game. It might not even be a “good” game, by some standards. Not every angle is as formidable as the others, and at times it seems to rumble along a track of its own. But not unlike The Cost, also published by Spielworxx, it reintroduces some humanity to a genre that too often lets the living, let alone the deceased, go overlooked. While its limited decision space won’t appeal to everybody, its unexpected sensitivity decidedly appeals to me. I went in expecting morbidity, maybe even the macabre. Instead, I discovered the unlikely companionship of playfulness and mortality.
A prototype copy was provided.