Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 90 mins
Setup Time: 15 mins
Value For Money: Depends
There are a number of Spiel Des Jahres which have ceased to be in print for various reasons, but one of the saddest to be missing a current edition is Railway Rivals. Currently a new edition seems unlikely though, due to the license having been acquired by an owner unwilling to reprint. It was created in different versions, for English language users the Games Workshop edition can be picked up for £20-40, while more stylish editions can come in around the £100 mark. Whatever edition you find it is well worth playing, being one of the more acclaimed, and rightfully so, winners of the coveted SDJ.
Gameplay comes in two parts, building and racing. During building players take turns constructing railway track around a map of a country, the base set comes with maps of the US and UK, but many more are available. Construction is quite simple and is achieved by drawing lines across the map from location to location. Each piece of construction has a price that must be paid by using points rolled each turn, with all players getting the same number of points. Should tracks meet players must pay each other points, if a town is reached the first player into it gains points. Once all but a few towns are connected up the game progresses into race mode where pairs of towns are selected at random and players race along the tracks that they’ve built by rolling dice, winning points for whoever reaches the destination first, after every pair of races players are given the chance to build more track. Once all the races are completed the player with the most points wins.
In short then, it’s a roll and move game, and yet it is very highly regarded critically and has a very serious and committed fanbase, which might strike some as curious. In fact, it is often quoted as the lead example of why roll and move is not in and of itself a terrible mechanic despite its repeated appearance in much maligned games as the source of many of their failings. It works here for a few reasons, the main one is that so few of the races are directly opposed over the same stretches of track. During building constructing alongside another player’s track is not only prohibitively expensive, the cost is handed directly to one’s opponent rather than being cast into to the void crabs of the bank, then during racing other player’s track can be used at the cost of handing them one of your points per unit used, but only up to ten points. The result is that all but the shortest races either go unopposed or take place over multiple sections of parallel tracks. As such the sense is almost always that the dice don’t have much impact, with races being completed in a couple of rolls, or that the tension between two trains on parallel tracks with one incrementally shorter than the other being kept alive by the slight variation of the dice feels entirely right and fair. This is further improved by the dice having a 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5 distribution rather than the standard d6 distribution.
In fact, not only does the roll and move element of Railway Rivals work, its part of the best section of the game. The building section is largely defined by the map with players simply connecting up the largest mass of cities as efficiently as possible without needing to hand over too many points to opponents. The racing section is where the game really sings as suddenly players are given distinct direction and can see how near, or far, they are from competing for a particular race. Calculating if and where it is possible to build into your opponent’s track monopolies to short cut around them for a race sufficiently to be not only allowed to, but to make it worthwhile to pay them to use their track for the rest of the race is enjoyably fascinating. During the later part of the game everything comes into clear view at just the right time, the availability of track, the spread of races, the standing of the players.
As an SDJ winner it lacks table presence, although this was far less of a concern back in 1984 when Railway Rivals won, still, the aspect of drawing directly onto the map was an unusual and interesting piece of product design back then. Roll and write have made such practice fairly standard now, with many recent roll and write games taking railway building as their theme, but nearly forty years ago it was genuinely innovative. A more significant indicator of a Spiel winner which does apply though is being a paragon of a particular genre, which clearly Railway Rivals more than qualifies for, being possibly one of the best roll and move focussed games most people will ever come across. With roll and move being a significant game genre, it would have been remiss of the award not to include an example and in actuality they here included probably the finest example possible.
One of the smartest achievements of Railway Rivals is that it allows for both player interaction and satisfying engine building. Most games have to choose between the two, since player interaction usually means throwing spanners or bricks at the careful constructions of others and so leads to an unsatisfying building element. In Railway Rivals player interaction is high as building across and racing upon each other’s tracks is inevitable, and yet building a mighty and satisfying railway empire is inevitable and cannot be stymied by opponents.
Railway Rivals is, quite simply, an excellent game which still easily stands the test of time. If it had a new edition or current Kickstarter it would most likely do very well, and deservedly so. The nicer versions are really now only the remit of the committed collector, but the more reasonably priced and common GW edition is well worth picking up for the £30 or so that it can generally be found at. The basic set rewards repeat play but further maps are available for download and usage to further extend the game’s lifespan. If you find a chance to pick up a copy, do so.