Isle of Trains: All Aboard Preview
Trains, trains, trains. I flipping love a game about trains. I was going to say “I love a train game”, but when you do that around boardgamers, you open a great big chuff-chuffing can of worms. In Isle of Trains: All Aboard, you won’t be building tracks or buying and selling shares like in my other favourite choo-choo games (see Ride The Rails, Mini Express, Luzon Rails). Instead, it’s all about building and upgrading your train.
I guess you could call it – engine-building!
I first time I saw Isle of Trains (I can’t be bothered to keep writing ‘All Aboard’ on the end. I’m very lazy) was at this year’s UK Games Expo, where I managed to confuse it with Osprey Games’ new title, Village Rails, because I’m special. The original Isle of Trains came out eight years ago, but I haven’t played it, so I won’t be making a comparison. The one thing I can tell you, based on a sneaky peek at the BGG page for the original, is that I prefer the newer, more realistic artwork on the trains.
The concept of Isle of Trains is simple: make the best darned train you can. Your train carries goods and peoples around the island, fulfilling contracts and delivering passengers. When I say your train goes around the island, it never actually moves anywhere, other than in your mind. You see, what you’re actually doing is creating a kind of tableau of trainy bits in front of you, adding tankers and freight cars and what have you, to carry the goods and fare-dodging miscreants.
The super-interesting thing that Isle of Trains does, is to make you want to build locomotives that are attractive to the other players too. Coveting thy neighbours caboose, if you like. If you load your goods onto an opponent’s train, you get a bonus – yay! At the same time, however, you’ve just helped them get closer to fulfilling a contract – boo! If this last paragraph has you rubbing your chin and thinking “Hmm, interesting, you have my attention”, then read on.
Even if it didn’t, read on anyway. It’s polite.
Choo-choose your track
As if I’d make it through the whole review without a choo-choose quip. Isle of Trains is deceptively simple. The iconography is clear (albeit quite small), and learning how to upgrade or extend your train only takes a quick explanation. What it does brilliantly, is to force you to make awkward decisions on every turn you take. Add more, new carriages, or upgrade the ones you already have? Jack of all trades, or become the oil baron of the island? Either is viable, but which will work for you?
You can play without loading things onto any train other than your own, but it doesn’t really work. The joy of the not-forced-but-strongly-suggested interactions between players is so much fun. It brings the game up out of the navel-gazing isolation of a heads-down Euro, and ensures that everyone around the table knows what their rivals are up to. There are only a handful of locations for contracts and passengers to be turned-in, so the competition in the game is turned up to 11 the whole time.
Thanks to the big deck of train cards, there’s a lot of variety in the way games pan out, and the same is true of contracts and passengers. The randomised (and thankfully, very quick) setup means it’s impossible to go into the game with a plan. The game setup and your initial hand of cards will start to mould a strategy from the pliable clay you call a brain. Even the cards that make-up the island itself are double-sided. The whole game is a fantastic example of game design done well.
I fell in love with Isle of Trains: All Aboard as soon as I played a couple of turns at UKGE. It’s so simple to play, and to teach, that you’d expect it to be about as deep as a paddling pool. But it isn’t. You’re forced to make awkward choices constantly, and I love it. It’s a brilliant game.
I’m used to the concept of “using someone else’s thing for mutual benefit”. It’s been present in classics like Caylus and Lords of Waterdeep for a long time. In those games, however, there’s a level of abstraction in the benefits. You know you’re helping your rival in some small way, but it’s difficult to see how it figures in their plans. In Isle of Trains, you know exactly what you’re helping them with, but those bonuses are too good to ignore. They may as well be buffet cars offering me free sausage rolls – I just can’t help myself.
Three players is the sweet spot. I’ve played with two, which was fun, but the head-to-head duel means you can easily just aim to complete the contracts the other person is ignoring. Four is decent, but feels a little more chaotic. Three through – *chef’s kiss*. The Kickstarter campaign is live as you read this, and while the folks at Dranda Games haven’t asked me to, I’m going to strongly suggest you back it. How many Kickstarters can you back at £19? Not many, that’s for sure, and with the deluxe version just a few quid more, Isle of Trains: All Aboard is a steal.
Preview copy kindly provided by Dranda Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Isle of Trains: All Aboard (2022)
Designers: Seth Jaffee, Dan Keltner
Publisher: Dranda Games
Art: Denis Martynets
Playing time: 45 mins