Pioneer Rails Preview
Combining a flip-and-write game with a train game is enough to trigger the ‘Shut up and take my money’ reflex for many gamers, me included. When I met with the guys from Dranda Games at last year’s UK Games Expo I saw a couple of games: Isle of Trains (preview here) and this one, Pioneer Rails, which is the one which excited me the most. Seeing Jeffrey Allers’ and Matthew Dunstan’s names on the design credits would have been enough for me, without seeing the hex-based, poker-hand-making, flip-and-write choo-choo action on offer. I finally have a prototype copy in my grubby little mitts, and I’m pleased to say it’s everything I hoped it would be.
How do you annoy Lady Gaga?
Pioneer Rails is another flip-and-write which offers you loads of things to do, knowing full well that you can’t possibly do all of them. Your railways start out in one of the four quarters of the map, with each associated with a suit from a standard deck of cards. When you pick one of the three cards on offer, the suit of that card lets you extend that railway by three lines. Different hexes give different benefits if they have a feature, and each has a number. The number tells you how many edges of the hex you need to draw around, so while a mine only takes one edge to get you some gold, banking that gold at a… well, a bank. A bank that needs four edges of a bank surrounded. Plotting routes to get all the stuff you want is tricky, because temptation lies along the edge of every hex.
I mentioned poker hands earlier, and that’s one of my favourite parts of Pioneer Rails. The cards on offer each round represent the 10 – Ace range of standard playing cards. When you choose a card for its suit, to grow your rail networks, you also write the card’s value in the little row of boxes at the bottom of the sheet. The goal of these boxes is to create poker hands, which are worth points during each of the interim scoring phases. It’s a really interesting twist to most flip-and-writes, and it makes the choice of which card to take each round extra tricky. It’s also a really thematic touch, which brings to mind a hundred different westerns with grizzled cowboys playing poker in saloons.
If at first you don’t succeed
I don’t get as much time to play games as I’d like. While a lot of that is down to having a family and a full-time job, I also have the self-imposed pressure of having a backlog of games to write about. Sometimes that means that no sooner have I finished playing a game, than I’m packing it up, unboxing another and learning that one. Pioneer Rails scuppered that workstream by having an abundance of that ‘one more game’ pull. I find myself going back to try another strategy or another combination of things. It’s got the same draw for me as the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at a Premier Inn. High praise indeed!
By far the trickiest concept to grasp in the game is the way Cattle Ranches work. You score them by isolating them in such a way that you can trace a contiguous line of hexes to another ranch, with rails, mountains and rivers acting as barriers. It sounds really easy when you see it written like that, but there’s an odd mental disconnect when it comes to working it out. I think it’s partially to do with the fact that your focus during the game is on drawing lines between the hexes to accomplish everything, but to score the ranches you’re looking at the hexes, rather than the gaps. It’s not a major issue, and it’s one that may be a non-issue by the time it goes to print. This is just to let you know, if you do struggle with it, you’re not alone, and after a single play, you’ll have it.
The hardest thing when it comes to reviewing verb-and-write games is conveying what makes them so much fun. I could span this review out to 2,000 words explaining every last action and intricacy, but that would be doing it a disservice. A game so quick and easy to both learn and play deserves a review of equal brevity and function. The feeling of ownership that every little line you draw bestows on your sheet is fantastic. The little rail networks are yours and yours alone, and despite a very small set of variables in terms of which actions you take on your turn, every player’s sheet will end up very different to the others.
If you’ve played any of the Postmark Games catalogue in the past, especially Voyages, you’ll immediately recognise Matt’s hand in the design of Pioneer Rails. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off at all, just a feeling a familiarity which goes in its favour, as Voyages is awesome. The artwork and presentation throughout is great, thanks to Inkgolem’s brushstrokes. The sheets are bright and colourful, and the playing cards are especially gorgeous. I believe there’s going to be a bonus in the Kickstarter campaign to get a full set of playing cards in the same style, and I’d be inclined to make sure I have them. That’s not Dranda asking me to push them, I just think they’re beautiful.
Pioneer Rails will have a pledge for the two different map sheets, and mini-expansions, for £24. For this price, for a game as much fun as Pioneer Rails is, I think you’d have to try hard to think of a reason to not back it. It’s fun, fast, and easy to learn. Admittedly the train part of it feels very abstracted – you only ever draw lines – but it doesn’t matter. Grab a pack of strong felt-tip pens, tip your stetson, and get your Old West railway on. Great stuff, flip-and-write fans rejoice, you’re going to love it! The Kickstarter campaign begins on the 17th April 2023.
Preview copy kindly provided by Dranda Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own. All rules, artwork and components subject to change.
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Pioneer Rails (2023)
Designers: Jeffrey D. Allers, Matthew Dunstan
Publisher: Dranda Games
Art: Javier Inkgolem
Playing time: 30-45 mins