Village Rails Review
I like trains. I like board games. I really like board games about trains. Along comes Village Rails, which like Isle of Trains (preview here) is a card game about trains without a board, and like Isle of Trains, is also really good. The idea of using cards showing twisting and overlapping tracks is great, and it reminds me of those classic Pipeline video games. Except, instead of trying to get water from one point to another, you’re making train lines from one point to another, and the routes you take to get there are up to you. The seemingly simple act of laying 12 cards in a grid is made all the more tricky by the way the game throws difficult decisions at you constantly. It all adds up to a game which is at once quick and intuitive to learn, but with a ton of depth and nuance to play with.
What a tangled web we weave
Over the course of a game, you’re going to make seven railway lines with twelve cards. No more, no less. The little cardboard frame gives you your starting points along the top and left sides, and with each turn, you choose a card from the market and add it to your display. They can go anywhere adjacent to an edge or an existing card, which gives you plenty of scope to plan as they criss-cross and snake their way around your tableau. The track cards have a terrain type (e.g. village, field, wetland) which comes into play when you score them, so I should probably talk about scoring, as it’s where all of the fun and interesting decisions stem from.
Every time you complete a track – i.e. have a complete track from a border to an edge – you first score the points as you move along the track. Take a little trip with me on the Punchboard Express.
Choo-choo – “Look, it’s a signal. We can count those and then refer to the scoring table to get some points” – chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff – “Aha, a tractor! Each of those scores me points for the number of different terrains I go through”.
You get the idea. Icons on the track earn you points, but only when you play them in the right places. There’s the potential for more points, however, as the track cards are double-sided, and on the reverse there are trips. If you buy trip cards from the trip market you can place one or two next to a track, and earn bonus points. For instance, you could have a trip card that lets you score two of the tractors on that line a second time each. Great news if you’ve got tractors on that line, not so great if you don’t.
You might have noticed that I talked about buying trip cards, and paying for things is an important part of the game. You need money, lest Village Rails’ conductor make his way down the train and kick you off for pretending to sleep instead of buying a ticket.
Village Rails harkens back to the golden age of steam. As such, the numbers we’re talking about when it comes to cold, hard cash are small. You start with five pounds sterling, and trip cards cost just three of them. When you take a card from the market which isn’t at the end of the row, you place a pound on each card before the one you want. Money is tight though, and there are only two ways to gain any kind of income. You claim the coins on any card you take where someone before you bought their way along the market, but you’ll usually only see a quid or two this way. The main way is using Terminus cards.
Every time you complete a line you have to play a Terminus card at the same time, and each Terminus card has a table to show you how much money you made from the passengers on that trip. The money you earn is calculated in a similar way to scoring points on tracks, where you’re rewarded for things like the number of signals along it, or the number of fields it passes through. It’s a really clever system which means that longer tracks earn you more points, but if you don’t finish tracks you don’t have the money to buy more trips or choose better cards in the market.
What a pickle.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of Matthew Dunstan’s games. From the print and play games from Postmark Games through to The Guild of Merchant Explorers (which I reviewed here), which also featured the co-design talent of Brett Gilbert, just like Village Rails. He’s got an uncanny talent for taking the string of what should be an easy concept and teasing the individual threads out of it to pull you in different directions. Village Rails is no exception.
If you’re looking at it and thinking that it looks a bit like a Button Shy game, I’d agree with you. At a glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a title in their -opolis line of games, like Sprawlopolis. It shares some of the feelings of those games too, where the choice of not only where, but also which way around you place your card is really important. You’ll catch yourself focusing on making one mighty line of meandering countryside perfection at the expense of other lines which end up being a couple of miles around a corner through a field, but you won’t care. Your rail network, your little swathe of England’s green and pleasant land, is uniquely yours.
There’s very little interaction to speak of. You might take a card someone else wants, but it’s not a game where you’d ever do it because someone else wants it. In a game where you only get twelve turns and twelve cards in your tableau, using one of them just to spite an opponent would be a big waste. If you’re happy to just build your own little patch of the countryside while other people are doing the same though, Village Rails really is excellent. It comes in a dinky little box, has almost no setup time, and plays out in less than an hour with four players. For less than £20, it’s a very easy recommendation for me to make. There are even little scoring dials that look like train tickets!
Review copy kindly provided by Osprey Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can buy this game from my retail partner, Kienda. Remember to sign-up for your account at kienda.co.uk/punchboard for a 5% discount on your first order of £60 or more.
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Village Rails (2022)
Design: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. Gilbert
Publisher: Osprey Games
Art: Joanna Rosa
Playing time: 45 mins