Review of China Rails
Iím slowly becoming more of a crayon rail gamer, with my fourth game added to my collection. At the same time, itís not like I need that many of the maps; they all have some differences, but nothing that really makes them stand out. Still, it was nice to get China Rails (Mayfair Games, 2007 Ė Michael Dreiling), if only because the country of China is so close to where I live. Crayon rail games are neat in that they actually let you draw on the board, but I knew enough about them at this point to realize that these games are the opposite of a ďfillerĒ game, as they can be very involved. China Rails isnít anything new to the series; it takes on the original design of Empire Rails and simply adds a bit of a Chinese flavor to it. Itís probably my least favorite of the series so far (although thatís not saying I donít like it Ė itís still a fun game), mostly because the strategy paths arenít as diverse.
Clear mileposts cost 1 million
Desert mileposts cost 1 million
Mountain mileposts cost 2 million
Alpine mileposts cost 5 million
Small cities cost 3 million and have a maximum of two players who can connect to them.
Medium cities cost 3 million and have a maximum of three players who can connect to them.
Major cities cost 5 million, and all players can connect to them (a player cannot deliberately block another from connecting.)
Crossing a river costs an additional 2 million
Crossing a lake or ocean inlet costs an additional 3 million
There is a ferry that crosses part of the ocean, as well as some routes that lead to Taiwan, with different costs for each.
A large board is placed in the middle of the table, depicting a map of China. The map has fifty-two cities, separated into three types: major, medium, and small, and is divided up into a triangular grid of ďmilepostĒ dots. Next to each city, there are one to three icons depicting what kinds of goods that city produces. Each player takes a ďtrainĒ token in their color, along with a special wipe-off crayon. Each player also receives sixty million yuan as starting cash and a Loco card that depicts nine speed and two goods. A deck of demand/event cards is shuffled, and three demand cards are dealt face-up to each player. The cards show three different cities on them, and the type of goods that each city wants along with the payout in rubles for supplying that demand. Stacks of chips representing each commodity are placed in a special area in the box, along with the rest of the Loco cards and the cash. The player who has the highest cash value on one their three Demand cards goes first with play proceeding clockwise around the table.
Each turn has two phases, the operation phase and the building phase. During the first two turns of the game, players skip the operation phase. During the operation phase, players can move their train pawn on their tracks on the map. The train starts the game in any city on the map and then can move up to its maximum speed (9 or 12) each turn. Trains cannot reverse direction except at a junction and can pick up or drop off loads at any city. Players can move freely on their own tracks and must pay opponents 4 million a turn if they use their track. If in a city that has good icons, a player may pick up loads of those particular types if they have room on their Loco card (two or three spots) and if there are any chips of that type available. (There are three to four chips of each type.) A player can drop a load off at any city, discarding it for no reward; unless they have a demand card showing that the city they are dropping the load off at wants that type of good. When the player does deliver a load to its destination, they return the chip to the box, discard the card, and receive the amount of rubles shown on the card immediately. The player then draws a new Demand card, placing it face up in front of them. If the player draws an event card, it is either placed face up on the table or takes effect immediately (depending on the card), and the player draws another card to take its place.
In the building phase, a player can spend up to twenty million yuan to either upgrade their train or lay track on the board. If upgrading their train, the player pays twenty million yuan to the bank and takes a new Loco card of the next level, increasing either the speed (from 9 to 12) or the load maximum (from 2 to 3). If building track, the player can draw on the board with their crayon, connecting the mileposts at a cost. Players can build from any milepost from which they already have track connected to or can start from any major City milepost (twice a turn). Different terrain types on the board determine the cost for building the track, determined by the milepost built TO.
Players have the option to discard all three of their cards, drawing new ones - forfeiting the remainder of their turn. Any event cards drawn must immediately be dealt with. Some events cause all tracks in different deserts to be destroyed Ė a deadly affair if your network goes through that area. All the other events allow for special deliveries of goods, tax the players, use weather to keep players from moving, etc.
When one player has connected all four of the major cities on the board with a continuous line of track AND has at least 250 million rubles in cash at the end of their turn AND is connected to one of the links to Taiwan, the game ends with each player finishing up their last turn. If a tie occurs, play continues until one player gets 300 million rubles, in which case they are the winner!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The board is six puzzle pieces attached together, which form a fairly accurate map of China. At first the board looks a bit bland; but once players start drawing the track, it becomes intriguing, as one watches the train networks grow and expand. The crayons were effective and were easy to wipe off the board, but I question the effectiveness of the yellow crayon; it was difficult to see. While the crayons were good, I typically use my set of erasable markers, as theyíre just easier to use. The boards are of good quality; and while the graphics are plain and a bit bland, they are quite easy to see and differentiate. The paper money was passable, and the cards were useful and of good quality - easy to shuffle and use. The chips were small poker chips that needed to have quite a few stickers attached to them, but Iím coloring the commodities to make them stand apart more. There was a plastic tray in the box that holds money, cards, and chips effectively but with one problem. If the box is tipped on its side at all, all the chips fall out of their slots, mixing them together in a giant mess. This is easily fixed by putting them all in a plastic bag, but then you have to sort them all out at the beginning of the game. Not a big deal, but a slight pain - I might tape some kind of board over them to keep them in place when I transport the game.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is very clear and explains how the game works Ė itís identical to other books in the series, and I wouldnít have minded a section on ďHow this differs from the other crayon rails gamesĒ, but newcomers will have no problem. Really, the game is very simple to explain to people Ė once they take a few turns the game really gets moving. For some reason, people who wonít touch a deep strategy game will easily jump into the rules of a game like this one. Maybe itís the crayons?
3.) Length: The game is LONG. Even with a variant of moving the trains quicker (which I HIGHLY recommend), it still took a while. This isnít to say that I didnít enjoy my time of playing the game, but downtime can occur. I tried to speed up the game by encouraging players to plan their track building while others where moving, but a simple event card can mess up all your carefully laid plans and cause a person to rethink the map. Once a good is delivered, the player draws a new card, which also might affect what they do next. So thereís really no way around it, the game is going to take a while. With two players, itís fairly easy to get the game played in two hours, and I donít think I would go above three.
4.) Variations: There are a few variations on play in the rulebook - two of which I think quite useful. One of them involves changing the speed of the trains to 12 and 16 respectively. This speeds the game up, while still retaining fairness and balance. The game also recommends giving mercy to those who are trapped without money. This can happen to new players who arenít watching the desert carefully, but other players should rarely fall into bankruptcy.
5.) Strategy and Fun Factor: Most of the fun of the game is involved with setting up your network of trains. Itís great fun to watch your network grow and expand, and delivering goods gives one such a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. Knowing what goods to deliver and where is the crux of the game. Do you deliver several small loads, taking a bit of money at a time, or do you concentrate on the very long but lucrative loads. Being in the right place at the right time also helps, especially when an event card is drawn. The event cards add some randomness to the game; and the desert storm cards can be quite destructive Ė new players should be informed about them before playing. The game starts off a bit slow, as players struggle to get one or two loads delivered. Then, as the game progresses, the game speeds up, with the networks completed, as players rush to deliver as much stuff as they can. Itís not too terribly interactive, but players get so caught up in their networks that they donít care too much.
6.) Empire Rails: This is my fourth game in the series that Iíve played, after trying the Russian, North America, and Australian maps. While Iím partial to China (living rather close), I enjoy this map Ė but not as much. The two western corners of the map hold the most valuable items, and the game really is just about getting to one or both of those places and transporting the valuable items. This doesnít seem to leave a lot of strategy. Taiwan seems interesting, but itís really just a slow-down mechanism (trains have to wait a turn when picking up and delivering there). The best thing about China is its terrain, which I found different and unique; but I would still recommend Russian Rails as my favorite of the lot and the original Empire Builder best for newcomers.
This is not the kind of game Iíll pull out to finish out a game night, nor is it one Iíll pull off the shelves lightly. When we play this one, we are going to game - and game hard. At the same time, itís not too terribly taxing on the brain, just immensely involving. Because it takes so long to play, it probably wonít get played that often; but when it does get played, the time will be memorable. I wouldnít recommend it as the introduction to the series, but it wouldnít be horrible either Ė just not as good as the others. Still, I enjoyed the game quite a bit and recommend it to anyone who has wanted to start their own train empire. And the geography lesson about China certainly doesnít hurt.
ďReal men play board games.Ē