Switch & Signal Board Game Review
Switch & Signal
WBG Score: 8
Player Count 2-4
You’ll like this if you like: Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, The Crew.
Published by: KOSMOS
Designed by: David Thompson
This game has a lot of very interesting debating points. Switch & Signal is a re-print of a web-published game from designer David Thompson back in 2014. It's about trains, which always catches a lot of peoples eye! But it uses the polarizing mechanism of pick-up-and-deliver with a dice powered roll-and-move. It's a little like a cooperative Ticket to Ride fused a reverse Pandemic. Let's look at how it plays.
Switch & Signal is a co-operative game that includes trains. For some, that will be enough! It i is pitched at the family/gateway level, offering an attractive, simple, but rewarding game experience for any type of board game enthusiast. The game plays in under an hour, offers a lot of tension and fun choices. There really is a lot going for this game. But there are some who seem turned off, simply by the use of dice controlling movement. A lot of people really do not enjoy this mechanic. Comments like this are common, "I like the idea of a co-op train game. But roll-to-move? I think I'll pass." Check some more out yourself here.
But if you can move past this issue, then what lies within this box, could surprise and delight you in ways you had originally hoped when you first cast your eyes on the box art and before you saw one mechanism. There is a train careering around the bend, sparks are flying off the rails, smoke is bellowing from the engine. Can you control the train and win the game?
Well, great news! There are nine trains, not just one! You will be controlling them with more than just dice. And the strategy in this game is actually quite deep. OK. I don't disagree with people who are put off by dice rolling pick-up-and-deliver games. It can be somewhat mundane, luck based, and lacking in strategy. I get that totally. I think the "roll-to-move" mechanic was destroyed for a lot of us by a number of lazy games in the 1980's that employed this mechanism, and not a lot more. But there are a few fundamental reasons why this is not a problem for Switch & Signal.
First up, you are not rolling to move yourself. And second, you are not doing this on a board with a start and finish. When both these factors are present in a game, the strategy can be somewhat lacking and dry. It's a race, with no real control for you. Roll mroe sixes and win. But this is far from the case with Switch & Signal. The trains you are moving are not owned by you. This is a co-op game after all. Each moment, like all choices throughout the game, are discussed and decided by all players. And the movement is not about racing from the start to the finish, more trying to move cargo from various cities to the harbor spaces, with a lot of twists and turns. Lets get into the set-up and rules, it will all make sense soon I promise!
There are also different "helper" powers in American when compared to Europe. We will cover this later.
Once you have made your choice, set up the green signal discs and black switch discs as per the rule book. In later games you can place these however you like. You can even change the amount you use to affect the difficulty of the game. The only rule you have to follow when placing them is that you must have one switch on a three-way junction, two switches on a four-way junction, and at least one signal disc must be present on each city. Other than that, go crazy! In an organised and tidy way though, please.
Once this is done, place the time tokens on the clock, again these can be adjusted based on the difficulty of the game. Then place the nine trains in the depot spaces on the board, lay the dice close to the board, and finally place the three cover tokens next to the helper spaces (the three images of people on the top left of Europe and top right for USA). They are used when the helpers powers have been enacted so that you don't mistakenly use them again.
Finally, shuffle the departure cards, remove two at random and place the rest on the clock card space. Then shuffle the action deck, deal five cards to each player and lay the rest on the wheel card space on the board. You are now ready to play. All aboard!
How To Play.
On your turn, you will first reveal the top departure card and carry out all the instructions, then play as many action cards as you like, before finally drawing five new action cards. As this is a cooperative game, all players are involved for all turns. But if there is any disagreement, then the active player can make the final decision. Or, just let the bossiest person take charge for the whole game, which allows the other players to make passive aggressive comments about their failings if you don;t win the game. Fun either way!
The departure cards will tell you to either add a new train to the board, or move all trains of a certain colour. When you add a train, you must roll the two regular dice to determine the trains starting place on the board. This introduces the first, somewhat misunderstood issue for this game. Like Catan, people suggest that in this game, due to the nature of rolling two dice, the most common outcomes are the middle numbers, and this increases the chances of the trains being placed in certain spots over others, which ruins the game. The probability of rolling a seven with two six sided dice is higher than any other outcome. So the facts are there, and this bothers some people with its use in this game.
The game has a clever variant you can use if this is a problem for you using the eleven location tokens. These are numbered tokens you can use to decide where the trains appear instead of the printed numbers on the board. The rules say to place them randomly on each location space to determine the number for each city when the dice are rolled. This of course changes the affects, game to game, of trains more commonly being placed on the six, seven, and eight spots. Or, you can leave the dice in the box and each time a new train is set to be placed on the board, simply take one of the face down tokens. Once a token is used, that's it, it is out of the game. So no spot will ever be used twice. Although, after the locations tokens are used for the first three trains, they are flipped back over and shuffled up again, so you could place on the three used here again. When you use this method, ,this of course means that each number has the same opportunity of showing up, and other than for the first three trains, that no number can be used twice.
Once the trains have been placed on the board, if you ever need to place another train onto the same spot, if the first train has not moved yet, then you will lose two time tokens. This obviously does not happen with the second variant where each location token is only used once. As long as you move your first three trains, you won't ever be punished for this.
I do see the issue with two dice being used for something like this, but the higher probability of the middle numbers showing up adds to the game. It is not a problem that this could happen. It is part of the strategy. If you roll a seven and place a Train on the seven spot then you know you need to get that train moving as soon as possible. Where as a train on position two has, at least statistically speaking, potentially more time before its a problem. The board has also placed the six, seven, and eight spots in locations that work for more common use.
The other action shown on the departure cards is moving the trains. Depending on the colour shown on the card, you will roll the appropriate dice and move the train the required amount of spaces, counting one track symbol for each space. If the card shows a multicolored train symbol, you can decide which colour to pick. Each train has its own coloured dice. The black train has one two, two threes, two fours, and one five face on it and as such is the fastest moving train in the game. The brown runs one to four with two twos and two threes. The grey moves the slowest, with options of one to three with three ones. When choosing which train to place and move, you will often favor the black train over anything else, but there are only three trains of each colour. If you ever need to place a train of a specific colour and don't have that train available in the depot then you lose time tokens. A balance of each train being used efficiently needs to be found.
The Games Goal.
The time tokens serve as your punishment throughout the game. If you ever cannot do something you need to such as place a train of a specific colour, or use all your movement points, or when a train crashes into another, or moves back into a starting city location, the time tokens are taken away. If you run out of time tokens you will lose one of your departure cards. The departure cards act as the games timer. When these cards are used up, the game is over. You will need as much time as possible to complete the goal of the game which is to pick up the cargo from the various cities across the board and deliver them to the harbor spaces. If you manage this before the departure cards run out, you will win the game.
Once you have carried out all the actions on the departure card, you will then be able to carry out as many actions as you you have cards in your hand. You start with five and draw five at the end of each round, but players do not have to use any cards if they wish. You can never have more then ten cards in your hand, but storing up cards for more effective later turns is an effective way to increase your chances of winning this game. Every turn is crucial and wasting turns just for the sake of it will not help. You need to be prudent and use your action cards wisely based on the situation in the game and the cards in your hands.