WBG Score: 8
Player Count 2-4
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.
There are three different types of cards, but five different actions. One card allows you to move one green signal token from anywhere on the board to anywhere else. You must always have at least one remaining signal token in every city. Moving these signals allows you to create clear routes for your trains to move. In the picture below you can see a grey train that is only one space from the harbor, it has a red signal ahead and therefore, cannot currently move.
Another card action is to move a train. Once the card is played, you can roll the appropriate dice and move the train the number shown on the die face. You have to use all your movement, and lose time tokens if you can't, so you need to prepare your route first. The only time you don't have to use all your movement is when you are moving into a city of harbor.
The last card action allows you to move the black points tokens around at a junction. They cannot be moved from one station space of the board to another, but they can be shifted around the spaces they are located at, creating head on movement where there was once a turn, or an east to west path where there was once a north to south, or visa-versa.
Cards can also be discarded to pick up cargo at a city, or any two cards can be discarded to carry out any of the three main actions. This is a prime example or how sometimes it may be better to hold onto cards than to play them. Sometimes if it crucial to do something immediately, and discarding two cards to do that thing may be your only choice. In a race game against the clock, you cannot afford to waste turns too often, and using two cards to do something your team mate could do next with one card should be avoided. Discussion and forward planning is key.
A Tense Strategy.
Playing Switch & Signal is a tense affair. Like many cooperative games that run on a timed mechanic like this, you will feel under pressure throughout the entire game to make the most efficient decisions. After three games, I had come close each time, but still not won. I learnt that every decision matters, and there are some inefficiencies you will fall for if you become distracted in your main goal. It wasn't until game eight that I felt a little more comfortable in the decision making process and started to win more often than not on the basic settings. But even then, I am of course, never making these decisions alone, and other player(s) would regularly have different and often better ideas that I had.
I learnt that moving the trains as often as possible and not using two cards as a wild too often is key. Wasting cards on inefficient or unnecessary switch or signal changes is obviously damaging. So the key is to forward plan. Avoid losing time tokens, by never leaving a train on a starting space, or without their maximum potential movement points free ahead of them is obviously important. Losing too many tokens and then subsequently a departure card can be game changing.
As I progressed in my understanding of this games required strategy, I started adjust the games' set-up more and more. This can be done very easily. Adding or removing signals, switches, time tokens and departure cards is incredibly simple, has zero impact on the rules, minimal impact on the game length, but directly affects the difficulty. You can tailor it perfectly to the players around the table and their experience with this game.
One area I have failed to master yet is the helpers. This is what they look like in central Europe. Each one offers a one-time-use power that can be crucial for winning the game. But timing is everything, and this is hard! The first character on the left offers you a re-roll. One single re-roll in the entire game, with no way to get more. If you have one one of something, you have to use this at a significant time. What I have found to be most damaging, which is contrary to my early thinking, is that is more helpful to use a re-roll that avoids me having to take another turn to complete something, rather than a re-roll that avoids me losing a time token. Rolling a one when I am two spaces from a harbor for example instead of when I need to move a train more than I can. Not only do you have to waste another action to complete this trains route, which is more important to avoid that time tokens being lost. But also, if you roll one short of a harbor, but it could be that now you don't have any trains of that type in the depot.
Once a train has delivered to a harbor is it returned to the depot, and not having a train there when required not only means you lose time tokens, but you will have less trains on the map in an active location. Pulling up one short of a harbor is the perfect time to use a re-roll, but interestingly, this may not happen to you at all in the game, or indeed until the later stages when the re-roll may not be as helpful. Or, on the re-roll, you may still roll a one and pull up short. This chance part of the game can turn some off. And I understand that. It can be frustrating, but luck based games can be fun, and this game certainly is fun!
The second helper will allow you to move through a city without stopping if the signals are clear. Helpful in some situations but does require a lot of planing and a long roll.
The third helper allows you to keep a train in its current position when otherwise it would have been required to move due to the departure cards. This power I have found to be a little less helpful and important in terms of when you use it. But has helped reduce the amount of time tokens I got, sometimes at crucial times. It's just that the time tokens running out has become less critical for me as I found other ways to increase my efficiencies. I worry less now about losing them, and think more now about how I can sometimes 'spend' them when required.
The helpers in the US allow you to ignore a departure card and place it to the bottom of the pile, chose the starting location of a train yourself, or keep a train in its current position when otherwise it would have moved. I am unsure why these differences are unique to each side of the board. It would have made more sense to me if these were six cards you shuffle and then draw three from each game, irrespective of the board you are using.
Overall, I have really enjoyed playing this game. I love the tension it creates. Wining feels truly special. But losing just lays out a challenge to try and get better, as frustrating as a close loss can be. The game is rewarding win or lose in the excitement and satisfaction it brings to the table. And I, like many, will always enjoy chugging little trains along a board.
The double sided board brings some nice variety, and although you are moving to either one or two harbors, the game feels very similar on both sides. It's nice to have the choice, and I hate it when a board isn't used this way. Why print just black on it. It cannot save that much money? But this is a nice to have, rather than a great addition. I wouldn't jump at the chance for any new maps via an expansion. However this game does scream out for a few other expansion that I hope do get developed with different types of trains, perhaps different types of cargo which require different things to be done to them. And maybe even event cards.
But with or without expansion, I will have a lot more fun with this game. It has become my new number choice for a cooperative gateway game when looking to introduce people to this wonderful hobby of ours. And despite being advertised as a 2-4, it plays very well in a solo too. Choo-choo!