WBG Score: 8.5
Player Count: 2-4
Published by: Osprey Games
It’s not often that I’m immediately sold on a game based on a tag line alone. In fact I think this might just be the first time. When I first saw this game I saw emblazoned on the box the words “A game of locomotives and local motives' and I was immediately sold. The problem is I've been excited by tag lines before and been disappointed, yep I’m still mad at you Phantom Menace! So has this one drawn me in and kept me engaged? Does it locaMOTIVATE me to keep playing it? Only one way to find out.
Rules of the Village
Each player receives a lettered border tile at random and then takes the rest of the tiles for that letter and pieces them together. If you’re a fan of jigsaw puzzles then consider this a tiny bonus. Place down the deck of double sided cards, track face up and lay out seven track cards in a row and then place out four goal cards both going away from the deck.
On your turn you must take a track card and you may also take a goal card. The track card furthest from the deck is free but if you want one closer to the deck then you pay one pound onto each card you skip to take it. Goal cards always cost three pounds but again you pay an extra one on every card you want to skip.
Goal cards are placed on the outside edge of the border tiles and there can be a max of two per line.
Track cards are played on the inside of the border tiles which will eventually create a 4x3 grid. They must be played next to an existing track, this includes the border tiles. If, when you place a track down the line connects from a cardboard edge to one of the two invisible edges then you score for any features on that line and any trip cards attached to that line. Features may give you straight points, some will score for terrain types, either the same or different and the signals will score based on how many you have on a single line. Lastly you’ll have the sidings which will score at the end of the games based on how many lines have sidings on them.
You’ll then play a terminus card on that line which will earn you money based on the cards criteria (always a minimum of £3) and then will be placed on that line to indicate that it’s closed off and can’t be scored again.
After twelve rounds when everyone has filled their tableau and scored their tracks, every player will score for their lines with sidings and one point for every £3 they have and the player with the most points wins.
Meeting in the Village hall
When I first read that tagline and saw the art it immediately evoked images of small English village mystery tv shows where crimes are often solved by nosey citizens and not the local constabulary. The game is nothing like that of course and that’s not how it’s trying to sell itself, but that’s nothing that should put you off of it. You may not be solving crimes with Father Brown but you will be spending time with a fun brain burner of a puzzle.
Much like a passenger staring at the frankly ludicrous amount of train ticket options, your first turn in a game of Village Rails may seem a bit scary. You'll be faced with a blank board, track and trip cards with all sorts of scoring options on them and your terminus cards all screaming at you to make a commitment to a strategy. You’ll have a lot of options of where to start but luckily the game will give you a few hints. Your border tiles have all the terrain types and one without a terrain type but with a scoring type on it. The terminus cards in your hand are a good place to start for a nudge in how you want to approach a couple of your lines and even the mix of trip cards and track cards could give you a good foundation. What seems quite intimidating at first may actually turn out to be a pretty simple choice. They’ve even simplified the track cards into two distinct types so the only thing you have to worry about is which way you want to rotate them and not if they’re going to actually connect.
There’s a strange thing that happens though. Because the second you lay your first track down you get this instant sensation that you do now have a plan and you’re not sure what you were worrying about in the first place.
I've likened this to Sagrada and while that may sound a bit odd hear me out. Both games start with a similar blank canvas. But, as the game goes on the decisions you make are easier. That’s not to say you’ll be breezing through them, you won’t and the great thing about this game is you’re faced with this brilliant puzzle as to where you’re going to lay cards to maximise your score. What I mean is that as the game goes on and you begin new lines you’ll know exactly what you need and where it should go. Of course knowing what you want is easier but the real trick is being able to get what you want and that’s why money is so important.
We’re having a bake sale to raise money!
As Pink Floyd once sang “Money, it’s a gas. grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” and I’m fairly sure they wrote that line based on Village Rails. Money management is just as important as the cards your drafting. So much so that you may want to sacrifice a couple of lines just to bring in the cash. Without a half decent stash of cash you could easily end up stuck with taking no trip cards and only taking the free tracks which, in turn, limits your choices and how you maximise your lines. It creates this really fun balancing act that gives this game a little economic twist. Do you choose between taking that track now for a couple of points or doing something that gets you money in the hope you can get bigger points in the future.
The thing that brings this all together for me is this system of drafting. Coupled with everything else going on in the game it works really well in helping to create a bit of tension and giving more credence to your choices. Even more so than in some games with this particular mechanism. Take Century Spice Road for example. It’s easy there to take a card and then barely use it if at all. In Village Rails every card you take, certainly the tracks are important to what you're doing so it won’t be uncommon to see people agonising over those choices. This is because every track card you take you HAVE to use. It means that you’re less likely to hate draft because you’re going to want to squeeze every last point from your board. That and the fact that you’re spending so much time trying to figure your own board out that you won’t be able to spare the brain power to work out someone else’s.
In terms of tension I’ve had many turns where I’ve had no money (nice to see life imitating art here) and desperately needed a card a few spaces along. It’s pretty tense watching and hoping that everyone takes the cards in front so it slides down enough to make it free so you can complete your line for maximum points.
We’ve had a village council meeting and……
There is one major gripe I have with the game and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one to have this. The terrain type symbols on a majority of the cards are really difficult to see and in some cases nigh on impossible unless you bring the card right up close. For example the forest card art is mostly dark green and the symbol in the corner is a very close dark green colour, the same with the water type and the water symbol. I’d say in each of these cases they’re as different as space grey and military gray.
The art on the cards is different for each terrain and you will most likely get used to it after a few plays but it would have been nice to have the symbols clearer so that players could make that association a lot quicker. These symbols are so important for scoring that they should be prominent on the card. I’m all for showcasing the art on cards and it is beautiful art, but I would much rather sacrifice a bit of that for functionality and ease of use.
I think the gameplay stands out more than enough that most people will persevere with it but it’d be a shame if something that is such an easy fix would be the thing to put some people off of a game that they might otherwise love.
Choo choo choose Village Rails
When I first pulled this out at my game group, one of my friends said something along the lines of “ah a game about trains that looks really dry but it most likely brilliant” In some sense he’s kinda got a point. The art is lovely and for me perfectly fits the tone but I can see a lot of people maybe passing this game by if the art doesn’t grab them and I think that would be a mistake. What you get in Village Rails is a wonderful little puzzle that’s fairly quick, easy to teach and will keep the old grey matter chugging along nicely.