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Our Favourites : Canal Mania

Now I don’t know many people who have a Mania about Canals though do occasionally see bargees puffing on pipes, working complex looking locks and generally having a peaceful time on Regent’s Park canal. Looking at recreational canalistas it’s hard to imagine that Briton’s Canals were once the arteries of the early industrial revolution. They are a fascinating historical subject, both economic and social, but compared to the belching steam of the early railroad canal’s have not fired the creativity of games designers or imagination of gamers.

However, The Ragnar brothers (Angola, Fire and Axe, History of the World. Monastery) are inspired by the less trodden path’s of gaming theme and in Canal Mania they have created a game faithful to the subject and also great fun to play.

Why do I like it so much?

1) Canal Mania scales perfectly between two and five players
2) It’s complexity sits nicely between gateway games like Ticket to Ride and more complex fare such as Railroad Tycoon or Age of Steam
3) Its quick to play a 2 player game can take 45 minutes and a five player game can finish in 90
4) The rules can be understood after 10 minutes but it also provides challenging tactical game play

Canal Mania has similarities to several Train games, Like ‘Ticket to Ride’ you need to connect cities to score points for contracts (think ‘tickets’) awarded by parliament and like Railroad Tycoon/Age of Steam you move goods along your (and other players network) for victory points. There are some key differences though unlike Ticket to Ride you can’t just build canals any where you like they have to be between towns and cities that match the Parliament cards you have selected and unlike Railroad Tycoon placement of goods is involuntary if certain cards are selected and then there are restrictions on where goods can be placed.

How does it play?

Two to five players compete for victory points that are awarded for 1) completing canals 2) The type of canal counters used in completing the contract and 3) Shipping goods.

The board depicts the major industrial cities, towns and ports of England they are colour coded for goods placement and shipping. The distinction between towns and cities is only important when placing goods . Superimposed over the board is a hexagonal grid with most towns being no more than four hexs from any other, terrain type is either easy or difficult to build in and it is on these hexes you will build your canals. Each player has the same set of canal counters 16 stretch canals, 12 locks, 4 aqueducts and 3 tunnels. Each player also receives an Engineer card who will help you build your canals beware though these engineers are a fickle bunch and don’t expect to keep your starting one for long.

Five starting contracts are placed face up on the table to be selected by the players and the rest of the contracts are shuffled and then a sixth starting contract is placed on top of the pile. Each contract will command you to construct a canal between two towns, sometimes they instruct you to connect the two via an intermediate town each contract specifies the victory points awarded for completing the canal which also doubles as a maximum length in hexes for the canal (Parliament doesn’t want you greedy early capitalists stretching the Canal’s unnecessarily). The contracts represent real Canals and add to the thematic fidelity of the game. Each player is given one junction contract (anywhere to anywhere maximum two hex length) which he can use later in the game, and he will because their use is crucial to completing high scoring networks or sneaking into other peoples. More on this later. The build cards are shuffled and five are drawn and placed face up by the board.

The build cards depict a length of canal and they match the starting canal counters of the players. There is also a Surveyor build card that acts as a wild card and some of the build cards have a colour block on them matching the colours of the towns and the cities. Like Ticket to Ride players will have the option of either choosing three face up build cards or using cards in hand to build a canal. If a face up card is selected that has a colour block on it then the player must place 2 goods tokens of the appropriate colour on matching cities or towns their being a hierarchy in which they can be placed (connected cities, connected towns, unconnected cities, then unconnected towns). Choosing where to place goods tokens and knowing that goods are most likely to appear in cities is a key part of the strategic process in building a network.

To build a canal stretch cards are played from hand. The same canal type can never be placed next to another of the same type and must be able to be placed in the map terrain. So for instance a nice easy two hex canal from London to Maidstone would need a Stretch and a lock piece and to play them you would need a stretch and a lock card. Easy. With canal pieces that need to be cut into more difficult terrain you need more cards to play them. An aqueduct requires 2 marching cards and a tunnel three. A surveyor card can substitute for any other type of card.

So you need to collect a fair number of cards to make your build actions efficient. Never fear because the engineers make the process that much easier, one allows you to substitute a lock or stretch card for each other, 2 others reduce the card requirement by one for ,respectively, building aqueducts and tunnels, one chap allows you to use a surveyor card as two other cards and the last allows you to take four build cards. I mentioned earlier that these engineers are fickle at the beginning of your turn one of your possible actions is to swap your engineer for any other players which they can’t refuse.

If a contract is fulfilled by building the canal then points are awarded for the value of the contract and the type of canal used in the build - stretches are worth zero points, locks one, aqueducts two and tunnels three.

The other actions available at the beginning of your turn are to select a new contract from the face up tile (or one of your two available anywhere to anywhere contracts). You can only ever have a maximum of two contracts in play. You can also swap engineers or you or you can discard the five face up build cards (ala Thurn und Taxis)

The second part of your turn I have described take build cards or build a canal.

In the last part of your turn you can ship goods. Shipping goods involves moving goods along a network of canals as far as you can with the restriction that it can not go through the same colour town twice. You score points for the number of towns or cities the goods travel thorough including the start and the destination. If you use another person’s network they score points for towns they connect to on the goods travel route.

In any phase you can, instead of taking an action, take blind a build card from the top of the build draw stack.

Fittingly, the end of game is reached when a player passes the ‘Railway’ age marker the end is nigh for players and canals. Play continues until one player reaches a pre-determined number of points (for example 50 points in a five player game), then the current round finishes and two further complete rounds are played. Then players move goods in turn until no more can be moved.

Scoring contracts provides the bread and butter points in the game with success going to the player who has best managed to create an efficient goods shipping network, partly by having a monopoly on some goods, partly by having the longest canal routes and by being able to deny points to other players by shipping goods available to a number of players. The ‘junction’ contracts are vital to strategy as they allow you to either complete your network or even better tap in to other players to siphon off goods they were hoping to keep to themselves.

I thoroughly recommend Canal Mania as a next step up from the Ticket to Ride series , for train games enthusiasts who like to try something a little different or for anyone who loves games where the theme is an integral part of the game.

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