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Railroad Barons - a review by Nigel Buckle

Usually I don’t bother to go into details of game mechanics in a review, but the rulebook for this game is so awful [Paul's note: there is a new set of rules available for download http://lookout-games.de/wp-content/uploads/RB_rules_new.zip] I think it is worth doing so in this case, just so the readers know which rules I was using to play the game that led to this review! I’ll give my thoughts first and then an overview of the rules after for those who are interested.

This is advertised as an 18xx game for 2 people playable in 45 minutes – and it comes in a small box. You get a deck of cards, some wood markers a stock price track and some nice paper money (although I’m sure many 18xx fans would substitute this for poker chips).

The rulebook that comes with the game assumes you know 18xx games, if you don’t it will be rather incomprehensible, and even if you do it will depend on which 18xx games you’ve played. It certainly took me a little while to figure out how to play. There is a revised rulebook on Lookout’s website – but even that is missing a rather crucial rule (you can pay for a railroad company from your own cash if your holding company has insufficient funds, but this is optional – a rather different case to most 18xx games).

I seriously doubt the 45 minute play time – unless both are a seasoned 18xx players and able to calculate income (you’ll have to make calculations such as 23 x 7 and so on) or have a spreadsheet or calculator to hand. Both games I’ve played have taken over 90 minutes.

If you are a fan of 18xx games and want the ‘experience’ of such a game for 2 players in a relatively (in terms of 18xx) short time this game is definitely worth a look – but it does depend what aspects of 18xx you like. If it is the laying of track and building up of routes then this game is not for you – there is no board play at all. Similarly if you like the stock manipulations you’ll likely to find the rather static stock market a bit lacking. What aspect of 18xx is covered then if it’s neither the stock market nor the track building! Well it’s the feel of investing in companies and making decisions about what trains (railways in this version) to buy, when to payout, when to take in and which shares to invest in.

There is an initial auction of investors (the replacement for private companies) – there are 5 but only 4 will feature in the game. Each has a cash value and a special power, because the game is only 2 players rather than an auction one player selects which investor (and in the advanced game the value) and the other player either takes the card for the special power OR the cash value, with the first player getting the other.

The train limit and company operations have been cleverly abstracted with a set of network tokens – you can permanently use one per operating round as a $10 boost to revenue (a bit like a station marker) or you use them to indicate how many railway companies you can purchase this round, or how many railway companies you can own at the end of the round. This is very slick – and different companies have a different number of tokens. It gives you some difficult choices, do you increase revenue at the expense of flexibility over manipulating trains (if you own two holding companies you can switch railways like you can switch trains in other 18xx games).

At the start of each stock round (you have a stock round then 2 operating rounds) to top railway company is removed from the game, so even if the players are not forcing a ‘train rush’ (railway rush in this case) the game will. Start of the game the railway companies are level ‘2’ and generate $50, once these first 4 have been purchased (or removed) then the ‘flip’ railways are available, these are level ‘2’ on one side and level ‘3’ the other, you decide which you want (the level ‘3’ costs more, and is not as good as a full level ‘3’). Once they are all purchased (or removed) then you have level 3, then flip 3/4. Once the first 4 (either flipped to its 4 side or a full level 4) is purchased or removed all the level 2 railways are obsolete and removed. Next are 4/5 flip, then 5, then 6 (which remove the level 3’s), then 8’s (which remove the level 4s). The 8’s are also flip cards – either a $800 railway wit $300 income or a $400 railway with $100 income.

Rather than the typical 20% director share and 8 10% shares, this game each holding company has a 40% director share, a 30%, 20% and 10% share - which makes for some interesting purchase decisions as you have a limit of 9 certificates so really want the higher % shares.

Overall, for a low component, low cost, very portable card game this is a surprisingly good take on the 18xx experience. I was pleasantly surprised – and keen to try it again, initially I thought the limited number of companies and simple stock market would lead to a very shallow game with little re-playability; but my first two games were very different, and we were using the ‘first game’ suggestion of fixed value for the investors. One component lacking is a priority marker, even though the rules refer to it (as does an investor card), we just used a pawn from my spares box.

I just wish the system was extended to support more players, as it is an interesting economic game. I recommend it for fans of games that need thinking and calculation, but be prepared to work through the rules several times before trying to play your first game!

Overview of the rules:

Setup – sort the railroads alphabetically. Each player gets $200. Auction 4 of the investors, the remaining one is returned to the box and both players get its printed value.

Game Play – Stock Round, followed by 2 Operating Rounds, until a Holding Company reaches $350 value, at which point the game ends at the end of that Operating round. Player with the most cash (in hand and share value) wins.

Stock Round – Remove a railway company (not the first round), then starting with the holder of the priority each player may first sell any number of shares they like (if the director sells the price drops 1 box, can’t sell if 50% of shares of that company are in the bank). Then may buy a share (but not in holding companies they’ve sold this round). First share bought must be the 40% director share. The company floats (so operates) when 50% is purchased. Certificate limit is 9.

Operating Round – Companies operate in a fixed order. First place tokens – 1 (maximum) can be converted to a network token, rest are either on a + space or a v space. Then calculate revenue = value of railways + any investor held + network tokens, revenue is either taken in (company receives all of it) or paid out to share holders. If paid out stock price increases one box. Then railways can be purchased and/or investors taken (one per + token), then railway limit is checked, company can hold one railway per v token (excess removed from the game).

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