Monday, October 16, 2006


The best games themed around trains & rails...
Also nominated:
For comparison, the top five games from 2002:
Prefences were interesting this time around:
  • The Apple Pickers preferred the original Ticket To Ride slightly over Marklin (and substantially over Europe).
  • Transamerica was slightly preferred to Transeuropa.
  • The 18xx lovers were all over the map, naming 9 different versions. The only one that got more than one mention was 1870, which was mentioned three times.
  • Similarly, the crayon rails fans spread out a good bit - but two games were obviously mentioned more often: Eurorails & Iron Dragon.
  • Finally, Santa Fe Rails (the most recent edition) edged out the original OOP Santa Fe. Also mentioned twice was Clippers, which is a non-rail, no-luck version of the same game system.
  • Note: I did not ask for Age of Steam preferences... but should mention that there are a number of maps/variants for the game.



Blogger mark aka pastor guy said...

Voting note: UP was only about 3 votes behind Ticket To Ride... talk about your Alan Moon one-two punches! (Played UP last week - gosh, I miss that game.)

Most glaring omission: the wonderous 30 minute auction game Vom Kap Bis Kairo.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Chris Farrell said...

I'm as big a fan of Knizia games as anyone, but I must admit Stephenson's Rocket's persistance in these rankings has really surprised me. Anyone care to defend the game? Personally, I found the scoring too opaque and the goods tokens too much of a sucker play for SR to get replay. The game is just too unintuitive.

Even by the standards of train games whose underlying mechanics have nothing to do with any aspect of railroad operations, I thought Metro was pretty abstract. Crayon Rails and 1825 (which were my picks that didn't make the final list) are at least defensibly train games. I even nominated Merchant of Venus, which is themed as a space game, but which is really a rail game - more of a rail game than Metro, anyway. Part of the reason I didn't nominate Age of Steam was because the railroad theme is pretty superficial.

The only glaring absence from the lists, I feel, is Silverton. It's not a top-tier game, but it is a great train game, and seems to strike the best balance between really capturing the rails-in-the-Rockies theme and making a good game out of it as well. Keep the number of players down, though (2 or 3 works best).

11:05 AM  
Blogger Chris Farrell said...

One interesting thought I had on the preferences:

When I saw that 1870 was the preferred 18xx game, it struck me that it would be interesting to know the preferences amongst the people who didn't vote for it. You say the pickers prefer the base Ticket to Ride to TtR: Europe, but it's not really all the pickers, just the pickers who actually voted for TtR. I didn't vote for TtR at all, but my preference when I play the game is for Europe. Likewise, my preference in Carcassonne-land is for Hunters and Gatherers or The Castle, but that preference is not likely to be counted because I'm unlikely to vote for the franchise.

It seems a bigger deal for 18xx, because the hard-core fans who are most likely to vote for it, also seem more likely to prefer the more invovled 1856 or 1870. On the other hand, the more casual fans (like I am these days) are more likely to prefer 1830 or 1825, but less likely to vote for the game system in any event (although I did, with a preference for 1825 - but if the process was ultimately going to recommend 1870, easily amongst my least-favorite in the series, I'd retract my vote :)).

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan Degann said...

Well, in contrast to Chris, I'll say that if this list puts Stephenson's Rockets into the awareness of more gamers, it'll all be worth it. The game is complex on first playing because of the many different ways to score. But after a play or two it comes together - and delivers a game with many flavors and competing objectives.

There is that big question of what really constitutes a rail game - besides the obviously stated theme. I agree that Metro is an abstract. For that matter, I think that Union Pacific is primarily a set collecting game. Over either of those two I'd have placed Santa Fe Rails.

Having just played Canal Mania, I'd also recommend that one in my top five. Again, you're technically building waterways, but who cares?

11:38 AM  
Blogger huzonfirst said...

First of all, I'm absolutely delighted at how this list came out. Age of Steam is a Top Ten game for me, UP is very good, and you can't argue with TtR (particularly now that Marklin is around). But seeing Stephenson's Rocket make the final cut is a wonderful surprise, since it has so little exposure with most groups. It's also one of my Top Ten games, so my delight in its inclusion makes it easy for me to accept the membership of Metro, a High Chaos game I avoid. (Okay, SR made the list last time too, but who remembers that far back?)

You want a defense of Stephenson's, Chris? I don't know, it's just a great game. I've said this numerous times, but I feel the share/veto mechanism is absolutely brilliant, as it ratches up the tension on practically every turn and does so in a simple, natural fashion. Is the scoring hard to wrap your brain around? Sure. Is the gameplay non-intuitive? Of course, but that's one of the reasons the game is great--it has a steep learning curve that is very satisfying to master (at least I assume it is, since I am far from mastering any aspect of this game). It is difficult, intense, absorbing, and unforgiving--all things I prize in a game, but which not everyone does.

Looking at the rest of your comments, Chris, makes me think that one of your issues with SR might be theme. To me, the game is quite strongly themed, much more so, say, than Acquire, the game it is sometimes incorrectly compared to. You can say that 18xx games are identifiable as "train games", but I would say that, given the serpentine routes these games generate, they are no more a reflection of reality than SR is. (To be fair, it seems you have some issues with 18xx theming as well.) To me, 18xx's theme is accepted because they have become identified as the ultimate "train games". But I honestly don't think they are all that much less abstract a representation of the real thing than either SR or AoS. I can appreciate the strength of the theme of something like Silverton, but I rarely like experience games, and that's how I'd characterize that one.

Actually, the fifth game I voted for in lieu of Metro was 1829, but it's been years since I've played. I wouldn't mind getting more experience with 18xx games, but that may have to wait until I hit the lottery or retire. Other games I nominated are Wallace's other great train game, Pampas Railroads, and AoS' granddaddy, Lancashire Rails.

I tried one crayon rail game once and decided it wasn't for me. Not terrible, but definitely a relic from a fargone era. Streetcar is a nice little design, but not something I crave to play. Santa Fe Rails is 80% of an excellent game, but the luck in drawing a valuable city vs. drawing drek late in the game absolutely kills it for me. I wonder how it would play if all the cards were distributed at the start? I was one of the people who mentioned Clippers, which I find much superior, despite the horrid physical design. I still contend that TransAmerica is a pleasant way of determining who was dealt the best bunch of cards at the start--thankfully, it disappeared from our game table after TtR came out. Volldampf is pretty good, but for me, was made completely obsolete by Age of Steam. I've never played Railroad Tycoon, probably because my game table isn't Paul Bunyon sized.

Vom Kap bis Kairo would have been a reasonable nominee, but to be honest, it's been a while since I've seen it played--has it jumped the shark? And, like Jonathan, I certainly consider Canal Mania to be a train game, despite its aquatic theme, and would have included it on my Top Five list, but our Glorious Leader disagreed.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Chris Farrell said...

It [Stephenson's Rocket] is difficult, intense, absorbing, and unforgiving--all things I prize in a game, but which not everyone does.

Maybe that's the difference. The first time I played SR it was pleasingly baffling, like Taj Mahal. But for me the scoring intracacies were mastered fairly readily. A good player will almost always trounce a new player for one reason: good players never, ever take the goods tokens. Well, hardly ever. Players familiar with Knizia games will get suckered into taking them because they think that since it's a Knizia game, if a commodity is being ignored by the other players, it must be worth doing. So the knowledgeable player is avoiding them like the plague, and the new player picks them up, loses, and may not be any wiser.

This imabalance between stations, shares, and tokens is what makes Stephenson's Rocket surprisingly pointy for a Knizia, and impossible to grasp your first couple times out unless you're good at grokking scoring systems. Since this will rapidly result in big imbalances in player competance, the game just completely fizzled out for my gaming groups. New players can't be competitive, but the game really isn't so fundamentally fun or compelling that they feel much desire to come back.

So anyway. That's my critique of SR.

re: themeing, I actually think SR isn't bad, although Acquire's theming is better in my opinion (the new tech-stock theme makes a lot more sense than the hotel them, which I assume made sense at the time but is no longer very relevant). But the 18xx game's strength in theming is in finance, not operations. The routes are bit awkward, yes, but that's the abstract part of the game, the real "crunch" (as RPGers would say) is in the financial management and planning, which is very well-themed. No game is going to model everything, obviously; the key to good theming is to do something well and with depth. To that end, for me 1825 works, and even Union Pacific isn't bad if you think of it as an investment rather than a building game. Stephenson's Rocket isn't bad either.

3:56 PM  
Blogger huzonfirst said...

I agree about the imbalance with the goods tokens, although that seemed likely to me from the beginning (although I must admit, I had the kind of sneaking suspicion that I was missing something that you describe). But I've also seen them taken to good effect, primarily in games with experienced players who know how to selectively choose them. I think they are intended to be an adjunct and not nearly as important as the other two forms of scoring. It does seem a bit weird, but it works.

As for beginners getting crushed because of their reliance on the tokens:

1. Yes, they usually take them too often;

2. No, it doesn't matter, because they would get crushed even if they played the tokens properly. There's no substitute for experience in Stevenson's Rocket, something I am reminded of everytime I play Derk in this game.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Chris Farrell said...

There's no substitute for experience in Stevenson's Rocket, something I am reminded of everytime I play Derk in this game.

That, in a nutshell, is why I think that, in the field of euros anyway, SR is not a top-tier game. Euros are supposed to be fun. To that end, all of the German-type games that I consider great - Settlers, Modern Art, Beowulf, Blue Moon City, Tigris & Euphrates, even El Grande or Acquire - are intuitive enough that experience doesn't totally trump skill and chance. Even comparatively edgy German games like La Citta or Die Macher have enough in there to grasp that first-time or less-experienced players can at least feel competant without crunching numbers.

Now, I don't want to overstate this whole thing. I played War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age recently; now that's a totally opaque game. SR isn't on that level of obscurity. But my experience is that it's opaque enough to be a barrier to repeat play, which means it's hard to play enough to get the experience to make the game worthwhile ... which puts SR in a tough spot.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Joe Huber said...

I think Chris' critique of Stephensons Rocket captures 80% of what I don't like about the game; the other 20% is the trying to convince other players to connect your stations in return for passengers nonsense. All of which doesn't keep me from enjoying the game some - but when a more interesting choice (Canal Mania) came along, Stephensons Rocket quickly hit my trade pile.

Four of my favorite train games have nary a train - 2038, Merchant of Venus, Funkenschlag, and Canal Mania - but even with true train games my taste seems to lie outside that of the pickers (18EU, Eurorails, Freight Train). I've got to try Silverton sometime...

6:52 PM  
Anonymous henry rhombus said...

I still contend that TransAmerica is a pleasant way of determining who was dealt the best bunch of cards at the start

All I can conclude from this comment, Larry, is that you haven't played the game enough or with people who play well.

Yes, TA has a luck factor in terms of the cards you draw, but some players win far more than others. Learning how to read players and how to guide them in directions you want to go will take you far in this game.

3:48 PM  

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