When I sat down to write this review I looked up its designer, Hisashi Hayashi, on BGG, just to get a sense of what other games (if any) he’d designed. To my pleasant surprise, I found several other games I knew in his CV, each one quite different from the next: Sail to India; Trains; String Railway; Lost Legacy (Orb of Prophecy). Turns out Hayashi is kind of a Japanese Vlaada Chvatil—turns his hand to many genres, comfortable with “light” as well as “heavy” games. The games of his I know best are microgames: little boxes that contain surprisingly meaty games. Trick of the Rails is one of these. It was originally published in 2011 but a new edition was Kickstarted and released last year by Terra Nova Games.
The game combines trick-taking with railroad stock manipulation—two mechanics which tend to appear in very different kinds of games. It’s like that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial:
((SCENE: a university hallway. Gamer #1 is running along, late for Game Night, holding a copy of 1840: Railways & Robber Barons. Rounding the corner, they collide with Gamer #2, also late, also running, who happens to be holding a deck of playing cards. Everything ends up mixed together on the floor in a heap.
Gamer #1: “Hey! You got Euchre in my 1840!”
Gamer #2: “Yeah? Well YOU got 1840 in my Euchre!”
They decide to combine the games, find a nearby classroom, and play.
Together, looking at the camera: “It’s delicious!”))
And you know what? It is.
Players are investors interested in five railroad companies (each represented by a suit). Cards have a value from 1 to 10 for trick-taking purposes, but also have a track value which differs by suit, and can also be inverted to represent a single share in that colour of railroad. Each player starts with a mittful of cards, with the remainder added to the central tableau showing how much each railroad is worth. Finally, a special row of cards called the “trick-taking line” is set up to the side which operates both as timer, action-reminder, and trophy-box.
You must always follow the suit of the card led, unless you are void in that suit, in which case you can play any card you want (which is often the best-case scenario as it gives you the most choice). The leftmost remaining card in the trick-taking line determines whether the cards played for that trick will be added to players’ portfolios of shares or to the tableau. The winner of the trick also gets the card from the trick-taking line, which generally benefits them in some way.
The game is full of twists and turns, as the value of shares rises and falls, and players are constantly having to decide when and how to use their high cards; this is one of those games, like Broom Service, where having the lead is not always a good thing, and being able to control the flow of play through sagacious use of your long and short suits is crucial.
The game scales extremely well for 3, 4, or 5 players, with different layouts of the trick-taking line providing delicious tension at each player-count. The game is short enough to play three or four rounds in an hour once the unusual structure is mastered, and I would say this is definitely a game which benefits from being played by the same group over and over again over time so the meta can evolve.
I was one of those who Kickstarted Trick of the Rails and was very pleased with it; however, there was some controversy due to not delivering on a promised stretch goal of “linen-finished cards” (actually, more like Terra Nova not letting backers know ahead of time about the snafu). I’d forgotten completely about it until checking the BGG forums recently, and the quality of the cards is fine—and for some, that is enough to write off the game, which is a shame, because I think it’s great.