Game of Trains is a game of re-arranging numbers. Numbers that happen to be printed on trains. So get on board the number train and take a journey to a new land, one where train games can be short, simple card games for 2-4 players. Short, simple card games that you should only play with four players (we’ll get to that later).
Now you see, what’s wrong with your number train is that the numbers are all in descending order. That’s your problem right there. If those numbers were in ascending order, you’d have already won Game of Trains.
But rearranging a number train is not as easy as it sounds. Sure, you can draw a card off the top of the deck to replace any car in your train, but what happens to that replaced train car? It lands on the scrap heap: a row of unwanted, unloved cars.
Don’t feel bad for them, though. Every cast-off train car packs a special ability. Rather than draw a new card, players have the option to trigger an ability from the discard row (and trash the corresponding card). Most abilities present one of many potential options for rearranging cars in your train. Other table-wide abilities wreak havoc on every player’s train, causing the first, middle, or last cars to be discarded and replaced with a fresh draw. Lastly, there’s an ability that grants protection to a specific car, shielding it from such meddling.
Turns are quick, and decisions are not taxing. Of two possible actions, players must choose one: draw a new card or use a discarded card’s ability. But it’s the potential setback of losing your first, middle, or last train car that drives all of the tension and strategy in Game of Trains. Particularly high or low cards (the deck ranges from 1 to 84) are valuable endcaps, so do you risk placing them in vulnerable positions, or do you instead place them adjacent, with hopes of sliding or swapping them into place in the moments before you claim victory?
Carefully rearranging numbers in Game of Trains is more enjoyable than it seems, but this endorsement comes with a major caveat. Game of Trains works with a full complement of four players, yet struggles with anything less. The experience leans on its more interactive moments. When players interfere with one another’s trains or deny them options in the discard row (players can flush some of the discard row choices, triggered when multiples of an ability are present), the game shines.
Yet without a full table, the action economy of a discard row can also run dry. Once both player’s trains begin to take shape, the paths to victory become readily apparent, and there is little difficulty in predicting what abilities will (or will not) be entering the discard row. When that point is reached, Game of Trains becomes a game of drawing cards until somebody gets their lucky pull.
Get four players, though, and the game chugs along enough decision making tension until one player punches through with a victory. With the variety of cards hitting the discard row driving more choices, the game won’t stall out. There’s no one specific player group or situation for which Game of Trains is ideal, it’s simply a serviceable card game that happens to evoke one unique gaming experience particularly well: you will sacrifice yourself to take down the leader, and you’ll be happy to do it. Trust me. This is not one of those cop out reviews where the author struggles to thread the needle in recommending a game by defining the two people on Earth for whom it would be best suited.
One of the most dreaded situations in board gaming is where one player is asked to sacrifice their own standing to take down a leader. Such situations always devolve into a political and social metagame of “no, you do it.” More often than not, skilled players will pass the buck. Game of Trains, however, forces players to jump on such opportunities. Flushing ability cards through use of strategic discarding is a power move in Game of Trains, but it’s not very often feasible. When it does appear, and would take a leading player down a notch, there is a clear this is our chance feeling at the table. Since the situation is dependent on your personal ability to discard certain ability symbols, it is likely a fleeting chance that lies solely within your grasp. Take it, and take down that leader.
Forcing the hand a bit and removing the metagame makes Game of Trains best suited as a wind-down game rather than a warm-up game. You may gain a bit more strategy than a 6 Nimmt or Fuji Flush, but Game of Trains doesn’t have the player count flexibility or that knack to get a table talking. For 88 cards in a tiny box, though, it’s certainly one worth cutting some extra slack.
Brain Games provided a complimentary review copy for this post