Crossing the Atlantic

Review of board game New England Railways by Pevans

This game is the latest fruit of the collaboration between games designer Martin Wallace and US manufacturer Winsome Games, which now has an impressive pedigree of railway games. The game covers the early American railways around the New England area and uses the same mechanics as Martin's earlier Lancashire Railways.

The game is published in two versions. The cheaper is packaged in a re-sealable bag as a game kit - that is, some work with the scissors is required before you can play the game. There is also a "Ready to Play" boxed version of the game. I have the kit version and found that it took a couple of hours to get all the pieces ready. Anyone familiar with Lancashire Railways may wish to skip to part 2 of this review. Everyone else should continue reading.

In the bag

The game consists of a small board (actually laminated paper) showing major towns in New England and the routes that the railways will take to interconnect them. There are sets of markers for each player, counters representing four different types of commodity, two packs of cards (Commodity Growth and Railway Links) and a sheaf of money and loans - all of these need to be cut out of sheets of paper and card before play. The rules take up just four pages and you will need to add a couple of dice.

The aim of the game is to have the most money (less loans, but including the 'face value' of railways) at the end, which happens when the last Railway Link has been built. Each turn players get income according to their current income level. This level can be increased each turn by players moving commodities along railway lines. To do this, a player moves a commodity counter from the box by its starting town along completed railway lines until it reaches a town showing the same symbol. The owners of the track it passes over increase their income level by one for each of their sections used.

Two things immediately follow from this. First off, because moving a commodity increases the player's income level, early income is worth more than late income as it can generate money for the rest of the game. Secondly, it is clearly valuable to have connected sections of railway. Moving a commodity along this will generate income for you alone. In the early stages of the game it is usual to see players moving commodities that provide income for themselves and others as this is the only way they can increase their own income. As players accumulate longer and better routes for themselves, this co-operation disappears.

Railways are gained at the start of the turn, when a number of Railway Links are up for auction. Each link connects two towns, possibly with a spur or two to the side, and the player who buys it gets the whole link. This is intended to be marked by placing a counter in your colour on it, but I found this didn't work too well. The counters are easily dislodged and it is not obvious who owns each stretch of track. I have thus resorted to using erasable felt pens to draw in the tracks and then wiping off the ink at the end of the game.

Money markets

The auction is a standard mechanism; it is the availability of loans that adds spice to this part of the game. Loans gain players extra capital, but interest has to be paid at 20% per turn. This makes taking out a loan a really double-edged sword. You need the capital, but you have to be confident of generating the income to enable you to pay off the interest - and eventually repay the principal. Of course with the cumulative mechanism for income, you expect this to happen sooner or later. It is clearly bad news, though, if you end up having to take out extra loans just to cover the interest on your existing debt! A major factor in the size of loans taken is the price players are prepared to pay for the railways. However, prices tend to go up once players have a definite need for specific pieces of track.

Because the loans are taken out before the auction, the results of the auction are often settled before it starts. If there is a Railway Link you want to be sure of buying, you probably need to take out a loan. However, the players who take their turns after you can react to this and take out their own loans, too. Unless they don't want the card(s), in which case they can avoid the interest payment and, perhaps, take out a loan next turn when they need it.

Managing your capital and loans is really the key to the game. A mistake often made by beginners is to go hugely into debt at the beginning to ensure plenty of funds. This leads to massive interest payments, which may well mean that the player still has outstanding debt at the end of the game. If you take out a loan and don't spend it, you are paying interest for no good reason.

So the strategy of the game is all about managing your money. Making sure you are increasing your income so that you will be able to pay your debts off before the end of the game and then accumulate cash for a winning position. Strategically you are looking for a decent network of railway lines. There is also a tactical element. Commodity counters are drawn at random each turn, so there may be an opportunity to make a once-off killing on a particular route. Because players who don't buy a railway line in a turn get to move an extra commodity, it can even be worthwhile to forgo buying a railway to gain this tactical advantage.

Part two

If you are familiar with Lancashire Railways, you will have realised that this game sounds much the same. As far as I can see, it is identical, with the obvious exception of the map. Even this feels similar - almost a mirror image of the Lancashire layout. There is one difference, which is the railway links that are auctioned at the start of the game. In Lancashire Railways the first few link up to a junction town, which is neither the origin nor the goal of any commodity. In New England Railways, the first few links can all be used individually. To my mind, this makes it more important to get one of the lines on the first turn - bad news for the player taking the last turn, unless he takes out a larger loan than anybody else. If you don't, you will get no income on the first turn and will be that small margin behind the others.

There is one point of discussion about the games' rules and that is whether players' money is held openly or closed. If you play with cash kept secret, it is still relatively straightforward to keep track of each player's holdings, which gives an advantage to those players capable of (and willing to) count. I prefer to play with cash holdings open, though it does lead to the odd situation where a player asks how much everybody has got so that she can bid just enough to win the auction for a railway line.

I have not gone into the detail of how each turn is played - it is fairly involved. However the game has been very carefully engineered to provide challenging play with both strategic and tactical elements. This is a game that needs and repays thinking play. There is an element of player interaction and the random elements (distribution of Commodities and the sequence in which railway lines are auctioned) ensure that each game is different. If you do not have Lancashire Railways, then this game is highly recommended. If you do, then you don't really need it - unless you want to complete your collection or provide some variety from the UK-based game.

New England Railways was designed by Martin Wallace and published in the USA by Winsome Games. It is for 3-6 players and takes 2 hours to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 145, July 2000.

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