Table of Contents
|Isle of Trains (2014)
|Medium Light [2.02]
|Seth Jaffee and Dan Keltner
Isle of Trains was an unexpected gem – a game I initially played with no real enthusiasm but pretty soon realized I had something quite special on my hands. That doesn’t happen as often as I like, and I suspect it did here because this is a game that’s a fair bit outside the usual remit for Meeple Like Us. I picked it up as a personal recommendation, and thought it was interesting enough to merit the full treatment. We gave it four and a half stars in our review, and I suspect were it to be expanded it’d make a viable candidate for five stars. I will hold out hope for expansions.
But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here for the special sauce we bring to each of the games we cover. Let’s see whether this is a game that is as accessible as it is approachable. Let’s begin the teardown. Judgements arriving at the station in ten minutes. Please keep your hands and arms clear of the windows. Watch the gap as you alight from the teardown.
First of all, apologies for the poor quality of the photos here. We’ve recently moved from Scotland to Gothenburg and it’s upset everything about my daily routine. I don’t even have softboxes any more so I’m relying on either natural sunlight (a rare commodity for Sweden in December) or the overhead lights in our new apartment. That situation will change soon, but for now – we’ll just have to deal with it. Sorry.
There is a small colour blindness issue here in that train engines use a yellow symbol to indicate how much weight they can pull, and all the cars use a red symbol. These are going to be problematic in terms of the palette but they don’t actually make a difference in the game. Only an engine or a caboose can have power they provide, and they’ll do so with a + symbol beside them. The engine will be at the front of the train, the caboose at the back. In any case, it’s obvious from context in most cases which is which.
The isle of trains itself does not include any information that is only presented in colour, making use as it does of symbols to indicate the different kinds of desired cargo.
We’ll strongly recommend Isle of Trains in this category.
Well, we’re not going to be able to be quite so positive here. The visual design of the cards in Isle of Trains can only really be described as ‘incredibly cluttered’.
Where it’s not cluttered, it suffers from severe contrast problems. Consider here the name (and cost) of the supertanker and the number of cargo cards it can hold (3). The way that cargo icons are used too can be unhelpful because they fall into two categories – goods a car can use and goods that the card can act as as when loaded into another car. They’re not necessarily the same thing – a coal hopper for example might be treated as wood when loaded as cargo, as you can see in the image below.
Some cards are wild-cards, acting as any good, which adds to the amount of information presented. It can be a lot to take into account.
The isle of trains itself is mostly decorative, with a clear silhouette that makes it reasonably easy to put it all together without relying too much on the dotted lines that indicate joins. The primary contracts on the front are reasonably well contrasted but underneath those are much smaller panels that show what the secondary contracts associated will be. These are much more difficult to make out and will often have strategic importance. There are only six cards in the isle though so their distribution can be learned.
More problematic is the issue of loading cards onto the train of another player since the information is almost certain to be upside down (unless everyone is happy playing with a train facing away from them) and not especially easy to make out or decode at a distance. Consider the supertanker below, which I have rotated for reference:
You’re likely to be considering three or four cars per player. While you can ask for clarification on what happens when you use a particular car, or what options you have for cargo you want to load, there will be a lot of options to consider except in tight two player games. It’s then going to be necessary to cross-reference this against both the contracts on the table and those secondary contracts being attempted by a player. It’s not an impossible level of information to hold in memory, but it’s quite a lot. Churn will also make this more challenging, since the tanker a player has in one turn may not be the same as the tanker they have in the next. Cards can be upgraded and chained together and this can make it difficult to get a handle on what options are available round to round.
Here though the small size of the deck actually works in the favour of the game. There are nine different cargo cars that would need memorized, six caboose cards, and six buildings. A reference sheet is provided too, which can aid (one) player in seeking clarification on what specific options a particular card will enable.
We’ll tentatively recommend Isle of Trains in this category.
The fact that the cards in Isle of Trains are multi-role is an instant cognitive issue. They are either currency (spent to build cards), cards to be played, or cargo to be loaded. That adds a powerful consequence to how they’re used. You might not want to discard a card of one type just because it has a cargo classification that’s useful. You need to work within a tight hand limit, and the various load actions permitted by other players, to afford expensive cards. Either that or sync them up to a delivery so you have time to go beyond the hand limit and build something from your rewards. This in turn requires a degree of forward planning to fully execute. If you deliver five cargo cards you’ll get ten back, but if none of them have anything you want to build you’ll end up discarding them without getting any benefit. It’s good to have an idea of what’s in the draw deck and the discard deck, and while the reference sheet shows you how many of each card is available it doesn’t help actually track it.
The design of cards too means they don’t come with many useful indicators as to context. For example, a wood icon may be shown on three sides of a card with no indication as to what each one means. You just need to decipher the iconography. Similarly for the cost (shown in the poorly contrasted panel along with the card name) and the points the card is worth at the end (in the yellow explosion symbol). It’s easy, at least to begin with, to get these mixed up.
Numeracy is an important aspect of play, and it’s required often even if it’s not intensely complex. You need to do subtraction to work out the cost of an upgrade, for example. Some buildings add modifiers to certain kinds of score or cargo. There are also some complexities when it comes to end game scoring in that there are comparisons that need to be done when picking up contracts. Loaded cargo is worth a point at the end of the game, so the wisdom of ending the game by collecting a contract needs to be assessed against what everyone is going to get out of it.
The load actions too will often severely interrupt the flow of the game, although I’m pleased to see there are conditions on this to stop it exploding too violently. You can trigger a load action with a load action for example, but you can only perform the second one on your own train which will never trigger additional actions. It’s a clever way to tightly constrain the ceiling on synergy complexity, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’ll often be doing dramatically different things turn from turn. Maybe your turn is to draw two cards and that’s it. My turn might be to load a piece of cargo that gives me three cards and a build option, and I use that build option to place a building and then load up another piece of cargo which gives me another two cards and the option to deliver my payload. Turns can feel very different and it can seem on one level like someone is getting many more ‘goes’ than someone else.
Unfortunately we can’t really recommend Isle of Trains in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
There’s a lot of shuffling in Isle of Trains but since everyone is working from a shared deck this is a responsibility for the table rather than for any individual player. However, there’s also a lot of swapping and tucking cards and this might become a problem if someone has fine-grained motor control issues.
Ideally you want the tucked cards to be neatly arranged so you can see the symbols and number of cards at easy inspection, but this isn’t always easy to do. That at least can be done on one player’s behalf by another, although the ease of it will depend on how they are positioned in relation to each other.
Hand limits in Isle of Trains can be a problem. The maximum number of cards a player can have at the end of their turn is five, and that’s a perfectly appropriate number. The problem is that during a turn a player will likely have many more. A large delivery of cargo might dump a dozen cards into a player’s hand, and many load actions include card draws as part of the reward. As such it might be necessary to sort through many more cards than is comfortable and ideally secretly so as to not give away information to other players. Sometimes it’s not an issue. ‘I know I want to build this supertanker so I I’m just going to discard all my other cards’. Sometimes though there is strategic impact, ‘I want to make sure I keep the cards needed to claim this contract while still buying the car I need to actually do it’. A card holder would be fine for your end of turn hand of cards. It’s not going to be nearly as convenient for the ‘in turn’ swelling of hand limits.
The game is otherwise amenable to verbalization – each card can be unambigiously referenced, even if they double up. ‘Load this up into your second supertanker’. There are only a handful of actions in the game, and the consequences of an action are usually easy to enact or describe.
We’ll (very) tentatively recommend Isle of Trains in this category.
There aren’t many pain points here. Competition is completely indirect and only over contracts. Claiming contracts is the way the game ends but it’s not necessarily the way you win. A viable strategy is to focus on building and upgrading the best train and train-yard you can, That’s done by entirely focusing on your own hand of cards. When players interact directly, it’s notable for its positivity. They get a good, and potentially a point, and you get the action they made available to you. You in turn are opening yourself up to them doing the same. It’s very good natured and I like it a lot.
I also like the rule that says you cannot have more than one secondary contract you’re working on at a time because it creates an elegant catch-up mechanism in that other players will have time to claim an easy primary card while someone else is working on the more challenging secondary contract. Players are rarely locked out of contention unless they’re really not trying.
Point disparities though can be considerable, particularly when some of the building cards are taken into account. If you have a large, spacious train loaded up with cargo and the building that gets you two points per loaded good… that’s going to be worth a lot in terms of placed cards and their contents. If someone has just been focusing on contracts they may find it less lucrative than they might expect, especially since the game ends when a certain number of contracts are collected, not when their associated secondary contract is completed.
These are mild issues though, so we’ll happily recommend Isle of Trains in this category.
The only gendered art is on the box and the back of the cards. These show the same image – a male train driver horrifyingly out of proportion with the train he’s driving. The manual does not default to masculinity, using the third person perspective throughout and referring to ‘the player’.
Isle of Trains can often be purchased for under ten pounds, and it is unquestionably worth that money. It supports up to four players, works well at two, and is one of the purer ratios of money to fun that we’ve seen in quite some time.
The lack of balanced representation is unfortunate, but we’ll average this out to a recommendation.
Some text is present on each of the cards, showing the name of the specific item you’re building. This is then possible to cross-reference in a reference sheet. Other than this there’s no need to worry about the specifics, and the rest of the game information is iconographic. There’s no formal need for communication.
We’ll strongly recommend Isle of Trains in this category.
Given the nature of the swelling hand-limits during a player’ turn we’d be inclined to be critical of its suitability in the event a physical impairment intersected with a communication impairment. Similarly, if physical impairment intersected with a visual impairment that latter tentative recommendation would be rescinded due to the amount of close inspection that would be needed of much of the game state.
Isle of Trains plays pretty quickly – I’d say about five minutes per player plus ten minutes. It doesn’t cleanly support players dropping out because the number of contracts claimed is what determines the end state and it wouldn’t be easy to change that mid-game without consequences for player strategy. It could be done though provided everyone is okay with a little fudging of the rules.
Well, it’s an uneven performance. There are lots of nice aspects of the design, but a few problematic ones. That’s not an uncommon observation but there’s a lot of room for improvement here for Isle of Trains, particularly in the visual design of the cards.
It’s also not uncommon that the games about which I enthuse the most are the ones most likely to have serious issues in a teardown. It’s almost a universal rule that the more I enjoy a game the less cognitively accessible it’s likely to be. However here there’s an unusual benefit that would come from a clearer visual design – some of the cognitive issues would be resolved through clarification of symbolism.
We gave Isle of Trains four and a half stars in our review because it’s genuinely an excellent game. One that I expect would become more excellent style were it to be built out a little. This could be the train game that I genuinely fall in love with if only there were more of it to adore. It’s too skinny for its own good, but hopefully time will put more meat on its bones. In the meantime, I hope you’re able to give it a go at some point because I doubt you’ll regret the time you spend with it.
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Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
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