Isle of Trains Review

Isle of Trains (2014)

Game Details
NameIsle of Trains (2014)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.00]
BGG Rank1708 [6.87]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Seth Jaffee and Dan Keltner
Artist(s)Daniel Guidera and Christopher Kirkman

TL;DR: It's excellent! You should make every possible effort to try it!

Every so often when running this site I sit down with a game about which I feel absolutely nothing. No excitement. No trepidation. At most, a sense of weary resignation that a necessary responsibility is about to be competently discharged. Sometimes I don’t even remember where the game came from or why I bought it. It’s just there, on my shelves, adding its ponderous weight to a todo list that will never be completed. That wasn’t quite true of Isle of Trains. I knew exactly who I had to blame for its bland, uninspiring presence in my life. It had been nudged my way by Twitter as a response to a request for suggestions. I was looking for small box games that would fit easily in a suitcase and would work for two players. Mrs Meeple and I were taking a trip to Romania and so size of box was more important than grandness of the game within. We never got around to playing it though and so it just lingered, like a fart in an elevator, making me feel bad for never being interested in opening the box.

Every so often though, I’m genuinely delighted by a surprise gem that sparkled in bedrock I thought unpromising. Let’s talk about one of the neatest little card games I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s talk about Isle of Trains.

I apologise for the quality of the photographs. These were the first I took in our new apartment and as such there is something of a learning process involved.

Isle of Trains box

Isle of Trains consists of a single deck of cards that seems to have been hewn from the same strata of game design as Race for the Galaxy. Cards in your hand are opportunities for building; a currency to be spent; and also items to be tucked behind others as a cargo payload. There’s a set of six cards that fit together like an old-timey pirate map to show ‘contracts’ that can be claimed by players, and that’s about it. And yet, these slim tools come together in an experience that is so viscerally satisfying it’s almost uncanny.

Isle of Trains map

Each player begins with a terrible train engine. It can later be upgraded, but to begin with it can pull only a small chain of carriages behind it while still be able to move. This is the Little Engine that Couldn’t – it can barely manage flat terrain much less the hills and vales that litter the way to the most lucrative prizes. And that’s a shame because from the hand of cards you hold and draw you’ll be looking to chain cargo cars in abundance onto the back of it. Each of these cars has a particular kind of cargo it accepts, and a particular number of cards it can hold in terms of max capacity. Each car you build is worth points, but each also represents weight. You’re going to need to find a balance between train power, cargo capacity, and actually taking cargo to a destination quickly enough to make it worthwhile. Along the way you’ll also get the option to build some fixed installations that give you special scoring conditions, and caboose cards that can power up the train beyond what mere physics might imply.

A growing train

What makes this so satisfying for me though is in the way you need to balance each individual car in the local ecosystem of your own engineering. Do you want two coal cars that are cheap and cheerful, or one expensive one? What are the implications for scoring? For the weight of the train? For your own economy of cards? Do you need the efficiency of an expensive super-tanker or can you assemble something more… affordable… and accomplish the same goals?

Don’t get me wrong – you’re never truly in the guts of this because the game is brisk enough on its journey to the conclusion that it’s in danger of being premature. I don’t want to over-egg how much you’ll agonize over this because the whole experience is too condensed for that to be the case. It makes me want to rhapsodize though because I like this system very much.

You can load cards into your cargo cars as an action on your turn, and when you feel like it you can deliver a load of cargo. If you have the right combination of goods then you can claim a contract, which gives you access to another, more preferential contract to complete on its back-side. If you just deliver cargo at random, you get to draw cards for each piece you deliver. A big load of goods will dump a veritable deck of options into your hand, making even the most expensive purchases easily affordable.

Or you can load cargo into an opponents train if you like. I suppose.

Wait, what?

Oh yes… the twist.

Supertanker

Look at the card above – it shows a supertanker. Eight sweet points associated with that, and it can hold three liquid cards. That’s a pretty package right there. Notice though the gobbledygook at the top. That’s a special action that people can take when they load cargo onto the train. Except… you only get that bonus if you aren’t the train owner.

Oh my word.

Oh my God.

This stokes so much coal into the engine of the game, so quickly, that it’s a genuine explosion risk. Contracts are relatively easy to claim – the primary contracts need two pieces of cargo in a particular combination, and secondary contracts need four. The game ends when a certain number of these have been claimed from the Isle. The tempo of play then is set by how quickly players can race to grab these lucrative routes. So imagine the tension of the decision between ‘Move a player a quarter of the way towards a contract and get a massive load bonus’ and ‘Load my own train like a chump and get nothing for it except being another day older and deeper and debt’. Every car on an opponent’s train is so inviting because those bonuses are often very powerful. For the super tanker above, you’ get to draw three cards and then perform either another load action or a deliver action. That’s in comparison to what’s available in the standard set of actions – draw a card, load a car, build a card, or deliver your cargo. I mean, there’s no competition right? The supertanker offers four actions worth of goodness and all you need to do is give your opponent a little bit of cargo…

A long train

But wow, the risk of doing that. Maybe you could put something they don’t need on their train but that’s still giving them two cards when they make their next delivery. You can’t ever pass a poisoned pill someone’s way. Loading one of their train cars for them is never a cruel thing to do. All you can do is try to take away some of the sweetness by aiming away from what it is they immediately need. It’s all oil for the engine though. Nobody ever curses you for inevitably making their life easier.

If the upgrading of your train is an absorbing system, then this risk-reward balance of loading an opponent versus loading yourself is positively mesmerizing. It makes an already interesting game into a fascinating puzzle that almost instantly endeared me to the point of it being an obsession. I find myself in idle moments happily reflecting on how well these various cogs and wheels come together. There’s genius in the design of Isle of Trains.

A claimed contract

So, why isn’t this our third five-star game?

Unfortunately there just isn’t enough of it to enjoy. It’s got an almost optimally designed boiler but I find myself frustrated that there isn’t enough room on the tracks for it to really build up a proper head of speed. There aren’t enough cards in the deck. There aren’t enough different special actions, and the caboose power-ups don’t feel interesting enough. Isle of Trains has a content problem in that the limited pool of cards mean that its design never really gets a chance to show off what I’m sure it can do. It feels like driving a Ferrari in a heavily built up school district. Or perhaps more accurately, what I imagine that feels like. You know you’re sitting atop a supercar but you’re stuck going 20mph because of all the children, people-carriers and speedbumps. You’re still in an amazing vehicle but it feels like there could be more to life than what you’re getting, y’know?

In my youth, I spent many, many hours on a game called Railroad Tycoon. It was an impossibly nerdy game of building up a railroad company. You’d buy trains, configure their cars, set their routes, and upgrade tracks and switching yards so that you could optimally serve multiple trains across a single route and vice versa. You’d start with a small pool of money sufficient to serve the interests of a small arc of towns, and you’d watch them grow and evolve as a direct result of the infrastructure you built. It was like having a model railroad but with none of the limitations of physicality.

Isle of Trains feels like it has the core of that down pat. Shifting the cards of my train around reminded me viscerally of my youth as I optimized passenger and mail cars and funded the industrial base that would ultimately end up making me a billionaire. With the three different kinds of cargo you get in Isle of Trains it feels like you never really need to compromise. A single mid-range car of each type, along with a decent train engine, is enough to get you all the contracts and cards you need. There aren’t the kind of hard decisions that would be needed with having to serve a larger range of more difficult goals. There aren’t the cross-optimisation problems you’d see if you were able to have multiple trains on the go at any one time. Your impact on the Isle is entirely destructive – it’s in removing options from other players. You never get to cycle in the benefits of your infrastructure. You never get to feel like you’re the indulgent capitalist-philanthropist king or queen. You never get to see the positive impact that you could have on a closed economy like the one within which you’re all working.

But all of this has to be set against the fact that even with these frustrations, I think Isle of Trains is an astonishingly good and tight game. That’s why it’s on my Top Ten list for 2019. Perhaps what I want to see here is the designers inverting the model of Eminent Domain. This is Isle of Trains: Microcosm and it’s wonderful but what I really thirst for is the full Isle of Trains board game that takes this elegant, inspiring design and really gives it room to move.

 

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