|Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition (2018)
|Meeple Like Us
|Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva
I haven’t really sat down with a roll and write game since Ganz Schon Clever and that was perhaps out of self-preservation. I feel like that game came close to capturing my soul like a cursed amulet in a D&D campaign. I only escaped with my essence intact by burying the box at a deserted crossroads in the middle of the night and defeating the low-level succubus that came to collect it. For those worried that Railroad Ink may present a similar peril to the unwary I have good news – it did not make inroads past the protective sigils I now have carved into every free inch of my skin. It didn’t even really come close, although it’s a Perfectly Fine Game. The thing is – I can see a version of this in the possibility space of its design that could have broken through and infested me from root to trunk. A few tweaks here and there and I wouldn’t be writing this review. It would be written by the tortured, shattered revenant that had been given a crude parody of life by the dark forces of Railroad Ink.
So I guess it’s a good thing that the game is a touch on the unsatisfying side.
We’re reviewing the Blazing Red edition here, and it turns out the box is not just an expression of a colour preference. There’s also a blue edition, and that comes with a different set of expansion dice. I am going to have Opinions on this come the teardown but let’s put that to one side for now. The base game is played with four white dice that show various rail and road segments ready to be slotted onto the blank canvas of your board. Every turn a player will roll these, people will draw the results onto the erasable map with their dry-erase pens, and this will continue until everyone has dealt with seven round’s worth of rolls. Six if you’re using one of the expansions.
The competence of your routes is assessed in scoring – every connected exit is worth a couple of points, every occupied square in the centre too gives you a point. You gain points for your longest highway and longest rail-track. You lose points too for routes that end in the middle of the wilderness or would dangerously propel cars and trains onto otherwise disconnected route segments. Highest score wins.
It’s all very straightforward. Satisfying. Meditative.
The challenge here comes from the complex ways in which traffic needs to be directed through the region. Exits connect to either highways or railways – never both. Attempts to efficiently wind the routes so that they actually make their way to appropriate destinations is frustrated by the stochastic malevolence of the dice. You need to plan around those moments when all you need is a simple, straight bit of highway but all you’re getting are railways at right angles and the adapters that turn railways into highways and vice versa. You need to leave gaps, opportunities for later connections, and leverage your scant allocation of special tiles to compensate for the parsimonious offerings the dice gods have put your way. It’s fun. Challenging. Engaging.
But unfortunately that’s all it is. It’s not exciting. It’s not absorbing. It’s not, for better or worse, particularly addictive. The elements I find most interesting about Railroad Ink are also the ones that I’m almost certainly projecting onto the tabula rasa of the design. It’s almost a propaganda piece on the often self-serving boondoggle economy of civil engineering on the government’s payroll. You take a blank canvas and build routes to nowhere, connecting to nothing, for the rewards that such futile infrastructure bequeaths upon its designer. You’re creating complex intersecting networks for no reason other than that someone wants it done. Well done, here’s the bonus from your government contract. Remember to use all your budget before the end of the fiscal year if you don’t want your funding cut.
Maybe that’s harsh but I find games are at their most engaging when I feel like, within the fiction of the framing, I’m actually trying to accomplish something that matters. Railroad Ink is the Lego Sandbox version of a route-creation game – ‘hey, here are some blocks. Have fun with it’. That’s certainly not wrong, but it also leaves me feeling empty at the end of the experience. Sim City and Cities: Skylines are examples of video games that get a great deal of mileage out of their transport systems. They don’t simply ask you to draw nice connecting patterns – they demand that you leverage those routes to an actionable end. Get it wrong, and the gridlock between your fire station and the burning building will result in an entire city block being reduced to cinders. Nowhere in Railroad Ink is there a meaning, or an urgency, to competence. You can build a road that loops around and departs the landscape an inch from where it entered and that’s considered a rousing success.
I get that people aren’t looking for this kind of experience in a roll and write, and as an elegant and intuitive game you can put in front of a wide range of people with little gaming experience this has a lot to recommend it. It’s less flightly than Ganz Schon Clever and less intricate than Welcome To. It has fewer rules, but deeper opportunities for mastery. The routes you build will inevitably become your own personal labyrinth as you battle against the angst brought about by the network effects of placement. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then yeah – consider Railroad Ink to have my endorsement.
It all just feels like a missed opportunity though – a game that needed just one more thing to make it genuinely interesting. So maybe that’s why they included expansions in the box!
Blue and red get two different sets of mini-expansions packaged. I can’t speak about the blue version of the game because I didn’t buy that one, but I believe the general consensus is that the blue river expansion is the best of the lot. I can easily believe that because the two red expansions are… confusing.
Look, I know that this isn’t a game where the theme is much more than a pasting on top of a serviceable route creation system. I appreciate that nobody is going into Railroad Ink to create their dream traffic solution for a complex hybrid economy. I know that it’s a massive mistake to sacrifice fun for thematic realism, especially when that realism is a cursory consideration at best. If the game were more obviously comic and parodic I’d appreciate the red expansions more. As it is… well. I am just not on board with what either of them add to the game thematically or mechanically.
The first is the meteor expansion. Along with the route dice, you roll two meteor dice – one shows the direction a meteor is traveling, the other shows the distance. Anything a meteor hits is replaced with a crater, and those craters contain valuable minerals that make routes more profitable. This is so close to being what I want from Railroad Ink but unfortunately it’s fundamentally not particularly satisfying. High scoring routes become so through random chance, not clever planning. Your planning in fact is rendered all but useless by the way meteors rain down on the landscape. You can sacrifice special tiles to protect against this, but the effect of the whole thing is to dial up the chance and dial down the strategy. And yet it could have been great – roll the dice to place a random meteor crater somewhere in your landscape at startup. Roll again to place one (or more) rare metal factories around your map. Earn bonus points for the number of different routes between them. That’s what I would love from Railroad Ink – more sense that what I’m doing is serving a goal, because goals are important in games.
And come on, who the hell would still be paying you to construct pointless routes in an arid landscape while the world is quite clearly ending all around. A meteor crashing into the landscape every turn isn’t an interesting astronomical occurrence. It’s an enemy superpower hurling rocks down our gravity well in an attempt to obliterate us from the solar system. Maybe a good idea to suspend construction for the duration.
If you don’t fancy that expansion though, Blazing Red gives you an alternative – the lava dice! With this expansion ‘Volcanoes start erupting, but the route building must go on’. Here when you roll the route dice you also roll two lava dice – you draw the lava patterns of one (or both) of those and get points for largest lava lakes and number of enclosed lava lakes. Here we’ve gone from ‘An alien foe is trying to destroy us’ to ‘the only thing the people of Pompei got wrong was traffic management’. I guess the reason why we’re not connecting up anything of value in Railroad Ink is that nobody is buying property in this tortured hellscape. I get that.
You only ever play with one expansion at a time, which is sensible, but the problem is that both expansions have ideas that should have been built into the base game. Points for building enclosed sections of the map would nicely model the often interdependent traffic links that are needed in modern cities. Reasons for tracks to go to particular locations would add in the necessary context for the actions undertaken. As it is, neither expansion actually adds this in the way that would make it work effectively as anything other than a gimmick, and you’ll only ever get one or the other. A great game is tantalisingly out of reach here, and every so often you can a glimpse it shining through the ash clouds and impact winter of the expansion dice.
I don’t really like to do a lot of ‘what if’ in game reviews – I like to review the game as it is in the box, rather than what I would have liked it to have been. Here though I’m going to make an exception because everything I wanted is here, it’s just all banged together in weird and suboptimal ways. I’d like boards to have sources and destinations – ‘the iron mine’ and ‘the iron factory’, and for points to be awarded for the number of distinct routes between them. I’d like there to be an incentive to constrain regions on the board, and ideally service them with multiple routes – something that feels like I’m building a commuter infrastructure. I’d like the special tiles to feel more important than mere compensations for bad rolls – I’d like to be able to use them to build suburbs and commercial zones and then score for linking them up.
Essentially this all resolves down to one key thing – I’d like Railroad Ink to give me a reason to play that is more substantive than ‘this is a game and you can play it’. As it is, much like the routes I build during the rounds, Railroad Ink seamlessly connects up an entry point and an exit point and gives you precious few compelling reasons to linger between them.