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How Russian Railroads turns it up to 11

I have to admit, at one point Eurogames did not strike me as interesting. I vowed to investigate them more because my wife found them interesting, and I’d much rather find games we both could play, even if she generally has no regard for theme. I had heard Russian Railroads was a great game. So I threw my reservations to the wind and bought it. Little did I know how it would suck me in.

Russian Railroads Box CoverMost criticisms of Eurogames revolve around how they are themeless, mechanical puzzles with little or no narrative motivation of the player. Let me tell you, few other game better represent this than Russian Railroads. Sure this game has a theme, but on the whole, it doesn’t matter at all. This game could just as well be called Russian Spreadsheets. That doesn’t take away at all how much fun this game is.

The basic play of the game involves players taking worker placement actions to move up markers on tracks  and purchase tiles which represent upgrading train engines and factories. That simple concept gets complicated fast. Not only does every player have three different tracks to manage, but they also hit upgrade spots on each track which unlock further markers for the tracks. Victory points are generated based on how far these markers move up their tracks. If you’re not yawning at this point, I’m surprised.

Where Russian Railroads throws a curve is in the mechanisms to unlock the different abilities and scoring opportunities for each track. Combined with the fact that you can only score points based on the train engine tiles you have (limited by number of players) fierce competition develops for engines and worker spots to move track markers. But that’s not even the kicker.

The real knob turn in this game is how points are scored. If you imagine walking in to a casino and sitting down at a slot machine, it seems boring until you start playing. The lure of points and “just one more pull” draws you in. Russian Railroads ramps up points quickly and the desire to optimize and upgrade overcomes even theme hungry gamers. The game utilizes an additive scoring mechanism, such that game positions which earn points in one round also earn points in subsequent rounds. Your “income” of points in a round goes from tens to thirties to seventies to even a couple hundred on the last round. That ramp up seems outrageous, but the combinations available to get there are crucial and you feel a sense of pride as if you just beat the high score at the arcade. A common endgame high score is in the 400 to 450 range.

Another common criticism is that Eurogames have lower levels of player interaction. The interaction in this game is akin to blocking maneuvers in most worker placement games, but nowhere is it more fierce and devastating to point scoring opportunities than here. A single play by another player could set you back multiple turns in achieving a particular scoring goal.

It didn’t take long for me to get comfortable with recognizing which qualities of Eurogames I like and which I don’t. I still shy away from Eurogames which fall back on classic Euro-centric themes from the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Now I take the time to study more of how they work and the design decisions therein. What mechanisms are in play that offer scoring opportunities? What level of player interaction is there? What type of actions does the interaction come from? These are at the forefront in my mind when evaluating games like Russian Railroads.

The next time you come across a seemingly dry, themeless game that offers nothing but a puzzle to score points, take a second look. I don’t claim that Russian Railroads is one of the best games ever, but what it does, it does brilliantly. Brilliant enough to draw me into a new realm of games.

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