I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
This is the first of multiple pieces I’ll be doing on Cube Rail games. For the uninitiated, the venerable genre is known for a few key attributes: economic warfare, straightforward rules, fascinating player-to-player interaction, and trains. Bizarrely, the last part tends to be the least important. I’ll explain in more detail another time, as well as provide a primer with some recommendations for folks that want to give these games a try, but today I’m reviewing the recent-ish Capstone release Ride the Rails.
Irish Gauge was Capstone’s first foray into licensing and prettying up Winsome’s previously published titles; the inaugural title in their Iron Rails series of games. Without going into too much detail it’s a top tier cube rail game: nasty, brutish, short, and yet shockingly approachable. After introducing it to multiple groups and playing it 50+ times I was absolutely locked in for Iron Rails 2, knowing full well that it would be a different game, because if it was even half as good as IG I figured it’d be worth it. Unfortunately I was only half right.
It goes without saying that Ride the Rails is a very different game despite its aesthetic trappings also being handled with Ian O’Toole’s trademark soft touch. As far as a followup to IG goes it’s a kinder game, as well as a simpler one. There is no money to be managed here; despite the game saying that you’re raking in dollars it’s never spent, so it’s functionally victory points. Each round of play is broken into 3 distinct phases: take a stock, lay some track, move a passenger. Do that 6 times and the game’s over, highest score wins. There’s some additional rules for bonuses and such but that really is about it. Very clean.
The actual meat of RtR lies in its first two phases. Choosing which companies to go in on and how to spend their very limited supply of cubes (which are actually tiny wooden trains) is great! I like balancing shared incentives with aggressive play in other cube rail games and I like it here too. Handling stock without auctions isn’t an entirely new idea for the genre, but doing so with literally no money changing hands is certainly easier for new players to wrap their heads around. This simplification of concepts also applies to the track laying phase as each player is allotted a certain amount (depending on player count) with no restrictions on mixing the colors they’ve taken stock in. This easy-peasy explanation makes introducing and teaching RtR a much breezier experience than most of its ilk while still providing an open, luckless framework that allows for interplay and the butterfly effect-adjacent experience that makes cube rail games so great.
Where the game began to lose me is part 3: actually getting points. Looking past the weird thematics of passengers wanting to take the longest routes possible (these games are ultra mechanical and that’s fine), this portion of the game just isn’t interesting. It’s actually pretty easy to math out which passengers to scoot for the most points, and it only takes slightly longer to find one that’s almost as good while avoiding paying your friends quite as much. But – and this is the critical point – that process is not entertaining or suspenseful for anyone at the table. And in the “about an hour” it takes to play a game of RtR, over half of it is spent here.
I’ve seen a few folks voice concerns about analysis paralysis in this phase. I don’t have that problem because I’d rather fumble than waste time and other people needing to math things out doesn’t particularly bother me. But my god it just takes too long to drag a meeple from hex to hex to hex, counting everything it touches, scooting the bits on the on-board calculator time and time again. Even with the adjusted scoring method attributed to Heavy Cardboard this just takes too darn long for how little is actually getting done. I found myself getting impatient, not with any individual move but with the game itself, and this was true in multiple sessions with different players. Some plays are a little less susceptible to this if track is laid in such a way as to minimize choice, but then you’re effectively going through the motions just to add some points and start the next round. It feels like busywork, even though that isn’t always the case.
My other problem with RtR is the sheer amount of bits. Many hands make light work here, but compared to the elegance of Irish Gauge being almost devoid of upkeep this was a rough adjustment. Playing a version on Tabletop Simulator only did so much to alleviate this as moving bits on that platform is like playing every game with chopsticks; it’s almost surgical. I couldn’t help but think that it would be better as an app with a bot managing upkeep, but then you’d sacrifice the human element which is the entire point of the experience to begin with. Cube rails are inherently social games, with players communicating their intent and shifting alliances as needed, and digitizing the game would do little to help in that regard.
I fear I’m coming across overly negative. Let me be clear here: this is very much a “not for me” situation. I recognize the appeal of RtR, I really do. While no other game in this genre is likely to ever beat Northern Pacific for beautiful simplicity this one still manages to do a lot with relatively little. I could see this being quite successful with cube rail neophytes, as well as anyone who wants a simpler game that still offers satisfying choices and less math than other entries in the genre demand. But for me specifically it falls into an awkward middle ground. Northern Pacific is my go to for a short blast of cube-y goodness. Irish Gauge is only marginally more complex and offers a far more satisfying set of options. Gulf, Mobile & Ohio is equally approachable (albeit in a very different way) but has considerably more variability and depth to explore from play to play.
This begs the question: should I spend much more time with this game? I don’t think so. The France and Germany map expansion may offer an infusion of variety but my issues lie with the system itself, so chasing some new bonuses won’t alleviate that. Other folks I know have this, and perhaps I’ll play theirs sometime after enough time passes and my perspective settles. Right now though playing RtR just leaves me wishing I’d played another game from its family and that’s not a particularly pleasant sensation. I’ll still be very interested to see what Iron Rails 3 brings, but there’ll be a number skip on my shelf if I decide to pick it up next year.