Rail Baron & US Rails:
A Retrospective, A Variant & A Review

Article by Stuart Dagger

Twenty years ago the class act in the field of boardgames for intelligent adults was American rather than German, but it wasn't Avalon Hill. The company that the early Sumo-style gamers looked to was 3M, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, who had been persuaded by some clever person that a range of such games would make a nice little sideline. The result was Acquire, Twixt, Executive Decision, Ploy, Sleuth, Monad, Venture, Speed Circuit, Win Place & Show and the rest. This was where you found the games by Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph, the two men that Mike Clifford rightly recognised last time as the founding fathers of our hobby. Avalon Hill was a respected name, but it was for wargames. They did also have a trio of strategy games about the USA's three domestic sporting obsessions, but since these games involved a pair of ernest young men, dice and a set of look-up charts, they were really just wargames without the guns. On the multi-player front they didn't really have anything apart from a stunningly boring Stock Market game that I had bought but wished I hadn't. As a result, I hardly noticed when Rail Baron crept quietly on to their list. Nor was this just a case of me not paying attention: Rail Baron's entrance was so quiet that Games & Puzzles (Mark 1), our bible at the time, didn't even review it. However, it is still around and being enjoyed long after G&P and most of the games it lauded have become fading memories. It must also have encouraged Avalon Hill, because a couple of years later they took over the 3M range and thereby launched the collection of multi-player games that was to lead to 1830 and the rest. Time then for a birthday tribute.

The game does involve dice and look-up charts, which is probably how it got its foot in the door in the first place, but if you look past the clumsiness involved in some of this and if you adopt the game shortening variant that I shall describe later, you will find a solidly designed and interesting game and one that has given me a great deal of entertainment down the years. Its strongest suit is, and always has been, its atmosphere. As with most of the better railway games, the board shows a map (the whole of the United States in this case) on which are marked the important towns and cities. However, this time you also get railway lines, proper historical ones. In games such as Railway Rivals or Eurorails you build your own track, which is fun, but at the end of the day you are just red, blue or green; in Rail Baron the components for your network are the likes of the Union Pacific, the Baltimore & Ohio and the Illinois Central and that is much more satisfying. True, these names also come into the 18xx games, but there they are just names. Their relative importance and the routes they build will rarely bear any relation to what actually happened. In Rail Baron you get something close to the genuine article.

Dice rolls cross-referenced to a chart give you a starting city and another set provide you with your first destination. Then it is a matter of dice-roll generated movement along the dots that subdivide the track, until you reach your destination, at which point you collect a pay-off from the bank and roll for a new destination ready to set off again. The strategy, and with it the game, come from the fact that you have to pay to use the track that you move along. The payments are quite small when the track is owned by yourself or the bank, but it gets expensive when it is owned by a rival. Your aim, therefore, is to put together a network which will enable you to reach as much of the board as possible on your own lines and which contains sections that your opponents will find themselves forced to use. The problem is that they are trying to do the same thing and they have a tendency to beat you to the purchase of companies that you had your eye on. It is the classic gaming problem of there being more things that you are wanting to do than you are able to do and it is not just a matter of buying companies. The game also offers high speed trains. The advantage of these is obvious, but they cost as much as the most expensive of the companies. Do you buy one and if so, when? It is a tough call and tough calls make for interesting games.

The worst part of the game is the ending. This says that you have to reach the point where you have $200,000 in cash and then succeed in getting it back to your original starting city. Moreover, you must tell the others when you are commencing this home run. They then interrupt the journeys they are on and try to intercept you. If one of them succeeds, you pay them $50,000 and have to head for an alternative destination. Only after you have done that and again got enough cash can you attempt another run for home. This game of tag can get pretty tedious as first one player and then another is hauled back from the winning post. The cash target is high enough and the game more than long enough without this piece of time consuming nonsense. Fortunately, there is a variant that does away with it. It is the suggestion of Gary Gygax, of D&D fame, and was part of an article on Rail Baron that he wrote for The Dragon. With this you play as normal until the last rail company is bought. You then roll an average die and play that number of complete turns more, ending with the player who bought the last company. Then you tally up: cash plus companies and trains at cost. Richest player wins. He also added in small cash bonuses for locks on various cities, but for that you need copies of the tables in his article and they don't make enough difference to be worth the bother. Played this way you retain all the most interesting part of the game, but it is much shorter and you avoid the long, slow and dispiriting slide into bankruptcy that is otherwise the lot of those who aren't doing well.

The trigger for this article was the release by Winsome Games of John Bohrer's U.S. Rails. This is an extension kit enabling you to play a completely new game using the board and share certificates from Rail Baron. The setting is the fifties and sixties when society's growing enthusiasm for road transport brought the railway companies to the brink of ruin. The object is to put together a business that is efficient enough to thrive in a climate where profitable business opportunities are gradually disappearing. To do this you have to try to cut overheads, increase efficiency and put together the package best able to attract the business on such routes as survive. As with Rail Baron, you put your network together by buying the companies on the board, but this time there is no dicing for destinations or movement. Instead there is a collection of twenty cards each giving the names of two cities together with the payoff for the company that wins the business for running from one to the other. These payoffs happen each turn and the game mechanisms mean that the contracts do not necessarily stay with the network that first wins them. Before the game starts, a randomly chosen five of these routes are eliminated, presumably because some new major road has stolen away the business, and as the game proceeds more disappear. The players have no control over which these further lost routes are to be: just like the companies at the time, you have to cope as best you can with what fate throws at you.

In order to win a contract you obviously need to have a route between the two cities concerned. If one player can do this entirely on track he owns, he takes the contract; if two or more players both have such routes, the shortest route takes it. If no player can do the run solo, several players can agree to cooperate and again route length is used to split ties. What gives these criteria a dynamic is that the effective length of routes can be shortened by paying for technical improvements on the various railways that make them up. Players also need to cut organizational overheads. Each company you own costs you money to maintain and the only way to cut these maintenance costs is by mergers, but to add some competitiveness to this the rules only allow one player per turn to effect a merger and the right goes to the highest bidder.

The rules governing turn order attempt to keep the game tight by giving the trailing players the jump on the leader, but we found that they were only partially successful in this regard because they don't follow through with their own logic. First choice in company purchase each turn goes to the poorest player. Thereafter it is clockwise round the table. Likewise with technical improvements, it is the richest player who must decide first and then again it goes clockwise. This has the merit of simplicity, but it didn't work in our first game. We had three players and the early leader found himself sitting immediately in front of the player who could best challenge him for purchase of key companies and immediately behind the one who could challenge for contracts through technological improvements. As a result he had us both covered and we conceded at the halfway point. I think it was something of a freak that it worked out as it did. For instance, it wouldn't have happened had the rule said the equally tidy "counterclockwise" rather than "clockwise", though of course that could go wrong just as easily. I think that it would have been better had John grasped the nettle more firmly and used his criteria to determine a turn order and not just a starting player and I would recommend that that is how you play it.

A recommended purchase? Probably not if it were a full price, stand alone game, but of course it isn't. What it is is an inexpensive add-on to a game that is already enjoyable in its own right. So if the scenario interests you, it is well worth considering. Up here it will get played, though I am not sure how often, because for me the decline of the railways, though interesting, is not something I can enthuse about. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have regretted their coming on the grounds that they allowed the lower orders to move around. I take a similarly jaundiced view of roads, cars and trucks. That they have benefits is undeniable, but on balance I think that the benefits are outweighed by the attendant problems and so a game that is prompted by their triumph is never going to have me turning cartwheels with delight.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Stuart Dagger