Stephenson's Rocket

Designed by Reiner Knizia
Published by Pegasus
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

2 to 4 players
60-80 minutes

This game is, for many, the dream ticket. You can almost see the headlines: "Knizia finally designs Railway Game: Pegasus Stock Up 200%". You get to build track. On hexes. It has shares. It has little wooden Rockets. It has very attractive Doris artwork. It is a doddle to learn but offers much to master. It has lots of tough little decisions. It is set in England (yeahh!). It also plays within, or just over, the hour. It even has the glory that was the Great Eastern Railway. What more could we possibly want?

Well, as it transpires, very little. Possibly a fiver off the price. Perhaps a touch more atmosphere. Certainly a dollop of history would not go amiss. But this is a game that impressed me first time out, improved slowly but surely, and by game five I was really hooked. Whether Pegasus, a role-playing game company, know exactly what they have got here is another question. Perhaps a moot one, as Rio Grande picked up the English language rights pretty sharpish. Not the most difficult decision Mr Tummelson will make this decade, I suspect. Rail Gamers across the world have been waiting for this, and finally we get to play it.

The map shows England from Leeds and York down to the South Coast. As befits its status, the share card piles obscure Wales. The core design is typical Knizia. You may choose to take two actions, in any combination, from: build a station; extend a piece of track (and claim a share in that company); or take a city/commodity token. The only exception to remember is that you may not extend the same track twice. These actions are repeated, usually very quickly, throughout the game with the aim of making money. Money flows in, but never out, so you are just trying to gain more than your rivals. Commodity tokens pay out when a railway reaches that city (and also at the end if you hold a majority in a category), shares are worth money at game end depending on the length and connections made by the relevant track network. And shares are converted into other shares (two for one) when a merger takes place - an event prompted by one company building track into another's.

Structurally it is all there. Cities create a natural magnet because players want to link up to trigger their commodity holdings for cash (goods traffic), towns because they deliver passenger revenue, and stations because they are just good all round. But some cities may not be visited because you hold all the chips, which means you are obliged to connect it single-handed. This is tough, partly because of the single build restriction on company track, and because evil rivals will try and steer your track away from your intended destination. You stop this by declaring a veto which then prompts a bidding war, using valuable shares. The winner gets to route the track, the loser gets a share from him. This is a fascinating device, as you will find out. I will not spoil it further.

At least three people were walking round Essen unashamedly pronouncing on Stephenson's Rocket, "It is Durch die Wueste with trains instead of camels." Once again, one wonders if ear muffs at Essen might be a wise move. Granted, there are similarities, but these bright sparks missed the vital differences - that in DdW you are prohibited from merging caravans, whereas in Stephenson's Rocket merger is the key strategic decision (I could more easily understand comparisons with Acquire here). That decision carries with it the consequences, and similar calculations, of taking on an empire in Tigris. It also has shares (not a lot of those in DdW) and it has a fixed map (interestingly without Stockton or Darlington, but with Liverpool and Manchester). But joking aside, yes, the games obviously share the same parents and were, I think, conceived at around the same time. How many of us saw that railway game lurking in DdW? Whether Stephenson's Rocket is close enough to DdW for it to warrant separate purchase has to be your call, but I would suggest the games are considerably different in weight. length and feel, and that I will happily keep both on the shelf.

I think this comes down to the old saw: if you like games like this, this is a game you will like. A lot. If not, well, I've seen some hostile reactions. It is Herr Knizia at the heavier end of his range, in the gamer's domain, and it is undeniably a little dry. But there is a firm sense of railway building here that is not immediately apparent, and as in DdW, plenty of decisions to be made. Where it may cause trouble, as did Tigris before it, is that this is a game you will probably need to play two or three times to get to grips with its intricacies. And you will make painful errors en route - enough, it seems, to put off many gamers. Why? Partly because of the multi-level scoring, partly because you need to learn the ropes and defences and what not to allow your opponents to do, and partly because the first three games I have played have been very different.

But I will hold up my hands (again) and say that I like this style of game, where there are depths to discover rather than all the 'tactics' being evident after one game - these latter games tend never to appear again and are almost a waste of money. Because Reiner imbues depths (some very deep, some admittedly shallow) to his games, I am always keen to try them. The major difference is that many of his games are tried four or five times, and then keep on coming out for another go. Look at Ra. Lost Cities. DdW. Samurai. Tigris. High Society. Tutanchamun. Modern Art. Medici. And now Stephenson's Rocket joins that elite list.

I know some of you think I am in some way biased towards Knizia designs. That I am bothering to explain myself probably says more about me than it does you. But in the same way that I will buy a novel or a CD, because I enjoyed the writer's or singer's previous efforts, I will buy a Knizia game. And unless he has gone all abstract on me (Stonehenge, Mole Hill etc), or off on a misguided flight of fancy (Ohio), delved too far into his mathematical background (Heller & Pfennig), or somehow cods it all up (Vegas), I am pretty sure I'm going to like it. So when the great man designs a railway game to function within the magical hour, and succeeds where so many others have failed, I am going to give him a whole bunch of credit. Stephenson's Rocket is an excellent game, full of subtle design tricks, interesting treatments and intricate scoring options. It is quick, challenging, and seems to work very well with two, three or four players. It is right up there with my favourites of the year, and may even be the best of 1999. I look forward to playing it often. Highly recommended.

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The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell