Trainsport: Austria

Published by Winsome Games
Designed by Franz Bayer & Thos. Huttner
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

3 to 5 players
about 30-60 mins

Yes, yes, it's another railway game. Not this time at the increasingly cluttered 18xx end of the market, but more in the neglected middleweight category dominated for so long by Railway Rivals and Mayfair's xxxxRails games. Fortunately Trainsport adds some interesting ideas to the venerable base systems laid down in those two stalwarts and fails only in some details of execution. I don't think it will challenge either of the major players in sales, but it does present a quick, fun game that makes a good filler and places no great strain on the brain. The pedigree is interesting: designed by the Piepmatz crew in Austria (who also designed the strangely disappointing SpaceLab) and produced and marketed by the relentless John Bohrer, this is an interesting combination. As we shall see, Trainsport has some problems, but the play is solid (if unspectacular) and there's nothing major that should worry the prospective buyer.

The main strength of Trainsport, and unfortunately the weakness, is the map. This has no hexes (yeaaaahh!) but instead regulates building through approximately a hundred irregularly shaped areas. These cover the whole of Austria and are subdivided into seven classes of terrain which, naturally, correspond to the geography of the area - following valleys, hills and mountain ranges. At the edges of the map are links to neighbouring countries which allow for international runs, there are seven main 'urban' areas (Vienna, Innsbruck, Bregenz, Graz etc) and finally a selection of plains, hills, highlands, mountains, alpine and lakes. A typical plains area has between two and five circles inside it, which will be coloured in to designate a track route for your company, whereas an alpine area has but one, simulating the distinct lack of routes suitable for passes. While you may only ever fill one circle in an area per turn, you can come back to it at a later date and seal it off for your exclsuive use. Thus there is a rush for the routes through the 'narrower' areas. I liked this. You get a real feel for the relief and shape of the country and its rail systems and like the master of the genre, Railway Rivals, the networks follow the easier routes until it's absolutely necessary to take the high road. The other reason I like the system is that it has a ceiling on builds - a maximum of 40 areas for each player. This keeps you honest. I also quite like the idea of designating an area by the simple expedient of colouring it in., but therein lies a drawback with the system.

The map is approximately A3 in size, covered with that thin plastic laminate that means.... pens that never work, licking tissues and a messy clean up. Will no one rid me of this turbulent method? I hate it, I really do. Winsome's 'solution' is to give us wax crayons. Oh my goodness. Back to infants school! And of course they don't work. You spend a lot of your turn scribbling away trying to make the crayon colours show up, despite the white background. So we ditched the crayons and, strictly against advice in the rules, used Lumocolour pens. These didn't work either. Chinagraph pencils? Not bad, but I only have black. David Watt's super pens that write on anything? Er, no. So we blundered on not really being able to identify what was what. This killed any sense of having a track network (because you couldn't see it) or even building one, and also reduced the game to being a bit of a joke as we peered hopelessly at the map to see if it was a blue or green smudge - a bigger map would also help here. So, we badly need a different plastic coating (RR maps are as good as we can get using this system) or perhaps disposable paper maps, a larger total area, more clearly marked towns and something that makes the map lay flat. Rant over. So, there are a few drawbacks with the map as it stands. Most of them minor, most solvable, but this really needs to be looked at either in a second edition or for future country expansions - I understand more maps are in the works.

Track building is quite clever, to a point. Unfortunately Piepmatz/Winsome haven't got away from cash transactions, which slows the game in the usual fashion and extent, but to make it interesting there is a Hare & Tortoise style build cost multiplier. So, to build one or two areas in a turn carries no penalty, to build into 3 regions costs double the usual rate for all three (not just the third), four regions is triple cost and five regions quadruple cost. This makes for the occasional interesting choice where a huge contract can be yours if you lay sufficient track this turn. A clever game mechanic then? Well, yes but not as effective as it might be. Simply put, unless you are building along gentle terrain, the cost of sudden spurts almost always outweighs the income to be gained from claiming a contract card. For instance, if you are three areas away from Italy to gain a contract connection, you might have to cross two alpines and a hill - cost is $12x2 = $24, whereas most of the contracts pay much less than this. It is therefore difficult to see when you would do this (only really to deprive an opponent of the money) and as a consequence, in play, most turns consisted of just one or two builds at base price. Sure, if you go for it the track is there for later use, and you have a network length advantage over your rivals in that respect, but the penalty cost is usually enough to prevent too many such ventures. Where multiple builds score though is enabling you to fill in those areas where you have already coloured in one block, protecting your network from rivals. A nice idea then and quickly and cleanly implemented.

The driving force behind the game, and one determinant of your build strategy, are the contracts. There are three of these on display at any one time and they show, in time honoured fashion, the two areas to be connected and what this is worth to the player who first achieves it. The value is linked to the length and difficulty of the route. If there are two or more players contesting the contract the shortest route wins - no racing, no die roll, nothing - hence the value of 'sealing off' your areas of the map. When a contract is claimed, the cash is paid out (this is your only source of income, so be wary that you can complete all contracts you try for, at least initially) and a new contract arises to take its place. There are two interesting aspects here. Firstly, there are a lot of contracts and you won't see all of them before the game is over. This makes each game very different, but also makes it open to swings of luck. In our first game I built quickly along the spine of the map - Bregenz, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Linz, Vienna - and scooped up a series of contracts, and effectively won, before anyone else could build a rival route. Now this begs the old discussion on whether this is luck or skill, but in this case it was definitely luck that saw me charge home to victory. Is the balance acceptable? Yes, from game two onwards - given that you build a network with the contracts in mind and having played once you will know that the towns and international connections are crucial. But see below for more discussion on this.

Looking wider, such is the closeness of the system (literally, in the shape of the mountain passes and build equality, and also figuratively) an awful lot of tactics revolves around the lead player. This rotates each turn and that player is the first to build and also, crucially, wins ties where contract runs are of equal length. This means that contracts such as the 'Valley Run' from Vienna to Linz (the Clapham Junction of Austria) will often be contested by most of the players. It is unlikely that anyone will have any divergence from the two area minimum run, so the win will be gained by the player with the locomotive marker - the lead player. This can be irrelevant (where runs are uncontested or rival track builds are remote from each other) but is usually vital. And a sense of all or nothing, and no little luck element, is left in the minds of the unfortunate losers. Frankly, although the rule book makes much of this as a feature of the game I think this need some work - the roll of a dice to decide the winner of a tie would at least add some spice.

So, despite a few minor glitches, all this comes together to allow for a quick and enjoyable system. Very rarely do you take any time at all over your turn (apart from the pen problems), knowing what you want to do short term (to secure contracts and cash flow) and long term in the shape of your network. Accordingly, play rattles along and out three player games have been taking no more than 45 minutes. The network is important because there are some repeat contracts (especially the short ones), the need for country wide coverage and the lack of joint runs. And all the time the 40 area maximum build restriction is always at the back of your mind, underpinning your strategy.

Talking more generally, the problem I have always had with Railway Rivals, depending on the map in play, is that you build your network and may only get to use the lines once or twice, if that. So it all seems to be over too quickly, having put all that effort into the building phase of this otherwise excellent game. Fortunately it is saved by the race element, and such a feature (and related variety) is sorely lacking in Trainsport. Similarly, I have never been happy with the raison d'etre of the xxxxRails system, especially that height of folly - Iron Dragon - simply because you build tracks with a view to satisfying just one contract and then hope they will come in useful later on. What I like about Trainsport is that the track builds feel as if you are satisfying both short term and long term aims: short term to gain cash (and deprive the other players of same) and long term to secure your network and benefit from the higher number of contracts originating from towns and international links. You aren't really doing this since there isn't quite enough contract throughput to benefit in this way, but thanks to the small, cosy map and similar or repeat contracts, it makes a decent stab at making you believe you are.

My underlying complaint is really that railway games with contracts (and let's face it most of these smaller games have them in some form) don't really strike me as representing anything at all. To me, they always feel like a minicab simulation - two drunken teenagers from Ilford Palais to Chigwell, £6; bag of fish and chips from Loughton to Debden, £2. No guaranteed repeat business (even though this is possible), just one-off drops. Except that in these games, instead of jumping into your clapped out Sierra, you build track to satisfy one deal. It is madness (and crazy talk). If I read it right, track was built because there was an ongoing requirement for passengers, or newspapers, or fish from A to B. Not a one-off contract. Building is surely a function of long term cash flow, not a day one slug of money and then fingers crossed for the next contract that happens to come your way. Okay, it is a game not a sim, but I do have real trouble rationalising these contract systems, which perhaps explains why I have never warmed to xxxxRails, and probably never will. So with that off my chest, I am still looking for the middleweight boardgame (Railroad and Transport Tycoon do it admirably on the PC, and Silverton and 18xx do it after a fashion, though all with substantial time requirements) that lets you build a rail network that rewards on an ongoing basis. Am I mad to desire or expect this? But all that takes little away from Trainsport which is guilty only of trundling along comfortably in a marginally obvious rut - a problem that also befell SpaceLab, and in truth most of my prospective designs - but it is a rut that remains hugely popular, and quite playable.

Production is up to the usual high standard set by John Bohrer in his Tracks to Telluride release - sort of professional but amateur, I like to call it. The colourful game comes in a tube, so we get the old curly map problem, but the cards and rules, which are concise and 100% clear, are nicely done. The cut-out money is a bit flimsy, so I'd recommend poker chips instead. We have already talked about the crayons which have already found a new home with my godson. Value for money? Not bad if it ships to the UK for £14, definitely not so good at £20.

Trainsport is a nice enough system which is worth your time, but doesn't break enough new ground in either the tactical or strategic areas to make it an unreserved recommendation. Despite the interesting design treatment of track building and the geographical empathy, it doesn't really feel different enough from either Railway Rivals or xxxxRails to set it apart. There are also those niggling problems and a very slight sense that the building ideas, while being original, are not that conducive to exciting play. I understand though that we can expect to see future maps for other countries (Britain will be excellent), which will keep the system fresh and perhaps show it off in a better light. It is also one of the few games that gives a real feel for the country-wide scope of rail networks. In conclusion then, Trainsport certainly isn't a better game than RR, but does represent a much better (and rather cheaper) bet than the dull, illogical and somewhat overlong xxxxRails. It is difficult to know whether to recommend this one: for the railway game completists it will be a must buy, if only to experience the good feel of the map, while others will know if they need yet another railway game on the shelf.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell