Nippon Rails

Mayfair, about £15-£17
Designed by Larry Roznai
2-4 players
Reviewed by Michael Hopcroft

The popularity of rail games in the US has become nothing short of amazing, and thousands of people who wouldn't dream of riding a real train are happily forging their own connections. With hundreds of people in the Puffing Billy tournament at GenCon and lots of games being sold, this is rapidly becoming a gaming genre all its own.

The most emphatic success story has been the Empire Builder line from Mayfair Games. This system has won several awards and has had players wearing out their crayons for years. Eurorails has become a tremendous hit and is one of the most frequently played games in my circle of gamers. But there lots and lots of places that can be used for rail games, so Mayfair has decided to start releasing cheaper versions of their system set in exotic and unusual locales. The first test subject is Japan, and Nippon Rails has arrived in a plastic tube to give the railgame faithful something new to chew on. And a tasty little morsel it is too. The Empire Builder system revolves around picking up cargoes where they originate and taking them to places that want them. You do this by running a train all over the map. To get where you want to go, you have to build track in as efficient a way as you can - you spend money to build track, and make money by delivering cargo. The object is usually to make 250 of whatever unit of currency the particular game uses while connecting a set number of major cities.

How much it costs to build track depends on the terrain over which you build it. The map is a series of mileposts in various shapes. A plain milepost costs one unit to build through, mountains cost two and 'alps' (really high mountain ranges) cost three. You also pay extra to cross a river or an ocean inlet and to connect a small or medium city to your network. To get to islands that are otherwise inaccessible you can link up to ferry ports, paying to build the connection and slowing you down when your train needs to use one. Bad things can also happen during a game; rivers can flood, mountains can get snowed in, workers can go on strike and trains can derail.

The basic strategy is to build track in the most efficient way you can first. Then the players following will have to take harder routes to get to specific places. The caveat is that you need money to build, and to get money you have to build where your 'runs' are. When you cash in on one run another set of runs comes up to choose from, which will help determine where your next track builds will go. To amass large amounts of money you need lucrative runs that don't cost much to make, making use of track you had previously built. It costs nothing to grab cargo - only to build (and re-build when necessary) track.

This then is the basic system. Nippon Rails applies it to the unique geography of Japan. Japan, as most of you know, is an archipelago of mountainous islands with several large cities in its eastern and southern areas. Getting from island to island, and getting through the mountains, is a difficult challenge even for experienced Empire Builder players.

The game is done more cheaply than the earlier games in this line. The components come in a plastic tube, and are mostly laminated plastic. The board is a plastic-coated map that rolls into the tube; the coating is so that people can write on the map. Throw away the crayons that come with the game; they don't work (as the CEO of Mayfair put it in a phone conversation, "we bleeped"). Crayola Easy-Off crayons are recommended, and china markers do a very good job, and can easily be removed with a paper towel.

The usual plastic tokens representing loads are in a plastic bag along with six pawns. The pawns are red, blue, green, yellow, black, and white. The white pawn goes with brown track - since white is the colour of death to Japanese its presence here seems grimly appropriate. The various train displays are printed on the back of the rules, and can easily be photocopied onto sturdier index cards. There is also generic money - in this game each unit equals one billion (thousand million to Brits) yen.

The previous games in this series had large decks of demand cards. Such a deck wouldn't have fit into the tube, so there are now four laminated plastic cards representing a deck. There are one hundred "cards" in this "deck", and you use percentage dice to determine which ones you get. Each card has three different cities listed, each with a cargo they want and the amount they are willing to pay for it. When you roll up a card (you always have three) you must decide if any of the runs are runs you want to make, and once you choose a run you must go to the origin point of the cargo, pick up some, and go to the destination for your payoff.

In Nippon Rails the cargo varies dramatically. You might by asked to carry electronics to one city and sake to another, or electronics and sake to the same city. The value of a run is based mostly on distance; for example, taking sake from central Hokkaido (the northernmost island) to southern Kyushu (the southernmost) can net you an astonishing 75 billion yen. But taking the same sake to a nearer city would bring in much less. You can't always be choosy about runs, though, because to make a run it has to be on one of your cards.

The cards are all printed on a double-sided sheet, laminated so you can write on it as you right on the map. When you need a new card, you roll the percentage dice and the card of that number is the one you draw. There is a display on the map where you are expected to mark the card numbers you draw. If you get a number that's already been used, you go on down the list until you hit one that hasn't. This requires conscious effort and a bit of getting used to.

Not all of the cards have runs; there are disasters on some of them. Trains within three mileposts of certain cities can derail, losing a turn and some cargo. The rivers on Honshu can flood, washing out all of the bridges. Volcanoes can erupt, temporarily stranding trains nearby. An earthquake can make life around Tokyo rather difficult. There is even an excess profits tax that can make a dent in the leader's pocket. For some reason there is no Godzilla card.

The geography of Japan is the main obstacle facing the players. It has been compared to the Rockies in Empire Builder. A huge chain of mountains cuts across central Honshu. The best route through to Tokyo is along the eastern coast, and in many places this route there is only one milepost separating the mountains from the sea. This route is clearly the most effective way to link Tokyo to the rest of Japan, and the first player with an opportunity to lay track there gains an advantage. There are other ways to get around Honshu, but they are more expensive. But building the track just to build the track is pointless - you really need a cargo to make laying the track worthwhile.

Getting from island to island can also be a problem. Some of the islands are so close together that they can be bridged, but others require the building of ferries. There is another, expensive option to get from Honshu to Hokkaido - the Seikan Tunnel. It costs twenty billion to build the tunnel, but it makes getting between the two islands much faster (especially since the delaying ferries are the only other answer). Building the tunnel too late in the game is a waste of money.

In some places there are natural bottlenecks that make it difficult to get through. It is possible (though very unsportsmanlike) to block all of the direct approaches from Honshu to Kyushu, and it is rare that there are no problems.

Like all of the Empire Builder series games, Nippon Rails is fairly long. Three to four hours is a reasonable playing time to expect. As in the other games of this series, player interaction is usually limited to buying rides on each others' track. In terms of winning, the game is mainly a race. If a clear leader emerges there is no way for the other players to stop him by combined efforts. In fact, play often continues thirty minutes to an hour after the winner is actually determined simply waiting for him to make the last collection he needs to seal up the official win. The deals and deceptions of the 18xx series are missing here.

But overall Nippon Rails is a pretty good game. The components are cheap but fairly durable. At $25 US the price is not all that excessive. And this is the first in a series of tube games that will eventually include California Rails, North American Rails, and Russian Rails. Mayfair is talking about releasing a new game every two to three months. They have even done a demonstration game set entirely in West Virginia which was available at GenCon. It seems to be expected that if you have a good idea you must beat it into the ground. But this expansion of the line is just what the growing number of railgames fans are looking for.

Michael Hopcroft

Further thoughts from Stuart Dagger:

This is the first in a proposed series of limited run, additional versions of Empire Builder, aimed at those for whom the original and its British Rails and Eurorails follow-ups don't constitute enough. Unlike the 18xx games, there is no change in the game system as you progress through the collection, just different geography and a different selection of goods to be transported.

So this is very much a case of a game aimed at a small and specialist market, and that has had a major effect on the production values. Limited runs make for higher unit costs. So if a small market was not to get even smaller, Mayfair had to compromise on the components, and I have to say that not all the compromises are successful, a judgement with which, from their comments at the end of the rules, they seem to agree.

The box has been replaced by a plastic tube and the board with a roll-up map. The map is multi-coloured, attractive, encased in heavy plastic and flattens out easily; so no reservations there. The first problem comes with the crayons. These are standard Empire Builder issue. They work fine on the plastic-sprayed board of that game but are hopeless on the shiny plastic of the Nippon Rails map. To play on this you need pens of the type used in Railway Rivals. You almost certainly have a set of these, and so providing them is not a problem, but it is irritating. Even when costs are being cut, the equipment supplied should still work.

Also unsatisfactory are the cards, or rather what has been put in their place. Short runs of cards, even when they are of the perforated sheet variety, are expensive to produce. Cards on a perforated sheet that has been rolled up and stuffed into a tube are also going to be none too serviceable. So what you get is a plastic enclosed sheet for each player. On this are printed the cards, fifty on each side. You roll the dice and mark the corresponding card. As you doubtless remember, in these games each player has three destination cards at any one time. It is unlikely that all three are going to be on the same side of the sheet, and so you spend your time turning the thing over and back again. Mutterings of 'Sod this for a game of soldiers' set in fairly quickly. Moreover, since you are now using inky pens and keep having to change the markings on your sheet, it is not long before you look like a refugee from the finger painting class at the local primary school. The only way out of all this is to make a set of cards for yourself.

So much for the drawbacks. On the positive side is the fact that the map plays well. The mountains, ferries, tunnel and the obligation to build a route connecting all three main islands make for an interesting set of problems, and the narrow coastal plains of the main island mean that route building is quite competitive even when there are just two of you playing. The other big plus is that you get to ask where Fukui is.

Stuart Dagger

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