Freight Train

White Wind, £24
Designed by Alan Moon
3-6 Players, about 60-90 mins
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Freight Train is the sole release from White Wind for 1993, breaking the trend of two new Essen releases pursued so far. It might be too much to hope for three games next year to restore the average, but I certainly missed the double release and of course there is no ElfenXXXX addition, much to my regret. As you will have gathered, this is yet another train game, and as such is welcomed, but Freight Train is far removed from the norm. There is no track building, no actual running of trains and only low key finances. We don't even get a map, because we now at last have a game about shunting*, surely a tough nut to crack outside of the model railway hobby. Accordingly, I look forward to interesting games on signalling, snowploughs and track maintenance from the fertile mind of Alan Moon.

Component wise, Freight Train is up to the usual high standard. The board is nicely done, the cards professionally printed and the rules are clear and concise. My complaint is really with the cover artwork which is distinctly average, even unpleasant. Otherwise, the usual White Wind luxury format applies and the set is really starting to look great on the shelf.

The idea of the game is to be the most efficient manager of a marshalling yard, success being measured by the length and number of the trains formed over a period of three days, represented by distinct game phases. There are a dozen types of truck and wagon, all benefitting from the exotic American terminology such as reefers, boxcars, gondolas and piggybacks. All of these have equivalents in Britain, but our names are rather more boring. A mixture of these wagons starts in the communal freight yard and there are more in your own sidings. The idea is to form trains of common wagon types, as long and as quickly as possible, all the while keeping them competitive with your rivals. This is achieved by collecting available trucks from either the freight yard or your sidings and 'shunting' them into trains behind one of your half-dozen locos. At the end of each day, these trains pull out into the darkness and are scored by comparing them to the other players' efforts.

The first comment is that you need a big table. Four players (or more) fill out quite an area once their sidings, trains, drinks and crisps are all laid around the central freight yard board. The yard and the sidings each have a closed end (signified by buffers) and an open end where trucks can be shunted out to their destination. The truck cards are laid onto the yard and sidings showing which ones are available and which are blocked in. Essentially, as you will have worked out by now, the game involves moving trucks around between yard, sidings and trains, all the while planning ahead so that your trucks are accessible and making the most of your turns so that you can optimise your marshalling.

The mechanism is easy to remember and allows for quick moves. You can either take three trucks from the freight yard and move them either directly onto trains or into your sidings, or you can move four trucks from your sidings onto trains, or you can call up a new locomotive or finally, the panic button, you can forfeit a turn to rejig your sidings completely. Whenever trucks move, the last in, first out rule applies a truck taken from the yard can only come out from the open end and goes into your sidings open end, blocking in the trucks nearer to the buffers. This is all second nature for anyone who owned a Hornby layout but I outline the basics for those with sheltered upbringings.

The game goes on like this, taking trucks that are of interest from the yard (these are replenished from the card pile as soon as a yard track becomes empty) and building up trains. Bearing in mind that you can only have one train of each type each day, the trend seems to be for players to concentrate on a big train of one type, perhaps two or three mid sized efforts and to hold a couple of locos ready for emergencies or last minute changes of plan. Far be it from me to suggest this as a winning strategy, but it seems to be working for most players at the moment I am sure new strategies will emerge with time. The opportunity to be setting aside trucks in readiness for the next day is also constantly present and takes the planning to a second level. The final wrinkle, and a welcome one, is that you are allowed to complete one mixed goods train. This can include up to twelve trucks, but they must all be unique within the train eg you can have a hopper car in the mixed train even if you have a hopper train forming elsewhere, but you can't have two hoppers. This is great for clearing out awkwardly placed trucks or getting shot of your oddments.

Scoring is quite straightforward but requires that players keep a constant eye on what the rivals are up to. Points are awarded for the longest and second longest trains only, calculated simply by counting the trucks within each category eg longest coal train, second longest coiled steel and so on. Scoring is triggered by a typically Moonesque mechanism, the Night & Day card. This is inserted into the draw pile, always towards the bottom, and as soon as it appears, night falls, the round ends and scoring takes place. Timing is vital for two reasons: firstly you need have all your trains formed and checked against your opponent's, secondly you score bonus points at the end of the first day for trucks still waiting in your sidings. Conversely, at the end of the final day you lose points if you have any left unattached to trains. A more cutthroat version might be that, like the Airlines Wertung cards, the Night & Day card could just be randomly inserted into the pack, or perhaps in the lower half. This would add much more uncertainty but would make predicting game length a problem.

In play, the game shares some similarities with Alan's earlier Airlines in that there is always a range of things you want to be doing, but never really have enough moves to do them and certainly not enough time. Decisions are neatly forced in this way. The trucks you want in the yard rarely seem to be available, in much the same way as rummy, and your sidings can get into an awful mess unless you keep a clear head. Play is fast moving, interesting and quite heavy at times, especially when planning ahead it shares the slightly studious elements of Elfenroads in this regard with all the players peering at the freight yard to see what is likely to come along and whether they are worth collecting in the face of other players' plans. That said, the game can be tackled on the 'playing trains' level, but chances are you won't win. It is fun to do it this way, and trains with eight or ten trucks are impressive, it is just that this tactic tends towards overkill.

Given the difficult subject matter, Freight Train is a surprisingly good game. If I were to point to any weaknesses, I would suggest that, depending on the cards, the game can feel a little overlong (players should not be allowed to dither) and that it is a touch on the dry side. At times, especially when performing the mid-game moves, it feels rather like Multi-Player Patience and the lack of interaction doesn't help in this respect. As much as I like the railway subject matter, I find Airlines, Santa Fe and Elfenroads to have much more spark than Freight Train. I suspect this is down to the topic, the lack of blocking, an existing or growing network or the race and bidding elements of Elfenroads. Nevertheless, it works. It hangs together well and the system is clean and easily remembered so you can get straight down to the tactics. Where it scores is in the constant decision making this is suitably challenging and there is no doubt that the winner will have played a tight game. It is hard to quantify the benefit the subject brings to the game as you are reading the thoughts of a gamer with a mild railway addiction. I liked it a lot, if for nothing more than that indefinable quality that sets these Moon games apart, though I still want to see a game where the freight trains actually move around. I would also have liked two releases from White Wind, but I would prefer one game of Freight Train's calibre rather than two of a lower standard.

* Switching for our American readers.

On to the review of Zankapfel or back to Gamer's Notebook.

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