04th Dec2019

‘Irish Gauge’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


No matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to get excited about games that centre on trains and stock trading. I’m not sure why, but even when I started out in the hobby, I tended to find that games like Ticket to Ride would bore me long before the game was over. Thankfully, a few fast paced train games (like Ticket to Ride London) have now started to appear and the appeal is beginning to stick with me. When I heard about Capstone Games’ Iron Rails series, the first of which is Irish Gauge, I was genuinely excited by the prospect of a fast, simple and yet still relatively strategic train based game.

Upon opening the box, Irish Gauge is clearly a straightforward game that takes a minimalist view of both the components it uses and the design of those that are present. Everything here (from the box to the individual trains that you’ll place onto the board) is functionally exceptional and clearly fit for purpose. The board itself is a large, attractive map of Ireland that is split into a number of hexagonal spaces that feature clear and rough terrain, as well as a number of towns and cities. There is also a very clear space for a few rules reminders and a couple of tracks for calculating the outcomes of turns in which dividends are drawn, but more on that later.

The instruction manual (or maybe pamphlet would be a more appropriate word) is a single sheet of A4. Granted, it is printed in a very small font on both sides, but the point is that Irish Gauge is a straightforward game that has a clean and clear set of rules. Fundamentally, the objective of the game is to have the most money when the final dividend cube leaves the draw bag – at this point, each player adds up all of their hard cash and adds it to the printed value of any shares they hold. Each game of Irish Gauge lasts about an hour or less, so to my earlier point, it never outstays its welcome.

The game begins with the players being dealt £20 each and then the first auction begins. During this phase, the players take turns to bid on the first share from each of five stacks. These stacks each represent a specific railway, and one train from each of the different railways is placed on the map during setup. There are a fixed number of shares (between two and four) per railway, and each share has a starting value that represents the minimum opening bid. As players work their way down each stack of shares, the starting bid increases, representing the increased interest in each railway.

Whilst it is certainly preferable for each player to end this first auction with at least one share (and at least one player should end up with at least two in a four player game, since all of the five must be sold) it is not mandatory in the same way as it is for each player to end up with a power plant as it is in Power Grid, for example. Beginning with the first player, the game then begins with players choosing one action per turn, then passing to the player on their left. On their turn, each player chooses to either Auction a Share, Place Railway Track, Call for Dividends, or place a Special Interest cube.

Auctioning a share is fairly obvious – the player who’s turn it is simply chooses a share and opens the bidding with a bid of at least the face value of the share. Other players may then each bid in turn, assuming they can raise the bid by at least £1. The winning bid takes the share, so clearly, the player beginning the auction should plan their timing at a point in the game when it suits them. Building railway lines is also fairly straightforward, and the player acting has three build points to spend on doing so. There’s a table to explain the costs for each space, but broadly speaking, a clear space or urban space costs one, difficult terrain costs two, and clear or urban spaces with an existing line cost one and a half.

Calling for dividends and declaring Special Interest are linked, and represent the way in which Irish Gauge begins to show its differentiation from less strategic games. Simply put, calling for dividends allows the active player to draw cubes from a bag, which then dictate payments made on certain railways. The cubes come in pink, white and black, and some will be placed on the board randomly during setup, whilst others can be placed on certain empty town spaces (in a colour of the players choosing) when Special Interest is declared.

Together, these actions form the basis on which players can advance their monetary position. When a Call for Dividends is made then each railway pays out in turn, based on how many towns and cities it is connected to that share cube colours with the cubes that were drawn. No matter how many of a single colour cube are drawn, only one payment will be made per colour. For example, if one white and two black cubes are drawn, then each city that has either a white cube or a black cube in it will pay each railway that passes through it – but even the black cube will only pay once.

Because the cubes placed by the Special Interest action (to make towns into cities, so that they pay out accordingly) are the same as those drawn during the Pay Dividends action, the players have some agency here. It’s often preferrable to place cubes that are less frequent on the board onto towns where your railways have dominance, but if there are lots of cubes of the same colour on the board, there will be fewer drawn randomly from the bag when dividends are paid. Because the last cube leaving the bag also triggers the game end, players need to control the pace at which dividends cubes (three at a time) and special interest cubes (one at a time) are drawn.

Irish Gauge has three key mechanisms – share auctions, the optimal routing of railways and the placement and drawing of cubes and yet somehow it remains incredibly simple and easy to teach and play. It has gateway game level of ramp up, but with easily mid to heavy weight decision making, and because it comes in a small, neat box and plays in under an hour, it’s extremely flexible in how, when and where it can be played.

The Iron Rails series is off to an excellent start, and even if the rest of the games fail to meet the same standard, Irish Gauge is a really smart, attractive looking and enjoyable game for players of all skill levels and any age from about twelve upwards. It has excellent components and a fantastic set of instructions and whatever your opinion on trains may be, it delivers perhaps the quickest and cleanest rail and stock experience that I’ve encountered to date.

**** 4/5

Irish Gauge is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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