22nd Jul2020

‘Traintopia’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

When it comes to board games based on trains (of which there are many) I’m not the biggest fan. Actual real-life trains do little for me, and because setting and theme are so important to the way I enjoy board games, I have to get over that initial lack of interest before I can become fully immersed. That said, games like Irish Gauge and Ticket to Ride: London have impressed me, bringing fresh, fast paced gameplay to a genre that struggles to keep me interested for more than perhaps up to an hour at a time.

Traintopia is another game that works hard to present players with an alternative that has enough variety to keep train-haters happy – or at least mildy interested if not. The main focus here is that whilst you’re building train lines, the actual placement of trains plays second fiddle along with commuters, tourists and the much more mundane need to move bags of mail. The concept is simple – players take turns to draft tiles and the other elements (the trains, commuters etc) each turn, and then place them into their own unique tableau of linked pieces.

Winning Traintopia is a simple matter of scoring the most points across each of the lines you build throughout the game, and through meeting the objective set by both cards dealt to individual players and to the table as a set of communal achievements. As you may pre-emptively assume, these cards are dealt randomly and some won’t be used, so the game varies slightly with each play in terms of what each player will aim for. Similarly, each player will choose a starting tile in reverse player order, meaning that your combination of objective cards and starting tile might influence your actions.

Once the game is underway, it is split into a number of rounds (depending on player count) that will be managed by a deck of cards that are also randomised (except the final one.) On each card, the players will be asked to place a number of components and to draw a number of tiles. These tiles and other components (train, commuter, tourist and mailbag tokens) will all be available to draft during the round, with each player drawing items in turn until everything has been taken (normally two items per round.)

As each item is drafted, it will be added to the city of the player in question, and potentially, scored. For new tiles, these will be added immediately following some simple placement rules – no “dead ends” can be created, but otherwise players can rotate the tiles freely and place them more or less wherever they like. For a commuter, mailbag, train or tourist, the chosen item will be placed on a trainline and usually, scored. Commuters of each colour, for example, will score points equal to the number of districts of their colour that can be found along the line onto which they are placed. Tourists want to see attractions along the way.

There are a few other subtleties. Trains and mailbags score differently and will add their points at the end of the game, and each line can only accommodate one commuter of each colour. There are often cash tokens on the tiles, and the player is freely able to use those tokens to bend some of the rules – for example scoring a grey commuter as though it were yellow. Bonus tiles can be drawn from a face up selection and they will usually offer more specific or powerful bonuses, and there are a couple of other in game situations that can score points directly.

The game ends at the conclusion of the final round, which as I mentioned before will be signified by a final card that has a specific set of drafting components on it, and a reminder to trigger end game scoring. Usually, a game of Traintopia lasts for just thirty to forty-five minutes, with the longer playtime usually the result of a higher player count rather than because of any potential for decision making paralysis. Due to lockdown restrictions, I’ve only played with two and three players, but the time difference at those two counts is obvious, so adding a fourth player seems likely to add a similar amount of time into proceedings.

Traintopia feels very light and breezy, with few difficult decisions to make from turn to turn. I think the most pressing matter is deciding when to score a specific commuter or tourist on a particular line, although the weight of this decision is somewhat reduced by the weak (and fiddly) rule that allows a cash token to be spent to temporarily change the colour (for scoring purposes only) of a particular commuter.

I have to say that I don’t like this rule – aside from the fact that it materially reduces the impact of your decisions, it’s also hard to explain because the original commuter (yellow, for example) is still placed and still counts as yellow for placing future commuters, but by spending a dollar, you could score it as grey (which you’d only do if you already had a grey commuter already. It’s not actually a complex concept at all, but it’s something that I struggled to get across in two explanations without actually having to walk it through on the board. Maybe that’s my bad, I don’t know.

Much as the purpose of the spend cash to change colour rule, a lot of Traintopia feels setup to allow a fairly gentle weight, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. Each tile has four quadrants that can be aligned to other tiles either as whole tiles or as halves, and this allows for a lot of variety and potential complexity in terms of ensuring suitable matches. Thankfully, because the overarching rule is simply to keep the tracks from hitting dead ends, this is a really simple thing to explain, and the symbology is clear enough that anyone can pick up and understand what has to be done within a game or two at most.

Scoring is also simple and straightforward, with the in-game scoring being tracked by tokens and the endgame and objective scoring being harder to calculate (but by no means taxing) and then tracked by the same tokens. It all comes together to mean that you can get a game of Traintopia set up, played and scored within an hour at the very most. Given that it is a light game, but that there’s still quite a lot to it in terms of components and minute by minute decisions, that feels like good going to me.

I am still not a die-hard fan of train games, but I would say that Traintopia does enough to bring it into the same zone as the other games I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It isn’t as quite as fast and smooth as Ticket to Ride: London, and nor is it as slick and clever as Irish Gauge, but it has a nice drafting mechanism and a fairly unique approach to scoring that gives the players something to think about, and key (for me at least) is the fact that it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Overall, it’s a nice addition to your shelf, especially if you are indeed a fan of lighter train games, and you want something a bit more involved than Ticket to Ride.

***½  3.5/5

Traintopia 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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