|From:Rio Grande Games Cost: $40 Players: 3-6 Playing Time: 60-90 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 7 Complexity: 4 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 6.1 (21), Summer 1999|
If Reiner Knizia is a master at squeezing every possible game from a single mechanic, surely Alan Moon is the king of streamlining games to make them more appealing to a family audience. Heís done it twice before, stripping Freight Train down to its essence with Reibach & Co. (Get the Goods in the U.S.) and reworking Elfenroads into Elfenland. Each of his redesigns, including the new Union Pacific, has landed him on the Spiel des Jahres nomination list (with Elfenland winning the coveted prize itself).
Union Pacific is a refinement of Moonís earlier Airlines, a game with fairly little exposure even in Germany thanks to its relatively small print run of about five thousand copies. The venue has shifted from the air to the rail, a fact bound to frustrate the notoriously finicky railgamers who know the routes, gauges, and serial numbers of every line ever to toot a whistle. Union Pacific has precious little to do with building track or operating railroads. This is not a game for realists, as not only are the depicted routes flights of fantasy, but almost all the railroad companies are fictitious as well. ďSacrilege!Ē crieth the trainspotters and turn their attention elsewhere, as we shrug and get down to brass tacks.
The railroad theme masks the fact that Union Pacific is really a majority game- that is, a game in which points are earned for having more of something than any other player. In this case, that something is stock. One of the gameís two deck of cards is composed of shares of each of the ten railroads depicted on the game board. Some companies have as few as six shares while others have as many as eighteen. This distribution reflects the fact that some railroads are geographically restricted so that they wonít grow as large and will therefore be less valuable.
This growth control is achieved by restricting each railroad to some of the four types of track shown on the map. Union Pacificís second deck contains cards showing one of these track types. Playing one lets you add a train to a track segment of the matching type. But itís not quite that simple.
The train has to be from a company capable of using that track type. Each track segment can only support a certain number of railroads. Once itís full, no other railroads can use it. This doesnít block off just that one segment, but can prevent the railroad from being able to reach other segments beyond it. Airlines players might be wondering about the old requirement of playing a route card at least as high as the lowest empty spot along a route. Itís gone. No numbers to worry about anymore, just track types- a well-chosen bit of streamlining.
Expanding a railroad entitles you to draw a share of stock. You can choose one of four face-up shares, draw blind from the deck, or take a share of the Union Pacific. Thatís a virtual railroad that isnít depicted on the game board at all, but steadily increases in value at a fixed rate with each scoring round- more on that later. After choosing your share, you can then opt to discard any one share from your hand. That share goes out of the game (without anyone else knowing what it was), and you draw a Union Pacific share to replace it. This has a number of effects on the game, all of them positive from a design standpoint. Throwing shares out of the game increases the uncertainty about how many shares of each company are still lurking, complicating decisions about which ones to take. The Union Pacific winds up being very valuable, making it unwise to overlook. But which shares do you trash in order to nab your UP shares? Sometimes itís an easy choice, but other times itís an agonizing choice between increasing your UP holdings and keeping an extra share of something youíve already got the majority in, just in case someone else tries to overtake you.
Shares held in your hand are worthless until they hit the table, which can only happen in lieu of expanding a railroad (and thus in lieu of drawing stock). You can play any number of shares from a single railroad, or one share in each of two railroads. This simple alteration (Airlines didnít allow the latter option) makes a dramatic difference in gameplay, as itís now much easier to play those singleton shares. Stock tends to come out more frequently than it did in Airlines, resulting in majorities see-sawing back and forth more often than before.
If youíve never played Airlines, you may not appreciate the brilliance of the dichotomy between drawing and playing stock. Suppose youíre behind in yellow, but youíve got enough yellow in your hand to seize the lead. But thereís a red share among the four face-up cards, and if you lay down stock an opponent will take that red and have enough in his hand to seize the red majority from you. Why not just take the red, then? Well, that depends on how much you feel like pushing your luck.
Shuffled into the stock deck are four special cards which, when drawn, trigger a scoring round. Youíre never entirely sure when theyíll come up, so every time you draw stock instead of playing it risks missing the scoring boat.
Each railroad pays a dividend to its majority shareholder roughly equivalent to the number of trains that railroad has on the board. The second place shareholder gets half that amount. If only one player has stock showing for that railroad, that player gets both dividends. This can be a huge windfall, making it well worth everyoneís while to make sure no opponents ever sneak into a scoring round with an uncontested holding.
Airlines ended when the last stock card was drawn, but Union Pacific ends after the fourth scoring card appears. Again, the uncertainty this creates improves the game since you canít be certain youíll be able to play all the shares you draw, so youíve got to choose your actions wisely.
As with Airlines before it, Union Pacific is a solidly entertaining game. But given an opportunity to fix things that didnít work the first time, itís amazing how many poor decisions were made in graphic design. The types of track on the board are very hard for many people to tell apart. Iíve found that it helps to point out that each of them is restricted to particular areas of the map, but even so in half our games weíve discovered an illegal play a few turns too late to fix it. Having each companyís share cards show which track types it can use is a nice idea, but backwards- stock cards have nothing to do with the act of expanding a railroad. Whatís really needed is for the track cards to show which railroads can use them. A reference card is provided for each player, but itís double-sided making it cumbersome to use. Each stock card shows lots of useful information, but many of them have colors confusing to new players who donít realize, for example, that there are both light blue and purple, both gray and black. Extra points for the storage tray, however, which not only has a separate, appropriately-sized compartment for each train color, but actually labels each compartment with the number of trains it accommodates.
I worried at first at the obvious importance of the Union Pacific itself. For every other railroad youíve got to work the board in order to increase its value. The UP grows without any work, leaving its shareholders free to concentrate on expanding their other holdings. Lock up the UP majority and itís easy money. The intended balancing factor is that the UP pays out to the top five shareholders instead of just the top two, and this does help somewhat. Repeated play has seen about a 50-50 win rate for the UP majority-holder, so itís not a guaranteed game-winner. Still, ignore the UP at your peril.
If you donít already have Airlines, I can recommend Union Pacific without reservation. For the rest of you itís a tougher call. The improvements are incremental rather than revolutionary, and you can incorporate some of them into Airlines. The Union Pacific board is tighter than in Airlines, resulting in more interesting board play with some railroads inevitably getting cut off. The plastic trains satisfy the inner parakeet in you. On the other hand, an artist friend is viscerally offended by the appearance of the board, which he considers to be a visual assault so severe that he refuses to play the game. Clearly a matter of taste.
Do the differences justify the purchase of a whole new game? All I can tell you is that now that I have Union Pacific, I doubt Iíll ever pull my copy of Airlines off the shelf again. Except, perhaps, to sell it.