Cost: $39.00 + $6.00 shipping From: White Wind, 2 Milton St., Beverly MA, 01915 Players: 2-5 Playing Time: 60 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Complexity: 4 Skill level: 7 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 2.3, Spring 1994
Every year, Alan Moon's White Wind Inc. expands their 1200 series of limited edition games. Last year's entries, Santa Fe (reviewed in TGR 2.1) and Elfenroads, were both superlative games which are very close to selling out completely. This year's addition is Freight Train, a far simpler game than its predecessors but with no shortage of strategy and interesting game play. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that we've seen this before.
I want to preface the rest of this review by saying that I enjoy Freight Train. I think it's a fun game, I like playing it, and if I were a certain pair of movie critics I'd give it a thumbs up. Now here's the but. The previous White Wind releases set a pretty high standard, and I feel justified in using them as a point of reference for comparison. Despite thinking Freight Train is a good game, it disappointed me and I'd be less than honest if I didn't say so. I'll get back to that later. Meanwhile, read on.
The Freight Train box is the same size and shade of blue as the rest of the White Wind line. Fans of the 1200 series will hardly be surprised to discover a bag of their trademark plastic coins inside, as well as the blue wooden choo-choo marker last seen in Santa Fe. Also inside are a bunch of miniature cards: 176 depicting eleven different types of freight cars; 35 locomotive cards; and 1 Trains Leave card. Five freight yards are provided, each on its own slick, folded piece of heavy paper with room for eight freight cars in each of two rows ("sidings"). Finally, a heavy game board provides the main freight yard-- five rows of five cards each, plus a handy reference chart showing all of the possible types of freight trains.
The game is prepared by dealing everyone a random assortment of train cars, distributed evenly on the two sidings of their yards. Each of the five rows of the main freight yard is then filled with five random freight cars. Each player receives 5-7 locomotives (depending on the number of players in the game). The Trains Leave card is shuffled into the bottom of the remaining deck and the game begins.
Players may form one train for each locomotive they own. Each train may consist of one, and only one, type of car. The only exception is a mixed train, which each player may create one of each game "day". Such a train may have different types of cars, but no more than one car of each type. At the end of each game day the players with the longest trains of each type score points, and the highest scorer after the third day wins.
The heart of the game lies in the selection of cars to switch out of the main freight yard and into your own yard or trains. Naturally, you can't just pluck the cars of your choice at any time. All of the sidings in the game function as last-in, first-out stacks. Cars fill sidings from the left, sliding rightward until they reach another car or the end of the siding. Only the leftmost car may be pulled out of each siding. Doing so, of course, makes the next car available.
Players have four options on each turn. The most common move is to pull exactly three cars out of the main freight yard. These cars can be moved into the player's yard, added to trains, or a mixture of both. A player might instead choose to pull up to four cars out of his yard and add them to his trains. Once per game day, players may opt to spend their turn calling up an additional locomotive, thereby enabling them to construct another train. And in desperate situations, players can choose to rearrange the cars in their own yard. This is a last resort because it carries with it a one point penalty. That may sound like a bargain, but every point counts.
A pretty simple arrangement, but it offers a surprising amount of strategic choices. If you elect to pull cars from the main yard, you must pull three. But every car you pull opens up new possibilities for the player following you, and you need to be careful not to let your rivals pick up the cars you've got your eyes on. As the game continues, sidings in the main yard will eventually empty out. If two or more sidings are empty at the start of your turn, you may elect to fill in a siding from the deck. There is rarely a reason not to do so, since filling a siding opens up additional opportunties for you. But it could also cause the day to end.
Shuffled into the bottom part of the deck is a special card which signals the end of that game day. When this card turns up in the course of filling in a siding, everyone's trains prepare to pull out of the station. Play continues until everyone has had the same number of turns, at which point the day ends and points are scored. Airlines and Acquire players will feel right at home with the scoring system-- the player with the longest train of each type gets three points, and the player with the second longest gets one point. In addition, at the end of the first day players get an extra point for every two cars remaining in their freight yard. This bonus disappears on the second game day. Worse, at the end of the third game day you'll lose a point for every leftover car. This can lead to some sticky play at game's end.
At the end of each game day, all cars except for those in players' yards are shuffled together. The Trains Leave card is shuffled into the bottom of the deck again, and the main yard is filled to capacity. The wooden choo-choo passes clockwise and the fun begins anew.
Since you can never have more than nine locomotives (even fewer in games with more players), there will always be some car types which hold little to no interest for you. Once you've established all of your trains, at least two car types will be completely useless to you (disregarding the mixed train for now). In the third game day, cars of this type are worse than useless, they're harmful! Once you take them into your yard, you'll be unable to get rid of them. Careful car selection is therefore of utmost importance in the last day. Observant players will note which car types are anathema to their opponents and will leave cars of those types at the head of the main yard's sidings.
The mixed train can be your saving grace, not unlike the Chance category in Yahtzee. I've taken to leaving a couple of trains with only one car in them until late in the day. That way, I can watch which types my opponents try to build, and if it looks like I won't be able to outbuild them, I can convert that train to a mix. Other players set out to build a long mixed train from the outset, since it is often easier to gather one car of each type than many cars of the same type.
Another factor to consider is that you're only rewarded for having longer trains than your opponents-- the actual length of the trains is irrelevant. If a rival has a train of three box cars, all you need is four cars to beat him. Putting seven box cars on the train is overkill. In the first two game days, you're probably better off to stockpile the extra cars in your yard. That way, you're well-positioned to pull them out in the next game day and take an early lead. Once you realize this, you'll probably wind up adopting the same strategy we've evolved, which is to spend a point towards the end of the first and second game day to reorganize your yard in preparation for the next day. Grouping cars of the same type together in your yard often makes it easier to use them when you pull them out. On the other hand, it can get in the way of constructing a mixed train.
Here I am talking about strategy, telling you how interesting the game is and generally getting your interest piqued. But, pen poised and checkbook open, you remember my earlier disclaimer. So what's the deal? Well, I have two main peeves about Freight Train. The first is its price/equipment ratio, and the second is the lack of new ground being broken here.
At forty bucks, Freight Train ain't cheap. But for all its trappings, Freight Train is really just a card game-- everything else is window dressing. Forget the board, forget the chips, forget the paper sidings-- this game could have been packaged as just a big deck of cards. Admittedly it's nicer with these elements, but if they weren't there, I don't think we'd miss them. So why are they there? Someone more cynical than I would say they're there to pad out the price and make the game fit in with the rest of the White Wind line. Someone else might say they're there to enhance the gaming experience and reduce confusion. I leave it up to you to decide.
The second problem, and by far the more disappointing one, is the overwhelming sense of deja vu I got when I played for the first time. Haven't we been here before? In fact, we have, and Alan Moon was even flying the plane. The entire goal of Freight Train is to accumulate more cars of certain types than any other player. In Airlines, you're trying to accumulate shares in various airlines, but the end result of points going to the top two collectors is the same. Likewise with Acquire, where players amass shares in hotel chains. But unlike those other games, the accumulation is the entirety of the game. Perhaps Freight Train merely distills those others to the essence which makes them succeed-- after all, the mechanism wouldn't be repeated so often if it didn't work. I just expected something fresher from White Wind's annual release, and Freight Train disappointed me in that regard.
Just so we're clear, let me reiterate what I said earlier: I'm not disappointed in Freight Train as a whole. It's a fun game. If I didn't already own it, I'd go out tomorrow and buy a copy. The nits I picked in no way diminish the fun of playing the game. But I'd be less than honest if I didn't share these opinions, and I fully expect you'll let me know how off-base I may be. I'm treading especially carefully here because Alan's become a friend, and it's never easy to criticize a friend's work.
Fortunately, I can also praise it. Freight Train is easy to learn and fun to play. It quickly entered my five-plus play list, and I have no qualms about recommending it to you. All aboard!