Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Trains have become a popular board game theme and they range very widely in complexity. There are ‘gateway’ games like Alan J. Moon’s highly popular Ticket to Ride series, published by Days of Wonder. At the other extreme, there is an entire sub-genre of train and stock market titles known as ‘18XX’ games. The 18XX label is because most are set in the 19th Century and have the year as part of the title. These games usually involve both track laying and stock market manipulation.
Designed by Mark Gerrits with art by Steve Tse, Mini Rails bridges the gap between these two extremes. Mini Rails really shines as a three-player game but it accommodates up to five players. It plays quickly (a game takes six rounds and can usually be completed in around 30 minutes) and it’s really no more difficult to play than Ticket to Ride. However, it incorporates some interesting stock manipulation mechanics.
The game is played on a randomised modular board that allows for some variation between set ups. On a player’s turn they choose a coloured disc from those that have been drawn randomly from a bag and laid out in a row. They can either place that disc on their individual board as stock in that train company (always bought at price zero) or they can place the disc out on the map board to extend that colour track and to modify the price of stock already taken by any of the players: locations with white pips increase the value of that colour stock, those with red pips reduce that stock’s value. Players have to alternate between their two actions, so each round will involve them in one stock acquisition and one rail placement. In a similar manner to Kingdomino (Blue Orange), the choice players' make will also determine turn order in the next round.
There’s more subtlety and strategy to this game than might be immediately apparent on the surface. The link between choice of discs and turn order means that players may sometimes make a sub-optimal selection in order to guarantee a particular turn order. The further consideration is that, each round, one disc will be left to be ‘taxed’. At the end of the game, the only positively valued stocks that will score are those that have been taxed. Being taxed will also remove from scoring any stock with a negative value. In the latter rounds, therefore, the tussle over which stocks are taxed can prove even more critical than the acquisition of a particular stock or the immediate manipulation of its value.
Moaideas Game Design has developed a specialty in publishing quirky but interesting games and Mini Rails is a very welcome addition to their stable. Once again, they’ve come up with a design of a game that can be quickly learned and played by newcomers but which still has an appeal to seasoned games enthusiasts.