As we've remarked before, Moaideas seem to have carved out a niche in publishing games with easy-to-grasp rules but surprising depth in the way the games play and in which players' actions interact. Mini Rails, which we featured on Board's Eye View back in 2018, was a great example, and with Mini Express, the same designer, Mark Gerrits, is back with another cleverly designed railway-themed game.
You might loosely regard Mini Express as a sequel to Mini Rails but it is quite a distinct and separate game: certainly not more of the same. On the surface, Mini Express has the look of an 18XX railway game in that there are four rail companies and players will be laying track for and collecting shares in those companies but, unlike most of the games in the 18XX genre, Mini Express has streamlined rules that make it super-easy to play.
The game comes with a double-sided board representing the United States on one side and Europe on the other. There are a couple of optional rules that you can incorporate that are specific to each of these maps but otherwise the rules for both maps are the same. There are four rail companies, each of which corresponds to a particular type of freight (brown - wood; grey - iron; orange - pelts; white - cotton). In set up, tokens are drawn from a bag and laid out to determine which two commodities are in demand at each of the cities on the board. Each of the companies starts off with four trains, which represent that company's track-laying capacity.
Game play could hardly be simpler: on your turn you can take one of two actions. You can lay track to connect a company's home city or track it has already laid to any other city within range (ie: that can be reached without exceeding the number of trains in that company's supply). You move that company's marker up by the number of tracks laid, counting only the hexes between cities (not the cities themselves). You also move your own marker up on the influence track for each of the commodities in demand at the city to which you've just connected; so if the city's demand was for wood and cotton, you'd move your marker one space on the influence tracks for the brown and the white rail companies, regardless of which company's track was laid.
The alternative action you can take instead of laying track is to collect a share certificate in any company. You pay for the share by reducing your influence by one space for every train that that company still has on its board. That means if a previous player has reduced the number of train to zero, you can use your turn to pick up a share in that company for free! Whenever a player takes a share, three more trains are added to the company's supply.
There's a thematic mismatch, of course, between acquiring shares in a company and reducing influence - you might more naturally expect that proprietorship would increase your influence - but as a game mechanic this works exceptionally well. Players are always trying to maximise their progress on the influence tracks because position on the track will affect how much their shares are worth in the end-game reckoning: you multiply the number of shares you hold in a company by the points value that corresponds to your relative position on the influence track. You'll obviously want tho' to collect as many shares as you can because coming top of the influence track for a company will be no use to you if you don't hold any shares in that company!
The net result then is a clever balancing act, akin to an abstract puzzle optimisation game rather than most other train games, and it makes for turns that are highly interactive. Players aren't tied to any one rail company - they can, on their turn, lay track from any company and they can take any company's shares, so canny players will quickly leap in on opportunities laid bare by their opponents to grab a share at little or no influence cost.
Mini Express is essentially a 3-5 player game but the rules offer a couple of alternate ways of playing with just two players, as well as the rules and additional components for solo/solitaire play. And, amazingly, Moaideas have managed still to fit the entire package into a compact box.
And if you enjoy Mini Express as much as the team here at Board's Eye View, you'll be left wanting more. It's a plea to which Moaideas are responding. There's a Kickstarter coming shortly that will add two more maps with which to play: Taiwan and the UK. And these expansions aren't just aesthetically alternative grids; they each have a historical setting and come with additional rules that change both set up and the way in which the Mini Express companies operate. That means you can expect the new map packs to be an incremental step up from the core game, adding thematically appropriate gameplay options for Taiwan during the period of Japanese colonisation and for the United Kingdom after the First World War. The Kickstarter is expected to launch on 5 July but you can click here now to register interest and get a notification so you are ready to clamber on board.