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Switch & Signal

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

First published in 2014 but revised in a new edition from Kosmos, David Thompson's Switch & Signal is a cooperative pick up & deliver game for 2-4 players working together (tho' it can be played solo easily enough), in which trains trundle down tracks toward cities to pick up goods to drop off at port: the players’ collective job is to change the points and signals en route to ensure the goods are at their destination before 17 rounds are up. After a simple setup - follow the instructions in the excellent rulebook for the first play on either side of the board - players are dealt five cards each. The first player flips the top card of the Departure deck - a mix of new trains and movement - and places one of each type of train: slow, medium and fast.

On a turn, players may play as many cards as they want then receive up to five more at the end of their turn, capped at ten in hand. The cards are of three types: Green Signals allow you to move a Signal token to open a route (tho' every City must always retain at least one); Black Switches allow you to change the points at junctions to reroute a train; and Wild Trains allow you to move any single train by a die roll. Two cards of a type can be played to take one of the other actions. The last use for any card is to load up one of the four colours of Goods cubes. Simple, but effective.

On the board, trains chug along according to their speed but, with die rolls determining exactly how far, you can never be completely sure how things will work out when two trains are heading the same way. The movement rules are simple and are also where the majority of ‘penalty points’ come from: trains unable to use their full quota cost one Time Token per movement lost, or two for a head-on collision, which also loses a train; trains are not allowed to return to stations, even a starting one; nor share a City. When seven Tokens are spent, a Departure card is lost from the deck and with it any new trains or free movement and an entire turn... quite some penalty! Get eight Goods cubes to port and the game is won.

It's an uncomplicated ruleset that does a fine job of allowing players to just get on, with very little admin. Play time is around the advertised 45 minutes. The two sides of the board show maps of Central Europe and North America - being easier and harder respectively - the latter featuring two port cities on opposite coasts. Each side has three Helpers who grant the players a single use special ability each. Discussion between players is encouraged and talking about cards in hand permitted, tho' that does let in the possibility of ‘alpha syndrome', so you need to watch out to avoid a bossy player commandeering the game. The production is high quality and the art and presentation by Claus Stephan and Antje Stephan very engaging.

Most cooperative games include some sort of adversarial phase either between rounds or after each player’s turn; for example, the 'Infection' deck in Pandemic (Z-Man Games), the 'Progression of Evil' in Shadows Over Camelot (Days of Wonder), and the 'Monster Mash' in Horrified (Ravensburger). However, Switch & Signal's USP is that the Departure deck differs by having the ‘automated’ action be not just a necessity but often a blessing and simultaneously a curse. Without it there would not be enough trains to carry the goods, nor might there be sufficient movement to reach port, so it’s less ‘Progression of Evil’ than ‘Unremitting Progress’. While it is a refreshing change, the deck can be swingy, especially when combined with the station dice which dictate where new trains start; it was more often the whim of the deck and dice that dictated the state of play; in particular, a run of cards with no new trains meaning either time to clear up the board state or an unmitigable delay with little to move on the board.

The biggest ding against Switch & Signal - for me, a very experienced boardgamer - is the difficulty level: on its normal setting, the game is a comfortably solvable puzzle. The criticism from fellow players was that the decisions weren’t taxing enough. Yes, the time is tight, but that’s maths and mechanics not an AI adversary forcing us to pivot or rethink our strategy and tactics. While the North America map does potentially offer a more challenging experience, with its criss-crossing routes, the suggested way to up the ante is to deliver 10 cubes from 12, rather than 8 from 8; I prefer that to artificially reducing the number of turns (fewer cards in the Departure deck) or the amount of Time Tokens.

Another variant of the kind I’d like to see publishers offer more to us punters, comes in a set of 11 Station tokens which can be used either as a way to generate the stations that new trains start at or to simply randomise the Station numbers on the board. The latter has fairly obvious consequences but, while the former reduces the chances of two trains starting at the same station for a penalty with no recourse, it also means the players have to continuously fashion new routes and switch points that might otherwise be safely ignored. I’m surprised the six helpers weren’t modular, too.

Disappointingly, I was not able to play this in a family setting where less experienced players making suboptimal moves more often would, well, make a game of it. I think that’s where Switch & Signal can shine: it’s a nice design with a unique mix of theme and mechanisms that is enjoyable to play. It was a Recommended title in the 2021 Spiel des Jahres awards and I can fully get behind that. For experienced gamers, the heuristics emerge a little too readily, so I’d recommend against discussing hands and just let players get on with their turn.

(Review by David Fox)

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