Before you groan 'not another train game', we should flag up front that Osprey Games' Village Rails is indeed not another train game. The clue is in the name: this is actually a game about laying out track. It's essentially an optimisation card game for 2-4 players where, over 12 turns, you're trying to maximise your points score through the cards you place in your individual tableau.
Matthew Dunstan and Brett J Gilbert have designed a game with rules that are refreshingly simple and straightforward. Everyone starts off with their own starting grid for the 4 x 3 tableau that they'll be building. They also have three terminus cards which they can play on completed lines to earn bonuses. The starting grid shows the start of each railway line and you'll be scoring for each of the seven lines when you complete them by taking them to the open edge of your grid (ie: the bottom or the right-hand side). There's a market of seven rail cards and four 'trip' cards. The rail cards show track on various different terrain backgrounds along with one or more of five icons. The card that's farthest from the draw pile is free but, as in Century Spice Road/Golem (Plan B Games) you have to place a coin on each card you pass over to choose one nearer the draw deck. You must draw and place a rail card on your turn. The trip cards are an optional buy. They score you bonus points when you complete the line against which you place them but they cost at least £3, so you may struggle to afford them until you have completed lines and generated income from them by using your terminus cards.
Village Rails then is a puzzle game: you're selecting and laying out cards to complete routes to the edge of the board but scoring will be mostly dependent on the terrain of the cards in the route and/or the icons on the cards, as in a set collection game. It's super easy to play - the rules are simple enough to make Village Rails very playable as a family game - but there's nevertheless a depth to the decision making that makes this a meaty filler-length game for seriously competitive gamers.
There are key decisions to take about what cards you take and where to position them in your small individual grid. Do you make best use of the next cards in the display or do you spend extra money to take a potentially more advantageous card? And those choices apply not just to the rail cards but also to the optional trip cards. These will cost you at least £3 (so the equivalent of a point in end-game scoring) but have the potential to earn you worthwhile bonuses. And, of course, when you buy and deploy trip cards, they are bound to affect your subsequent choices of rail cards...
Village Rails is a game where players will almost exclusively be focused on their own tableaus: there's no 'take that' element beyond you snatching a card from the market that I was particularly hoping to be able to pick up; so much so that we were surprised that Osprey didn't incorporate a solitaire option. Players each have their own scoring dials, so you're each responsible for tracking and recording your own scores. It all runs smoothly to a 30-45 minute timetable. And with its small box packaging, Village Rails could be the perfect stocking filler.