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Trainsport: Austria

Fall 1997/Vol 4, no 3

3-5 players (aged 12 to adult).
Playing Time: about 90 minutes.
Designers: Franz Bayer & Thomas Huettner
Published by Winsome Games.
Cost $20

Not even the designers could claim that it is an original idea: give the players a map; get them to construct a rail network, contending as they do so with the natural geography and with the fact that their rivals are doing their best to beat them to the best routes; then test the networks by seeing how well they enable the players to make various journeys. David Watts did it with Railway Rivals and Darwin Bromley and Bill Fawcett did it with Empire Builder. Both are good and popular game systems and both give players lots of maps to prevent staleness setting in. Do we need and is there room for another? In the "been there, seen that" stakes we may not be quite in the league of boy meets girl or Clint Eastwood meets horse, but it is getting close. To justify tackling such an old problem yet again, the designers are going to have to come up with a significantly new solution. Fortunately, they do.

The map shows Austria divided into just over a hundred small regions, with each region having a colored border and containing between one and five circles. The colored border indicates the type of terrain (plains, cities, hills, mountains, etc) and the circles are the means by which you indicate the presence of your company in the region. A train route in this game is a chain of regions running from one city or foreign location to another, with each region in the chain containing at least one of your markers.

At the beginning, players choose a starting location. Thereafter you extend your network by coloring in a circle in a region adjacent to one in which you already have a presence. In each turn you can make from 0 to 5 extensions, with each having a basic cost of 1 (cities) to 5 (alpine). Providing you make no more than two extensions in a turn, the total cost is just the sum of the basic costs, but if you make more than 2, multipliers kick in and the cost climbs. There will be times when it is the right thing to swallow hard and take the extra financial hit, but you need to plan it carefully because this is a game where money matters. There are tactical (building multiple routes) and strategic (blocking out an opponent) reasons why you might want to claim more than one circle in a region and this is allowed, provided you don't claim more than one circle in a region in a single turn and provided the region isn't either a city or a foreign location. Finally, if all this weren't problem enough, there is a ceiling on the total number of circles you can claim during the game. It is a well thought out package which means that to do well players need to do some careful long range planning. Timing matters and so does cost and you won't get it right unless you keep your wits about you and an eye on what your opponents are up to.

Income comes from the fulfillment of contracts. The map has 7 cities and 6 adjacent foreign countries and the game comes with a set of 55 contract cards. Each gives two locations and a cash value for the contract they represent. At the start of each turn a number of these cards are face-up, the number being equal to the number of players. After everyone has done their building for the turn, all players have the opportunity to claim any or all of these face-up contracts. To claim a contract you must have a route between the two locations. If more than one player claims a particular contract, tie-breakers come in to play. These are multiple routes, shortest route, turn order. Claimed contracts are then paid out, the cards for them discarded and replacements dealt. The game ends when one of the players reaches the pre-set target for cash in hand.

As I said at the start, the thematic links that the game has with Railway Rivals and Empire Builder are obvious and so, whether it likes it or not, it is going to be competing with those established favorites for players' affections. What are its chances? Only time will tell, but my view is that its designers have reason to be hopeful. Their game is not demonstrably superior to either of the other two, but neither is it demonstrably inferior and it has enough character of its own to be able to coexist with them without being doomed to a life in their shadow. It does not have the flavor that the variety of different loads brings to the games in the Empire Builder series; nor does it have the fun element of the races in Railway Rivals. But against that you can set the high marks that Trainsport scores for skill and for player interaction. Empire Builder has been described as a solo game that several players play simultaneously and it's true. Your strategy is determined almost entirely by the cards you have drawn: what the others are up to isn't of much relevance and a lot of the time you don't even bother to watch. That is not true in Trainsport, where you need to keep a very close eye on and to be ready to react to the actions of your rivals. I also think that, though both games combine both luck and skill, the skill level in Trainsport is higher. Comparing the game with Railway Rivals, I would rate them about equal in the skill department, but think that Trainsport is a better integrated game. Railway Rivals is almost two separate games: a track building one, where the amount of luck involved is low, and a fun, but quite luck-dependant race section.

The game comes in a plastic tube which contains a plastic-laminated map, a set of crayons, the 55 contract cards, some sheets of paper money and a small train marker that is used to indicate who is the lead player for the turn. The paper money needs to be cut up but everything else comes ready for play. Winsome has already published a second map, Switzerland, and a third, England, is scheduled for later in the year. If they are as carefully thought out as the Austrian one, I think that the series should make for an excellent tournament game: interesting, skilful and short enough for you to be able to play three rounds without committing yourself for too big a portion of the weekend.

Stuart Dagger*, July 1997


(NOTE TO EDITOR: If your word processing package can handle umlauts, replace the "ue" in Thomas Huettner's name by "u umlaut". This keyboard can't handle umlauts and so I have had to use the alternative spelling in the heading.)


* All rights for this review reserved by Stuart Dagger.

Mr. Dagger last published in the Train Gamers Gazette with the 1853 Variant which has become the tournament standard for that game in all Puffing Billy® Tournaments.

We are proud to include this effort by Mr. Dagger and look forward to publishing his review of Transsib in the Winter issue of the TGG.

 


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