Japan. Forged from volcanic rock, the small island nation has garnered quite the reputation. Cultural touchstones from samurai to ninja, from sushi to ramen, Godzilla to cherry blossoms. And of course, the bullet train. Whether it's the labyrinthine subway system in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo or a rail line along the coasts of rural Japan, trains are everywhere in the land of the rising sun. They are part of daily life for millions of people. They're also 100% cotton.
Open the box to String Railway and you might ask yourself, "This is it? A box of string and some cards?" Not that the strings aren't nice (as far as strings go) but it hardly seems enough to make a game of. And if it was, surely someone would have figured out how to make a game of it hundreds of years ago. It is just string after all.
But that's the beauty of String Railway. Everyone's played with string. Everyone knows that there is joy to be found with bit of string and imagination. In String Railway, the goal is simple: Create the most profitable network of rail lines and train stations.
A game of String Railway begins by dropping a large loop of black string on the table.
"Japan? And now what's that?" as you lay down a smaller loop of gray string.
"Mt. Fuji? And what's that?" as you lay down a light blue string.
"The Shinano River."
"I've never even heard of that. What are all these other strings?"
Smiles abound as you try to pass off an amorphous blob as an archipelago and your amoeboid as Mt. Fuji. From its onset, String Railway brings you into its silliness. It doesn't take itself seriously and all it asks is that you do the same. The setup not only takes you into a space where smiling is OK, it also teaches the central action of the game: laying down string that represent real world objects.
Each player begins with a handful of strings in their color and a starting train station. On your turn, you will draw a train station and lay it down anywhere within Japan. You will then lay down your tracks, connecting various train stations and collect victory points for a job well done. But there's a catch. There's always a catch. While you gain points for connecting stations, you lose a point for every other string you've crossed to get there. It's really that simple and it makes sense. Your railway empire profits for connecting its network to new train stations and picking up new passengers, but has to pony up the extra costs for traversing over rivers and and mountains and other players' rails.
Deciding where to construct begins simply enough. Find a plot of land, lay some rail. The varied train stations keep this decision from becoming stale. Each train station has two major attributes: the number of points received for connecting to it and the number of networks that it can accommodate. The countryside station, for example, can only be connected to by a single player, while the central station can accommodate up to five. And then the map starts to get crowded.
As space becomes limited, String Railway becomes simultaneously sillier and more strategic. You'll twist and turn your strings, contort your fingers and body trying to lay your track just so. You will stretch your string to the limit trying to solve the spatial puzzle laid out before you. All the while arguing and laughing about what is and isn't touching. String Railway's ambitions aren't lofty, it just wants to make people smile.
And as the silliness escalates, you'll start to see some meaningful decisions arise. You'll place your rails in serpentine patterns in order to lure your opponents to certain stations and cut them off from others. You'll construct stations in places that protect your monopoly in the southern region, but doesn't isolate you from the valuable city dwelling passengers in the north. And I haven't even mentioned the "long string." Beneath the silly premise lies and actual game with meaningful tactical decisions to be made and enough strategic depth to carry its breezy 20 minute playtime.
Is Fun Enough?
As an experience, String Railway is delightful. Anything that can make you smile for a solid quarter hour is probably worth doing. As a game, String Railway has just enough depth to keep it interesting and engaging, but it's not without its faults. During the last turn or so, the game can really slow down as players count how many points they are trailing by and search desperately for that one route that con provide just enough to clinch the victory. This can be remedied by some gently ribbing or, as we have begun to do, keeping victory point totals hidden until the end. And in that vein, we've also taken to handing out a station to all players at the start of the game so that players have a two stations to choose from on their turn. It doesn't lengthen the game and sprinkles a little more strategy into the mix.
There are games that weave intricate and interconnected systems together that strive to push the strategic muscles of the most weathered of gamers to the brink. And then there's String Railway. It provides laughs, interesting decisions and it tells a story. You'll see Japan evolve and grow before you. Central stations will become a hub surrounded by a tangle of string while lone countryside stations will pock the rural and mountainous regions. There's a satisfaction to be had at the end of the game and knowing that the entirety of the map was created by your hands.
String Railway is fun and in, every sense of the word, charming. You can't help but smile when it enters the room. Playing with string is tactile and the implementation is clever as well as thematic. There are better ways to spend 15 minutes, but not many that involve keeping your clothes on.