Can you be a film critic if you've never seen Citizen Kane? Can you be a music critic if you've never listened to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Can you be a board game critic if you've never played Age of Steam? I'm not sure. Am I critic? I just run a silly website and make videos of about board games. If that's all it takes then I have a confession to make; I've never seen Citizen Kane... or listened to Sgt. Pepper... or played Age of Steam. (Yes, the rock I live under is very comfortable).
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
While every game should be judged on its own merits, it is impossible for a game to exist in a vacuum. Critiquing a game like Monopoly in its original context would be much different that looking at in a modern light. So why bring up Martin Wallace's Age of Steam? Well, Designer Alban Viard cut his game design teeth creating his own maps for Age of Steam and even from my inexperienced vantage it's clear that Tramways takes inspiration from the switchyard that Wallace built. And though I haven't experienced what Age of Steam has to offer, I have spent some time with its descendants, Steam and Railroad Tycoon. The structure of a game round follows that same basic outline: auction for turn order, build routes/deliver goods, earn points/money, rinse, repeat. Regrettably, I won't be of much use providing direct comparisons, but I think I can still provide some insight into what makes Tramways tick.
The Scenic Route
As a physical product, Tramways earns high marks. The cards are high quality and feel great in the hand (yes, I sleeved them, but only because I'm a weirdo). The boards are nice and sturdy accompanied by some of the best meeples I've handled. The colors are bright and inviting, clear and uncluttered. Yes, the included tiddly wink money is a shame, but it's a small blemish on an otherwise beautiful object. In a genre that is filled with games that are as homely as this author, it's a refreshing change of scene. I'll readily admit my predilection for pretty games, but it's more than a superficial preference, it's how I live my life. The walls in my home and office are a collage of art and photos. They serve no purpose other than to bring me visual joy. When I play board games, it's more than a just a mental exercise. It's a communal experience that engages me on several levels: mentally, physically, and visually.
Good visual design doesn't take attention from the game design, it enhances it. Tramways has some slight problems regarding icon location on some of the cards, but for the most part, it's easy to visually parse the information at hand. Your bright pastel tracks pop against the muted, slightly textured colors of the board. It's easy to tell your tracks from your opponents', which spaces are available to build and how to reach the parcels and buildings. Making a tactical mistake is rarely the result of overlooking something on the board. If you're half-way paying attention, you can see which connections are available and how they need to be approached. You're mistakes are a result of being outplayed, not getting lost in the map.
Tramways is a handsome production with a great art deco style.
But ultimately, being pretty isn't enough. If Tramways were all looks and no brain it would be hanging on my wall and not sitting on my shelf. Now that I think of it, Tramways doesn't spend much time on my shelf because it's usually out on the table. That's a very good thing.
Do I hear 20?
From the start, Tramways makes it known that you're in for something different. I don't have encyclopedic knowledge of every board game out there, but the auction system employed by the designer is new to me and it's not just different for novelty's sake. It's quirky and it's weird, but what a wonderfully odd beast it is.
Auction outcomes are determined in two ways. If you pass, you move to the last most available spot on the turn order track. If you have the highest bid at the beginning of your turn, you move the firstmost available spot. Simple enough. What gives the auction its bite is the fact that you must pay immediately every time you adjust your bid, no matter the result. So as the auction goes around and around the table, it's entirely possible to pay out the nose and still end up last.
The auction forces you to be decisive with your bids. I've found that being bold with an opening bid can be cheaper in the long run than trying to outlast your opponents. Making small bids of $1 and $2 can mask the amount of money you're truly expending. Then you get emotionally invested and before your know it, you've blown $12 when you probably could have scared everyone off with a bid of $8 to start. That's not say you can't chip away at the auctions and come out in a favorable spot. If you notice your opponents bid high, you might throw in a dollar just to see where things go. Let them drain their resources until they're forced to pass, giving you a favorable position for pennies on the dollar. There is no set strategy. Your bids are dictated by your needs and the actions of your opponents. As it should be. It forces you to consider the game state. How immediate are your needs? What do your opponents want? What are you willing to spend? Can your opponents match you? Are they they type of people to outbid you out of spite or are they calm and collected? It does what a good auction is supposed to do. It brings the players and their intentions to the forefront. You aren't interacting with a cold, calculating game system. You're engaged with live, cutthroat opponents who will do what it takes to make sure you're squeezed out of a favorable position.
Tramways employs a hybrid approach when it comes to open information. Everyone can see how much cash you have available and will bid accordingly. What they can't see are the cards you have in your hand. Some of the action cards can be used in place or to augment your bid. By playing these cards during the auction, you give up the ability to use them during the action phase. You're not giving up actions (you'll still have the same amount), you're giving up flexibility. It's one less card at your disposal to make your plans work out. You're making a value judgment that the turn order you (hopefully) win in the auction is worth more than the wiggle room that card would afford you on your turn. It also keeps players on their toes during the auction. They can make educated guesses as to how much you can bid, but they can never be quite sure what you're truly capable of. It keeps the game from bogging down due to players making mental calculations. It moves the mental game of the auction and shifts it slightly towards the gut, which matches my playstyle.
So you've finished the auction, you're in a good position, and you're ready to lay some track. No so fast. Every round a number of action cards are laid out that can be added to your deck. After the auction, players take turns selecting a card in the newly established turn order. So your bid to go first isn't just so you have first run and laying track or transporting a passenger, it also gives you first crack at those actions cards and not all cards are created equal.
Some of the cards have parcels symbols that correlate to parcels on the board. By choosing that card, you take ownership of that spot on the board which can give you some great map control. Only you are allowed to build connections to that parcel and it gives you another anchor point from which you can cut people off. There might be a lucrative 'build 3 rails' card or a card with all 4 types of buildings that will give you lots of flexibility on your turn. As good as some of these cards can be, I found that the auctions were more often spurred on by the threat of the Void cards. Oh, Void cards. What vile, awful, disgusting things they are. I hate them in the best possible ways.
Void cards are named after the vast emptiness that takes the place of your soul when you add one to your hand. Or maybe it's because, thematically, cards represent expired tram tickets. I don't know, you be the judge. Void cards are dead weight. They can't be used for anything. Adding insult to injury, whenever you collect one, you must discard a card from your hand. Winning auctions is as much about getting favorable turn order position as it is avoiding Voids. It's great feeling when you outwork your opponents in the auction and stick them with this terrible card and watch them struggle to work out which card they'll discard. Does relishing in the misery of my opponents make me a bad person or a good gamer? Probably both.
Do yourself a favor and use an alternative to the tiddly wink coins.
The Short Road
And so we reach the heart of the game, the action phase. This is where your build your rail network and transport passengers for some sweet, sweet victory points. This is also where the game will pull you deep into its embrace or cast you aside like a used napkin. Lot's of train games reward you for thoughtful planning and executing on your grand vision. The game is how in to navigate the actions of your opponents while still working towards that plan. Tramways sacrifices some if its long term strategic planning for some short term tactical maneuvering due to the random nature of the card draw. Don't get me wrong, you should still have a general plan of action, but be prepared to adapt when your hand of cards don't quite let you execute it to perfection. This might be anathema to some dyed in the wool train gamers, but let me try and convince you why it works.
I mentioned previously that I tend to play from my gut. I'll make some mental calculations here and there and I might even have an idea of what my next two turns will be, but for the most part I'm not a long term planner. I don't even know what I'm having for dinner tonight. I play with a general plan in mind, look at my available options and then decide which one will best for me in that moment. Tramways' balance between strategic planning and tactical execution is perfectly set to match the way I play games. It's like finding a pair of well fitting jeans in the age of skinny pants. It's not my fault I have big thighs! If you're anything like me (my condolences), then Tramways might just be the perfect fit for you. If you're not like me (congratulations), don't check out just yet. The randomness isn't a deal breaker, I promise.
Tramways is a deck building game. Rather, it's a game in which you build a deck over the course of the game. As you add cards to your deck, you have a lower chance of drawing any one specific card. It's statistics or something. But your deck never grows unmanageable. You'll generally add about 7-10 cards to your starting deck of 7 and you have a hand limit of 7. That means if you don't see a card this round, chances are you'll see it the next. You know what's in your deck, you know what it's capable of, and you have a decent idea of when the cards will reach your hand. Your master plan can work if you're willing to wait for it. The question is, can you afford to wait?
Moreover, because of the multi-use nature of the cards you can always do something meaningful on your turn, but sometimes it requires sacrifice. Let's say you wanted to build a rail section that connects to a commercial building and another section that connects to an industrial building. Unfortunately, the only commercial and industrial symbols you have in your hand are on the same card. You can only build one and you have to make a choice and it's a tough one. Tough choices are the cornerstone of a great game. So you analyze your hand. What else can you do on your turn if you can only build one. "Well, I can transport the passenger on the commercial building if I build rail to it," you think to yourself. And so you execute. You don't build the two sections of rails like you wanted, but you made do and you got a heaping pile of points out of it.
It's best to think of the cards as potential. It's your job to turn that potential into tangible benefits. Since most cards can be used for multiple things, your hand is capable of all sorts of moves. Every time you use a card, or spend a card in the auction, or discard a card (*shakes fist at Void cards*), you are giving up a potential combination and potential actions. Again, more difficult choices. Giving up cards is a declaration that you can still do what you need to do with the remaining cards. You're betting on yourself to make it happen. Sometimes it works out and you cheer in triumph. Sometimes it doesn't and you're jeered from across the table. It's also what makes the stress system work so great.
Stress is stressful. It's a constant reminder that no matter how well you're doing, you're going to lose points at the end of the game, it's only a matter of degrees. You see, everyone's stress track starts at one. It will never be less than one. According to the designer, playing one of his games is always a pleasantly stressful activity. It's also a stroke of genius. By starting with some amount of stress, you've already dipped your toes in the water. You're already used to the idea that you're going to lose points points. Using multiple icons on a single card caused you to increase stress. Sure you could use multiple cards to achieve the same result, but all those extra cards you use are lost potential. You're already a little stressed, what's a little more? And you so you push it. It's only one more stress after all. So you push it a little more. And then you notice that the stress track increases in a Fibonacci series. It was an easy decision to increase your stress from 1 to 3, but it's a much more difficult decision to increase it from 8 to 13. Just another delicious decision to ponder.
Give me a pen and a sheet of paper with two dots on it and you'd better believe I'm going to draw that line. Connecting points on map is so fun in and of itself that entire games have been created on this premise. I like building tracks. I like moving my little rails onto the board. I like connecting points, making way for passengers to move around. The board starts mostly empty, seeded with parcels and buildings for future connections. I can visualize the spidering rails making connections before the game even starts. I have an innate desire to make things orderly, to put them in their places. These tracks need to be laid. And when they do it fills the tram-shaped hole in my heart.
No, you don't get the intricate railway networks that other games provide with their fancy hex tiles. I will admit that I miss the chicken foot rails that cause different lines to converge and diverge, but you also don't have to dig through a pile of tiles to find just the one you need. The rails are a simple set of straights of curves and still satisfy my strange desire to connect things. By game's end, the board is a nest of multi-colored rails criss-crossing throughout the board. A netword was created. A story was told. A game was played.
Designer Alban Viard has created more than a game, he's created a system. With ample double sided boards and a surplus of cards, there's more than enough to keep you entertained for a very long time. The chances of playing the same map twice are low and most importantly, the changes in the randomized board are meaningful. The parcels and buildings might be clumped together on one side of the board making your early builds crucial and cards with building symbols even more important. Or maybe everything is spread out, making cards with multiple build rail symbols your top priority. Even still, you can mix up your overall strategies from game to game. Do you build lots of little connections capitalizing on the fact that every one earns you 3 points at the end? Or do you build long winding connections in order to earn more money which you'll cash out at the Leisure buildings? Do you throw elbows with your opponent and build in the middle of their network, forcing them to use your track for their moves? Or do you go off in the corner and do your own thing? Possibilities abound! Even with so much variability included in the box, there are already at least 3 new maps with special rules and another modular expansion on the way. With such a solid core system in place, the amount of ways Tramways can be expanded is limitless and I couldn't be happier to see the places it goes.