|Components & Design
It’s hard to miss, the roll-and-write renaissance is in full swing. Games where you roll dice and then mark something on a score pad were completely out of style for a couple of years, now they are back with a huge vengeance. I suspect the pencil industry was behind this development. When I was a kid, every time my family wanted to play Yahtzee it was like “Were do we have a pencil? Oh. Any of those ballpoint pens work? Hm. Do we have a piece of coal? No? How about pricking a finger and writing with blood? What? Oh, yeah, I remember what happened last time. Well, did anyone really want to play this, anyway?”
That’s just one of the good things about Railroad Ink: It comes with it’s own pens. It also has dry erase boards, so you don’t run out of score sheets. And the pens have little sponges at the other end to erase those dry erase boards, and they actually work. Hell yes, I’m impressed by that. Have you ever wiped a dry erase game board and it was just clean afterwards, not just smudged all over? These sponges do it! Enough gushing about the writing implements, let’s talk about the game.
Railroad Ink – The base game
Or rather, let’s talk about the games. There are two editions of Railroad Ink: Blazing Red and Deep Blue. The base game is the same in both games, but they come with different add-ons. It’s worth mentioning that the add-ons are extra dice, and you only need them once, not once per player, so if you have both editions you can play any variant with up to twelve players.Playing with that many players will not even slow the game down, because everyone plays at the same time. One player rolls the dice, and then everyone tries to fit them on their grid. Instead of numbers the dice show roads and railway tracks in straights, in curves, and in T-junctions. There are also stations where roads turn into rails and an overpass where rails and roads cross. The four dice are not all the same, that’s an important bit to keep in mind when planning for the future. So now, with the dice rolled, you have to draw them onto your seven by seven board.
The rules for that are entirely unsurprising. To draw a piece of road it has to connect to another road, or to one of the road exits at the edge of the board. The same goes for railways. And never shall the twain meet, except at a station. Or maybe at an overpass, but that doesn’t technically count as them meeting. They are not connected there. This becomes important when counting points.
All players get the same pieces, so the point is to place them better than everyone else. But there’s one more strategic element to break up that simple concept. All players have six intersections, all possible combinations of road and rails connected. In addition to the routes from the dice you may place one of those intersections per round, but only three per game and each of them only once. Those intersections are insanely useful for connecting your separate networks.
Connecting your networks is important because one big network is worth more points than two small ones. A network’s value is based on the number of exit it connects, and a well-connected network often makes up half your total score or more. This is where you have to pay attention to those overpasses, they don’t connect networks. On top of that, you score points for the longest, uninterrupted stretch of road on your board, for the longest railway track, and for every one of the central nine spaces you filled. You lose one point for each open end of road or rail on your board, so don’t go to crazy with your building towards the end.
That’s all there is to say about the base game, but don’t worry, there’s more. Both editions come with two expansions, each of which has two special dice to be rolled in addition to the regular route dice.
Railroad Ink Deep Blue
Of the two editions, Deep Blue is the nice one. It confronts you with rivers or lakes to make your job harder. You have to pick one of the two expansions. Rivers are essentially a third kind of route. At the end of the game you pick one of your rivers and score a point for each space it runs through, plus three bonus points for each end that connects to the edge of the board. The problem is, of course, that your roads and rails can’t simply cross a river. To do that you need a bridge from the expansion dice. Fortunately you don’t have to ruin your regular routes with rivers. If you don’t like what the river dice show, you don’t have to use them.
Lakes are more spacious. With the bits the lake dice show you fill some of your spaces with water. The smallest lake on your board is worth one point per space it occupies, but that’s not the main benefit of a lake. What’s really nice about them are the piers. They connect a road or railway to the lake, and all routes with piers on the same lake are part of the same network.
Railroad Ink Blazing Red
Enough of constructively building routes. Blazing Red is a disaster movie come dice game, and your options are volcanoes or meteors. Volcanoes create lava lakes that work a lot like lakes, only there are no piers, instead of connecting your routes the lava can eat them, and using at least one of the lava dice is mandatory. At least you score five points for every completed lava lake, plus extra points for every space in the largest lava lake.
The most fun, however, are the meteors. The two dice from this expansion give direction and distance from the last meteor strike, and a new meteor will strike in that space, obliterate everything there, and leave a crater. You can rebuild your infrastructure if you want, when placing a route you can erase a crater and draw in its space. Or you can see the meteors as an opportunity. The meteors have tons of precious metals, and you can harvest them. Every route that ends at a crater is worth two points.
No delays, no speed limits – The Verdict
There have been a couple of really good roll-and-write games since they started their resurgence, but most of them are still variants of putting numbers in boxes. Not Railroad Ink. The roll-and-draw is fresh, the route building has a great balance between strategy and luck. Especially the once a game intersections have a great strategic impact in a light, quick game. Best of all, simultaneous play means no downtime, everyone is always playing.
The base game is already pretty fun, but the real joy of Railroad Ink is in the expansions. All of them, from both editions, add different strategic twists. I prefer Blazing Red thematically, but both editions are a load of fun. Railroad Ink is a convincing argument for the roll-and-write renaissance.