Theme and What is It?
It is a Golden Age for railroads. Railroads are spreading rapidly and stock certificates are a hot commodity. Three to five players will take on the role wealthy investors choosing where to build track and when to invest to exploit that growth. Players will compete to outwit their friends and construct the most lucrative routes. Who will grow to prominence, accumulating the most wealth and becoming the biggest tycoon of the rails?
In Mini Rails three to five players will work to expand the rails and improve the value of six different train companies. To set up the game, players will first build the frame. The map tile with the city goes in the center and then the frame is filled with other map tiles placed at random. The frame indicates the starting track locations for each of the train companies with some slight variance in a three-player game. Players will select their profit board and take the associated action tiles. There is a chart in the manual showing how many discs of each train company go into the draw bag. In each round, discs will be drawn randomly to the central market board. The number of discs is equal to two times the number players plus one. Once a starting player is determined, the player order for the first round is set in a snake draft going from start player, clockwise to the last player who goes twice, then counter-clockwise back to the start player. Ex. A, B, C, D, D, C, B, A. In future rounds, the turn order will be set based on the order in which players select from the available train company discs, with those choosing the first disc going first and so on down the line.
In a game round, players will execute each of two actions. On a player’s turn, they can either build track OR buy stock. In either case, they will take their player marker and swap it with one of the available train company discs that they intend to use for their action. If the player is buying stock, they will take the train company disc and place it on the “0” space of their profit board. If a player chooses to build, they will choose a train company disc and place onto the game board in a space adjacent to existing track of the same color. Each region features a number of either white or red pips to indicate an increase or decrease in value respectively. When track is built in a region, all discs of that same color are adjusted on each player’s profit board. So if blue track was built on a region with two red pips, then any blue discs on all players’ boards would decrease in value by two. Note that this only affects discs currently on a player’s board, so if a player were to buy stock in blue later, they would still start on “0” and only be affected by future building.
At the end of the round, there will be one train company disc left unchosen, this disc will slide down to the round marker track. It also counts as that company having “paid taxes” which will impact the end game. Only companies that have paid taxes during the course of play will be able to receive a profit and only those that have not will be penalized for having a negative value. After seven rounds, the game ends. Players will then remove train discs from their profit boards according to which companies have and have not paid taxes. Any company that paid taxes is removed from the negative side of the profit boards while any company that did not pay taxes is removed from the positive side of the profit board. It does not matter how many times a company paid taxes. Players then tally up the value on their profit boards from any remaining discs and the player with the most profit is the winner.
I first heard of Mini Rails on the first day of Gen Con as I overheard some pre-con excited chatter while I was standing line to enter the con. The prospect of a game that took the popular theme of building and investing in railways, often a complex and daunting undertaking for the uninitiated, and distilled it down to two actions only and a 60 minute playtime had my attention. While I have avoided the bulk of the heavy train games, I really enjoy the challenge of balancing expansion with investment that is seen in other titles of this genre.
Quality of Components and Insert
Mini Rails comes with seven map tiles, six frame tiles that create a border, one central market board, five player profit boards, ten player action tiles featuring each of the two actions for each player, ten player order markers with two of each player color, 72 train company discs with 12 of each of the six company colors, and a cloth draw bag. The map and frame tiles are a little thin, but showed no signs of warping. Once the frame is built, filling it with tiles can be a little tricky as it is quite a snug fit. The market and player boards are quite a bit thicker so they feel more sturdy. In my copy they had warped a little, but hopefully a heavy weight and some time will help that. The action tiles are roughly the same thickness as the map tiles. The wood components are standard fare. The player order markers are traditionally shaped pawns and the train company discs have a consistent finish and feel when in the bag. The molded insert has clear areas for all of the components which helps with setup and the fit is snug enough that I experienced very little shifting and spillage when transporting the game.
Mini Rails has a nice color palette across its components. The map tiles feature background art that reflects the pips for that area and works in concert with the value of the area to create a coherent image of relative value. As the pips are either red or white, and usually only one to three pips per space, they do not obscure the underlying art. The train company discs are in six clearly different colors and they are different enough from the five player colors that players should more easily remember that they are not tied to a single train company. My one complaint with the art and color scheme is with the action tiles. The front and backs feature the same art, but the back or “used” side is greyed out. Under certain lighting and moreso with specific player colors it was sometimes difficult to tell the front from the back at a glance.
Mini Rails creates an interesting level of tension. The random draw of train company discs makes each round unpredictable. There is a delicate balancing act related to timing as players only have the two actions available each round. Players trying to read each other and make sure that, while making smart choices for themselves, they are avoiding aiding their opponents makes for a nice brain crunch. Because the game plays in under an hour, it does not lead to what many gamers would consider brain burn and the pace of the game keeps the game moving quickly.
Difficulty and Age Range Suggestion
Mini Rails is railway stock and expansion game distilled to the core mechanisms. Mini Rails features only two actions: building track and buying stock. Mechanically, it is very simple compared to many games of this genre and I think perhaps children as young as ten could comprehend how it plays. However, the box recommends ages 15 and up and I think this is likely because of the required skill of gauging the best companies in which to invest and reading the intentions of the other players at the board based on the available options. Players can and should work toward their own benefit, but there are also plenty of opportunities to negatively impact their opponents and can get pretty cutthroat. This aspect might also be easier for players of the recommend age to handle.
Mini Rails sets out to deliver the grand experience of building rails and buying stock in a simpler format and play in under an hour. To that end it is a resounding success. The game plays very quickly with very little down time. There is a surprising amount of depth in spite of only having two actions available per round. The game is heavier than one might expect and there is quite a bit of trying to read the other players. Players will need to make good decisions based on the available train companies and this will sometimes force the players’ choices. The impact the leftover disc has on scoring led to many difficult choices and it is can be easy to block someone who has bought stock in a color that hasn’t yet paid taxes as there are rarely more than three of the same color discs drawn in a round.
One complaint my group had was related to the action tiles. There is not much color variance between the front and back of the action tiles making it hard to tell them apart. We found that turning them slightly or “tapping” them either on or off the board was a little easier for tracking our actions. You may find that you don’t really need them if you can remember which action you took on your first turn, since there are only two actions available and you will do both of them each round. I do worry whether a “correct” strategy will emerge over multiple plays. This is not a game where your strategy exists in a bubble and you will have to keep a watchful eye on which players stand to benefit from your every decision. While this keeps player engagement high, I do like to feel I have a choice to make.
Overall, I really enjoyed Mini Rails. It is a unique take on this genre and the quick playtime is definitely a plus. Not only is it under an hour in length, the pace of the game rounds is generally fast. The map tiles offer variability and the random draw of the train discs has a strong impact on course of play. There is just the right balance of game length and brain crunch. Both the designer, Mark Gerrits, and the publisher, Moaideas, are ones to watch.