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It is no secret that I like trains. I could talk your ear off if you would let me about the history behind American railroads, why they are essential for our economy today, or the challenges and enjoyment of modeling railroads. So, considering my enjoyment of trains, a train-themed game would probably be right up my alley, right? In this case, yes! (In fact, you don’t have to be a train enthusiast to enjoy this game!)
Station Master is an older game (2004) and is typically an overlooked gem, in my humble opinion. While not a strategy game, per-se, there is plenty going on that can allow you to plot and plan. It is one of my favorite larger group games (can play up to 6) and can either be a filler game (fill in chunks of time between games during a game night) or be a game night to itself, depending on the time available and the group playing it.
Unfortunately, this game is often overlooked, in part because of its age and in part because it is not a big ticket game like Settlers of Catan, or Puerto Rico. But, I would argue that despite some shortcomings in the art, this game is a worthwhile small game that does not disappoint.
Station Master is a fairly straightforward card game. While not quite a micro game, it is definitely a small game. (112 cards and 36 tokens). The premise is simple (though more based in European railroad practice rather than American) – players are rival station masters trying to direct the most passengers to the most profitable trains and gain point for yourself in doing it.
The theme is admittedly a little thin, but while you may not experience what it would actually be like to be a station master, you do have a lot of cut-throat fun, with bluffing, dastardly tricks, and brilliant wins. And, you do get the feeling thematically that you are putting a train together as the cards get laid out. My daughter, who is now 2, has observed a couple games and quickly recognized the “whoooo whooo’s” (anything in a line must be a train, in her mind!)
Fortunately for those who suffer from analysis paralysis, you can only take one action per turn, and you only have to choose between two actions; either place a passenger token, or play a card (either a railcar or special action)
Your passengers (each player has 6) have various values between 1-3. Once a train is complete, players total the value of the train and multiply by the value of their passenger(s) placed. So a train with a value of ten is multiplied by your passenger value (3) and that is the points you gain from that train (30 pt)
Overall, it is pretty straight forward. The engine cards have a value between 3 and 8, which indicates the physical number of tokens (not counting the value of those tokens) that can be placed on that train, and the number of car cards that need to be played to the train to finish it. Once the train is full, no one else can get on.
However, things are not always what they seem. In addition to passenger cards that can be played to a train that are worth positive points, there are also freight cars that can be played to trains that are worth negative points. This creates opportunities to mess with your opponents, in some sometimes sneaky ways.
The tokens you play to a train are played face down, meaning that your opponent has no way of knowing whether that last passenger you placed was a 3 or a 1. This can lead to some sneaky tactics, such as lightly investing in a train to get everyone else on board, and then fill it with freight cars. Ah, the joys of a good bluff!
Also of note are the special action cards, which can be used offensively or defensively. You can rearrange the passengers in play, uncouple railcars, add your passengers to a full train, end trains prematurely (appropriately the “caboose” card), etc. A well played card can certainly throw a monkey wrench in the works, or rescue your bacon, depending on the situation.
Another aspect is the special trains. There are executive class trains, with matching executive cars. They are worth big points if attached to an executive class train, but anywere else they are big negative point cards! Also to watch for: The freight engine; where all negative cards are positive and all positives are negative. These little touches help mix things up and keep it interesting.
Once the last train has left the station, all points are tallied and the chief station master determined! At this point, most people seem to want a rematch, especially since it tends to be a quick(ish) game. Unlike some games, this game really is worth the replay. Some games, either because of theme, length, or mechanics, tend to wear out their welcome either for a night, or over time. But Station Master makes for a good filler than you can come back to again and again.
It should be mentioned at this point that the art, while certainly functional is a bit bland. This could be a non-starter for some, or inconsequential for others. I myself fall somewhat in the middle. I really like this game. It is simple, quick, easily explained, very portable, and overall is a great filler game. But the art while not quit garish, leaves a little to be desired.
Maybe it has to do with it being a small, low budget game. While it is put out by Mayfair Games, the folks who have brought us Settlers of Catan, it is obvious that this was merely an addition to their catalog and not a main attraction. The components, box, and cards are cheaper. Now, to be clear, the art does not sink the game. I can overlook it, and enjoy a good 30-40 minute game of shuffling those plastic tokens around with little confusion to what is being played. I merely suggest that there is a really good game to be had here, and maybe it would be worth updating with new and better graphics.
But enough about the art. Mechanic wise and game play wise, this game is a lot of fun. This is not a very deep strategy game, nor does it pretend to be. It is just some simple fun as you vie for the best trains. It can certainly turn a little cut-throat, but even if no one is that aggressive, it is still a fun game. You can find the game here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006HCVYK/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B0006HCVYK&linkCode=as2&tag=thefruhob-20&linkId=VOQFBU3H64HJVXD6