#30- A Look Back, and a Look Ahead

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According to WordPress, this post is my 30th post on this blog. While certainly not a huge achievement, or an overly significant milestone, especially since it has been stretched out over many months. But, in my my mind, it is a milestone, and I am sure there is a philosophy out there that encourages you to celebrate every milestone, now matter how minuscule, right? Right….

So, what does one write for a 30th post?  I frankly have few ideas, so I decided to look back at highlights of these past few months, and then attempt to speculate what lies ahead for this blog.

So without further ado, lets look at some highlights of these past 29 posts:

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1. The Most Controversial Post: Downsize Your Hobby: This post generated lots of comments of various reactions both here ont he main blog site, and on the forums I frequent where the link to this post was uploaded. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was more of a negative reaction from the board game crowd- It’s hard to argue with the Cult of the New.

2. The Most Overlooked Post: Unplugged Gaming – Taking time to unplug and spend it with friends is a great way to spend time.

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3. The Most Popular Post: Idea #1 Find the Free Stuff!– This post really kind of kicked of my Low (or No) Cost Ideas Series. According to WordPress’s stats, this was the most viewed post. Hopefully you all found it helpful. This series has been for me  a great way to encapsulate my philosophy and my approach to my hobbies- the essence of being a Frugal Hobbyist.

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4. The Best Board Game Review Post: If I defined best by “most views”, my review of Occupation of the Rhineland would easily take the cake. However, I think that my review of Pay Dirt takes the cake. This game has spawned more posts, or parts of posts than any other game, and has been my favorite game to review to date. Seriously, I think it is that good! Notable runners up in this category: Harbour, which really kickstarted this blog, Serica: Plains of Dust, and Yardmaster Express.

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So, where do we go from here? That is where you, the reader comes in! I realize that I am pulling from two very different groups of hobbyists: Those who like trains, and those who like games. Granted some of you are probably like me and like both! But, I do want to cover both to the best that I can. So, if you have ideas of what you want to see discussed , or reviewed, let me know in the comments.

Now, I do have some ideas, and hopefully that work is slowing down for me, the next 30 posts will come at a faster speed than before. (but no promises!)For the next 30 posts, expect more of the same. More board game reviews, more updates on my train layout, and more ideas and opinions about how to enjoy both without breaking the bank.

Now, a word about board games: I would love to review more games. If you are a designer, promoter, or publisher, big, or small, I will gladly review a game for you. Simply send me an email, and we can work something out!

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Yardmaster Express- an Express review

If you are anything like me, it can be sometimes hard to get people to play a new game. Especially if those people are more of casual gamers who are a little hesitant to try another new game of yours, especially since I like to play (and craft) complicated games. (Puerto Rico, Pay Dirt, Empire Engine, to name a few on my shelf)

However, some games are simple, and unimposing enough that the resistance is short lived. Once the game has been played, you all find yourselves shuffling up the cards….”Let’s play again! That was fun!” When that happens, I know I have found a good, short, enjoyable, simple filler game, that everyone can enjoy.

Now, I am not always a big fan of games in this category. Games like Uno, Phase 10 (which is really a LONG game), Blitz, Farkle, Rook, and Ratuki, etc. are fun, but for me are not a main event. I like to think and strategize typically. Don’t get me wrong- these are all good games for the niche they fill, and are fun with the family, but it is just not a niche that I need filled all that often. In other words, these are the games, I can get everyone else to play, but I personally am not as excited about.

So when I discover a game that meets those conditions, but also is interesting to me, and draws me into it as well, one that everyone, no matter their deep-thinking comfort level can enjoy, and is short and addictive (“Play again!” “One more time!” “Why not one more round!”), I take notice, and if I can, add it to my shelf.

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Yardmaster Express is one such game. While a slightly larger micro game at 30+ cards, this is a good little filler game, that can be enjoyable in-between games kind of game, or if you are a little shorter on time, can be an enjoyable event to itself.

OVERVIEW:

Yardmaster Express is a micro game from a small board game start-up publisher, Crash Games, who recently brought us Pay Dirt, which I have been thoroughly enjoying. My PnP copy has been seeing lots of use!

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Yardmaster Express is also another recently funded Kickstarter project that is really a great game for the package. It is the express version of Yardmaster, also a recent Kickstarter project and a small game as well.

Players take the role of yardmasters (imagine that!) trying to make up a profitable train consist to send out. Each player has their own train they are hooking up car(d)s to based on type or value. Once the trains reach a certain car(d) limit, the game ends, and players tally up their points.

CONSTRUCTION:

As with all it’s games, Crash Games generously provides the full color pdf files for Yardmaster Express on its game page on BoardGameGeek here:

As this games is all cards, it really is a simple, simple build. You print out the cards (5 pages total) double sided with the colored train cars on the front, and the grey wild cards on the back. Then I ran them through the laminator, cut the cards out, and rounded the edges. Other than making sure to keep the cards in order when double-sided printing so that the cards match up with their backs, this was a walk in the park, especially compared to some games I have crafted.

GAMEPLAY:

In one sense this game takes elements from 7 Wonders, Uno, and Stationmaster, and blends it into a nice, unique game. First, you draw a hand equal to the number of players in the game. This is a communal hand that gets passed around. On your turn, you draw a card to the hand, play a card either face up or face down, and then pass the hand to the next player.

The communal hand. I can choose to either play the red 2/2 card or the green 2/3 card...

The communal hand. I can choose to either play the red 2/2 card or the green 2/3 card…

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This deck-drafting/communal hand mechanic is really neat, and while I am familiar with it somewhat with 7 Wonders, it really has a novel, unique feel to it.  Do I take that 4/4 card I can’t play, and bury it as a wild card in my train to prevent someone else from taking it, or do I take that 3/3 card in the hopes that the 4/4 card makes it around to me next turn?

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Once a set number of rounds have been played (depending on the number of players), players tally up their points from the value of the cars added to the train. In addition, whomever has the longest run of a color gets extra points based on the number of cars in the run. You can also play with the caboose expansion which offers some variety of extra bonus points to earn by meeting certain conditions.

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Admittedly this is a very simple game. This is a light filler type of game, and it makes no pretensions to be anything else. Even with that though, there is a little bit of strategy and planning involved, which I alluded to above. The sharing of a common hand makes this game really interesting.  The Caboose variants really make the game more interesting as well, and keep things different each game. These really help break up the monotony of always the same goal.

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CONCLUSION:

Yardmaster Express is really a great game for what it is intended to be. It is a fun little filler suitable for all ages. If you can play Uno, you can play this. Is this a deep game, or a gamer’s game? No, not at all. In one sense it feels a little more strategic than Uno, mainly because of the card drafting/shared hand mechanic, but on the other, it feels just as simple and easy to play, although it doesn’t feel like brainless play like Phase 10 or other games with little decision making…

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In short, this game really is worth checking out. The retail version should be out soon, or you can always make the PnP version, which takes only a little work to do. Finally a game I like that everyone likes to play, not just my gamer friends and family. 😉

 

Digging up a Gold Nugget, or a Pyrite Disappointment? A Review of Pay Dirt.

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Gold. There is something about it’s allure that is difficult to entirely describe. That precious metal has been sought after for centuries. Emperors craved it, kings warred over it, prospectors gambled their lives and their fortunes for it, and now investors are plunking their money down for it, desperate for financial security.

Gold. Something about it’s color and luminescence captivates our imaginations. Young boys dream of finding buried treasures of gold and any good movie about treasure hunting usually features gobs of it. It is hard to think of another physical substance that has been so coveted over the centuries of human civilization.

Gold. It is still important today too, even beyond the the investment craze. It is a vital component for special electronic wires and components. It is used in all sorts of fine jewelry and rings. It has a significant demand and usefulness. Hence the gold mining industry.

We don’t often think of gold mining as a modern industry. When we think of mining we think of coal, ore, or recently natural gas, or Minecraft. But gold mining continues, albeit half-way across the world in South Africa where there are rich gold mines.

But wait! We would do well not to forget that it continues on our own shores, especially in Alaska. While we often equate gold mining here with the 1800’s and the prospecting boom, there are still gold mining operations in the area.

It is a hard, cold, expensive job, but someone has got to do it. Will that someone be you?

OVERVIEW:

My homemade box

My homemade box

Before you start packing your bag for the next flight to Alaska (I hope you packed plenty of long underwear!),allow me to clarify. In this case, I am referring to a new game put out by Crash Game: Pay Dirt. Pay Dirt is a worker placement game about the modern gold mining industry in Alaska.The game is 2-5 players (though the PnP version only has files for 4 players), and lasts about 90 minutes or so. It recently funded on kickstarter so expect to see it available in retail next year.  While winter clothes are not required, a determined attitude is.

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Digging for gold in the frigid North is by no means a walk in the park. The gold is out in the bush, far away from civilization…which isn’t saying much since it is Alaska! And did I mention it is cold and hard? Equipment is always in need of repair or wearing out, good staff are hard to come by, funds are limited, and hardship are a plenty. Rusted axles, snap freezes, misfiled paperwork, dishonest employees, diesel shortages… wait, where are you going?

Just like the real thing, Pay Dirt nicely captures the challenges and excitement of the modern gold mining industry in Alaska. This is not your average worker placement game with a pasted on theme. The theme here is rich and engaging. In an abstract way, you do feel like you are trying to lead your ragtag mining outfit to victory (most gold wins!) But theme is not everything. To take the analogy in my title here, a good theme is like a good shiny appearance. Only by looking at what’s under the hood can we tell if this is the real deal, or a fake disappointment.

CONSTRUCTION:

If you plan on buying a copy when it is produced, then feel free to skip this part. But, if you are like me- a frugal, crafty kind of guy, then keep reading!

Pay Dirt has been my most exhaustive/involved PnP build to date. Part of that was due to some of my choices to make it nice, and part of that was due to the fact that this is a big game (on par with Puerto Rico, or Ticket to Ride as far as amount of components). I have been detailing some of the construction in previous posts: here, here, and here

The first step is to (obviously) print everything out. The tiles and the player boards I printed on matte photo paper. For the cards (Personnel and Hardships), I printed on high quality printer paper, double-sided (these have fronts and backs, and photo paper only can be printed on one side, hence regular paper).

The cards were the easiest to make. after printing them out, I ran them through my laminator. (Man, I love this tool!) After cutting them out, I pulled out my nifty, new, corner rounder  to give them a nice professional-ish appearance. The nipping with the cutter was tedious, but it made a difference.

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The tiles were simple as well. Because this is the PnP version, the tile backs (with the exception of the pay dirt tiles) are not included. I simply glued the pages to cereal cardstock and pressed it with a dry iron on low heat. This worked well in “laminating” the paper to the cardstock. Once everything had dried for a day between thick theology books (to keep the boards from warping as the glue dried), it was just a matter of cutting out the tiles.

There are a lot of components to this game as well. You need some unique pieces to track the dropping temperature, to  mark bidding categories, and to mark the head miner. (I have half a mind to go and find a cheap hard hat to serve this purpose! 🙂 )You need 48 red cubes to track wear to your equipment, 25 gold nuggets, 25 gold bars (worth 5 nuggets), 40 workers, 10 each in Blue, Red, Brown, Green.

You can use counting cubes for most of this, and designate different colors to differentiate. However, I decided to get some wood dowels and make my own token. Talk about cheap! (But, labor intensive). I bought a 1/4″ square dowel and chopped it into cubes.

The raw materials

The raw materials

These became the wear cubes and gold nuggets. I then chopped 13/16″ lengths in another 1/4″ square dowel to make the gold bars. The workers and tacking tokens were chopped from a 1/2″ round dowel. Everything was then soaked overnight in paint baths. While the coloring is not the most impressive (with the exception of the gold pieces), it was a cheap and somewhat fun…but also tedious. I think the results were worth it though for custom bits at a fraction of the price. Had I had to do it over, I would have bought some spray paint  for better finish results when painting.

GAMEPLAY:

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Unlike some games that overwhelm you with details and choices right out of the gate (I am looking at you Caylus), Pay Dirt offers a streamlined, simplified experience without dumbing things down. There is still plenty of strategy here, but it is very accessible. The game plays over a variable number of rounds (ultimately determined by the players). Each round has four phases.

The first phase is auction, and really this is the heart of the game. When you start the game, you have old, slow equipment and few workers. In the auction phase you can upgrade equipment, hire personnel, and stake more claims. But the way the bidding works makes things difficult sometimes to get what you need. You will find yourself in all out bidding wars with your opponents for vital pieces of equipment, and valuable workers. Once one item is auctioned off (there are three pools of choices to choose from: equipment, personnel, claims), the next auction must be for something different. (Example: The player before started bidding on a new excavator (a equipment tile). Once that  auction ends, you may start bidding on an item, but not from the equipment category. So if there was a new wash plant you were looking at: sorry!)

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Choices, choices, choices. Do I want a new wash plant? or a new claim with valuable gold? or more workers?, or maybe an excavator?

The Auction "house" The little brown cylinder marks the "no bid" area

The Auction “house” The little brown cylinder marks the “no bid” area

Once everyone has had a chance to start bidding on something or has won something, then the auction phase ends, and all items won are incorporated into your outfit.

Play then moves to the Work phase. This phase is pretty simple- Simultaneously place your workers and preform actions. In essence your player board represents a conveyor belt of sorts as the gold is dug up, transported, and washed. Tiles are excavated from claims (they are kept face down until processed), moved from excavator to loader, and then through the wash plant. Once the pay dirt tile reaches the last space in this “conveyor belt”, then it is flipped over and the amount of gold you get is revealed.DSCF3432

Each piece of equipment is divided into 1-3 “stages” that the pay dirt must move across. Each worker assigned to an equipment moves the dirt one stage. So, until you get more workers, better equipment or both, it takes a long time (about two turns) to process each pay dirt tile. So it is imperative to upgrade your outfit in one way or another.

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By using all five workers, I can pull a piece of pay dirt (The brown tile) from the claim, across the excavator, across the loader, and onto the first stage of the wash plant. Because the dirt hit every piece of equipment, they all gain 1 wear cube. (Notice too that the earth movers had been upgraded to have two slots instead of three, speeding up the process somewhat.)

Each time your equipment loads a dirt tile, it wears down a little (represented by wear cubes) Once the wear cubes gained are equal to the wrench icons, the equipment in question breaks down and needs repaired. You can assign workers to repair  and remove the cubes, but of course this ties up valuable manpower.

Cubes! Though, you don't want too many of these...

Cubes! Though, you don’t want too many of these…

In addition to this main task, you can send workers to town to sell gold for cash, or buy camp gear. (These are little upgrades to help your process: generators, test drills, etc.)

In other words, there is lots of work to do, and not enough hands to go around.

After the Work phase, the Hardships start rolling in. After all, this is Alaska. Whoever has the least gold, draws hardship cards for all the players, and distributes them at his discretion. This is a nice catch up mechanism, in my opinion. These hardship cards are not a walk in the park- they can really hamper your operation next turn. Whether you lose prized equipment you paid top dollar for, or lose gold, or employees, or have other difficulties that require more men, etc, you really have to fight to keep your operation moving some turns.

Hardships, they a'coming

Hardships, they a’coming

Whoever is the head miner (Start player for the round) then looks at the temperature indicated on his hardship card, and drops the temperature on the main board accordingly. Once the temperature reaches 0, then the last round begins after this round finishes.

Since I am head miner this turn, the temperature drops 2 degrees. Brr.....

Since I am head miner this turn, the temperature drops 2 degrees. Brr…..

After the hardships are resolved, the final phase is  Income- every player gains $2,000. (a subsidary from the government) The round finishes and the next player to the left of the start player becomes the new Head Miner, and the next round begins.

That is really all there is to it. It takes a lot to explain it, but once you’ve played a round or two, it is pretty intuitive and straightforward. Once the game is over, players tally up their gold- most gold wins!

FINAL THOUGHTS:

So is this a nugget of gold, or a pyrite disappointment? The short answer: yes to the former, no to the latter. Pay Dirt really is a gem of a game. It is simple in one aspect. There is really only one strategy/one goal you are working towards. This is not a complex, point salad game. In fact this is the first game I’ve played in a while with not a ubiquitous victory point in sight. It is not overwhelming  too much to “newbie” players, or non-gamers….too much. It is after all a modern “euro” game so there is plenty to take in, and plenty to keep your mind busy, but it is not overwhelming or brain burning.

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Looks like that old excavator needs some repairing before you load anymore dirt this turn!

That said, it is also complex enough to keep the gamers among us interested. There is some strategy involved, from the auction phase to the dilemma of where to place your workers in the work phase. (too much to do, not enough hands to do it…). Do you focus on adding more workers to your outfit, or better equipment? Do you use camp gear to help supplement? Do you sell hard earned gold for some needed cash for auctions next round? Or, do you make do with what you have?

Your typical Euro is bashed for being “meh” when it comes to theme. With some games, the theme really is just the wrapping paper to the game itself. No so with Pay Dirt. This Alaskan gold mining theme is practically oozing from every part of this game (and I mean this in a good way). The theme is so closely connect with the mechanics, you really do get a sense of “roughing it” while making your fortune in the Alaskan wild.  I would recommend wearing flannel shirts while playing this game. A scruffy beard doesn’t hurt either, just to get int he spirit of things.

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In case you can’t tell, I really, really like this game. Even for it being the PnP version, the art is great (Kudos to Crash Games for even making this available!), and the game play really is enjoyable, with out being too difficult. All the people I have introduced it to, have enjoyed it. While for some it was a bit of a shock to play a game where things are so hard to get things moving sometime (Those hardship cards don’t pull any punches! Between that, your poor equipment, and your meager amount of workers, you feel as if you are barely keeping your operation afloat the first few rounds), the game really does shine.

One gripe I have (and it is a minor one), is that while it says it plays 2-5 players, the two player games I have tried have been lackluster. Mainly because it is hard to have a lively auction round (where much of the action is in the game) with just two players. I don’t know if others who have played have had the same experience, or if there are tweaks to the rules for a two player game I am not aware of, but this is one spot where Pay Dirt falls short. But from 3-5 players, this is absolutely one of my favorite game, hands down!

Interested? Check out the game on Board game Geek here. You can find the PnP files if you want to craft it, or information for when it will be released to retail.

How about you? Have you tried this game yet? If so, what did you think? Be sure to share in the comments below, and if you want to keep more content like this coming, please subscribe! (either at the top or bottom of the page!)

Fun for One? (A Review of “Occupation of the Rhineland, 1936”)

Solitaire games…. up until recently I viewed them as a necessary evil. Ok, well maybe not evil…. I just thought it took the whole fun away from being a game. Almost like “Solitaire games” was a paradox or something.

After all, for me, while a lot of the fun in a game is the mental challenge, and the building up of your wealth/resources/civilization/business, a significant part of the fun is the playing with actual people, face to face. It is a great way to connect with people, have fun together, unwind, etc.

That said, a solitaire game offers none of that people interaction. All you have left is the mental challenge, which while good, seemed to me that the game was missing something, like a body that has been decapitated. Take away people and you take away a large part of the fun.

However, after actually trying a solitaire game, I have come to a somewhat different (and more positive) conclusion. To be sure, playing a multi-player game is still preferred to a solitaire, but there is a lot of fun in just the mental challenges a good solitaire can pose.It’s not unlike working a puzzle or even, working with models (Something I certainly enjoy).

So, what changed my mind?  A little solitaire, “Occupation of the Rhineland, 1936”. I had gotten a copy from Todd Sanders, who did the artwork for this little game.

OVERVIEW:

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Occupation of the Rhineland is a historical simulation game, meaning it attempts to recreate the scene in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. Specifically it emulates the international tensions between Germany and the rest of Europe during Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland (one of the major steps that lead to WWII). Of course, if you are familiar with world history at all, that you already figured that just by the title.

You play the French government as it seeks to respond to the sticky situation on your backdoor. Through diplomatic and occasionally military means, you seek to oust Germany from the Rhineland and avert WWII. Talk about a chance to rewrite history! Of course we know how the story goes, but it is fun to speculate how things could have been done differently.

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The game is published by Minden Games, in the their “zip edition” line. Basically, the game is rules, a postcard game board, and a postcard of counters to cut out, all in a 6″x 11″ zip bag. You provide the dice, pencil, and paper.

While I am sure cost effectiveness for the company has more to do with the “zip edition”, I really do like that concept when it comes to buying games. It seems more…. sustainable, and frugal.

GAMEPLAY:

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This game is primarily dice driven. After choosing what France’s stance towards Germany is (Balanced, Pro-Britain, Pro- League of Nations, or Leverage), you roll your way to victory….sort of. Depending what you choose, there are different outcomes for your rolls. You are trying to gain influence with Britain and the LoN to back your efforts to oust Germany. Your die rolls determine whether they align closer with you, or move farther away, or if Germany decided to strengthen its forces, or if the crisis deepens. While you can make some choices, you really are at the mercy of the dice.

Where you have choice is when you decide to issue an “ultimatum” to Germany- “Get out of the Rhineland, or else!” The more you have Britain and the LoN on your side, the more likely Germany will pack its bags and head home.

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In a way, this game reminds me of Farkle. You are unlimited in how many times you can roll to improve your standing. The better you are, the more likely you can win in the final resolution of the game. However, the more you roll, the more chances you have of exacerbating an already tense diplomatic situation. So this is definitely a push your luck kind of game.

Really the most strategy that comes into play is calculating your odds and taking somewhat calculated risks. At the end of the day, your fate rests primarily on a little cube with printed dots. Some may like that, others may not.

CONCLUSION:

As a strategy game, Occupation of the Rhineland falls somewhat short. The game has more in common with Farkle then say, Axis and Allies.

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However, as an intro to the fun one can have with a solitaire game, this game does shine. While I felt that I had only a small amount of control over the progression of the game, it was a lot of fun, and had an enjoyable amount of tension.

Not only that, but it has definitely gotten me interested in looking into solitaire games. While they may not be as much of a game as their bigger, fuller counterparts, solitaires do have a place in your game closet. After all, when no one wants to play games, it is nice to have something to scratch that itch, particularly in mental challenges.

I guess solitaire games aren’t so bad after all.

 

Saving Humanity, One Dice roll At a Time ( A Review of Infection Express)

Disease is not a pretty thing to think about. But at the same time, the abstract concept of it is intriguing and terrifying to us. The idea of criminals using modified viruses to attack the earth is a potential reality, to be sure, and the concept is a popular one in fiction books and movies. While it is certainly, by its nature, intense and uncomfortable, it also draws out attention in a somewhat morbid kind of way.

A popular board game as of late has also chosen this setting and theme to define it, and I am sure many of your are somewhat familiar with it: Pandemic .I had heard of this game for some time, and got a chance to play it with some friends a year ago or so, and man was it fun! Unlike other board games, this was a cooperative game, meaning it is you and your friends against the game. It is hard work as you work together to try and stop viruses and diseases from overtaking the world.

This review however, is not for that game. As much as I really enjoyed Pandemic, I knew that realistically, I wouldn’t get it played too much, other than 2 player sessions potentially. Who knows though, really. But, I did find an express version of Pandemic called Infection Express.

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For those unfamiliar with “express” games, they are a newer trend in board gaming, similar to micro games. However, they tend to just be simplified versions of bigger games that typically use a lot of dice to simulate the feel of the “parent” game. For example, you could get Monopoly Express, Risk Express, Phase 10 Dice, etc. Basically, it is a popular game boiled down to a bunch of dice, and maybe a few cards and bits. Infection Express is a Print and Play game (as are many express games- usually unofficial versions of the big box games), but don’t let that scare you away. This little game has a lot to offer in its dice

OVERVIEW

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In essence this game is a 2 player version of Pandemic. In Pandemic, you are trying to save the world. In Infection Express, the map is smaller- just the United States/European Union. (Depending on what map you choose to build.) The game is also designed to be played solo, so if you are into solitaire kind of games, this is also for you. (I played the solo version while sitting in a hospital waiting room. Quite the appropriate setting, don’t you think! 😉 )

In essence, you (and a friend) are part of a special disease fighting team. There are four strains of viruses threatening to engulf the population of the United States, and become a regional pandemic. You must zip around the country, stopping outbreaks of the disease from happening, treating the suffering population, and work on a cure. You win if you can successfully find a cure for all four diseases.

However, you lose if: there are four outbreaks of disease, or, the infection rate gets to high, or if you run out of disease pieces in one particular color. In other words, the odds are against you. Majorly. I’ve had the game beat us in just one turn before, and sometimes in just 2 rounds! If you do not like stress in a game, then I would advise you to step away, take a deep breath, and find another game.

CONSTRUCTION

There are a couple of different versions you could choose from to make this game. The simplest prints on just one page, plus rules. Or, you can go for the slightly more portable, and better looking version that prints in 6 pages (including rules) that creates a hex map. (I built this version) There is also a second edition version that has more components, and I’ve heard is a little more fiddly to play, but we will just focus on the hex version.

Once you have printed everything on your chosen paper medium, you can choose to just glues the appropriate pieces back to back and then cut them out once they are dry. (The hexed version has a front and a back to the tiles. You could choose to not print the backs if you want) I used cardstock paper, and mounted on cereal cardboard. The result is a nice, professional looking tile.

For pieces, you need 56 cubes or beads (14 each in 4 colors- red, blue, yellow, green) two pawns, and 3dice. I would recommend having one of the die in a different color so it is easier to do location rolls.

And……that’s it. This game is not a real involved build, and I think anyone could do it.

GAMEPLAY

Before the game begins, you must set up the board by infecting the cities. 3 cities get 3 disease cubes, 3 cities get 2 disease cubes, and 3 cities get 1 disease cube.In other words, your work is cut out for you, and it is going to be a tricky task to take care of it. Those cities with 3 cubes will warrant immediate attention as you don’t want any outbreaks on your hands.

All is not well in Disney World

All is not well in Disney World

On your turn, you get an action budget of 4. Moving from city to city takes an action, removing a disease cube takes an action, and curing a disease takes an action. So your turn will consist of a combination of these few actions- you may just move around the board. Or you may stay where you are and treat the suffering population. It is up to you. Of course you will quickly realize that it is difficult to keep up with all these diseases.

After you take your actions, you roll 3 dice for your research roll. 1-4 correspond to the different diseases. Each number rolled in that ranges brings you one step closer to finding the cure. Once a cure tracker on a particular disease hits “5”, then on one’s next action, he may choose to use an action to cure that disease. This doesn’t keep the disease from coming back, but it makes it easier to deal with that disease, and it brings you one step closer to victory.

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If you roll a total of two 5’s, then a special event occurs, which can often be helpful. One 5 is worth nothing though, so it may be worthwhile to just re-roll it to try for a 1-4.

If you roll a 6, the infection tracker advances one space, increasing the rate of infection. If you roll two 6’s, the infection marker jumps to the next epidemic symbol on the tracker and an epidemic occurs. If that sounds scary, that’s because it is! Basically, you roll a city, and that city get hit with 3 disease cubes. So don’t roll a six if you can help it. (I know – fat chance with dice)

The Yellow disease is closer to the cure (yellow=2), and an Epidemic occurs!

The Yellow disease is closer to the cure (yellow=2), and an Epidemic occurs!

After your research, you then roll for new infections (cities gaining more disease) You roll two cities to start and they each get one cube. As the infection tracker progresses thanks to botched research rolls, more cities will get infected per turn. (3, and then 4 per turn).

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A yellow 3 adds a disease piece to Albuquerque

A yellow 3 adds a disease piece to Albuquerque

Now this is where things get interesting. Any city that has 3 cubes on it is dangerous. Basically, if something would happen that would cause that city to have more than 3 cubes, that city has an outbreak, which is dutifully tracked on the outbreak tracker. 4 outbreaks and the game is over. Now that would be nasty enough, but outbreaks don’t play nice like that. Instead those cities virtually explode with disease, so all cities connected to them each get one cube of the disease.

So, if you have 2 cities in row that have 3 cubes with a city they both connect to that has two cubes, that is disaster waiting to happen. If one of those “3” cities outbreaks, it will in turn send a cube to the “2” city, raising it to “3”,  cause the other “3” city to outbreak as well, which in turn will cause the other city that formerly had 2 cubes to also outbreak since the first city raised it to 3. See how this gets really messy really fast? That’s 3 outbreaks from one city infection. One more outbreak and the game is over. The game can literally defeat you just when you thought everything was going pretty well.

 

A Blue 4 is rolled, and a chain reaction begins.

A Blue 4 is rolled, and a chain reaction begins. Los Angeles outbreaks into San Francisco, bringing it up to 3, and Las Vegas, causing it to outbreak as well, which in turn outbreaks, adding one more cube to Salt Lake City, and causes San Francisco to outbreak as well. 

3 outbreaks later, and a potential end game is just a roll away.

3 outbreaks later, and a potential end game is just a roll away.

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Finally, you roll for a role. Roles grant special abilities. The medic, for example, removes all the disease cubes in a city he is in. The researcher can reroll any 6’s. The Dispatcher can zip around the map. These little bonuses can go a long way in assisting your efforts. At the end of the next turn, you roll for another role.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Cooperative games are a fairly new/unique concept when it comes to games. Most games pit you against your friends and family, as you vie for dominance. However, the concept of working together with your friends as you attempt to beat the game is a lot of fun, and a refreshing change of pace. There are  a growing number of games that are coop, and I definitely think that the concept is worth checking out.

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Infection Express is a fun game. Being that it is an “express” game, it is a quick game, and often, you will find yourself looking for “just one more play”. It is fairly fast paced, and somewhat chaotic, as the situation on the ground can change dramatically in a roll of the die, which brings us to the one potentially iffy part of the game. The dice.

Some people hate dice. Others love them. They certainly make the game random. No 2 games will play the same. However, it can be too random with volatile results in gameplay. For some, this is not a big issue (probably for most), but it is worth consideration. As much as I love this game, it still is majorly disappointing when the game ends before you even have a chance to take your first turn (2 player game).

But, all things considered, this is a fun game, and worth your time in building it. While the dice can make or break your game, it is worth the challenge in playing. And, if the dice turn against you, it is easy enough to just set up another game!

If you are interested in the game, the files can be found here.

Caravans of Cubes- A review of Serica: Plains of Dust

I really enjoy studying ancient history. There is a lot of interesting aspects that would have been neat to see or participate in. Who wouldn’t want to walk through Rome, or visit the streets of Jerusalem during the reign of Solomon, stroll through the great amphitheaters, ride a chariot across the Roman network of roads, visit the temples of Greece, or ride a camel across a dry,hot, dusty desert, carrying goods to far off places? Ok, so maybe you and I wouldn’t want to do the camel ride. It is dusty, hot, long and dangerous. And did I mention it is hot? And dusty? Dodging bandits and raiders, rationing supplies to make it across the desert, getting covered in dust, dirt and grime, looking out for snakes, battling heat exhaustion….I think I’ll just stay right here in the air-conditioned 21st Century, thank you very much!

Illustration by Photokanok on freedigitalphotos.net

Illustration by Photokanok on freedigitalphotos.net

In our day of fast cars, fast trains, and fast airplanes, long distances are nothing to us. In 5 hours from now, I could be in Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Miami, or even farther, Mexico, Canada, etc, etc. We easily forget that a long journey used to take weeks and months of time. In that ancient period, there were no railroads to ship goods to other places. Everything went by caravan- load up your donkeys and camels for a long, arduous trip to get your goods to foreign markets and gain wealth. The concept does have an allure, even if you don’t want to get dirty!

Now, however, you could recapture some of that excitement with a game. While this kind of theme is few and far between, it is certainly intriguing. Todd Sanders, a prolific designer has done just that with his game Serica: Plains of Dust. All you need is some good paper, glue, ink in your printer, a steady hand, a knife or scissors, and a bunch of cubes.

OVERVIEW

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Serica is a two player game depicting the trade between the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire. For a PnP game, the art really is quite nice. Todd Sanders, who is a prolific designer on Board Game Geek, has created many well designed PnP games and this is certainly one of his finer offerings. It is amazing how many games this guy cranks out. As a budding game designer, I just don’t know how he does it!

At its heart this is a card drafting game. For those unfamiliar with the term, in essence players start out with a small deck of cards, and slowly buy more cards to add to their deck, giving them extra abilities, points, and other advantages. While a little more abstract, you do get a sense for building something as your deck gets bigger and bigger.

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However the gameplay goes beyond just collecting cards and playing them. There is the whole process of shipping goods to the other player, moving your cube caravans across the attractively illustrated barren desert. In fact most of the points to be had can be found here, but more on that later.  Plus, you can choose to take cards out of your deck (sacrificing their abilities) and building them for points. There is a lot to see here but it is not too overwhelming or complicated.

CONSTRUCTION:

Photo paper, ruler, glue, brush, knife. Steady hands not included. Also not included: Card stock, laminator, etc.

Photo paper, ruler, glue, brush, knife. Steady hands not included. Also not included: Card stock, laminator, etc.

For those who are not particularly crafty, or DIY-inclined, the build could present some of a challenge. There are 54 cards to make (6 sheets of paper, plus the backs to, and a game board. Depending on your method, the construction could take a lot of time or very little. The simplest would be to print everything out on thick card stock, double sided to get the back artwork (not necessary, but is a nice touch) and cut it out. It may not look the greatest (card stock tends to not render as sharp of an image) but it would be quick enough. A better solution might be to print it on high quality paper, laminate it, and then cut it. Since I got a laminator, this has been my favorite process- you get a better looking card that is pretty durable. You can find the same laminator here: Thermal laminator @ Amazon

However, at the time I made this, I did not have those resources, so I printed it all on single-sided photo paper, which looks great. But, then I had to carefully line up and glue the card fronts and backs together, press them in books for days, and then cut them out. The end result was a nice card/tile that looked and felt pretty nice. But it was a lot of work, and the cards don’t shuffle the greatest, especially because the photo paper finish like to stick to each other somewhat (not a problem for the finish, but it makes shuffling more of a pain)

The game board was also printed on photo paper and then mounted on heavy duty card stock This is pretty simple. You can scale it larger or smaller if you want. I made mine a little bigger.

Cubes! It must be a good game, right? Right? ...

Cubes! It must be a good game, right? Right? …

You will need 110 cubes or pieces for this game. 15 cubes in 7 colors (Blue, red, yellow, green, white, purple (I substituted dark blue), and black). You also need 2 cubes, one yellow and one red, for the player colors on the VP track. You will also need 3 pieces in red and in yellow to represent caravans. You could use whatever you want like a cool Camel meeple, or just use cubes. The cubes I used are the counting cubes I referred to in my review of  Empire Engine  You can find the cubes here: Counting Cubes

GAMEPLAY

The game consists of 4 phases, which are taken consecutively on a players turn, and then play passes to the other player. In front of you is your hand of cards, (4 cards) which are drawn from your deck each turn. This means that all the abilities you accumulate through your purchases are not always available (part of the mechanics of a deck builder. You do want to be somewhat selective about what cards you fill your deck with. If they are a bunch of cards with few abilities, it might be better to just build them to the playing field and get points out of them. Ideally you fill your deck with powerful cards as possible so each turn you have different but powerful abilities to help your empire grow and thrive.

your hand. These are your abilities....this turn

your hand. These are your abilities….this turn

The phases of the game are fairly straight forward: Produce, buy/build/defend, Trade, and Discard. For production, each player has 8 production points. What this means is that there are resources you can produces, but some take more points then others. For example, Gold costs 3 points while Glass costs 1. For your turn you produce a variety of resources from the budget of 8 points available, so you might produce 2 gold and 1 wine for one turn, or 4 glass and 2 wine, or 5 glass and 1 gold, etc.

To buy cards you need a variety of different resources. Here’s the catch though: You and your opponent produce different resources, meaning you need each other’s stuff to be able to get some of the cards, especially the really good ones. The Roman Empire has 3 resources it can produce unique to it, and the Han Dynasty has 3 resources unique to it.This is one part of the brilliant trade mechanism Todd has created, but more on that in a little bit.

Once you have produced your goods, now it is time to do something with it. You can choose to buy a card from the pool of cards available to the side called the “Crossroads” You will want a “cheat sheet” handy to decipher the symbols of how many of each resource you need to buy a card for the first few games. Some cards need a lot of one resource while others need a variety of resources. Once the card is purchased, it gets placed in your personal discard pile. Have no fear though! Just because it is in the discard DOES NOT mean you will never see it again. It will be back because of the deck builder mechanic. However, it will not be immediately available to you.

The text on the left from top to bottom: Buy cost, build cost, stacking number, victory points, and stacking bonus (white circle) On the right column is the special ability the card gives you while in your hand.

The text on the left from top to bottom: Buy cost, build cost, stacking number, victory points, and stacking bonus (white circle) On the right column is the special ability the card gives you while in your hand.

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You may also choose to build cards to the table to form your empire. You pay the build cost in workers (artisans) and receive the victory points. There are various types of cards, and there are special bonuses if you can build them out in order (Example: You build a blue card with a “1” value and than later build a blue card with a “2” value beside it. Stacking them like that will give you extra points. However, if it was a brown “2”, there is no stacking bonus) While not a huge supply of victory points, these buildings are important. Sure, you sacrifice their abilities. But often, once built, they provide needed defense against raiders, ore extra points. Plus, they function as the game timer. Once someone builds 10 cards to his empire, the game ends.

The blue column is correctly stacked, giving bonus victory points. The other column is incorrectly stacked. The red 1 on top of the brown 1 yields no bonus. Sorry!

The blue column is correctly stacked, giving bonus victory points. The other column is incorrectly stacked. The red 1 on top of the brown 1 yields no bonus. Sorry!

You may also choose to defend. When a bandit appears in the cross roads, you must defeat him or face potential disaster for your caravans. The defense points available to you through built cards are your only real defense, plus any extra bonuses from your hand. So there is value in building cards to get those defense icons. If your total matches or exceeds the strength of the bandit, you drive them off, your caravan is safe, and you get rewards of victory points and goods. Yay!

The big bad wolf of bandits. Yikes! You need a defense of 6 to drive him off, or he wipes out a whole caravan.

The big bad wolf of bandits. Yikes! You need a defense of 6 to drive him off, or he wipes out a whole caravan.

The Roman empire successfully drives off the  Bandit with a defense value of 3 built cards; each yielding 1 defense

The Roman empire successfully drives off the Bandit with a defense value of 3 built cards; each yielding 1 defense

However, if you fail to defeat them, they will steal and pillage, taking goods from your caravans, sometimes wiping them out completely. Plus the bandit remains in play until defeated. You opponent must face him as well, and if he fails as well, then that bandit will be back on your next turn to steal and plunder. So keep yourself defended! It is a hostile desert out there!

Once those actions are resolved, you may then Trade. You can either start a new caravan or move all your existing caravans one space.  When you start a caravan, you choose up to 4 goods to ship. The next turn, you may begin to move that caravan slowly across the desert to the other empire.

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This is how you get those needed goods to your opponents. While you may not want to “help” your opponent, you really can not succeed otherwise. Most of the points you can get are usually through your caravans unless you get a really great deck building engine going and stack up cards before your opponent has a chance to blink… Upon finishing your journey, you receive 2 points for a successful caravan, plus the value of the cubes delivered as victory points. So a caravan of 4 gold cubes, which cost 3 production points to produce yield 3 victory points apiece when successfully delivered, giving you 12 victory points plus the 2 for finishing. Not too shabby at all, especially when buildings only give you a token amount of points: 1-5 usually.  I think this is a pretty brilliant way to make the trading work in this game, and so keep the theme strong.

Once you have finished that, you discard your hand and draw a new hand for the next turn of 4 cards. If your draw deck is exhausted, you shuffle all of your discarded cards and they become the draw pile. Thus the cards get shuffled around, and those cards you bought will eventually end up in your hand. The constantly changing hands certainly makes the game interesting, meaning you may not do the same actions this turn as you did last time. It’s (really) just not in the cards….kind of.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Serica is a nice, intriguing 2 player game. It is definitely a full-featured game. A typical game lasts about an hour usually. The various cards, the trade caravans, and the deck building mechanics make for a lot of interesting decisions, and a usually a pretty close, very competitive game. Those I have played this game with have really enjoyed it. I really enjoy it to. It is a little harder to get to the table because of it’s length but it is worth the time.

Two Caravans loaded with goods labor their way towards the Roman empire, bringing spices, silk, and porcelain.

Two Caravans loaded with goods labor their way towards the Roman empire, bringing spices, silk, and porcelain.

It is also worth the construction. While you could certainly find people willing to make it for you, it is  satisfying to play a game that you crafted. And really, it is considerably cheaper too! Don’t let the cards scare you away too much from making it! Cards don’t need to be hard to make. If you are interested, the DIY forums on boardgamegeek.com have a variety of different techniques to make the cards, appropriate for varied skill levels. No matter your craftiness skills, it should not be too much of a challenge.

There are some complaints that the game is harder for the Han dynasty, in part because the fact that military cards are difficult to get without Roman Empire goods. However, I have not noticed too much of an imbalance. There are other advantages to the Han dynasty. The court cards you can get are very powerful!

The art is attractive and for the most part functional. It is a fairly simple, minimalist style but it works well. My only complaint is that the cards can be a little hard to read. There is a lot of icons and information available to see, and it can be a little daunting. Plus, the build cost letters are really hard to see. I would recommend playing in a well lit area to make things easier for your eyes. You could ink the offending text in with a sharpie to make it easier to see but that would be a bit time consuming. I just keep a lamp in the study especially for playing games so that you can better see everything.

However, this is not a major issue, unless you really have trouble seeing things. I would say, that really, this is a good game that is a great game for 2. While it takes some work to make, I think the pay off is worth it!  You can find the files here: Serica: Plains of Dust

Feel free to chime in. What is your favorite ancient history themed game? Have you tried Serica? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Have a question about crafting? Feel free to comment below.

(disclaimer: this post does have affiliate links)

ALL ABOARD! A Review of Station Master

A scene from my old model railroad

A scene from my old model railroad

 (Disclaimer: this post contains an affiliate link)

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!)

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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.

OVERVIEW

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!)

The "whoooo whooo's"

The “whoooo whooo’s”

GAMEPLAY

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)

A typical passenger card. The game refers to them as carriages, but these are clear stylized images of American equipment, and therefore railcars, or coaches

A typical passenger card. The game refers to them as carriages, but these are clearly stylized images of American equipment, and therefore railcars, or coaches

The "5" engine is the most common engine available.  There is room for two more tokens! Any takers?

The “5” engine is the most common engine available. There is room for two more tokens! Any takers?

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

A game in process. Fun to play, not as much to look at, IMHO.

A game in process. Fun to play, not as much to look at, IMHO.

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