Railways of the World Board Game Review


Railways of the World board game box cover

Year Published: 2005

Players: 2-6

Playing Time: 120 Minutes

Railways of the World is a mid-weight, pick-up-and-deliver game for 2-6 players. It plays in around two hours.

I haven’t played its spiritual predecessor, Age of Steam, nor am I a train game aficionado, though I appreciate how easily train-themed games lend themselves to interesting, interactive mechanics, and have played probably a couple dozen “train games” to this point. I say this because, well, there are train lovers who can be sold on a game from its theme alone. While I enjoy the theme here, I’m going to break down the gameplay more so than the thematic trappings, lovely as many of them are.

For reference, I own the base game (Eastern European and Mexico maps) and also several expansion maps. While there are some minor differences between versions and maps, I think my commentary can be applied equally to any of the maps mentioned.

Component Quality and Table Presence

Railways makes a couple bone-headed decisions on components. Primarily, the paper money isn’t just flimsy paper, it’s a somewhat poor print job as well. Additionally, the Eastern US board has some confusing spaces that may or may not be “water” (with conflicting reports on whether they actually are or not, depending on the source you find), the Turn Order tracker on the Europe board seems worthless to me, and there are other small items related to lack of space for the cards that will be doled out at the start of the game.

I don’t mind these, for clarity. I think it’s a very myopic gamer whose enjoyment is dashed by the quality of a single component type or a few minor board decisions.

Given those facts, this next statement is going to seem odd: Railways has the best table presence of any game I’ve ever played.

Let’s unpack this. The board(s) themselves, first off, are glorious works of art. And the largest of them are huge. Second, the quality of the rest of the components is uniformly great. Third, as you populate the board with empty city markers, railroad links and lovely train tokens, the board itself comes alive. If you want a visual treat, wander through the game’s images section on Board Game Geek.

More than quality, the gigantic boards and gradually expanding railways evoke the theme in a very powerful way. This is their greatest feat; the feeling of creating an honest-to-goodness railway business and being the Baron(ess) in charge of all of it. There’s something magical here in the aggregate.

Outside the board size, no other element is spectacular compared to many modern games. But they all work well as a whole. It’s a master class in thematic integration. Now if the game could get some better money…

Open Frameworks and Intensity of Interaction

Railways is a pick up and deliver game, and there are no explicit “take that” mechanics. But in a game with a finite number of cities and resources with which to generate points, the entire experience is a cramped race. Your delivery engine’s level (which dictates the length you can traverse to deliver a Good) and occasional ability cards are the closest thing you’ll get to items that are yours alone. Everything else is a shared game-space.

The attention is never anywhere other than the excellent maps, and your overall strategy can last an entire session, but round-to-round decisions will be made as a result of what others are doing.

This is a nice merging of long-term strategic ideas and the more visceral tactical elements of, say, a good area control game. And of course, harkening back to Age of Steam (its mechanical and thematic predecessor) it’s now been around for over two decades. So in this regard (mixing the strategic and interactive) it bears resemblance to several other games of that era.

This isn’t a tile-laying game per say, but it has some similarities, because you can place your tracks anywhere, which means the decision space is quite large, despite having only a handful of possible actions.

The best thing I can say about the game is that there aren’t prescribed tracks (pun intended) to victory. Yes, your action options are limited, but the ways they can manifest are myriad. This sort of open framework in game design is something I greatly appreciate.

Risk/Reward and Punitive Elements

Debt can be taken out in this game. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have some debt. What’s more, debt can’t be paid off. It will stay with you forever, an omnipresent thorn in your side.

But money makes things happen in the game, and taking out some debt early can help you put some distance between you and your opponents.

What’s the right ratio of debt to infrastructure building? I have no idea, and it will likely depend on what strategy you choose to pursue. That fact makes it a great little risk/reward mini-game.

It also means that if you gauge the ratio incorrectly, you can be left in the dust of your opponents, or seemingly have a lead, only to get blasted into the shadow realm during endgame scoring where debt is worth negative points.

So there’s a learning curve here, and it also won’t work for players who dislike taking “negative actions.” Some people will have an uneven first few plays. I think it’s worth pushing through that barrier, but it’s a consideration for many who might fear a lopsided session when they’re introducing it to new players.

Depth and Length

The grandeur of the maps and components will fool some. I was expecting a more complex game, for example, the first time I played this.

But it’s not. There are only five actions you can take, a simple auction system for turn order, and only a few ways to score points.

However, as referenced earlier, there’s a lot to consider in those actions. This is a good thing, since it implies depth in the system.

Sometimes it’s too much to consider, though. I’ve seen games drag with the wrong group.

Mind you, this isn’t always the case. I’m probably the slowest player in my primary game group (me and four others), and I don’t consider myself a slow player overall. Sessions of Railways in this group are perfectly fine. But with others, I’ve had some sessions that have turned into slogs as a result of analysis paralysis.

It’s why I’m hesitant to play this at its full six players. The risk of downtime becomes a bit too much for me. But that’s really the only time you’ll want to bust out the gargantuan Eastern US map (technically it’s fine at 4-6, but the Europe map is frankly better suited for 4-5P), and it’s a shame to see that map get no table time.

Map Making

The game has, at this point, several expansion maps, and the most recent (as of this review) came out in 2022. So the game is still receiving ample support, almost two decades after its release.

While I won’t lie and say you need tons of maps, the subtle but significant ways that each map brings new strategic considerations with it can’t be understated.

Common wisdom seems to be to find a few that you like the most, though for a new player I’d confirm that you enjoy the system first, before investing in any expansion boards.

My favorites thus far have been the Europe map (for 5 players), and the Sweden or Portugal maps for 3-4 players. Portugal comes with the most rules additions, so it’s a bit less elegant, but these also add new strategy considerations to go with the slightly higher rules fiddle. The Eastern US map that comes with the base game is really only appropriate with 6 players, as far as I’m concerned, though the base game I purchased also came with the smaller Mexico map, which is serviceable.

Who Won’t Like This Game

It’s a table hog (unless you play exclusively 2-3P on smaller maps), so if you lack space, you’re out of luck. There’s also more meat on these bones than, say, Ticket to Ride and its many variants, but less than many 3-6 hour, complicated train games. It may be your sweet spot, or it may not be what you’re looking for in terms of complexity and depth.

I’ve also run into gamers who hate taking negative actions, so the presence of bonds (debt) is a point against it. The learning curve and analysis considerations have also pushed some away from it who I game with, but never to the point of strong dislike, only indifference.

I’ve also faced runaway leader issues, but only on the Eastern US board, which seems to offer more opportunities for experienced players to outpace newcomers. The Europe and Mexico maps have produced invariably close games. That’s anecdotal, but I try to mitigate this possibility regardless by offering a few basic strategy tips to new players whenever I teach the game.

Railways of the World – Conclusions

With the lone caveat that the game has strained for me at higher player counts, there isn’t a single element I don’t personally enjoy. If the theme doesn’t jump off the table for someone else, I can imagine Railways seeming a bit dry overall.

But that also seems like a shallow criticism, because I think the nuance hiding in the relatively simple rule set, and how the game lends itself to many different types of railroad empires, can bring the theme to life in ways that go beyond the physical trappings of the game.

I want to return to this game many times and explore its depths. That it manages to elicit this desire without tricks like variable player powers or myriad rules additions in its expansion maps is a strong testament to both its immediate impact as a game and its potential for longevity in a collection.

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