Trick of the Rails Board Game Review


Trick of the Rails board game box cover

Year Published: 2011

Players: 3-5

Playing Time: 20 Minutes

An economic train game merged with a trick-taking card game, and thus was Trick of the Rails born.

Sound weird? It is.

I’m going to be fairly middling in my overall assessment of the game, but Trick of the Rails should get some style points for feeling utterly unique, if nothing else. It’s a bizarre mashup that doesn’t seem like it should work. But it does. At least in a technical sense. In a practical sense, well, that’s a different story.

Trick of the Rails – The Premise

Honestly, whatever you’re imagining from the brief description above probably isn’t far off. It’s a basic trick-taking card game, with five suits and very little in the way of additional rules. No special trump suit, no wild cards. Just the highest card of the suit that was led, wins the trick.

So where’s the appeal? It’s in the other half of the game. See, there’s something called a “Trick Lane” in the game, which is a line of cards that you’re playing the tricks in order to win. In some rounds, you’ll be playing for a share in one of five railways (which map to the five suits). Other times, the cards you play will act as the literal rails in the railways, adding point totals to the rails. Or you’ll be playing for an additional high-value City card that you’ll get to place along one of the railways. Lastly, you’ll occasionally be playing for cards that allow you to dictate the point values of various railways. Don’t have any shares in a particular railway? Slap the “80” locomotive on it, which will detract 80 points from that railway’s endgame score (there are strategic exceptions to plays like this, but this example is to make the general point).

So you’re trying to maneuver into shares of the most valuable railways by game’s end, and attempting to manipulate tricks to bolster your preferred railways, harm the others, and obtain the correct cards to leverage those manipulations.

The Strategic Breakdown

There’s a lot to think about on a given turn, and a number of decisions to be made. But here’s the problem: It’s very hard to determine why you should do one thing over another, at nearly any point in the game. I say this for a few reasons.

Broadly speaking, winning tricks is good, even though you’ll have some power to add to railways with off-suit plays. However, until the final few tricks, it’s very hard to know what chance you have to win a particular trick (or any trick, for that matter), or to truly have a sense of which railways will end up being worth the most.

So the normal strategic cadence is to blunder into some shares, then hope you can win the 1-2 tricks in which you can have the greatest impact on the value of said shares. And cross your fingers that play goes your way. Which it probably won’t, especially at higher player counts where you can control far less.

So you might feel great about teasing a railway to a higher possible point total…but that only matters if you win the right trick(s) later on. So maybe you just gave some points to an opponent in adding points to that rail company, or an opponent slaps the “80” locomotive on it, and your earlier trick wins amount to a trivial number of points.

You could be excused for thinking that this sounds like an intense, combative strategic environment, and I think that’s the ideal of how this plays. But it more often plays out more like a comedy of errors, since no one can truly plan for much of it.

The somewhat sparse strategy forum for the game on Board Game Geek reads more like an extended, confused question than a discussion of viable strategies. Oh, there are considerations for play, surely. Like how the lower-value “40” locomotive might actually be more damaging to a long railway than the higher values. Like I said, there are lots of considerations. But even the lone strategy thread with a sense of direction about it admits that the base rules feature early-game play that’s not terribly fateful (this can change slightly with some variant rules).

And even if there’s pushback on my critique, it has to be made worse by the randomized card draws of your hand and the actions of one’s opponents. No one’s really blocking you, per se, but it’s going to be impossible to work in the chaos when no one truly knows what they’ll need to succeed.

So we’re left with lots of choices, but none of them feel terribly important. It’s almost like there’s the illusion of choice. Like when you give a kid a dummy steering wheel to a car, and let them turn the wheel erratically while you’re actually the one ensuring that the car doesn’t crash. Sure, the car got into your garage safely, but the baby had jack-all to do with it.

Analogies aside, there’s only so much I can play a strategic game where I feel as though I have little or no control over the outcome. That feeling is fine for party games and other silliness. Here, though, it grates.

What the Fans Say

I needed to see what I was missing, so I took to some positive fan comments to try to glean commonalities in them. I found a few.

First, it seems 3-player is the way to play this. Even some more glowing comments admit that the whole affair becomes quite arbitrary at higher counts, but say that it’s better at 3P where there’s just enough control to balance the randomness. I can’t say I felt a huge difference between 3P and 4P, but in theory, this should be true.

Second, the word “opaque” is used a lot in regard to the strategy, but the higher praise claims to have worked through this initial confusion to find some legitimate strategic nuance. Maybe it’s in the variant rules (which, admittedly, I haven’t played). Maybe I’m just a dummy who can’t figure out how to play well? Quite possibly.

I’m willing to admit there are probably depths I haven’t discovered, but I am also going to stand by my criticism above, because a LOT of less-positive comments echo it. So it’s a problem for many who try the game, as they feel they have too little control. Lack of player agency – whether real or perceived – is a problem in a game. And the perception is likely the worse flaw. So even if the criticism proves untrue once you sink into the game’s depths, the fact that it will seem that way to many who play is a knock against it.

Lastly, the myriad decision points and things to think about is a draw. If you enjoy getting lost in those intricacies, that’s a valid entry point into the game. I couldn’t find significance in many of them, but I’ve also played with people to whom the game feels thinky and exciting, and the lack of control mentioned earlier is reinterpreted as an exciting unknown. They’re willing to go along for the ride, wherever it leads.

Trick of the Rails – Conclusions

The novelty of the admittedly interesting premise only lasts so long for me. I can grok trick-takers and stock-based economic games with relative ease, but neither side of that equation is sustainably interesting here. The trick-taking is too rote, and the economics are too arbitrary. I feel less like a card shark or railway baron than I do a kite, tossing violently on the whims of the wind.

On the other hand, the game is devilishly quick, and is very forgiving to newer players, since even experienced players may never reach a level of mastery that ensures them more than marginal strategic advantages. Randomness can be a boon in games for this reason. I think it’s a mismatch of theme and genre in this case, but won’t deny that this makes Trick of the Rails a card game that can be introduced in a variety of settings, to pleasant results. But that also keeps it well off the heights I believe either trick-taking games or economic railway games are capable of, making this an interesting novelty in my book, but not much more.

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