Fire up your engines as Dranda Games launches its next Kickstarter campaign; the flipping fantastic PIONEER RAILS!
*Flip and Write* Line Drawing * Networking * Scoring Goals * Route Building * Solo Mode * Strategy *YEEHAW!
Confession time. I have been thinking about Pioneer Rails a lot. Ever since I saw a super early prototype at UKGE a year ago, I have been eagerly awaiting its Kickstarter launch. Why? Well, consider these headline points:
- Matthew Dunstan is a co-designer – yep, Matthew of marvellous Next Station London, Guild of Merchant Exporters, Elysium, My Sheltie and more superb games fame!
- It’s a flip and write pen and pencil game;
- It’s published by DRANDA who have also published the very small, very lovely, very clever ISLE OF TRAINS; ALL ABOARD; and
- It’s got this brilliant poker-hand meta game mechanic that I haven’t seen in any other game; and
- It’s a TRAIN GAME!!!! Wooo!
Before we get to dust off our boots and fire up those engines however, I need to clarify that I have only played a prototype of PIONEER RAILS. This means that the game and game play I describe could be different to the finished product once the campaign ends and production begins.
For anyone unfamiliar with crowd-funding, Kickstarter is a platform used to raise money to get an idea from paper to people. And when it relates to boardgames, it becomes a promise to make and deliver a game based on the ideas the designer is offering if enough money can be raised. Concept to Cardboard. As Isle of Trains feels pretty complete, I’m hoping nothing major is going to change in terms of the rules between now and then. But never say never! And sometimes inspiration steams into a designer after a campaign smashes its target. So, just to be clear, everything I say is based on the prototype copy I have played. Cool? Okay, let’s get going!
PIONEER RAILS is a flip and write where we are railroad owners trying to develop our network of railway lines across the Old West. The time for locomotion is here so stable your horses and start thinking steam power! Played over 4 rounds with only 5 turns per round, this is a game where combos are king!
Set up is super simple – everybody grabs a dusty desert sheet and a pencil. Then 1 goal from each of the 3 specific types are chosen randomly and placed face up for all to see. Finally, the 20 card deck is shuffled and primed ready.
On the active player’s turn (“the Dealer”), 3 poker cards are revealed. That player has first dibs, and all other players then choose from the two remaining.
Now the card you select serves two purposes; firstly it gives you a base from which to start expanding your train lines. And that’s because each one must begin at (and then extend from) a specific card suit station (heart, club, spade or diamond). Secondly, there’s a mini-meta game going on at the bottom of the sheet where each round you’ll be building a 5-card poker hand for bonus points which are awarded at end game!
Expanding your railway is done via drawing 3 track pieces on your sheet, and the card you picked above shows from which station it will start . So e.g., if you select the Jack of Hearts then the three lines will branch off from the Heart Station. But you have choices; you can start 3 separate lines (as each Station has room for 6 – gotta love the hex shape!) or you can build one line with the three pieces, or a combination of the two. After the first turn, your track pieces can extend existing lines. BUT no line can pass through a Town, AND you’ve got to make sure you don’t let different Station lines touch (unless they are using a Town to form a network).
And why are we extending our lines? Well, lots of hexes have features that will score or reward you with goodies if you can place the required number of track pieces around them so e.g. a Saloon needs at least 2 pieces whereas a Bank needs 3. And those Forts need 4!
And each feature is valuable in its own way. Those Saloons? They double the value of a poker hand at the end of a round. The Banks multiply the value of the golden nuggets you’re storing in them….you get the idea.
Towns are valuable for not only their networking abilities. When you reach a Town, you get to circle a town symbol on your sheet. Then, over the course of the game, you get to use one of the Town’s special bonus abilities that range from bridging a river, tunnelling through mountains, and even shortcutting through a hex itself! You also get a bonus track piece which is incredibly helpful when you’re one off completing one of those sweet hexes!
The game ends on the 20th turn and then it’s scoring time (and realising you should have planned wayyyy better time! Haha)
Like all my favourite games, PIONEER RAILS is full of tantalising trade-offs. You have the options, but which one should you choose? I love being the architect of my own demise…ahem I mean success! And placement optimisation is the best way I know how to ensure a hearty dose of sweet satisfaction at the end of a game.
Every line you draw could potentially work towards something. But then you have to factor in the mini meta game going on – the poker hand! With points up for grabs (potentially 12 if you get 4 of a kind and you’ve circled the Saloon that round!), it’s a Stetson full of scoring opportunities! And I love that “do I take the King of Hearts because I need it for my hand? Or do I go with the Queen of Diamonds because I’ll be able to complete a Ranch or scoring objective or something equally juicy!
Plus features interact with each other as well as the scoring objectives (which are worth more for the first player that achieves them). For example, I really like how a bank can only store a max number of nuggets fore the multiplier effect to pay out, but one of the scoring goals requires you to be holding 5. So that means you’ll need at least 2 Banks to achieve it.
I’m definitely favouring some features over others right now, but that’s not to say I don’t think the risk/reward for the various types is unbalanced. I’m just not very good at playing the long game, and need to get more familiar with some, so quick scoring hits is where I’m currently sitting. But with replayability cranked up to max with all the variables, it means every game I get to try a different combination. Which is great because this is a game where you will never achieve everything. And that draws me in like a moth to a fire hot coal burning engine!
I also love the hate-drafting ability being the Dealer gives you. Not that I have focussed much on other’s plans in the games we have played so far, knowing that I could mess and meddle if my own strategy is going head-first into the sand is a saving grace. It also brings that little bit of player interaction that elevates PIONEER RAILS from the usual multiplayer-solitaire mode without being Cartographers style cruel!
Having played solo mode even more than multiplayer, it’s fast and smooth and everything I want from a flip and write solo experience. Just revealing and discarding the card from the top of the deck is all it takes to emulate another player’s choice and that’s brilliant. Plus the difficulty level can be altered by varying the amount of scoring objectives you need to achieve by end game which also affects the BYOS target. Genius!
Fantastic Forests and more!
Having been lucky enough to try the prototype, I have also had a sneak preview at the Essential Edition content with an extra Forest map, more goal cards, mini expansions, full poker deck, and a banging neoprene playmat! Okay so the playmat isn’t essential. But who doesn’t love the feel of neoprene under their sheet???!!! And on that the artwork is superb – I don’t know how they have been able to get so many details on the maps but it is very impressive. And I’m not going to deny it; those poker cards have some of the best card backs (and fronts) I’ve seen. I really like the representation too. And although I did worry that the details could make reading the cards at a glance tricky, I haven’t found that to be the case when playing. I don’t think I’ll use a regular deck ever again!
For me the Forest map feels even crunchier than the Desert – with a different configuration of the features, a different Saloon bonus and the addition of bandits, it’s making my brain squeak in the best possible way!
I am conscious that things could change as this is a Kickstarter Campaign. And indeed I know the rules are being tweaked a little in terms of descriptions. But I really hope PIONEER RAILS funds in pretty much the form it is already because it is really fun, thinky, crunchy, clever game from a wonderful designer/publisher team that I can’t wait to see in all its glory!
If this has whetted your appetite for Pioneer Rails, check out the Kickstarter page here as it goes live on April 17 2023!
Please note that a copy of this preview copy was kindly provided by the publishers for review. I am not paid for my comments, however, and all opinions are my own]. I am also not affiliated to or sponsored by any retail store.