PLAYlist 50: Mini Rails | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, July 7th, 2020  

PLAYlist 50: Mini Rails

Jan 21, 2020 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share


Fifty. Fifty? Fifty! And just like that, we’ve reached our fiftieth installment of this experiment pairing board game reviews with a selection of curated tunes. If you’ve been riding this train with us since the beginning, thank you. If you’re new to the column, welcome aboard! Here’s to our next fifty entries.

In this Very Special Column we’ll be taking you for a spin on Mini Rails, a new stock speculation and track-laying game from designer Mark Gerrits and published stateside by Tasty Minstrel Games. It sits three to five players with games that typically finish up in under an hour.

Mini Rails is essentially a streamlined, baby cousin of the “train game” subgenre of tabletop entertainment. We’re not talking about Ticket to Ride, Whistle Stop, or other games that are simply train-themed; the term is usually dropped in reference to much heavier, more involved, almost simulation-style games, with lots of numbers crunching, min-maxing, laying of routes, and stock market trading. (Popular examples usually come from the 18XX or Age of Steam lines.) There are definitely a lot of heavy gamers who count these train games as their jam, but for many others the thought of investing several hours and that much brain power into a single game is overwhelming or intimidating.

Mini Rails is the lighter, quick-playing entry into to the genre, taking two of their more common elements — trading stocks, and laying tracks — and boiling them down, making it so there’s no money to keep track of, and simplifying the rules into something anyone can pick up and play in minutes. And, you know what? The results are pretty great.

A game of Mini Rails plays out over six rounds. In a round, a player will take only two actions: they’ll buy a stock, and they’ll build a piece of train track. That’s it – there are only two things you need to think about. You’ll do one action, and then the other – you only need to decide in which order.

Well, okay, there’s a little more to it than that, but even the decisions you’ll need to make within those two actions are limited by what’s available on the board. The real mastery in the game comes from reading your opponents, and predicting their plans. If you get good at hitching up your caboose to freeload off your opponents’ moves, you’re going to come away the victor more often than not.

At the beginning of each round, a new market – represented by colored, wooden discs – will be placed out for perusal. (The discs will be equal to twice the number of player, plus an extra.) When a player takes their buy stock action, they’ll remove one of these discs from the market and place it on their personal player board. These boards feature a track that stretches from ten to negative ten; new stock tokens start right in the middle, at zero.

If a player takes their build track action, they’ll grab one of the wooden discs from that same area but instead of placing it on their player board, they’ll lay it in an open space on the central, hexagonal track board. The should be placed next to another disc of its own color, but otherwise you can drop it in any spot open to you. Each track area will depict one to five pips in either red or white. These determine that particular track’s value.

How does that value work, you ask? Any player that owns stock in that company’s color — meaning, they have one of its discs on their personal board — will either move it up (white) or down (red) their track by that number of spaces. At the end of the game, each player’s score will be equal to the sum of their stock values, both positive and negative.

There’s a wrinkle, though. At the end of each round, after every player has taken both of the actions, there will be one disc left over. That disc will move into the “tax” area at the bottom of the board. I know, taxes in games – as in life – are something most people dread, but in Mini Rails they’re a good thing. At the end of the game, any negative-valued discs are removed from a player’s personal board if there’s one of a matching color in the tax area. On that some front, any discs without a match in the taxed area are removed from the positive end of the track. Thus, if you want a positive score, you need to have more stocks in taxed companies than untaxed ones.

Score of zero, one, or negative one point are very common. In one game, a player who scored only four points by the end was consider a landslide winner!

I know, I know. “Taxes,” “stock purchase,” and “negative values” aren’t terms typically associated with having fun, but trust us. Mini Rails is something delightful: a puzzling strategy game with little downtime which requires you keep a watchful eye on your opponents’ moves, but limits the number of options you need to consider on your own turn. Its complexity is derived from playing your opponents, rather than having a bunch of systems thrown at you and being asked to keep track of them all at once.

This means that Mini Rails is highly interactive. Players will be vying for the same crops of colored discs each round. Grabbing them determines not only which stocks you’ll claim or tracks you’ll place, but your turn order in the next round – players place their pawns on a track alongside the piece they’ve selected, and that order will dictate the order you’ll get to select from next time. This makes discs at the front of the line more attractive, and valuable ones near the end a bit risky. Even then, though, picking last on a given turn isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it’s the player last in line who gets to determine which color will get taxed. It’s little things like this that make every “small” decision in Mini Rails that much more interesting.

Here’s the start of a hypothetical turn. Imagine you’re looking at a board, and the white, red, and blue tokens are all appealing to you for different reasons. You could decide to build with the white disc, raising your own stock value by two points; however, two of your opponents also own a stake in white, and would be helped equally by your move. You could buy stock in the red, which has been popular with your opponents; but, it’s not yet in the taxed section, meaning it might not get scored. You don’t own stock in the blue, but two other players do. You decide to grab that one, and place it into a negative valued spot. Not only do you decrease your opponent’s score, but someone else builds with the white disc and increases your stock’s value for you. Schwing! I mean, Choo! Choo!

In a game that moves fast and is over relatively quickly, there will be plenty of moments you’ll be able to point back to that will feel like they were game-changers. When any game ends and dissolves into the players recapping their favorite moves, it’s doing something right.

As we mentioned, the game seats three to five players and scales decently well, but you’re really going to crave the full player count any time you play at something lower. With only three, the game feels a bit more vicious, with everyone fully aware of what everyone else has, wants, and needs. At four or five it feels like there’s a little less head-to-head conflict as the turns are more spread out; on that same front, the board becomes more crowded and chaotic, and the game more about pouncing on an opportunity when it’s open to you, rather than finding the most optimal time to stick it to your opponent. If you normally only play with a group of three, fine – you’ll still have lots of fun with Mini Rails. We do think it’s best with more players, however.  

Component-wise, there are zero issues to be taken with how Mini Rails was produced. Not only did they take a weighty subgenre of board gaming and squeeze it down to under an hour and a few pages of rulebook, but they’ve shrunk it to fit inside a square box that’s a few inches smaller on each side than your standard game. Not only that, but the game itself doesn’t eat a huge amount of table space – you could conceivably sit five people around a coffee table and still have space left over for drinks and a bowl of chips. The cardboard is thick, the draw bag is canvas, and the wooden discs are, well, wooden discs. It’s all nice quality, and very portable. When space is the biggest restriction to most board game collections, Mini Rails comes in a package that’s far easier to make room for than most.

Mini Rails is available from Tasty Minstrel Games at an SRP of $44.95.

In 1960, Johnny Cash released Ride This Train, a concept album loosely following the history and development of the American railroad system. Only five years into his illustrious recording career, Cash was already responsible for a cavalcade of country hits and had outgrown his original label, Sun Records. Not to be left behind by Cash’s exodus to Columbia Records, Sun released All Aboard the Blue Train, a compilation of their former star’s older, train-related recordings to piggyback on the success of Ride This Train.

What I’m trying to point out is that in only seven years, Cash already had recorded enough train-centric songs to fill two full-length releases. In a career that ultimately spanned a half-century, Cash wrote a lot of train songs – it may have been his favorite lyrical subject matter. The playlist we’ve assembled for our Mini Rails review naturally collects a bunch of Cash’s train tracks (see what I did there?) for your potential enjoyment.

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Previous PLAYlist columns: Tribes: Dawn of HumanityGates of DeliriumTerror BelowThe Estates, NobjectsMemoir '44 & New Flight Plan, Bubble TeaUndoGizmosImhotep, Hex Roller, The Table is Lava, Happy Salmon, The Quacks of QuedlinburgThe ClimbersNEOMCrusaders: Thy Will Be DoneReykholtPandemicEverdellKingdomino, CitrusHistory of the World, Altiplano, Pioneer Days, Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, PhotosynthesisIce CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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