Review - Railroad Ink
Artist: Marta Tranquilli
Publisher: Horrible Games
Player Count: 1-6 (1-12 with two copies of the game)
Railroad Ink is a roll and write game about building road and rail networks. Two versions of the game are available for purchase, each with two sets of “expansion” dice to change the gameplay. The Deep Blue Edition add lakes and rivers to the game while the Blazing Red Edition adds volcanoes and meteors. The game plays with one to six players with one copy of the game or up to twelve if you have both the Blazing Red Edition and the Deep Blue Edition. This review is for both editions of the game.
How to Play
Railroad Ink is a very simple game to set up and play. To begin, each player takes a white board marker and a player board. The four white dice of the base game are taken by one of the players and rolled. The first round is now ready to be played.
Each round players must draw the routes on each of the rolled dice. All four routes must be drawn on the player boards. Routes can be drawn on any square to continue an already drawn route or to connect to the edge of the board. Players may optionally use one of the special routes on their player board once per round. All players have the same special routes printed on their boards and each one may only be used once per game up to a maximum of three special routes per player per game. Rail and road routes can only be connected by “stations” which are only on one of the base dice and on the special routes.
The game lasts seven rounds at which point players score points for the number of exits (connections on the edge of their player board) that that they have networked together, together with the length of their longest road, the length of their longest rail, and the number of the nine central squares of the player board that have something drawn in them. Players also lose one point for each rail or road that doesn’t connect to another route or to the edge of the board. The winner of the game is the player with the most points.
Additionally, players can choose to use one of the sets of expansion dice. These dice add additional rules and scoring opportunities. In addition, if playing with a set of expansion dice, the number of rounds played per game is shortened to six. It is worth noting that expansions cannot be combined, so only one set of dice can be used per game. In brief, rivers create obstacles that require bridges to cross and score points for the longest river, lakes allow players to connect networks with piers (stations on the lake) and score points for their smallest lake, meteors bounce around the player boards destroying anything they land on and players score points for routes connecting to meteor craters, and lava acts as an obstacle and players score points for their largest lava lake.
In Railroad Ink players are simultaneously drawing routes from random dice rolls. This manages to create a complex, engaging and ever-changing puzzle for players to keep coming back to. Despite all players using the same dice, the ripple of decisions leads to very different board states within even two rounds. Early decisions will have you pulling your hair out as early hubris about your ability to connect two networks sees you desperate for the perfect roll of the dice in the last round (which never seems to come). The puzzle in Railroad Ink is built around the decisions and mistakes that players make themselves. By the last few rounds, players are essentially engaged in damage limitation, trying to maximise their scores or minimise their mistakes. Perfection is not possible in Railroad Ink so if you’re a perfectionist, this isn’t the game for you, you’ll just be frustrated. But if you can deal with inevitable imperfection, Railroad Ink never feels unfair and is very satisfying.
Games of Railroad Ink play quickly, about thirty minutes per game. Additionally, players take turns simultaneously, so downtime only occurs if some players take longer than others to place routes. This will inevitably happen; decisions get more complicated as the game progresses and it definitely leads to analysis paralysis.
It is worth noting that there is basically no player interaction in Railroad Ink. What Railroad Ink does have is a shared feeling that the dice are out to get you. Like a lot of roll and writes, at its heart, Railroad Ink is an optimisation puzzle. It’s not unlike a Eurogame, except its much lighter and more accessible to non-gamers or people for whom a mathsy point salad just doesn’t appeal to. It’s important to say that the near constant moans of anguish that you will hear from around the table are a lot of fun and make the game feel like a shared experience rather than pure multiplayer solitaire.
The expansion dice add a good deal of variety to the gameplay. Not only do the two editions of the game feel distinct, the two sets of expansion dice within the editions play quite differently from one another. Having said that, I’m not sure two editions are necessary. It seems like adding four extra dice to one version of the game wouldn’t have added much to the price. Therefore, I can’t recommend that people buy both versions of the game unless they’re going to be playing with more than six people. My advice would be to pick the edition with the expansion dice that sounds like more fun to you. The dice in the Deep Blue Edition are much more relaxed, players choose whether to use some or both each round and they mostly score additional points. The dice in the Blazing Red Edition must be used each round and are more destructive (especially meteors) blocking or destroying your plans.
Railroad Ink is essentially the same game regardless of the number of players participating. The game play is unchanged, as all players are using all of the dice anyway. As mentioned, a second copy of the game lets you play with up to twelve but with even more copies you could play with an unlimited number of players. I wouldn’t recommend it though. The only limiting factor in gameplay and usability terms is that players need to be able to comfortably see the dice that have been rolled.
Having a play count of up to six is actually a major positive of the game. If you’re going to an event and unsure of how many people you need to cater for, tossing one of the small boxes of Railroad Ink in your bag means that you’ll have a game with you that will work well regardless of the number of players you have. Even if you have more than six players, no problem. Horrible Games has a printable player board available on their website so you can print some extra sheets and bring some pencils and you can play with more than six. This is yet another reason why buying both editions of the game isn’t necessary.
The variability that comes with one copy is pretty solid. Obviously, if you buy both editions of the game the variability increases even more. Each of the four expansions gives your games of Railroad Ink a distinct feeling, involving different strategies and different reactions to the types of dice you play with. With one copy of the game, it feels as though you have three similar but different games in a small box (the base game and each of the expansions).
Since games of Railroad Ink are dependent on the roll of several dice, game states differ greatly from game to game. As such, while there are certain things that are a good idea to do in the early game (for example, building routes from exits close together is usually a good idea), there is no dominant opening strategy in Railroad Ink.
Railroad Ink is pretty light on theme. You’re building road and rail networks between as many exits on your player board as possible. There’s no further explanation given, the rulebook doesn’t paint you as a town planner or head of a public transport company. That’s fine though, it isn’t really necessary to have any such flavour text added. The game is simple, dice are rolled and you draw them on your board. If there was an attempted to make the game more theme focused, then perhaps some bloat in the form of unnecessary mechanics might have been added.
The games theme may be light, but its tone feels distinct and strong. Railroad Ink is relaxing. Like a ride on a slow train through the mountains. The two editions of Railroad Ink feel distinct, Deep Blue is more placid while Blazing Red is more destructive. As such, Deep Blue fits the tone and mechanics of the base game better. Lakes and rivers add to the tranquillity that Railroad Ink seems to aim for. The destruction of the meteors and lava, while mechanically interesting, seem at odds with the game’s relaxed and grounded tone.
Art and Components
Production values for Railroad Ink are high. The artwork on the box and on the player boards has to do a lot of the heavy lifting of presenting a coherent theme, given how few components there are, and it does that wonderfully. The layout and information on the player boards is also clear and easy to understand even for new players. The dice are high quality and clear, they are easy to see and understand even from the other side of a table. The box has a magnetic seal to make it even easier to toss in a bag and bring with you. Even the insert is well designed (something that can often be rarity in board games). Overall, I don’t have anything bad to say about the art and components.
Railroad Ink is not just one of my favourite roll and write games, it’s one of my favourite games. I love the puzzle, I love the tone of the game, and I think that the expansion dice do a great job of adding variety. I would not hesitate to recommend that people buy one of the versions of this game. Which one you buy is largely down to personal taste. If you want something relaxed, Deep Blue is the way to go. If you want something that is designed to frustrate your efforts, Blazing Red is for you. However, I can’t recommend that people buy both editions. There is no reason why the additional dice couldn’t have been included in just one version of the game, its four dice and there’s space in the box. It really feels like it’s exploiting an impulse in board gamers towards completionism and that doesn’t feel too good. Regardless, Railroad Ink is a great design backed up by high production quality.