Railroad Ink Review

Town planning is a difficult business. It’s never simple to balance the needs of all, and produce a fair plan that pleases all parties. Of course, this matter is complicated when your town is to be constructed out of pre-fabricated pieces. To complicate further – you are only provided a small random set each year that you must place with no foreknowledge of what you will be given in the future. But that is what you must work with in this bizarre alternate reality. Or maybe, it is more accurate to the truth of government that we initially suspect…

1-6+ Players | 30 minutes | Designed by Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva

Railroad Ink is a ‘roll-and-write’ game from Horrible Games (Potion Explosion, Dragon Castle), published by CMON. Released in late 2018 it joined a wave of other ‘ roll-and-write’ games which have recently experienced a big surge in popularity. The game is released in two versions, just like the original Pokemon game: Red and Blue. Both contain identical base games (albeit varying colour and artwork), but include different expansions based on the edition purchased. The version I have is the blue one (just like Pokemon).

Played so much the branding on most pens has rubbed off!

How does it work?

Railroad Ink is a roll-and-write abstract puzzle game where players are tasked with placing randomly generated pieces on their boards in order to try and build the best scoring arrangements. Each player starts with a blank dry erase game board (a 7×7 grid) and a pen.

The game is played over 7 rounds. At the beginning of each round, someone rolls the 4 dice, each of which has faces depicting various road and rail sections. Some are straight through, some are corners or intersections, and others have ‘stations’ on them, which allow you to connect roads and rails together.

Players are required to add each of the 4 rail or road sections depicted on the dice to their boards by drawing them in place. There are a few rules regarding placement – you must join pieces to either an exit (the starting spaces marked around the edge of the board) or to another piece validly (i.e. no roads connected to rails). You must place all the pieces, no passing. Optional special connections are available for players to use but these are limited, and must be placed with careful consideration.

Players add their pieces to the board aiming to satisfy the several endgame scoring conditions. The main point scorer is your contiguous networks. A network can be any arrangement of roads and rails that are connected together by stations. Each connected network on a player’s end board (typically there is only one) is worth points based on how many exits it is connected to (e.g. 4 points for 2 exits, or 20 points for connecting 6 exits together). Other points are awarded for a player’s longest road and rail sections, filling in the centre 9 squares of the board, and crucially, players lose points for leaving ‘errors’ on their boards – unconnected end points.

The game is played by each player individually using the same dice rolls, and after 7 rounds, scores are tallied and compared to see who made the best use of the pieces given. Whoever managed the highest score made the best of what was thrown at them!

What do I think?

I’ve played Railroad Ink several times now with very varied groups and player counts. One thing to note about this game is players have simultaneous turns, so playing with more players has no effect on the play time. Rounds take as long as the player who takes the most time to place their pieces.

The Good Stuff

  • Railroad Ink is a highly versatile game! I’ve been surprised at unexpected positive reactions to the game from people I hadn’t expected to like it, and more casual players enjoying it as well. People really like solving puzzles and I think it shows something of what is drawing people to roll-and-write games and making them so popular.
  • In fact, nobody I’ve played it with hasn’t liked it. I don’t think I can say that about many other games.
  • The reusable game-boards are a nice feature vs a paper pad that would run out eventually.
  • The game is very simple to explain, and the gameplay itself is fairly broad and unrestricted.
  • I like the feeling of creating something, and once you are done the feeling of ownership is good. Not only did you plan it yourself, you drew it yourself!
  • Comparing networks at the end is interesting given all players have identical inputs, and it’s fun to see what other people did with problem pieces.
  • Railroad Ink is satisfying to play, and after a few rounds, it’s satisfying to see your ‘informed’ gambles potentially pay off or fun to see them fail.
  • The expansions are quite interesting and shake things up quite a bit once you’ve gotten used to the base game.
  • The custom dice are cool.

The Bad Stuff

  • There is literally no player interaction. The only reason to play this game with other people is to see what score you get against theirs. I suppose this isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, but the ‘multiplayer’ aspect of this game is non-existent.
  • Some games have little interaction between players but it is still important or at least interesting to see what others are doing. In Railroad Ink this is not the case, looking at other player’s boards will do nothing for you unless you are copying someone’s moves.
  • Some players can experience Analysis Paralysis which can be a snagging point for other players waiting for the next round. This seems to diminish with experience (even during the first game).
  • The game can be frustrating because there is little to no way to mitigate the randomness of the dice. Sometimes you can hope for a piece and it will never come. This makes strategy formulation and planning largely irrelevant, playing pieces for short term benefit is pretty much the only way to go.
  • Red/Blue expansions not available separately. If you want the 4 expansion dice from the box you didn’t buy, it seems like you have no choice but to get a whole other copy of the game.
Mmm, custom dice.

Looking back at my pros and cons above, I have to say that this is by a margin the mildest set of ‘negatives’ in any of my reviews so far. I found it really difficult to find criticisms of the game past its solitaire nature. Does this mean it’s the best game I’ve played? No. It’s definitely a good game. It’s definitely fun to play and I still can’t exactly put my finger on why that is. I think it’s great in that I’ve pulled it out with friends and family of all ‘gaming levels’ and they’ve enjoyed it. I expect I will play it a lot into the future for this reason! Of the roll-and-writes I have played, I think I enjoyed this one the most because of it’s spatial nature. If it sounds like something you would be keen on trying out it’s relatively inexpensive, or there is a print and play version on the Horrible Games website if you’re happy to approximate the dice.

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