My wife alleges that Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains” should be my personal theme song. See, general speaking, my wife and I have very different tastes in music.
However, there is one artist that we can both agree on liking: Johnny Cash.
Why do we both like Johnny Cash so much? His country ballads? His Gospel music? His social advocacy? His acting career? His unused James Bond theme song? His exploratory concept albums analyzing the American spirit—which happen to be absurdly underrated by Allmusic.com, where they say things like “the album consists almost entirely of first-rate material” and then only give it three stars… how does that make any sense?
Anyways, there are many reasons to like Johnny Cash. Another one of them is his train songs. “Hey Porter.” “Orange Blossom Special.” “Casey Jones.” The entire Ride This Train album. Even “Folsom Prison Blues” is a bit of a train song. There’s hardly a folk song about trains that wasn’t written or at least recorded by Johnny Cash.
Still, if there’s anything I like more than songs about trains, it is games about trains. And if there is any one card game that perfectly embodies my love for games about trains, it is Yardmaster.
Yardmaster is a card game often described as a spiritual hybrid of Ticket to Ride and Uno. Each player is building a train out of train car cards. Each train car card has a cargo type (coal, wood, oil, cattle, or automobiles) and a number (one through four). The main hook of the game is that a car can only be added to your train if it matches either the cargo or the number of the previous car. Each turn, you draw cargo cards from the cargo deck and use those to buy train cars for your train. For example, a wood car with a three on it costs three wood cards. The cargo deck also contains bonus action cards that allow you do things like exchange cargo, pay less for cars, or draw extra cards. The first person to get a specific number of points on their train wins.
I always enjoy playing Yardmaster. It manages to be both fun and relaxing. The requirement that cars have to match to be added to your train never feels onerous since you can always buy cars and add them later. You can always do something on your turn, even if it is just build up your hand of cards. And it’s always a bit exciting when you draw a bonus action card: they give you plenty of opportunities to boost yourself or trip up other players without the game ever feeling mean-spirited or underhanded.
The thing that attracted me to Yardmaster in the first place was the minimalist art style. I love the bright colors and timeless iconography. To me it always brings to mind the industrial simplicity of historic railroad logos like the Great Northern or the Chicago & Northwestern. I wish more games looked like this.
The one problem I have with Yardmaster is that the rules feel a mite overcomplicated. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the game is not that complicated, but its structure makes it feel like there’s too much going on. If this game was a Christmas tree, it would be too small for all of the ornaments that they tried to hang on it. It’s built around a simple idea: you use cargo cards to buy train cars. I love how the bonus action cards add a fun twist to that by allowing you to break certain rules. Unfortunately, the twists don’t stop there.
For example, the game includes a “Yardmaster token,” which gets passed around in the opposite direction of play and gives the person holding it three actions on their turn instead of two. On paper, this is great way to make sure the player who’s going first doesn’t win just because they’re going first. However, in practice, it just feels like complication for the sake of complication. It’s annoying to have to remember to pass the token, and it’s much easier to explain and play the game if you just have two actions per turn, period. The sliver of extra strategy and fairness that the token adds by giving you one extra action every third or fourth turn isn’t worth the hassle.
Similarly, the game’s Caboose Expansion seems like it was produced just for the sake of having an expansion. I mean, I get it… the concept of creating a “caboose expansion” for a game about train cars was too compelling to pass up. But it feels like it’s just adding more rules to the game without making it any more fun.
Speaking of the Caboose Expansion, it seems like the only thing there’s more of than Johnny Cash train songs is addons for Yardmaster.
There is the Caboose Expansion that adds caboose cards. There are wooden tokens you can get to replace the game’s cardboard tokens. There is a cloth travel bag. There is the optimistically-named Bonus Card Pack #1 that adds more bonus action cards (no other Bonus Card Packs exist). And there is the Heisenberg Heist promotional pack that replaces all the oil cargo cards with ones referencing Breaking Bad.
Yardmaster is an interesting case study in the economics of Kickstarter projects. I got the game and almost all of the expansions for $20 during the Kickstarter. If you wanted to buy everything from Crash of Games today, it would set you back a staggering $47. That said, the only addon that I would classify as really essential is Bonus Card Pack #1, with one small reservation…
“Swap Railcars” card
Bonus Card Pack #1 adds a bonus action card that lets you swap two cars on your train, provided you still follow the rules about matching cargo and numbers. (Ordinarily, cars can’t be moved once they’ve been added to your train.)
No other card in the game has brought me as much angst as this one. During some games, I feel like I’ve been loaded down with two of these in my hand the whole time, unable to use them. At first, I thought that this card was vastly less powerful than the other bonus action cards and should have allowed you to break the matching rule, too. However, subsequently, this card has helped me to win on the last turn of the game, so I’ve come to realize that it is useful. Still, it’s hit or miss and if there was ever a Bonus Card Pack #2, I would want it to contain a bonus action card for adding a car to your train even if it doesn’t match the cargo or number.
All in all, Yardmaster feels like an heirloom-quality game. The cards are thick and plentiful; you never have to reshuffle the decks during play. The wooden tokens are fancy enough for a railroad baron, but even the standard cardboard tokens are linen-finished and substantial. However, the game’s box is what really stands out. Yardmaster comes in the burliest board game box that I’ve ever seen. It is made out of 1/8 inch thick cardboard. I haven’t tested this, but I think it’s possible that an adult human could stand on the box without crushing it. It’s that sturdy.
I don’t think that Yardmaster is the best game ever created. It’s probably not even the best card game about trains ever created.
But I think it may be the quintessential card game about trains. Channeling the golden age of rail through stark, iconic artwork, it is the train card game that is as close to the Platonic ideal of train card games as it is possible to get. Conjuring up images of loading coal to the tune of a folk ballad, mile-long timber trains rolling down the winding mountains, wheels clacking loudly on the rails as they carry goods from city to city, or dodging the brakemen and freighthopping your way to adventure and a new life, it’s a fun, fast, boldly-colored endeavor to couple together the best train you possibly can.