I read something very interesting about memory once: when you remember a moment, you’re aren’t just remembering that moment, you are also remembering every time you’ve ever remembered it. What that means is that you can never remember something without changing your memory of it. We think we’re calling up photographic images of the past, but actually our memories are actually always slightly distorted, like the rippling reflection of the clouds in a stream. You can never really know if anything you remember is true. I’m not going to claim that my memories are any exception to that, but I do have a few memories from my very early childhood that I think are real.
One of my earliest memories is looking under a train car. My family was at a train museum and I poked my head under one of the boxcars. The underside was black and crisscrossed by pipes and cables. I don’t know why I remember that, I guess because it was frightening and fascinating.
Trains are kind of awe-inspiring. I live in a noisy urban area, far from the nearest track, but sometimes at night you can hear the whistle of a train in the distance, a mechanical lion’s roar reverberating across miles of metropolitan savanna.
Perhaps this impressiveness is why trains have inspired so many board games. There is a whole spectrum of games involving trains to explore, from the largest board games to the tiniest card games and everything in between. For example, Trainmaker, a train dice game.
Trainmaker is a game for two to five players from Grey Gnome Games. At the start of each turn, there are three station cards in the middle of the table and you’ll attempt to claim as many of them as you can. Station cards have a type of cargo (timber, coal, passengers, etc.) and a particular type of train (for example, a train with two blue cars and one green car). You claim a station card by rolling a set of seven dice with train cars on them and making that station’s train. Trains must start with an engine and end with a caboose, so you have to roll at least one engine, then roll the cars for the station, then roll a caboose. You can roll as many times as possible, but after each roll, you must remove at least one die and add it to the train you are building. The winner is the first person to claim one of each of the six types of station cards, or to meet the condition on their secret goal card (for example, three timber stations or three coal stations).
Trainmaker is essentially Yahtzee-like. You roll dice and choose which ones to set aside. However, instead of threes-of-a-kind or full houses, you are trying to make the trains on the station cards. I think it’s quite a bit more fun than Yahtzee, though. You don’t need a pencil and paper. You have a secret goal. Every single turn, you find yourself thinking, “Am I going to be able to pull this off?”
In fact, I think the game is fun, period. Trainmaker has just the right amount of interesting complications. You start almost every turn with a tough choice: do you add one engine to your train or two—if you only add one engine, you’ll have more dice available to try for the cars you need, but if you add two, you give yourself the opportunity to make another train to your turn to try to claim another station card.
There are also a number of ways you can manipulate the dice to your advantage. Every game, you get one train token you can spend to set one die to any side. Plus, you can spend station cards you’ve claimed to take special actions (for example, to re-roll dice or set one die to a specific side), but that means you won’t have those stations available to win the game.
Occasionally you will bust and not be able to make a train at all because you didn’t get an engine on your first roll. More often, you will find yourself desperately trying to roll a caboose to finish your train. Therein lies the fun of the game. It’s always exciting to risk it and see if you can get lucky and claim all three stations.
The cards in Trainmaker feature gorgeous illustrations in a sort of cowboy-Impressionist style. It brings to mind Western movies and the transcontinental railroad spreading out from big cities to the new frontier. You can almost feel the dust on your boots as you step onto the platform. The cards don’t all have unique artwork, but there are enough different designs in the game to keep it interesting.
The attention to detail in Trainmaker clearly shows that the game was a labor of love. Each station card has the name of an actual city on it. Less valuable stations are smaller cities, more valuable stations are larger cities, and I believe each station’s goods are based on the region of the city. For example, cities from the Pacific Northwest have timber stations and cities from Appalachia have coal stations.
The components feel premium. The cards have a sharply tactile linen finish on them. The train tokens are wooden. The dice are extremely high quality, with etched and painted train cars. Perhaps the only way the dice could be better is if they were slightly larger à la King of Tokyo. However, all in all, Trainmaker is in the top tier of quality.
Number of players
The game feels most engaging with two players. With two, you can keep an eye on what station cards your opponent probably needs and try to take those cards for yourself. With more than two players, you can’t really impact anyone except for the player after you and any stations you miss out on will almost certainly be gone before it’s your turn again.
However, something really interesting happens with more players. You are slightly disconnected from the other players and it feels a bit like everyone is playing their own game. I guess you could look at that as a downside, but I think there is also an upside to it. On other people’s turns, I find myself cheering for them to build the train they need.
I mean, yes, it’s still a competitive game. You’re still trying to win, and for you to win, everyone else has to lose. But you don’t win by tearing the other players down—by stealing their points or crushing their forces—you win by building yourself up. This means you can cheer for other people to finish a train without cheering against yourself. I like that.
The back of the Trainmaker box advertises that it includes three additional “mini games,” all of which were added as stretch goals during the game’s Kickstarter project. I tried all three of them so you don’t have to.
All Aboard is a solitaire game practically identical to Yahtzee. You have a card with six options—for example, five of a kind or a full house of train cars. The card is used just like a Yahtzee score pad: you have three rolls each turn and then you either put a train token next an option to show that you scored it or you cover it with a token to cross it off. The goal of the game is to get as many points as possible. This is a fun solitaire game if you’re enamored with the train dice but don’t have another person to play with. The only downside is that the train tokens are slightly too big to lay flat on the card so you have to stand them up.
Lawmen vs. Robbers
Lawmen vs. Robbers is essentially a two player version of Texas hold ’em poker with train dice instead of cards. The dice are assigned a hierarchy from engine (lowest) to caboose (highest) and you try to make pairs, straights, etc. using three dice of your own plus one community die. Also, the lawmen and robbers each have two unique combinations they can roll to for a special action. Again, it’s a decent tiny game if you’re hankering for something else to do with the train dice.
In the Rail Tycoon “mini” game for two to four players, each player is building a grid of station cards. You start with a hand of stations and roll the dice to buy stations from your hand, draw more stations, or steal stations from other players. When you buy a station, you can add it to your empire by placing it next to one of the stations you already own, assuming the icons of the two cards match. At the end of the game, you get points for having the most stations of a particular type, plus some additional bonuses, and the winner is the person with the most points.
In the first place, it’s a bit rich to claim that this is a mini game. It takes at least as long as playing Trainmaker and requires a vast expanse of table space. Also, it’s incredibly confusing. The matching rule for how to branch station cards is not clearly explained in the rules (I’m still not sure I got it right, or that there’s any way it makes sense). The scoring is tediously complex. The whole thing is overwrought, overlong, and just not very fun. There was a good idea for a game here, but it was hamstrung by the need to use the exact same components as Trainmaker.
On the whole, the mini games are a nice bonus, but I would steer clear of Rail Tycoon.
What should we expect from Trainmaker?
What is the most that you can expect from any game? That it delights you? Surprises you? Engages you? That opening its box puts you in a dream state reminiscent of a Christmas morning, redolent with the tingling, expectant fragrance of freshly fallen fir needles and adhesive tape?
Trainmaker is a small dice game. I wouldn’t say “Hey, everybody come over on Saturday night and we’ll all play Trainmaker” anymore than I would say “Hey, everybody come over, we’ve got snacks and we can all play Yahtzee.” It’s just not that kind of game.
But I will say this: Trainmaker is one of my favorite games. It’s not intimidating to new players, it can be enjoyed by children or adults, and there’s just something ineffably satisfying about rolling those shiny, colorful train dice when you just need to get a caboose.