Rolling the rails in Trainmaker, a train dice game

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 components

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.


I hear the train a comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend, and I ain't rolled a caboose since I don't know when.
I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ ’round the bend, and I ain’t rolled a caboose since I don’t know when.

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.

Dice comparison: King of Tokyo (left), Trainmaker (center), Chessex 16mm (right).
Dice comparison: King of Tokyo (left), Trainmaker (center), Chessex 16mm (right).

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.

Mini games

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

Trainmaker All Aboard mini game
All Aboard? More like One Aboard…

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

Trainmaker Lawmen vs. Robbers mini game
Note: two of the six sides of the train dice are engines. The other four sides are one caboose, one blue car, one yellow car, and one green car.

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.

Rail Tycoon

Trainmaker Rail Tycoon mini game
Remember, being a rail tycoon was so soul-suckingly unsatisfying that Andrew Carnegie gave his entire fortune to charity.

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Yardmaster Express: A tiny train game that delivers on fun

I recently wrote about Yardmaster, calling it the quintessential train card game, even if it is probably not the best.

So why isn’t it the best train card game?

Well, there are lots of train card games out there—in fact, there are so many that it doesn’t really even make sense to talk about which one is the best overall. Also, there’s one in particular that I like just a bit more than Yardmaster. I’m talking, of course, about its protégé: Yardmaster Express.

Yardmaster Express


Yardmaster Express takes the core hook of Yardmaster and boils it down to its essence: you’re still building a train and you can still only add cars to your train if they match the color or number of the previous car. However, in Yardmaster Express, you only use one type of card—train car cards—and each card has two train cars on it. Also, instead of each player having their own hand of cards, the players pass one hand around the table. Each turn, you add a card to the hand, pick a card from the hand to add your train, and then pass the hand to the next person. After everyone has a specified number of cards on their train (for example, five cards in a four player game), the winner is the person with the most points on their train.

The game is blinkofaneye fast. From start to finish, it takes less than 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes are packed with fun as you try to get as many points as possible onto your train, while keeping a watchful eye on your neighbors’ trains to make sure you don’t let them have the exact card that they need.

Points are earned from the numbers on the train cars, from getting a bonus for the longest consecutive color run, or from the caboose card. Each time you play, one caboose card is randomly drawn and placed in the center of the table. The caboose gives a bonus at the end of the game to each player whose train meets the condition on the caboose (for example, having no yellow cards on their train, or a specific sequence of numbers).

The cabooses all have clever names. The game even includes blank caboose cards so you can make up your own cabooses, like "The Bilbo," a bonus for finishing with a very unlucky 13 points on your train.
The cabooses all have clever names. The game even includes blank caboose cards so you can make up your own cabooses, like “The Bilbo,” a bonus for finishing with a very unlucky 13 points on your train.

Unlike Yardmaster, where the caboose expansion felt like one thing too much in a game stuffed full of addons, the Yardmaster Express caboose cards are the icing on the cake, adding an interesting new dimension to the game, distorting your motives so that picking lower point cards might potentially pay off at the end.


Yardmaster Express shares the minimalist art style of Yardmaster, with silhouetted trains and primary colored cards. I still love this art style; something about it always fills me with delight when I bring out the game. Plus, Yardmaster Express takes it into the third dimension by including a large wooden train piece for keeping track of the first player (which is also fun for driving around the table while making train noises).

Bottom: Yardmaster Express first player token. Top: Meeples from Wits & Wagers for size comparison. Not pictured: anything else.
Bottom: Yardmaster Express first player token. Top: meeples from Wits & Wagers for size comparison. Not pictured: anything else.


There are many different lenses to use when discussing what makes a board game great.

One lens to use is concrete: a game consists of a set of rules and a box full of physical pieces with material attributes used to enact the rules. Here, the quality of the game is determined by the clarity and character of the rules and the richness of the components.

From this perspective, Yardmaster Express is a great game. The rules are comprehensible and cohesive. The linen finished cards, magnetically closing box, and wooden first player token are extremely high quality.

Another lens is decisional: from this perspective, playing a game is making a series of decisions. This is often discussed in reviews of board games, but I’m not a huge fan of this lens because I’m not sure that a game is better the more thorny and agonizing the decisions are. The problem with evaluating games on the “quality of their decisions” is that it ends up promoting certain types of excruciating games over other games that are equally, if not more, entertaining. (Also, you know, are we even able to make decisions or is human consciousness a delusion?)

Still, the decisions in Yardmaster Express are clear and consequential: do you take good cards for yourself or keep bad cards from your opponents? Do you break up color runs to keep high numbers? Do you take lower point cards to try to get the caboose points?

There are an infinite number of other lenses for looking at games. Games as experiences… games as stories… games as promoters of social interaction… For me, what makes Yardmaster Express a great game is the emotions that it evokes. It’s a great game to sit around and play with family and friends. Anyone can play this game and I’ve seen firsthand how much people enjoy building their trains and trying to complete the bonuses while keeping other people from getting them.

Final thoughts

Let's just take a moment to acknowledge that "Express" is an outstanding pun for a faster version of a game about trains.
Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that “Express” is an outstanding pun for a faster version of a game about trains.

Yardmaster Express is special—an ingenious elevation of the ideas in Yardmaster, a distillation that adds by subtraction to become an even better game than its predecessor.

And yet.

I’ve seen a number of videos where the owner of Crash of Games has criticized the choices he made in publishing Yardmaster Express, calling out the game as being confusingly named and having gray box art.

I could not disagree more. It is not confusing that there was one game called Yardmaster and another game called Yardmaster Express—that’s called branding. Also, I find the art on both of these games to be extremely engaging. So what if the box is mostly gray? The striking, minimalist look of the game stands out. It’s a bold, dynamic, ageless looking game.

Interestingly, both Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express have been reprinted under new names with completely new artwork. The new version of Yardmaster, published in France, is called Aramini Circus (after the designer, Steven Aramini) and is about assembling a circus train with different types of animals. The new version of Yardmaster Express is called Backyard Builders Treehouse and is about adding levels to a treehouse. These new versions look amazing, I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that. But I’m still sad at the loss of the train cargo theme and iconic artwork. Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express were my cup of tea, two of the games that drew me into backing games on Kickstarter and two games that I still love to play.

Yardmaster is a first-class train card game

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.

Music Venn Diagram

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, 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 components

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.


Yardmaster cards and tokens

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.


You'll feel like you need a train to haul all of this.
You’ll feel like you need a train to haul all of this.

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.

As part of the Kickstarter, you could even get Yardmaster dice! (Note: dice are not used in the game at all.)
As part of the Kickstarter, you could even get Yardmaster dice! (Note: dice are not used in the game at all.)

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

My nemesis.
My nemesis.

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.

Box strength

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.

Final thoughts

Yardmaster cards

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.