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 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).
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).
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.
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.
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.