Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition and Blazing Red Edition are roll and write board games, which have both just been released by publisher Horrible Games. Both versions are designed by Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva, featuring artwork from Marta Tranquilli. Separately they offer the same base game experience for 1 – 6 players, both coming with 2 small expansion dice sets, though combined up to 12 players can play simultaneously. Being one of the stars of the show at Essen Spiel 2018 the game captured the attention of many gamers. However, does it have design strength to build on the initial appeal? Let’s find out!
The base game is an extremely simple game to setup and explain, with the difficulty coming from the player choices along the way. The four base dice are taken from the box and each player grabs a player board, a dry wipe markers and a rubber. Played over 7 rounds, each round a player will roll the four dice. Three of these dice are identical, featuring “nice” railway or road route shapes, with the fourth featuring more advance routes, some even combining railways and roads. No matter who rolled the dice every player must add the four symbols rolled on the dice onto their individual player boards.
There are a few placement rules to follow though these are pretty intuitive. Around the edge of the player boards there are green arrow marked roads or railways to start from. When drawing a symbol onto their board players must either start from one of these or continue from another pre-drawn section. By extension of this you cannot draw a road from a railway track, or vice versa, as there are special station symbols that make this change.
To help players remember what they are drawing the player boards have each route symbol that features on the base dice. Marking these when they are rolled and rubbing them off helps players know what they have used, as a few rounds in it can be hard to remember what they’ve drawn this round. In a further effort to stop this confusion each space has a small box in it for players to write the round number in. This is easily forgotten but can seriously help newer players out.
On top of the symbols rolled there are 7 special route symbols, depicted at the top of the player boards. Once per round a player can, in addition to the rolled routes, choose to add one of these symbols to their board. Each special route can be used once and only three can be used throughout the game. When and where to use these symbols can be key to linking routes but you are otherwise at the mercy of what is rolled.
There are five ways to score/lose points and that is without any bonus expansion points. All points are determined at the end of the game, adding more importance to each round as they go on. Networks are the first points earnt, where players see how many of the green arrow starting locations they have linked into a connected network. Players can have multiple networks, with each scoring points determined by the number linked places via a scoring table. Note, this makes linking more in one network more rewarding that lots of small networks.
Next up players score one point per the square covered by their longest continuous railway and then road. The player boards are 9×9 grids, with the central 3×3 grid highlighted. This is because any symbols drawn in this area scores a point, encouraging players to charge across the middle of their boards. Finally, for every railway or road route that is not properly connected to another piece or the edge in anyway the player loses a point. In your first game this can be a huge amount of points lost, as it is hard to judge how the board will look when the game ends. Thankfully, this lessens with time unless people risk it all for the perfect route symbols. For the base game scoring is then complete, with the winner being the player with the most points.
It doesn’t matter which version of Railroad Ink you get the base game and number of components included is the same. Both boxes are also packed to the brim with no empty space left for things to roll around inside. Each version on top of the base game’s 4 dice come with 2 sets of 2 expansion dice, that offer a new way to score points. Deep Blue comes with Rivers and Lakes, while Blazing Red includes Meteors and Lava. To combat the additional dice rolled all 4 expansions reduce the round count of the game to 6.
The Deep Blue expansions are optional in terms of inclusion but also are optional chooses for the players to draw or not. The river scores points for the longest continuous river, like the roads and railways, with additional points scored if both ends touch the edge of the map. The lake is another way to link up routes plus the smallest lake also scores points. As a bit of a twist these symbols can be drawn anywhere on a player board not just linking with the starting locations.
As the names suggest Blazing Red’s lava and meteors are less optional and are potentially destructive. Lava, as it is prone to do, spreads from a volcano. Once drawn players must either draw another volcano or spread out from a current one, This can eat up valuable room on your player board, as you must draw at least one symbol each round. On the plus side you will score points for your largest complete lava lake. Meteors always impact with the next impact point determined by the roll of the dice. While they will destroy whatever they hit, if linked to at the end of the game these meteor zones do score points and can be built over in future rounds.
The majority of the game revolves around randomness, where players will roll the dice then get to use the route symbols however they wish. This sees the anticipation of rolls build and players are able to hope for the symbols they want. It also means that players must adapt to what is rolled. The Blazing Red expansion dice adapts this with players randomly affected by something out of their control. A few players have loved this chaotic addition but personally the attraction of the way that the map and routes build up over the game is somewhat lost – especially when out of your control an amazingly connected route is meteored.
The dry wipe pens that come with Railroad Ink are acceptable, they work but are a little prone to the end being pushed inwards. With 6 included in the box it is often easy to just swap for a different pen, something clearly not possible at the full player count. The pen rubbers included are functional, even if they pop off unexpectedly at times. They do however make clearing/cleaning the boards speedy – meaning tear down time is almost non-existent. This is particularly awesome as most players will want to instantly jump back in and try again!
This small box title continues to prove why it gained so much hype. The roll and write genre is getting slightly saturated, yet Railroad Ink stands apart from the rest – via its use of route symbols rather than numbers and a theme that makes the actions and objectives intuitive. The aim is a simple one, which opens the game up for players of all ages and experiences to enjoy. At the same time, there is depth provided by players learning when to use the special route symbols and adapting to what comes up. There is a real charm to Railroad Ink that has instantly earnt it’s space on my gaming shelf, even if players might need to pick up a spare pack of dry wipe pens. The only real question is which version would suit you and your group best: The more chilled, friendly Deep Blue Edition or the chaotic Blazing Red? Perhaps, both…
[Editor’s Note: Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition and Blazing Red Edition were provided to us by the publisher for the review.]