One of the burning questions in the board gaming hobby—why are trains games such a significant niche? In part, the idea of trains works really well for a lot of gaming mechanisms. You can create some routes, pick up and deliver goods (or passengers), and manage a company. Why don’t they use planes or cars… no idea. But luckily train games run the gamut from light entry weight games to some of the heaviest, longest economic games available. So take a look through some of our favorites below. Choo-chooooooo!
Age of Steam
Chosen by Andrew
You might say Age of Steam is more of a system than it is a game. I would anyway. Most Age of Steam games have a similar structure—bid for turn order, draft special abilities for the round, lay track, and deliver goods. Delivering goods gets you income. Income, along with having an extensive rail network, translates to victory points. Route building, auction, and a lot of player interaction all in one. And there are literally hundreds of Age of Steam maps. Some maps just tweak the landscapes and the cities that need goods. Others—the moon, for instance—really turn the game into a familiar but completely different experience.
Chosen by Brandon
Look up train games on Wikipedia and you’ll be confronted with classic 18XX games or crayon rail games, but looking closer you’ll see it simply defined as the construction and operation of railways. As I’ve not played many of the classic train games (been eyeing Age of Steam, 1830, and Iberian Gauge lately), I shifted my focus to adjacent railway and route-building options. The first game that came to mind was Freedom: The Underground Railroad. Here, a “railway” is constructed, but at a much steeper cost than in any other rail game. Ultimately, I landed on Brass: Birmingham as my favorite game that features railway construction. On BGG, it’s the only train-categorized game in the top 100. And while train construction isn’t introduced until the second era of play, the incorporation of transport evolution and route building with shared incentives leaves it very much a part of this niche genre discussion. It’s the #1 game on BGG for a reason.
Chosen by Tony
I am not, what you’d call, a traditional train gamer. You won’t see me getting close to 18xx games, as those seem more like accounting work than actual fun. But every now and then I find a train game that hits me just right. For me, that would be the Martin Wallace designed game Auzstralia. Set in an alternate reality 1930s, players are adventurers trying to explore and settle the Australian wilderness. Players will need to use their resources—steel, coal, and time—to expand their train route, build farms, and fight the minions of the Great Elder Gods. That’s right, there are Lovecraftian nightmares roaming the land, so you’ll need to load up your army on trains to protect your investments. One of the interesting things about Auztralia is that if the players don’t work hard enough to stop the Old Ones, they can actually end up winning the game themselves. If you like the idea of a route-building game, but one where you have to stave off monsters as you go, then check out this one.
1830: Railways and Robber Barons
Chosen by Dylan
1830: Railways and Robber Barons is not a game where experienced players will be having a great time with new players, and the inverse is very true. The thing that makes it the best train game, in my opinion, is the sheer amount of depth one discovers with each play. Will the board look similar from each play? Sure, and the opening moves have been figured out with experience. But the game end feels so different in each play due to the actual event of a player declaring bankruptcy (if any of them do), as well as the lead up that causes it and actions taken by those at the table. Each game will have players jockeying for different cities, trains, companies, or strategies based on when, who, and why the game ends. I have 26 plays of 1830, but it feels like I am still a novice who is learning! And it is a major design in establishing an entire genre that still is getting brand new releases today.
Chosen by Matt
In this worker placement game, players expand their personal networks from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Kiev. These routes are not depicted on a map, however, but are represented by three tracks on your player board. To extend along these tracks, you’ll need to lay different types of rails in a specific order. So, for instance, you cannot advance gray rails on a track until you’ve already laid the basic black rails there previously. There’s also an industry track that you can progress along, triggering special actions as you pass factories that you’ve built. Much of the game is about timing your actions and choosing where to specialize. Should you push the Vladivostok line and unlock an extra worker early, or increase your locomotive reach on the St. Petersburg line so that you can get first choice of the powerful bonus cards? One of the most satisfying aspects of Russian Railroads is the sense of progression that builds throughout the game and crescendos in the last round. Players score their boards at the end of each round, usually earning fewer than a dozen points in the first scoring. But a successful game plan can yield a final round score of well over 100 points. The German and American Railroads expansions add more variety to the gameplay, such as introducing coal production and a solo mode. Everything, including a new Asian Railroads expansion, is conveniently packed into the recent big box edition, Ultimate Railroads.
1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties
Chosen by Jacob
While 1862 might not be anyone’s idea of an “entry-level” 18xx game, it is in my limited opinion (I think at this point I’ve played eight or nine 18xx games) the best. Some games in the genre center on stock shenanigans (1830, for example), while others, like 1862, are what are referred to as “operations-heavy” games, meaning the primary action of the game happens during the part of the game where you lay track and buy/sell trains. This game is unique in the genre because it’s the only game I’ve played that features three different types of trains that operate in entirely different ways, and each company requires a permit to run a specific type of train. For example, a company that has a permit for a freight train cannot own local or express trains. However, when one company merges with another, it absorbs its permits and trains, and can now run those sorts of trains. The merger element of the game is at once its most interesting and its most complex, and what sets 1862 apart from the plethora of 18xx games with minor differences. It’s a beast, with BGG giving it a very hefty 4.63 out of 5 Weight rating, but the juice is worth the squeeze if you enjoy the genre!
Ticket to Ride: Europe
Chosen by James and Chris
My first suggestion was a game that features train tickets, traveling the world, and a glorious steam locomotive and train cars on the box cover until I was told that Eldritch Horror does not, in fact, count as a train game. So, instead, I’m here representing the entry point for train games and hobby board games with Ticket To Ride. I like trains, and have worked on both steam engines and train tracks so I thought Ticket to Ride would be a good game for my family and it has been. This game is a modern classic for a reason and it’s a great introduction to concepts like set collection and route building as you gain more points for longer routes which reward patience over the quick small wins. But with points being earned by completing destination routes between cities, being strategic about where you play your cards is critical for winning. Now if only there was a legacy version available for gamers to sink their teeth into…
Empyreal Spells and Steam
Chosen by Spencer
What does it take to make a train game exciting? Magic. It takes magic. Empyreal Spells and Steam is a fast-paced route and engine builder set in the world of Indines. Players build rails across the map, attempting to collect and deliver as many resources as possible. However, players are competing to deliver the same resources. It’s a tense race to deplete the map before opponents do, using magical powers you’ve gained throughout. New spellcars will allow players to build tracks in new ways, lower costs, gain mana, and more. Specialists give ongoing abilities or hugely powerful one-time abilities to fine-tune an engine. Everything about the player board is customizable, so different strategies can be employed in each game. Empyreal also plays surprisingly fast even with 6 players given the depth of strategy. Add to that the top-notch production, and this one delivers through and through.