This article originally appeared in Pyramid #9
AUSTRALIAN RAILSPublished by Mayfair Games
Designed by Larry Roznai
Passion is an often-overlooked ingredient in a really good game. There are lots of good game designers and professional game companies out there that know the "formula"; they know how to put out a serviceable design with adequate components for a reasonable price. So what.
Passion is the frequently missing ingredient that makes a great game. Greg Stafford has a passion for things Arthurian; you can tell when you look at Pendragon. Steve Jackson (if I can kiss up to the boss a bit here) has a passion for conspiracy theory and weirdness; you can tell when you look at Illuminati. And the folks at Mayfair Games have a passion for trains.
Australian Rails is the latest release in a series of games based on the system pioneered in the original Empire Builder. Since then, the system has seen a number of incarnations, all of them outstanding -- North American Rails, EuroRails, Nippon Rails, and British Rails. This latest release is a proud addition to the line.
The object is simple: build a rail network across the Australian continent and then run your train along those rails, delivering goods until you have a network that includes Perth and three of the other four major cities on the continent (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide) and a fortune of $250 million. It costs more to build your rail lines over mountains and across rivers than it does over flat ground. The farther away a product is from its destination city, the more the run pays. Those are the basics.
But there's lots more to it than that. The rail lines are created on the map by drawing them in with crayons (that wipe clean after the game is over), and no two players can draw lines in the exact same spot. This leads to a race early in the game for the quickest, most economical routes (of which there are only so many). Later, it's a matter of picking which runs to make (the runs are on cards, three runs to a card, and you can only deliver one), and when to stop plowing your earnings back into capital improvements and when to start hoarding cash for the win. There's a tremendous amount of thinking and strategy involved, and just enough luck to keep it interesting.
But once you've played one of these games, you've played them all, right? Not hardly. Each of these games has its variations and nuances that make it a unique challenge. In Australian Rails, there are desert mileposts that cost the same to build to as clear mileposts -- but they can be wiped off the map (literally) by sand storms that come up in the card deck. The center of the continent is filled with dry lakes and dry river beds that turn wet (and more expensive to build over) when the rainy season hits. And there is the usual complement of special goods unique to the Australian version of the game -- aboriginal artifacts, diamonds, tin, and more.
The components are essentially the same as the last few editions of the game -- a plastic-coated map, load cards, train cards, 6 crayons, a bunch of plastic chips and a sheet of stickers for the various loads, and a rules sheet, all packed in a two-foot-long tube. I still wish there was a way to store the load chips so that you didn't have to sort them all over again every time you started up a game, but the tube format holds the price down to $25, and I'm all for that.
And while it may be the kiss of death to call a game "educational," I never learned more about Australian geography than I did playing this game. I played a couple of times with a married couple who are both schoolteachers, and they were both trying to figure out ways to use it in their classes.
Our six-player test game was loads of fun, but long (it took us almost seven hours). But it was very challenging, as players had to spend more time riding on other players' rail lines (and paying for the privilege), slowing down the race to $250 million. I greatly prefer the three- or four-player version, just because it can be played in three hours or even less. But if the time and the players are available, the more the merrier!
Australian Rails and its brothers don't have the romantic thrills of other games -- there are no armies to defeat, no damsels to rescue, no dragons to slay. But it's a great strategic game, requiring brains and planning to win. And in my opinion, it's every bit as satisfying to survey a well-planned rail network and to count the earnings as it is to plant your foot on the belly of a slain dragon and count its gold. Every bit.
-- Scott Haring
Article publication date: October 1, 1994
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