Railroad Ink and Missing Mom's Cooking
I’m not going to tell you how good Railroad Ink is; if you’ve been following this hobby at all, and are the type of person who reads board game review, you know Railroad Ink is good, and you either already own it, or know you should. It’s good. It’s great. It’s one of the best roll and write games on the market. If you don’t have it yet, leave now, buy it and play it (you won’t understand this article if you haven’t played it). Only then should you come back to this article and continue to read it, so you can discover why I think there are two very different games in this small box, why you may want to avoid one or the other, and what preferring one to the other might say about your life up till now.
I’m only going to write about the blue box version of Railroad Ink as I don’t own the red version, haven’t played it, and don’t really want to experience what makes these two versions different, for reason that will become clear soon. That being said, I’m confident that this article will be just as relevant for those who have only played the red box version of Railroad Ink, so please continue to read if you fall into that category.
When you first opened Railroad Ink, you would have been greeted with the wonderful and very thoughtful inclusion of reusable dry erase boards for a generous six players, enough dry erase markers for each player, and eight gorgeous custom dice, four white, two light blue and two dark blue. When reading through the rules, you would have discovered that the four white dice are used in every game variant, and the remaining four dice, in two separate colours, are each used for one of two variants of the game. You are initially told to use only the four white dice and the rules for the base game, while you get acquainted with the game, only adding the dice and rules for one variant, when you are comfortable with how to play the game.
So, as the ever obedient board gamer, you play your first games, and are introduced to a relaxing game similar in concept to most other roll and writes you may have played, where you are only given one completely free choice throughout the seven rounds of the game. You roll the four dice, you’re told you must use all dice, but you are given the freedom to place them where you would like, with a few placement rules thrown in to create challenge. You may make some mistakes in the first couple of games, but by the time you are comfortable with the game, you generally play the dice in the best locations available. You’re rarely upset with your choice of placement early on in the rounds, because you had only a few options for each dice that made sense based off of the games rules and win conditions. Because of this, in the first four or five rounds, you’re never actively seeking a specific dice result, as most results can be played in a location on your player board, that makes sense. This is a very quiet and relaxing games for the first five rounds, simply rolling dice, and placing them on your board in a logical pattern. It’s only in the last two rounds that stress is introduced to the game, and you’re finally caught in the cafe screaming at the dice for a specific result; by this time you’re well into your cup of coffee, that when you’re asked to leave because you’re scaring the other patrons, you only have a few cold sips left.
This is the game you were introduced to at the beginning. If you’re like me, this introduction probably lasted 10-15 games before you began to wonder about those other two colours of dice. The intro games were charming, largely easy, giving you one free choice and a few other rules that you must do. It mimics your life before turning the age of 18, or whenever you chose to begin living your life as an adult.
Much of your childhood and teen years are filled with very few choices of free will, and many examples of requirements or rules that your parents, school, or society impose on you. You can choose what toy you want to play with; but your parents tell you where in the house you can play, you must eat your vegetables before you leave the dinner table, you need to go to bed a specific time, wake up at a specific time, you can’t put those items up your nose, etc… Later on in your childhood, you will be able to choose what to wear to school; but you will have to be at school between required times, you need to take necessary courses, you must finish your homework, you need to ask permission to pee, etc…
By the time you hit adulthood, you lived so much of your life being told what to do, following rules, and believing you were kept you from your God given rights of freedom in your daily life, but you never realized the “adult” struggles that these rules and sets of controls were sheltering you from. Once you separate yourself from your parents, and are recognized by society as an adult, you no longer need to go to school, can play video games all day long, and can buy what ever you want. Turning the coin over though, and you may not have the education required for your dream career, you can’t keep a steady job because you play Fortnite all day long, and that awesome new computer is heating your room with it’s exhaust, because you can’t afford your utility bills. You were so desperate for more freedoms and choices in your life, that you never stopped to wonder if the consequences were worth it.
After your introduction games of Railroad Ink, you may choose to pull out the rule book and figure out how those four extra dice are used to change the game, and you’d soon read the words “…you may use all, one, or none of the expansion dice when rolled in the available six rounds of the expansion variants.” You now have another available choice right from the start of the game, a very significant choice it turns out, and much like the moment when you turned 18, you think more choices and more freedoms means a better life, or in this case, a better game; once again you failed to think of the consequences. It doesn’t take long before you realize this one extra change, one extra choice, created a completely different game, one where you’re yelling at the dice and your decisions from the very first round. This time you never even got the coffee to your lips before you were asked to leave.
No longer are you able to simply live with your decisions knowing they were the best choices available at that time. Instead, right from the beginning, you can choose which of the expansion dice to use, if any, and you immediately begin to second guess yourself. You try to impossibly plan for three turns in advance, and are regretting nearly all of your previous decisions. Your new found freedom is making a fool of you, always reminding you that you weren’t ready for this responsibility. You were so excited to try out the new options, to feel powerful, to flex your new muscles. But, then you see your final score, you wipe the sweat from your brow, unclench your jaw, and realize this is your “Uncle Ben” moment; you weren’t ready, and you regret your choices. “The base game was so comforting, so relaxing; why’d I do this to myself?”
I do think that with enough preparation, excellent understanding of the rules and strategies, and ample solitude where no on can hear you scream, this game, with it’s expansions, can be good and enjoyable. Maybe even as good as the base game. Options, freedoms, and open ended choices are an excellent addition to Railroad Ink’s game mechanics. It makes you feel like you are fully playing the game, interacting with it in a meaningful, instead of merely playing out actions that are determined by random chance. You go from a relaxing game, where your only goal is to get a high score, to a game where you begin to understand the mechanics associated with the dice result probabilities, and your free choices, making your final score that much more determined by how good of a player you are. But, you do need to realize what you’re getting yourself into when choosing the expansions over the base game.
The base game is relaxing. It’s quiet. It’s fun. But, it’s tends to be unfulfilling at the end. Your score is determined largely by luck of the dice. You can play the game when watching a new movie, and know you won’t miss anything. It’s casual.
The expansion variant is stressful. It’s loud, while you vocally scream at the dice and your previous decisions. It’s still fun, but exhausting. You final score is less chance based, and largely determined by your choices, whether good or bad. It requires your full attention. It’s a “gamer’s game.”
So, do you miss your childhood? Do you hate your bills? Do you realize how good you had it in highschool? Do you long for your Mom’s cooking? You may be better off never removing the four blue dice from this game.
But, if you enthusiastically celebrated your 18th birthday and never looked back, or you relished the knowledge that no one could tell you what to do any longer, or you screamed at "The Man" as you ate ramen noodles for several months while watching your ridiculously large, new T.V., you may be the type that needs to live on the edge, while playing the expansion variant of Railroad Ink.
In my case, I miss being told when I can and can’t pee.