Starburst Magazine - - Roll For Damage - Ed For­tune can tweeted at @ed_­for­tune and con­tacted via ed.for­tune@star­burst­

The rail­ways are a great source of in­spi­ra­tion for board game geeks. Not only do they have a ro­man­tic and his­tor­i­cal im­age, they also tend to come with their own maps and lay­outs, all of which make for great source ma­te­rial for games de­sign­ers.

So it may come as no sur­prise that here at the Se­cret STAR­BURST Thun­der­dome we play a lot of train­in­spired games. Our cur­rent ad­dic­tion is Colt Ex­press, which won the Spiel des Jahres quite re­cently. (Ba­si­cally, the SdJ is an Os­car for board games. It’s a Ger­man prize, be­cause Ger­mans love their board games al­most as much as Amer­i­cans love their block­buster movies.)

Colt Ex­press is a train game that draws in­spi­ra­tion from the Wild West. You know that scene in In­di­ana Jones and The Last Cru­sade in which young In­die is run­ning from car­riage to car­riage, fight­ing bad guys? It’s ba­si­cally that, but you’re all bad guys. As a set-up for a game this is noth­ing new; James Ernest did some­thing sim­i­lar back in 2001 with his zom­bi­etas­tic game The Great Brain Rob­bery. How­ever, whereas James’ game was de­signed with a tight bud­get in mind and fo­cused on sham­bling mon­sters and silli­ness, Colt Ex­press is all about the ac­tion. The aim of the game is to get as much loot out of the train as pos­si­ble. You’re all meant to be train rob­bers who have in­con­ve­niently picked the same train to rob. Wack­i­ness en­sues.

The ac­tual game board it­self is a huge amount of fun. It’s a model train! You have to clip the pieces to­gether your­self, but only once. The box is de­signed so you can store the as­sem­bled pieces safely and they to­tally en­cour­age you to get into the spirit of the thing. It comes with cacti and other desert dec­o­ra­tion as well; these do noth­ing in the game but they add to the fun. The game cards have a nicely car­toon-like ‘wild west’ theme to them and the whole thing makes it very tempt­ing to ut­ter a ‘yee-haw’ be­fore you even start.

Play­ers place their lit­tle ‘meeples’ in­side the back of the train and the game be­gins. Ac­tions are driven by the cards you have in your hand; you pick up loot, shoot other rob­bers, climb onto the roof, and so on. The ac­tions are pro­grammed; ev­ery­one picks their ac­tions and then we all go to­gether. That means your plans to steal all the loot may not al­ways go to plan. Each round is de­ter­mined by an ‘event’ card that tells you how many ac­tions the round has. It also adds wrin­kles such as the train brak­ing sud­denly or go­ing un­der a bridge. These have me­chan­i­cal ef­fects such as ev­ery­one get­ting shunted for­ward or cer­tain ac­tions be­ing played face down, be­cause it’s dark. Each player also has a spe­cial abil­ity that makes them even more un­pre­dictable. These are lit­tle rules twid­dles that can re­ally change the out­come of each turn.

Of course, you may want to sim­ply shoot or punch your op­po­nents in or­der to get all the loot to your­self. This is not a com­bat game though; all that does is ei­ther move the en­emy to another room or sim­ply add a wound card to their hand. These slow you down; they take up a slot in your hand of ac­tion cards and rep­re­sent you stag­ger­ing around as you nurse your in­juries. The fact that you can’t ac­tu­ally die does mean this works quite well with kids. Even if ev­ery­one de­cides to gang up on the youngest player (you mon­sters!), that player can still play and have fun.

It’s not just the bul­lets of your fel­low crim­i­nals you have to watch out for; there’s a sher­iff on board. This keeper of jus­tice starts the game at the front of the train, where some of the best loot hap­pens to be. Each player can move the sher­iff as an ac­tion, but as a rule it’s a bad idea. The Sher­iff will shoot any­one he can and can knock you on to the roof, where there’s no loot.

Com­pared to other games that use pro­grammed ac­tions, such as RoboRally or 404: Law Not Found, this is more the­matic and much more car­toon-like. It’s in se­ri­ous dan­ger of knock­ing another Spiel des Jahres win­ner from the top spot in the Se­cret STAR­BURST Thun­der­dome.

I am of course, talk­ing about Ticket to Ride. It’s a very dif­fer­ent game to Colt Ex­press. It’s all about try­ing to block your op­po­nents from ex­pand­ing their rail­way whilst gar­nish­ing your own. It’s pretty much about col­lect­ing the right cards and plac­ing the pieces in the most op­ti­mal place. I’ve gone on about it at length in the past and men­tion it now be­cause it makes for an in­ter­est­ing con­trast. They also work quite well to­gether with Colt Ex­press be­ing a fun game to start a gaming ses­sions and Ticket to Ride be­ing a nice one to end with.

It would be mas­sively lax of me to talk about train games with­out talk­ing about Martin Wallace. He’s one of the world’s top games de­sign­ers and blimey does he love trains! His cred­its in­clude Steam, Age of Steam, Rail­ways of the World, and Last Train to Wens­ley­dale.

If, how­ever, you don’t fancy those, there’s al­ways the Ivor the En­gine board game...

And fi­nally, I’d like to break the theme of this month’s column to talk to you about pen­guins. I re­cently got my hands on Don’t Rock the Boat from Univer­sity Games. It’s an ab­surdly sim­ple game aimed at fam­i­lies. In the box is a great big plas­tic boat, which looks like a pirate ship. It also comes with many chunky plas­tic pen­guins. You may won­der why pen­guins need a boat? Well you see, they are pirate pen­guins. We can tell this be­cause they all have eye-patches and tiny cut­lasses. The ship (which is mostly brown and bronze) bal­ances on a ro­bust look­ing fun­nel, which you can imag­ine is the sea if you squint a bit. The aim of the game is sim­ple; put the full queue of pen­guins onto the ship with­out it tip­ping over. It’s a bal­anc­ing game and an ab­surdly silly one. It’s also to­tally amaz­ing for get­ting kids into gaming. Maybe it’s the pen­guins’ pi­rat­i­cal na­ture or the fact that it makes a great mess. I don’t know, but blimey is it fun! Now, if I could only get these pen­guins to raid a train…

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