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Subject: Surpringingly exciting mix of tactics and die race fun rss

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Simon Lundström
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Täby
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Surpringingly exciting mix of tactics and die race fun
a review of Railway Rivals/Dampfross/Rail

Introduction
I am a poor man these days and simply can't allow myself to go buying a brand new game for the $50+ (the price of all games here). So instead I have found myself browsing in thrift stores or second hand shops for used toys - here in Sweden, board games aren't considered as anything else but toys for kids. I mean, I can't expect to find a good game there - but occasionally you can find an old gem hidden away. A lot of the old Ravensburger kids games that are amazingly playable for adults even now, were publshed in Sweden back in the 80s, so you never know.
And that's how I came by a copy of this game - Railway Rivals or Dampfross or whatever you feel like calling it.

Posting this review posed a problem - Where to post it? Not only are there 2 entries for Railway Rivals, there is also a separate entry for Dampfross; the only real difference seems to be what maps are included in the box*. And what do you know, although the game I picked up very obviously is the same game as all three of these entries, it doesn't fit into any of them - this edition has a map of southern Sweden on one of the sides. As this review is (or at least I hope it to be) of interest to people reading about this railway game by David Watts, regardless of what title is printed on the box or what specific maps are included, I decided that the only reasonable solution was to post on both entries (one of the Railway Rivals entries was for the prototype version, there seems to be no need to post there. Why there is a separate entry for a prototype version is completely beyond me, but that's not important now.)
*And to make it even funnier, Dampfross is considered to be part of the Crayon Railway series, whereas Railway Rivals is not!

Components
When I opened the box, I thought something was wrong. There is almost nothing in the box! It consists of laminated maps on hex-grids (what maps you get depends on what language version you buy, obviously, but it's not important for gameplay except for variety), two regular dice, 6 player pawns and 6 whiteboard markers in corresponding colours. And a rules sheet. I was suprised, I was expecting at least some game-breaking cards or something. But no, just maps, pawns, pens and dice. Very very simple.
The pens I had was in remarkable shape considering they were 25 years old, but one of them didn't work, and by some reason or another, the brown pen had a blue tip… but I guess it's just a question of buying extras.

Short game overview
This game is about first building a railway network on the map (for free, emulated by die rolls), and when that's done, do a couple of races across the maps, using your own network or paying rent for the other player's networks, gaining points if you reach the destination first or second, until one player reaches a set number of points or you've raced a set number of races. After each race, the players are also allowed to still enlarge their network by paying these points to build more and perhaps make it easier to win in future races.

Rules explanation
(If you can't bother, scroll down to "Verdict".)
The game starts with the building phase, where all players build their railroads (physically drawing with the pens on the game board) in succession until all cities are connected to at least 1 network.

Each player, in turn, rolls two dice and may then build railroad by as many points as the dice show eyes. For the very first build, players may only start out of the "starting cities" and after that, they may only build rails connected to their existing network.

Building from one hex to another costs only 1 building point, building from a land hex to a mountain hex costs 3 points, between two mountains costs 5 points, crossing a river costs 3 points, etcetera. Simply, some are more expensive than others.

The first time each city is connected to a network, the building player recieves 6 victory points. Each player starts with an account of 20 victory points.

If a player crosses, connects to, or builds parallell with another player's railway, the building player must in addition to the cost in bulding points (the die roll) pay a victory poitn fee to the other player.

There is a rules variant (much recommended) which says that instead of all players rolling the dice separately, the starting player rolls once, and then all players build by the same amount of eyes. After that, the next player rolls the dice, and all players build in turn, etcetera, rotating the starting player. This is obviously much fairer, as everyone will use the same amount of eyes.

Once all cities are connected to any network (or, as a rules variant says, 2 whole game turns after there is only 1 city left to connect) the building phase ends and the racing phase starts. The racing phase does feel more as the actual game, where the building phase is mostly setting up the basic grid and pissing territory.

The two dice are rolled twice, thus deciding starting city and destination city. Each player in turn checks what kind of route he/she has at her disposal and decides whether to participate in the race or not. Normally, players are forced (or tempted) to use parts of an opponent's network in order to reach the destination; in that case they have to pay 1 victory point to the opponent for each hex they have move on his/her track. The difference in payment may never be above 10 for any two players. For example, if Blue doesn't want to use any of Red's tracks, Red can only use (and pay) a maximum of 10 hexes of Blue's tracks, but if Blue wants to use 5 of Red's track, then Red can use a maximum of 15 hexes of Blue's tracks.

Once all players have decided whether to participate or not, and decided the route, and paid in advance any fees, the race itself is a simple roll-and-move: Roll the die and move that many spaces, along the route you're using. Player's can't change routes mid-race. The first to the destination gets 20 victory points, second gets 10 victory points, and the rest get nothing.

After each race, players may use any prizes and recieved fees to pay for further enlargement of their network, just like in the building phase, except now they pay with victory points directly and don't roll the dice to get "free" points to build with. Also, you can't use more than the spoils from the latest race when building.

Rince and repeat the racing phase until someone reaches 250 points, or 200 points or whatever you decide on, or a set number of races. There are several variants on how exactly to decide on the cities to race to and from, and players choose the version they feel is most fitting.

Verdict
I was pleasantly surprised by this game. Sure, my expectations weren't high, and I paid $4 for it, but still… I knew it had to be reasonably good, as it was a Spiel des Jahres winner in 1984. But I guess deep inside I didn't expect much. The game delivered all the fun, though.

At a first glance, I though the game would prove "only luck" with the roll-and-move races in the end, but not at all. First of all, there's a tactics phase while building, and all times I've played, the initial difference in victory points after connecting cities have easily been evened out when racing. Secondly, there's tactics when it comes to deciding whether or not to use up your victory points to build further. And thirdly and most importanly, these short die-rolling races are actually a helluva lot fun! Colour me weird, but we were all on fire rolling our dice to race to the finish city, and everyone was on their toes when the dice that would decide the next start and goal were rolled. The races were a lot about luck, but they didn't at all feel totally random or luck-based, but succeeded in just adding that nice spice of uncertainty.

Eventually, of course, there can be the snowball effect. The player who wins the race can use more points to further upgrade his/her network, which obviously enhances his/her chances to win the next race and so on, but there is always the luck factor that never makes you give up hope until the last minute. In the start of the racing phase, there is a lot of extra building, and once the points start setting off, it's pretty fast. I believe our sessions took a fairly long time on only 3 payers, but it was an exciting two hours, despite the games simplicity and the fact that we most of the time were sitting there hoping to roll 6s.

This is a game I'll come back to, for sure. Both tactics and die race fun. You won't win by outsmarting your opponents only, but the idea is nice, it's amazingly simple, forever variable (draw your own maps and get some pens!) and suprisingly exciting!
 
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Chris Ferejohn
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I played this at a local game meetup. The person who owned it had replaced the dice with dice numbered 2,3,3,4,4,5 to mitigate the luck a little. I thought it was pretty fun, but it also felt a little "quaint" for lack of a better word.
 
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Frank Eisenhauer
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cferejohn wrote:
I played this at a local game meetup. The person who owned it had replaced the dice with dice numbered 2,3,3,4,4,5 to mitigate the luck a little. I thought it was pretty fun, but it also felt a little "quaint" for lack of a better word.


Apparently the use of average dice is what David Watts originally intended for this game. It definitely evens out the luck swings in die rolling in the race part of the game. I highly recommend using them!
 
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Joerg Schaefer
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The last few times I played this, we used the same dice result for all players.
 
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Richard Morris
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JoSch wrote:
The last few times I played this, we used the same dice result for all players.


That can only work in the building phase, not the racing phase.

David's use of average dice was a bit of an afterthought - the game started (long, long before the boxed sets) with ordinary dice. He tweaked the rules later to respond to feedback. Personally, I have never seen the need of average dice, but have no objection to them being used.
 
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Joerg Schaefer
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AnnuverScotinExile wrote:
JoSch wrote:
The last few times I played this, we used the same dice result for all players.


That can only work in the building phase, not the racing phase.

David's use of average dice was a bit of an afterthought - the game started (long, long before the boxed sets) with ordinary dice. He tweaked the rules later to respond to feedback. Personally, I have never seen the need of average dice, but have no objection to them being used.


You're right. I played this again yesterday and I so wished we would have used the same dice roll for all players in the building phase. We rolled with two d6 to speed up building and I started off with 2, 3, 6, 3. By that time I was out of the running and had 90 more minutes of suffering in front of me.

Where can I get those averaging dice?
 
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Frank Eisenhauer
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Bei Karstadt!
Spaß beiseite: Airships enthält Average Dice und ist (oder war zumindest als ich das letzte mal in De war) bei Karstadt im Angebot. Du kaufst also ein nettes Spiel und verbesserst Dampfross mit den Würfeln dieses Spiels.
 
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Toco
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Instead of using an average dice, can't you just roll the regular D6 twice, and choose the highest result?
 
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Frank Eisenhauer
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tocoking wrote:
Instead of using an average dice, can't you just roll the regular D6 twice, and choose the highest result?


The idea of an average dice is that you flatten out the extremes of the "Bell Curve" in rolling a D6.Meaning no extreme results like: player A rolls 6 while player B rolls a 1, instead the results are 2,3,3,4,4,5 and make for a closer race with less extreme luck swings. Rolling two D6 and choosing the better one does improve on the bell curve, but not as well as an average dice.
There is bound to be someone on the Geek who can put that in better words and even a mathematical formula.
 
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David
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Quote:
Instead of using an average dice, can't you just roll the regular D6 twice, and choose the highest result?


I was curious about this, and working through the math is not hard but it is time consuming, so instead I rolled a pair of two D6 dice a million times, taking the highest number from each pair, and recording the difference between the two "highests". I also did this with two average dice.

Here's the distribution I found of the difference between the two values in format [difference: count frequency]:

Average Dice
0: 278356 0.278356
1: 443942 0.443942
2: 222285 0.222285
3: 55417 0.055417

Pick Highest
0: 220519 0.220519
1: 332647 0.332647
2: 228143 0.228143
3: 137251 0.137251
4: 64622 0.064622
5: 16818 0.016818

You can see that the average dice give a restricted range of results, centred around a difference of '1'. The highest difference of '3' only occurs about 6% of the time, and this is also the probability of getting a difference of '3' or more.

With the "pick highest" method, the curve is still centred around '1', but it's wider and now '3' occurs about 14% of the time, with an extreme of '5' about 2%. The probability of getting a draw is also less than with average dice. The probability of getting a difference of '3' or more is now about 22%.

So perhaps it's possible to conclude that average dice keep the range of possible differences quite small, with a low chance of exceeding '2', whereas the 'pick highest' method has a longer tail on the distribution. The shape of the distributions are somewhat similar though - I guess you could use one in place of the other without affecting things too much, unless extreme differences are a real concern.

Well, I imagine this is all common knowledge anyway, but I'll take any excuse to write some Python at 1am. I'd post a histogram or two but it's taking too long to download and install the matplotlib package.


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Frank Eisenhauer
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Thank's Meouwsqueak! As always: Outstanding service from Aotearoa. Hope everything is well with you three!
 
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