As with many aspects of game design, your creations come from what you know. As someone who has enjoyed Winsomes and cube rails games for quite a while now, I knew that eventually I would try to design one. That journey began one November at a Washington DC coffee shop a couple of years ago. With pen in hand and my design journal open to a new blank page, I began listing characteristics of cube rails games I enjoyed: hex vs. point-to-point maps, stocks and shares, critically-timed dividend payouts, et cetera…
Since then, I have designed upwards of nine different titles in varying stages of good, bad, and unplaytested. Card Rails was my take on a small box, carry-in-your-pocket version of a cube rails game that ended up doing okay. These titles range from expansion maps for Ride the Rails and Dual Gauge to simultaneous card reveals on the Long Island Railroad to point-to-point routes in Scotland and fixed-income companies in Mexico to a future one or two more Card Rails titles.
However, what I didn’t account for was that not one, but two of my designs would get signed. And that they would be scheduled to get released or kickstarted within a month of each other, and that they would be the two titles that share the most mechanically. These are Westward Rails by Hollandspiele and Union Station by New Mill Industries. I am supremely proud of these games, but while they share a couple of mechanics, there are quite a few differences in terms of feel, tactics, and outcomes. Westward Rails is all about laying track and westward expansion, while Union Station is all about gambling and timing.
One of my favorite aspects about good cube rails games is that they let you make your own decisions and live with the consequences, while enacting a very loose structure around what you can and cannot do. More importantly, I really like games that accentuate timing.
Westward Rails was the game in the design journal that began this journey. It’s my love letter to traditional, old school cube rails titles. It has a smattering of Chicago & Northwestern and South African Railroads, and a drop of Colorado Midland. I love point-to-point maps. Starting in the Midwest and heading westward, Westward Rails became a standard point-to-point map of 5 companies, auctioning off shares, and trying to build the best route at the best time to maximize profits.
Akin to Pampas or South African, players have a choice of three actions: Auction, Build, or Upgrade. Players can always lay track (as there are two spaces for it), but they can only auction or upgrade and then move their player piece to a different action space. While Westward Rails is all about laying track and expanding (truthfully that’s the action most players will perform during the game), it’s also about making connections at the right time.
Across the vastness of the western United States, cities are connected by lines that have one, two, three, or four spaces between them. These spaces represent the lines and the amount of mileage between the individual cities and are called links. So when you build track, you place one or two cubes from the company you want onto a link. If you complete a link, two things happen: one, a connection has been made. You might have possibly met a demand. And two, your company’s value increases by the number of spaces in that link (from one to four). The more you build and complete, the more valuable the company becomes. But the timing of that build is crucial because a well-timed build can send the company’s value into or through a dividend payout space, thus infusing more money into the players’ hands. Speaking of which…
There’s a value track that all companies advance on. Each time a share gets auctioned, that company’s value increases by one. Any time that company completes a link between two cities, its value increases. So timing when to get that extra bump can move the company’s value into a dividend payout space, which sends money back to players. Each dividend is six spaces apart. I like the meta-gaming that happens when players start to cross-examine what each other might do to increase their company’s value to obtain a payout. There can definitely be some well- (or poorly-) timed action decisions, in hopes of making the best with what you got.
There is a stack of demand cards that show two different cities on them. When these two specific cities are connected by a continuous track, all companies whose individual links connect the two cities get value increases per each link that connects them. This incentivizes players to get into each other’s way a bit, so that one company (and player) doesn’t simply run away with it.
These demands are on a conveyor belt-style offer to the side. Each time a dividend gets paid out, they all slide down one. However, once a demand card moves beyond the 5th space, it is removed from the game. Additionally, dividends pay out before demands get fulfilled, so it’s possible that by connecting the two cities, a dividend will get paid, pushing off their demand card. Sorry. But not really.
Most cube rails titles have a hook, a twist of sorts. Amabel Holland’s Irish Gauge has a blind dividend pull. SNCF (or Paris Connection) has the ingenious hidden share swapping. And Texas & Pacific has cows. No, for real. Cows.
I knew I wanted (or needed) to have something a bit different, so I researched metropolitan areas of the US and found a ton of them. There are six Metro Upgrade cubes in the game. So six times only, players can upgrade a connecting pair of two cities. When you do so, the value of the company or companies connected to either one of them increases. But there’s also a gamble. If no one has connected to them and you upgrade a Metro space, then the first company gets a $10 special dividend upon reaching it. Some people might never upgrade, and that’s okay. But I like that option being available to explore. It’s not necessarily lucrative in the immediate, but can really increase your company’s value for big bucks at the end.
In the end, Westward Rails is a game of expansion, but timing that expansion to get the biggest payoff you can. Sometimes you are forced to take a lesser action in hopes that by the time it comes back around to you that you can still do what you want. But let’s be honest, that rarely happens.