Railroad Ink is a roll-and-write game in which you develop a network of highways and railways. It is essentially a solo game, since there is no player interaction. You are literally playing multiplayer solitaire. Players use the same set of dice, and draw the patterns depicted on the dice onto their individual boards. Despite the same die results, they will end up creating very different transportation networks. When the game ends, you score your network based on a few different criteria, and the highest scorer wins.
The basic game is played over 7 rounds. You use four dice. Three of them are the same, with half the faces showing highways and the other half showing railways. The fourth die is a little different and shows more complex patterns. Some of the faces have a station (black square) which links together highways and railways. When you draw a pattern on your board, you must start at one of the exits along the edges of your board, or extend an in-progress route.
The third row of icons in the screenshot above shows the scoring criteria. Since we played on BoardGameArena.com, the scoring was all done automatically for us. This game is a puzzle-solving exercise. The die rolls yield a wide variety of results, and your challenge is to make the best of what fate deals you. You work under high uncertainty and do your best to plan ahead. Let’s look at the scoring criteria. This is the best way to understand how the game works.
The first criteria (arrow icon) looks at how many exits you connect. There are three exits on each side of your play area, making a total of twelve. The arrangement alternates between railways and highways, so it’s challenging to link them up. You need stations. When you connect exits into networks, you score these networks based on how many exits they connect. The small table on the player board shows how many points you score.
The second and third scoring criteria are for your longest highway path and longest railway path respectively. At this moment my longest highway runs through three squares, so that’s 3pts. The fourth criteria refers to the 9 squares at the centre of your board. For each square filled, you earn 1pt. The fifth criteria is actually a penalty. For each unfinished, i.e. open-ended, highway or railway, you lose 1pt. You are not penalised for the original exits, or for highways or railways which reach a non-exit edge of your board. The star criteria is for expansions and is not used in the base game.
This was Round 3 of the same game as above. Along the top of the board there are 6 special patterns. These are available to you at any time. However out of the 7 rounds, you can only use them in 3 rounds, and only once per round. Those which have been used are to be crossed out and may not be used again. These are very useful and must be fully utilised, and utilised wisely.
At the bottom right you can see an overpass, where a highway crosses a railway. The highway and railway are still separate networks and are not connected. So at this moment my connected network has 4 exits only. The railway exit at the lower right is not yet connected to it.
This was Round 7. If you compare this to the previous two screenshots you can see how much the transportation network has grown. Now My network has 10 exits connected, thus scoring 36pts.
I played with Allen and Han, and these were their boards. You can see how different our drawings are, despite being based on the exact same die results.
There are four versions of Railroad Ink: blue, red, green and yellow. So far I have only tried blue and red. Their base games are the same, but they each have two different expansions. The green and yellow versions add a little player interaction. Players need to race to fulfil some conditions. The expansions in the blue and red versions are mutually exclusive. You can’t mix and match them. You can only play with one expansion at a time. Each expansion comes with its own dice and addition rules for scoring.
Let’s take a look at the river expansion.
The river expansion adds two river dice. Drawing rivers is optional. This is different from the base game. The game is only played over 6 rounds now. When the game ends, you pick one river to score. It will score 1pt per square, and 3pt more if both ends of the river reach the edges of the play area. Most river faces are bends, i.e. L shapes. Very few are straight or bridges (river under railway or highway). Drawing a complete river is challenging.
The other expansion in the blue version is the lake. Drawing the lake faces is also optional. At game-end scoring, your smallest lake scores 1pt per square. Black squares on lake shores are jetties. They connect the lake to railways and highways. All railways and highways connected to the same lake are considered part of the same network. So this lake expansion can make creating a large network easier. In this screenshot above, all my exits are connected to the same network except for those two at the top right. The lake helped tremendously.
Despite being a literal multiplayer solitaire game, I quite enjoyed Railroad Ink. It is an interesting puzzle to solve. We are all sitting down together to work on a same challenging problem. There are plenty of painful and difficult moments. We can’t cheat by looking at how others have drawn their routes before we are done with out own. It is interesting how different the networks of different players turn out to be. The game often throws you tough situations – patterns which are unwieldy, patterns which spoil your plans, and also those patterns you need not turning up round after round. Despite the luck element, it is possible to do some planning ahead. You do have some idea of the probabilities of each type of pattern appearing, so you can plan ahead somewhat expecting some to turn up eventually. There is no guarantee, but if you plan sensibly, odds are some of your plans will pan out. If you need a certain pattern to complete an important network, and that pattern is a common one, and there are still a few more rounds to go, it is probably safe to bet on getting that pattern before the game ends. There are always risks of things not going your way. You have to be flexible. You need to be ready to change plans. Sometimes you have to let go of certain plans which are unlikely to work out. There is much risk management thinking in this simple game.
The special patterns are crucial and they are often key junctions which link up multiple separate networks. Since you can pick any one of them at any time, they give you some control and they make planning easier.
The feeling when playing Railroad Ink is planning amidst uncertainty. You need to have backup plans. You hope for the best and also prepare for the worst. The uncertainty makes the game exciting. It is satisfying to see your network grow and gradually link up many exits. Seeing things go according to plan is exhilarating. Seeing things go to the dogs is funny too.
This is the lava expansion in the red version of Railroad Ink. You start with a volcano right at the centre. Every round you roll two lava dice, and you must use at least one of them. This aspect is different from other expansions. Lava will flow every round, and it can destroy highways and railways. If you manage to close off a lava lake, next round you must place a new volcano. You will still need to use at least one lava die next round.
When the game ends, every completed lava lake scores 5pts. The largest lava lake scores 1pt per square. In the screenshot above I had completed my first lava lake, so I had to place a second volcano.
These were Allen and Han’s boards.
This is the meteor expansion. Every round the meteor dice determines where a meteor will strike and create a crater. The meteor may destroy your highway or railway. You may decide to prevent the meteor strike by sacrificing a special pattern on your board. This is a high price to pay, but sometimes it’s worthwhile. You can build over a crater, but it’s probably not a good idea. Instead you want to build highways and railways which lead to these craters. Each highway or railway that ends at a crater scores 2pts. I have many of these in the screenshot above.
I am not specifically fond of roll-and-write games. I tried Railroad Ink just out of curiosity. It turned out to be more enjoyable than I had expected. It felt fresh to me. It is light. It can be a filler. There is no player interaction, but it is fun enough to play together with others. You will only be focusing on your own board. I like how the planning element and the uncertainty factor conflict and create a fun challenge for the player. Since there is no player aggression, this will work as a family game and as a gateway game.