Trains aren’t a new theme for board games, so I’m all out of train-related puns—I’ve already used things like “all aboard” and there’s only so many things you can say about tracks. Nevertheless, there is a lot of variety in the types of games that feature trains, and now game designer Steven Aramini and publisher Crash Games have come up with a new one: Yardmaster.
Originally named Payload, Yardmaster won the Ion Award for Best Light Game at SaltCON in March. Crash Games, the publisher of Pay Dirt and a few other games, picked up the game for publication, and is now running a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. The Kickstarter campaign just went live today.
At a glance: Yardmaster is for 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 20 minutes to play. The pledge level for a copy of the game is $16. I’d say, based on a few plays, that you could go quite a bit younger than 13—probably I’d rate it for 8 and up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great for adults.
- 1 Yardmaster token
- 4 Exchange Rate tokens
- 4 Engine cards
- 40 Railcar cards
- 52 Cargo cards
I was sent a prototype to try out the game; the tokens in my copy were simply laminated paper, but the final version will most likely be cardboard tokens.
I really dig the art on the cards, done by Dan Thompson. There’s a retro feel to them, and they’re crisp black graphics on a solid color background, almost silhouettes but with some nice surface details on them. The cards are simply designed—an illustration, the name, a number, without a lot of ornamental stuff—which is a good fit for the gameplay.
How to play
The object of the game is to be first to reach a point goal: 20 for 2 players, 18 for 3 players, or 16 for 4 players. You get points by adding Railcars to your train.
To set up, each player takes an Engine and sets it in front of them to start a train, and also gets one of the exchange rate tokens at random. Any unused exchange rate tokens are placed in the center of the table. Each player gets 3 Cargo cards (in their hand). The top three Railcar cards are turned up in the center of the table to form the arrival yard. Pick a starting player, and then give the last player the Yardmaster token.
On each turn, you get two actions from the three below (including performing the same action twice):
- Draw a Cargo card—from the deck or the top of the discard pile
- Buy a Railcar card from the arrival yard and then refill the yard
- Swap exchange rate tokens with another player or from the center of the table.
To buy a Railcar card, you must discard matching Cargo cards equal to the number of the Railcar. (So for a 2 Livestock Railcar, you must discard two Livestock Cargo cards.) You may also use your exchange rate token—two cards of the resource shown on your token may be substituted for one of anything else.
Placing Railcars onto your train is a little like Uno—each new car has to match the one before it either in color or number. The first one doesn’t matter, since it attaches to your Engine card. After that, each time you buy a Railcar, you check to see if it matches the last car in the train: if it matches, you must attach it. If not, then you set it aside in your “sorting yard” area. At any point after that when you add more railcars, you may move matching railcars from your sorting yard to your train if they match. It’s possible to have several railcars in your sorting yard that can all be attached on the same turn.
At the end of your turn you must discard down to 7 cards.
The Yardmaster token allows you to have three actions instead of two. Whenever you have the token during your turn, you take your three actions, and then pass it counter-clockwise. (Turn order proceeds clockwise.) So every few rounds, you’ll get a chance to have three actions instead of two. The two-player game uses slightly different rules for the Yardmaster token.
Along with the regular Cargo cards, there are four bonus cards which are free to play and don’t require one of your actions.
- Pay One Less: use this to buy a Railcar at a cost of one less than usual
- Steal One Card: Steal a random Cargo card from any player
- Sweep the Yard: Remove any number of Railcar cards, put them at the bottom of the deck, and replace them
- Draw Three Cargo: exactly what it says
The big “X” on the card is a reminder that the bonus cards cannot be picked up from the discard pile like normal Cargo cards.
The game ends when somebody reaches the point goal—every Railcar attached to your train is worth its value in points, but cars in your sorting yard aren’t counted. If the Railcar deck runs out and nobody has reached the goal, then the player with the most points wins.
Yardmaster is another favorite from this month’s big batch of Kickstarters. It’s simple and elegant, and can be highly competitive. The Uno-like train-attaching mechanic pairs nicely with the limited number of actions you can take, and the three available Railcars available to be purchased. It can be a little like Ticket to Ride, where you spend some turns taking cards to build up your hand so you can buy something, but there’s never a guarantee that some other player won’t buy that Railcar you’ve been saving up for.
The exchange rate tokens are an interesting feature, but one that I haven’t taken advantage of as much as I probably should. When you have a lot of Cargo cards of the same color, having the right exchange rate token gives you a lot more options for purchasing.
In Yardmaster, it’s often as important to deny your opponents what they want as it is to buy what you want. One key to winning (or at least not losing) is to pay attention to what Railcars will connect your opponent’s train to the cars in their sorting yard. I’ve played some games where a player had more than enough points to win sitting in their sorting yard, and all they needed was the right card to chain it all together. Taking somebody’s exchange rate token at the right moment can also spoil their plans, though that takes a little more guesswork.
There is a fair amount of “take that” gameplay, though most of the time it’s about buying a car that you know somebody else needs. In many cases, though, that may be at the expense of getting what you really want, so there’s a trade-off. It’s almost an indirect “take that.”
You’ll also want to pay attention to where the Yardmaster token is, because the ability to take three actions in a turn is significant. That’s the only thing in the game that doesn’t feel quite as elegant: for some reason many of the people I played with had trouble remembering to pass the token counter-clockwise, or else started forgetting the turn order (clockwise) because the token was going in the opposite direction. It’s not really that complicated, but it can be counterintuitive.
Luck does play a factor in the game, of course: you can’t control what Railcars will appear next or what Cargo cards you’ll draw. However, there is some amount of planning and risk-assessment you can do, and I think the balance of luck and strategy is about right for this quick game.
Yardmaster has been a hit at my game nights, and I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a quick-playing, easy to learn game that still offers some depth of gameplay, and I think it’s a nice bridge between casual games and more strategic fare. Visit the Yardmaster Kickstarter page for more and to pledge for a copy.
Disclosure: GeekDad recevied a demo prototype for review purposes.