Just a couple months ago Crash Games successfully funded a quick train-based card game called Yardmaster. Game designer David Short was inspired to take this small game and make it even smaller. Introducing Yardmaster Express.
At a glance: Yardmaster Express is for 2 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 5 minutes to play. Backers of the original Yardmaster can get a copy for just $7, and it’s only $9 for new backers. (Plus additional shipping costs for certain regions—check the Kickstarter page for details.) The game is simple enough to learn that younger players can pick it up, too—my 10-year-old actually beat me at it.
- 5 Engine cards
- 32 Railcar cards
- 7 Caboose cards (for expansion rules)
The 5 Engine cards are nice because they’re dual-purpose. They serve as the player aids, but they also have an Engine (one on each side) so that you can attach your railcars to them. The artwork, by Dan Thompson, is the same as what appears in the original Yardmaster, but this time there are two cars per card instead of one. The backs of the cards are grey, with two railcars marked “Wild” (both value 2). Finally, the Caboose cards are used for the optional expansion rules, and we’ll get to those later. I’ve said it before, but I really like the style of the graphic design on these—it’s simple and bold.
How to Play
The rules for Yardmaster Express are a single page, one-sided—you can download a copy here.
Each player takes an Engine card and sets it in front of them, toward the left. Shuffle the deck of Railcars. (For a 2-player game, you remove any cards that have the purple Automobile cars on them.) Deal the starting player a hand of cards equal to one more than the number of players. Everyone else draws a single card.
On each turn, the active player will pick one card to add to their train. You may only add a card if the left side of the new card matches the last car in your train, either with the same color or the same number. (Your first car can be any color or number.) Any card may be used as a wild card by flipping it face-down instead, and any card can be attached to a wild card.
After you play a card to your train, you pass all the remaining cards clockwise, and draw one card from the deck.
This continues, with each player playing one card, passing the rest, and drawing one card, for a set number of rounds—from 7 rounds for a 2-player game down to 4 rounds for a 5-player game.
At the end of the game, you add up all the values of your railcars. There’s also a bonus for the player who has the longest continuous single-color run of cars (not counting wild cars)—that player gets 1 point for each car in the run. (If multiple players tie, they all get the bonus.) Highest score wins.
The Caboose mini-expansion (included in the game) adds another opportunity for bonus points. One Caboose card is chosen at random and placed in the center of the table. Each card has a number of points and a condition. At the end of the game, after the color-run bonus has been awarded, each player who fulfills the condition gets the bonus points.
There are various conditions, from having the fewest colors on your train to having the fewest points to having exactly 5 railcars of one color—these add another side goal for you to pursue while adding cars to your train.
The original Yardmaster was a big hit with my gaming group, and I wasn’t sure how it could be even smaller, but David Short made it happen. Yardmaster Express is pretty delightful: it’s a really quick play, but it evokes the original while mixing up the gameplay. Instead of resource collecting to buy railcars, you’re using a drafting mechanic.
So each turn you’ll have the same number of cards to choose from and you can take whichever one you want, regardless of color or price. However, if you choose one that doesn’t match your train, you have to use it as a wild card, which is worth fewer points and breaks your color chain.
But the other reason you might play a card as a wild is because you see a card that would be very valuable for the next player—either because it continues their color chain or it’s a high-value card that matches their last car. This is often the crucial choice you have to make while playing Yardmaster Express: do you play a card that helps you, or take the card that would help your opponent?
There is, of course, some luck in the game: if you draw a good card, it might not matter what your opponent passes to you. If you draw a bad card, you’re more dependent on what you get. Still, it’s a short enough game that even if you have really bad luck, it’ll be over quickly and you can play again to see if you get a better deal. And the drafting mechanic mitigates that somewhat—there’s one hand of cards being passed around, only changing slightly from player to player, so if you’re not getting the cards you want, it may mean that you picked the wrong railcars to play.
I do think the 13 and up age recommendation is higher than it needs to be—it’s a simple enough mechanic, particularly since you can demonstrate a player turn in a couple of seconds. I played it with my own kids (ages 7 and 10) and neither had trouble learning, even with the Caboose cards. My 10-year-old was better at looking ahead to decide what not to pass to me or her little sister, but the 7-year-old was mostly just looking for any match for herself. And it’s a nice introduction to the drafting mechanic if your kids (or fellow gamers) haven’t played any games using drafting before—it’s simpler than some, where everyone is drafting cards simultaneously, but still gives you that tension of deciding what cards to pass to the next player.
I like the Caboose cards because they add another way to score points—we had one game in which the Caboose in play was “The Little Engine,” which awarded 9 points to the player with the lowest score after the longest run bonus points. We were all jockeying to get fewer points, but not too many fewer, and it was a really fascinating round.
Overall, I think Yardmaster Express will be a great addition to my collection of microgames, and if you backed the original game you’ll be getting an especially great price, too. It’s perfect for playing a few rounds when you don’t have time for a longer game, particularly because there’s virtually no setup involved.
For more information and to back the project, visit the Yardmaster Express Kickstarter page.
Disclosure: Crash Games provided a demo prototype for review purposes.