Tabletop Alert: Become a Robber Baron By Beating Your ‘Railroad Rivals’

Gaming Reviews Tabletop Games
Railroad Rivals. Image by Rob Huddleston

In building my game collection over the years, I’ve never gone out of my way to try to collect games based around any one particular theme. And yet it’s almost unavoidable that anyone who collects games is going to end up with shelves full of games about railroads. Without checking specifically, I’d bet I have a dozen or more games based on trains in some respect. And yet despite an already seemingly saturated market, new train games keep getting developed, and what’s even more impressive, many of them are quite good.

Forbidden Games’ Railroad Rivals, which is hitting store shelves and online retailers this week, is a fun, light, abstract game that is sure to make fans of train games happy, but will likely appeal to a much wider audience as well.

What Is Railroad Rivals?

Railroad Rivals is an abstract tile drafting and laying game strategy game designed by Glenn Drover. Players attempt to build the most profitable railroad by laying tiles and playing trains to connect cities, while betting on the stock values of twelve historic railroads from the 19th century.

The game is for 1-5 players and takes about an hour. It is newly available at Amazon and other retailers.

Forbidden Games sent me a copy of the game for review purposes.

Railroad Rivals Components

Everything in the box. Image by Rob Huddleston

Included in the box are:

  • 1 scoring track/stock value board
  • 20 locomotives in 5 colors
  • 37 city tiles
  • 48 stock tiles, divided equally amongst the 12 railroads represented in the game
  • 16 brown (wood) goods tiles
  • 30 other goods tiles, divided equally in black (coal), yellow (grain), and gray (iron)
  • 12 railroad stock value markers, 1 for each railroad
  • 1 goods bag
  • 5 double-sided character cards, 1 for each color

The quality of the components in the game is exceptional. The locomotives and goods cubes are all wood with nice, bright colors. The tiles for the cities, the stocks, and the players are all nice, 4mm thick cardboard that should last for years of play. The artwork on both isn’t likely to win any awards, but what’s important is that it is totally clear: the stock tiles show both the name and logo from the railroad they represent, and there was never a point when we played that anyone got confused about which one they wanted. The cities are likewise simple and clear: each has the name of the city in nice big letters at the top and a picture of what I assume is a historic or otherwise famous building from that city. Around all four edges is the number of goods tiles that will be placed on the tile when it is put in play, and on up to four of the edges is the abbreviation for the railroad that can connect to the city.

The Character Cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The player tiles are a more whimsical, cartoonish style to them. One side shows a male character and the other a female. Each image is framed in the player color, and this is my one objection to the design of the game: of everything on the player tile, the only piece that actually matters for gameplay is the color, and it’s one of the smallest elements on the tile. I would have preferred if they had designed these to feature the color more prominently, either by dropping the wood panel at the bottom and pulling the color all the way down or more subtly making the player color the predominant color in the artwork itself. In the end, it didn’t impact things too badly—the black character is the only one where the color is really difficult to see, but when it’s used alongside any of the other tiles, it becomes obvious. Still, a minor quibble.

One other note on the components that I don’t often get to comment on since I review Kickstarter prototypes more often than completed games: the game includes a well-designed box insert that nicely holds and organizes all of the pieces. Storage is a huge, and often overlooked, part of game design (I’m looking at you, Fantasy Flight), but here Forbidden Games comes through with a box that allows the game to be stored, even vertically, and ready to play next time.

How to Play Railroad Rivals

Railroad Rivals is fairly quick to setup, and then is played over a series of fairly short rounds.


Each player chooses a color and takes the locomotives and character card to match. Then, the Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati tiles are shuffled together and then one is chosen at random. That is placed face up in the middle of the table, and the other two are returned to the general supply. All of the supply cubes are put in the draw bag (although honestly, they’re most likely being stored there already) and then the appropriate number are drawn at random and placed on the starting tile (3 if Chicago was drawn, 2 if St. Louis or Cincinnati).

All of the stock tiles are then shuffled and stacked together. The same is done with the city tiles. Then, each player is given two City tiles to start. These are kept hidden from other players.

The character cards are all shuffled and then dealt in a line to determine the initial play order. Then, each player places one of their locomotives on the scoring track. Initial scores are determined by the starting player order: the first player begins with 6 points, the second with 8, and so one, with each subsequent player beginning with two more points than the previous player.

Finally, goods cubes are removed based on the number of players in the game. With 5 players, all of the cubes are used. With 4, all of the gray cubes are removed from play. With 3 players, remove both the gray and black cubes, and with two players, use only the brown and yellow cubes.

Game Play

Each turn consists of four phases:

  1. Draw tiles and bid on turn order
  2. Draft tiles
  3. Place city tiles
  4. Deliver a good

Draw Tiles

Tiles equal to the number of players are drawn from each pile. So, if there are four players, draw four city tiles and four stock tiles. Place these face up on the table where everyone can see them.

Then, players bid on the turn order for this round. (Turn order for the first round is determined randomly at setup, so skip this step for the first turn.) Bidding occurs in reverse turn order, so the last player bids first each round. This is a very important element: when we played the first time, I missed this in the rules, and we played where bidding was done in turn order. Fairly quickly, the game seemed broken, as it was almost impossible for the last player to get out of that position. This led me to reread the rules, and when we switched to playing it correctly with reverse-order bidding, it immediately became a better game.

The money in the game is points, so when bidding, you are saying how many points you want to give up in order to go in the turn order you want. Each player can bid any number of points up to however many points they currently have in the game (and remember from the setup, players in lower positions start with more points than players in higher positions) or they can pass. Once you pass, you are out of the bidding for that round.

Once the bidding is complete (everyone has passed save the highest bidder), that player moves their locomotive down on the scoring track by the number of points they bid, and then they move their character card to the front of the line, representing the starting player. All of the other tiles are simply pushed down but otherwise left in the same order as before. And here again is an important rule: the bidding is only for the first player position. Only the winning bid pays, and only that character changes position relative to the other players.

For example, let’s say Rob, Xander, Jessica, and Kelley are playing. Based on the random setup, they are in that order to begin. On the second turn (remember, bidding is skipped in turn one), Kelley decides she wants to go first, and so bids 2 points. Jessica doesn’t want to end up last, so she bids 3 points. Xander decides to get in on the action and bids 4. Rob is OK, here—he knows that by not bidding, he will end up being second in the next round, so he passed. Kelley really doesn’t want to stay last, so she bumps the bid up to 6. That’s too much to pay for Jessica and Xander, so they both pass. Kelley moves her locomotive down six spots on the scoring track and moves her player card to the first position, so for this turn, she will go first, followed in order by Rob, Xander, and Jessica. In the next round, Jessica will bid first.

Draft Tiles

Now that the turn order is decided, players draft tiles. The first player selects a tile from those on the table. They can either take a city tile or a stock tile. If they take a city, they add it to the two they already have in their hand. If they take a stock, they simply play it face up in front of them. The other players do the same, again in turn order. Then, players make a second selection, again in turn order, but with one caveat: they must take a different type of tile than they did the first time, so if the first player drew a city the first time around, they must take a stock the second time. This way, each player will get one city tile and one stock tile each turn.

This is where the bidding strategy comes from: all of the city and stock tiles are drawn before the bidding, so all players can look at the available tiles. If there’s a stock you’re particularly interested in collecting and only one of those tiles shows up, then you might overbid for first player to ensure you get it.

Place a City Tile

Close up a city tile. Image by Rob Huddleston

Once all of the tiles have been drafted, the starting player places one of the three city tiles in their hand on the board. Cities must be placed adjacent to another city that is already on the board, and at least one of the edges must match. The edges of the tiles are marked with one of the twelve railroads. The Chicago tile, for instance, has one side each for the CBQ/NP, ATSF, NYC, and IC railroads. So, if this is the starting tile, the first player must play a tile that has one of those four railroads on it. Tiles cannot be stacked on top of other tiles, but only one side needs to match, so if you are filling a hole in the board, it’s not necessary that every side match every other tile. As long as one of the sides matches an adjacent tile, you’re good. There are some tiles with blank edges that can be matched to other blank edges. It’s theoretically possible to end up with a hand of tiles (you’ll always have three) that do not match anything on the board, in which case you need to pass your turn, but this never happened in the games we played.

Once you place your tile, you first randomly draw goods cubes from the bag and place them on the tile, based on the number (0-3) on the tile. You then place one of your locomotives on the matching edge, creating a link between the cities. If the tile you placed matched multiple edges, you place a locomotive on each of the matching edges.

Deliver a Good

After each player has placed one tile, players deliver goods. You can choose any good on the board to deliver using any link. To deliver, in turn order, each player simply picks up a cube off the board and announces which link they are using for the delivery, then place the cube on the board where everyone can see it.

Cubes score 1-3 points. The first player to deliver a good of a particular color scores three points for it. The second player to deliver that same color scores 2 points, and any subsequent deliveries of that color score one point.

For example, if Kelley, the first player, delivers a yellow cube, she scores 3 points. Rob then delivers a brown cube, again scoring 3 points. Xander can’t find a good match, so he delivers a yellow cube. Because Kelley already delivered a yellow cube this turn, Xander only scores 2. Jessica finds an available black cube to deliver, so she scores 3.

In addition, if a player uses a link to deliver a good that is not one of their locomotives, the owner of the locomotive scores an additional 2 points.

The stock market. Image by Rob Huddleston

Each good that is delivered, regardless of the score it gives a player, also increases the value of the stock for the railroad that delivered it. So, if Kelley delivered the good using a link for ATSF, the value of the ATSF stock increases by 1. Stock values are tracked on the bottom of the scoreboard. At the beginning of the game, all of the stock tokens for the railroads are placed off the left side of the board. As the game progresses, they are moved on the board accordingly.

At the end of the game, stocks will score based on their final value. This is another key strategic component in the game: there may be times when you decide to deliver a good using someone else’s link, even though you are given them 2 points, or to deliver a good that has already been delivered that turn, thus scoring fewer points, because you decide that those negatives are worth it to increase the value of a particular stock that you hold multiple tiles in.

Game End

At some point, you will have a draw phase where there are not enough city tiles to restock. At that point, remove all of the remaining city tiles and instead draw 2 stock piles per player. From that point on, players will draw 2 stocks per turn, rather than 1 stock and 1 city. The phase to play city tiles continues, but now players will play the cities remaining in their hands, meaning there will be 3 remaining turns.

The game ends when the players have played all of their city tiles. Play through the rest of that round, delivering goods as normal, and then complete the final scoring.

The big points now are from the stocks. Each player takes their stock tiles and scores points based on the values of those stocks. For example, let’s say Jessica ended up with 3 of the stocks for C&O, and the C&O stock ended the game with a value of 4. She, therefore, scores 12 points for that stock.

Because the game end is triggered by running out of city tiles, and there are considerably fewer of those, some stock tiles will never come up. So while it’s possible for one player to collect all four stock tiles for a particular railroad, it’s also possible that a particular company’s stock might not be drawn at all.

The winner, of course, is the player with the most points. If there’s a tie, the player who owns the most shares of the most valuable stock wins. If there’s still a tie, compare the second-most valuable stock, and so forth, until there’s a clear winner.

Solo Variant

I’m always a fan of games that include a solo variant, so I was glad to see one included with Railroad Rivals. The solo game here maintains much of the flavor of the normal game, obviously minus the draft.

The begin, you place the stock markers to the left of the scoreboard and place a locomotive on the score track at 1. Six goods cubes of each color are placed in the bag. Then, three cubes are drawn at random from the bag and placed in a line in front of you. The Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington tiles are placed on the table and connected by their common lines. One cube is drawn for each tile and placed on them.

To play, you draw three stock tiles from the pile. You examine them, keep one, and discard the other two from the game. Do the same with cities: draw three, keep one, remove the others from the game. Cities are placed following the normal rules, but there’s no need to place locomotives on the links.

Delivering cubes is, as with the normal game, the key to scoring points. In this variant, each delivered cube is placed to the right of the cubes you already have in front of you, so you’ll end up with a long line of cubes. Scoring is a bit different, but again, maintains the flavor of the normal game, which is based on delivering unique goods. In solitaire, you score not for the cube you played, but rather, for the uniqueness of the four cubes to the left of the one you played. For example, your starting cubes are, from left to right, gray, yellow, gray, and then you played a brown cube, then you would score three points. If you added a black cube to that line, then you’d have gray, yellow, gray, brown, and black, so now you’d score four points, as the second gray cube no longer counts so they are now all unique.

Stock values are increased by 2 points each time a railroad’s line is used. After 11 turns, you score points for your collected stocks, as in the normal game, and then grade yourself based on your total points.

Why You Should Play Railroad Rivals

Railroad Rivals turned out to be a very fun game. My family, and in particular my kids, tend not to be big fans of stock manipulation games (which may have to do with me beating them too many times at Acquire), but they both enjoyed this one quite a bit. I think that’s mostly because the stock manipulation is only a portion of this game. There are plenty of other things to do, between the drafting and the tile laying, so that the stock stuff ends up being just an endgame mechanic and not the main thing driving the game.

There is also a lot of player interaction. The draft, of course, relies on bidding, where you have the opportunity to really go head-to-head with other players, whether by trying to drive up the price on a player you know really wants or needs to go first, or by bidding to go first yourself so that you can grab that valuable stock or city tile that your opponent clearly desires.

The design of the game is nicely planned out as well. Something that both surprised and pleased me was that the way the cities link ends up creating a map of that’s at once random and semi-real. There is not a way, for instance, to directly connect Washington, DC to Portland, OR—those will end up being quite distant from each other no matter what order the tiles are drawn in. That’s a really nice piece of design, in the decision as to which railroads exist on which tiles, that doesn’t impact the gameplay in any meaningful way, but nonetheless provides a nicer overall experience.

The fact that the game uses real, historic railroads was another nice touch. It would have been easier to just make things up, but having real railroads adds to the theme, particularly if you play, as I did, with an expert in railroad history.

When I first heard of Railroad Rivals, I was intrigued by it (otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked to review it), but I was surprised at how good of a game it ended up being. It’s definitely a game that will see repeat visits to the table in my house, and one I strongly recommend that fans of abstract light strategy take a look at.

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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