There are a lot of train games in the board game hobby. You have the very popular Ticket to Ride with its many maps and iterations. There is the 18XX series that simulates the construction of railroad corporations during the 19th century with a strong focus on economics. And then there’s Railroad Ink, the roll-and-write train game. And adding to this rich history of train games with a new twist is Switch & Signal, the cooperative train game!
What Is Switch & Signal?
Switch & Signal is a family-weight cooperative game for 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, that takes approximately 45 minutes to play. It was designed by David Thompson and published by KOSMOS, with illustrations and graphics by Antje and Claus Stephan. You can purchase a copy directly from the publisher for $49.95 or check your friendly local game store for availability.
Switch & Signal Components
In the box you will find the following:
- 1 double-sided board with Central Europe represented on one side and North America on the other
- 9 train miniatures in three different colors (gray, brown, and black)
- 2 deployment dice
- 3 movement dice
- 12 goods cubes in four different colors (yellow, blue, red, and white)
- 10 signal discs
- 30 switch discs
- 10 time tokens
- 11 location tokens
- 3 cover tokens
- 81 action cards
- 18 departure cards
- 1 start card
The components are well made and of good quality. The signal and switch discs are wooden as well as the goods cubes. Not much toy factor in this game except for the train miniatures which are made to actually hold a good cube!
The artwork is simple with lots of muted and natural colors. The maps themselves depict the overall landmass of Central Europe and North America without defining boundaries between countries or states. The focus is placed upon the starting locations, tracks and the few cities depicted. There are locations for the decks as well as the train depot so that everything can be confined to the gameboard area without eating up lots of table space.
At first, I found it difficult to differentiate between the gray and black trains shown on the departure card, but when after comparing cards side-by-side it is obvious.
The overall feeling of components and artwork is that it is functional. The focus is on the gameplay itself while the components are solid, but not extravagant, like a freight train.
How to Play Switch & Signal
The goal of the game is to deliver all 8 goods cubes to the port(s) before the departure deck depletes. If as a group, you can conduct that, then blow your whistle and toot your horn because you won. Otherwise, clear the tracks of your train wreck and try again.
Setup for Switch & Signal varies a little depending on which side of the board you play with, but the steps are similar. I will describe the setup for the Central Europe board.
- Place 1 switch disc at all the three-way intersections and 2 switch discs at all four-way intersections. While the rulebook recommends starting locations for your first game, you may choose to place them on any of the spaces at these intersections.
- Place 8 green signal discs on the board – 1 at each of the five cities, and the other 3 at locations along the tracks. Similar to the switch discs, the rules provide recommended starting positions, but you can place them as you like.
- Place 8 goods cubes, 2 of each color, within the matching colored cities.
- Place 7 time tokens on the clock.
- Place the 9 trains into the depot within their respective colors.
- Keep the 2 deployment dice and 3 movement dice at hand.
- Place the 3 cover tokens near the helpers.
- Shuffle the 18 departure cards and randomly discard 2 of them unseen. Then place the start card facedown on top of the stack and put the deck in its location on the board.
- Shuffle the 81 action cards and deal 5 cards to each player. Place the remaining cards facedown on their respective location on the board.
On a player’s turn, they will take three actions:
- Reveal a departure card
- Play action cards
- Draw new action cards
Reveal a departure card: Flip over the top card of the departure deck and perform the action(s) from top to bottom. Actions will include deploying trains and/or moving trains.
- Deploying trains: Choose which color of train you wish to deploy and then roll the deployment dice. Add the dice up and place the train at that numbered location on the board. If there is a train already there, then the train remains in the depot and you remove 2 time tokens instead. If you ever need to deploy a train, but the depot is empty, then you lose 2 time tokens.
- Moving trains: Roll the dice matching the color of the train on the card and then move it that many spaces. If there are multiple trains of a specific color, choose the order that you want to move them and roll the dice individually for each. Note that if a multicolored train is shown on the card, you may choose which color to move. If more than one multicolored train is shown, you must select different colors for each symbol.
Play action cards: Use any number of cards from your hand. There are three different types of cards, but five possible actions:
- Switch Setting cards: These cards allow you to adjust the switch disc at one intersection.
- Signal Setting cards: These cards allow you to move 1 signal disc to a red signal space on the board. Note that each city must always contain at least 1 signal disc.
- Train Movement cards: These cards allow you to move exactly 1 train already deployed by rolling its matching dice and moving it that many spaces
- Wild Action: You may discard any two cards to carry out one of the above actions.
- Loading the Train: If a train is in a city containing goods, you may discard any card to load the cube onto the train. Each train can only carry a single cube and once loaded, a train cannot switch goods.
Draw new action cards: At the end of your turn, draw five new cards regardless of how many you played. However, you have a hand limit of ten and cannot draw more than that.
Trains: Each color of train moves at different speeds with the gray trains being the slowest and black the fastest. This is represented by the numbers on their respective dice.
Movement Rules: There are several rules pertaining to how the trains can move.
- When moving a train, you count each track space and city space as 1. Do not count switch or signal locations.
- A train always moves in the direction it is facing and can never turn turn around while on a track. However, while in a city, a train may leave by any route that has a green signal.
- If your train cannot move the total distance shown on the dice for any reason, then move as far as possible and remove a number of time tokens equal to the unmoved spaces.
- Only 1 train is allowed on any space at a time, including starting spaces, cities, and tracks.
- At junctions, a train can only move through the open route not blocked by the switch discs.
- Likewise, trains can only move through green signal lights and must stop at red lights.
- When a train enters a city or port, it must stop, but you do not lose time tokens if you have extra movement.
- Once a train reaches the port, it immediately unloads its cargo, if any, and is then returned to the depot.
- If 2 trains collide head on, the moving train is removed from the board and sent back to the depot. If it was carrying cargo, it is placed back in its matching city. Additionally, remove 2 time tokens from the clock face for each movement not completed.
- If a train chugs into a starting space, it is returned to the depot and 2 time tokens are removed from the clock face (tick, tick, tick…) regardless of whether there was any extra movement.
Time Tokens: To recap when you lose time tokens:
- Lose 1 time token for each movement point that a train cannot take when forced to stop at a red light or behind another train.
- Lose 2 time tokens when a train rolls onto a starting location.
- Lose 2 time tokens if you cannot deploy a train because a train is already on that starting location.
Once the last time token is removed from the clock face, immediately remove the top card of the departure deck from the game without viewing it. Then replace all time tokens back on the clock face. If there are less time tokens on the clock than you need to remove, return that many less tokens back.
The Helpers: There are 3 helpers on the board that can be used once during the game:
- Logistician: He allows you to reroll 1 die; however, you must keep that result.
- Dispatcher: She helps you to move through a city without stopping as long as the route has green signals. However, you cannot roll into a city, stop to load goods, and then move out.
- Train Conductor: This gentleman prevents all trains of a single color from moving after drawing a departure card. It is an all or nothing ability though. You cannot choose to move some of the trains and not others.
Once a helper assists you, use a cover token to cover up their ability as a reminder that it has already been used.
There are two events that can end the game. The first is that the eighth good cube is successfully delivered to the port. Congratulations, you won and are a bona fide railroad company! The second is that there are no more departure cards to draw. In that case, the game is over. You have lost and live the remainder of your life as a train hopper traveling from town to town.
North America Gameboard
As mentioned earlier the flip side of the board represents North America. The differences between this map and Central Europe are that there are two ports that you must deliver goods to (1 of each color) instead of one, and the helpers have changed. Additionally, trains are allowed to drive through cities without stopping, as long as there are 2 green signals. Although trains may not pick up a freight while doing this.
The Helpers: Like on the other side of the board, each helper may assist you only once during the game. After that, cover up their ability with a cover token to know that they have been used.
- Track Manager: This chap allows you to ignore the departure card just drawn. It is placed on the bottom of the deck and you draw the next card and must use it.
- Rail Traffic Controller: She allows you to ignore one train shown on the departure card.
- Shunter: He allows you to place a train on a starting location of your choice instead of rolling for it.
Switch & Signal provides you with additional tokens so that you can create more variety between games.
Starting Locations: Use the 11 location tokens to change the starting locations of shown on the gameboard by randomly placing these over them.
Removing Deployment Dice: To reduce the chances of deploying a train to a starting location that already has a train, use the 11 location tokens instead. Randomly draw 3 tokens at the beginning of the game to deploy 1 train of each color. Then shuffle the tokens and stack them facedown. Whenever you need to deploy a train, select the color of train first and then draw from the top of the stack.
Adjusting the Difficulty
In addition to the variants, here are a few ways to adjust the challenge level of Switch & Signal. To make the game easier:
- Remove only 1 departure card at the beginning of the game, or none at all.
- Add additional green signals to the board.
- Add additional time tokens on the clock.
On the flip side, you can increase the difficulty as well:
- During setup, remove an additional departure card or three.
- Deliver 10 good cubes instead of 8. Add 1 more of each color to the board during setup. Then, in addition to delivering 2 of each color, you must successfully deliver 2 more cubes. On the North American board, you must deliver 1 additional cube to each port.
Switch & Signal is GeekDad Approved!
Why You Should Play Switch & Signal
There are a lot of things that I like about Switch & Signal, so let’s take it one station at a time, starting with the game stats. The box says 2-4 players, but since this is a cooperative game, it can easily be played solo. Just you, a solo railroad tycoon. The box also states that the recommended age is 10+, but I think that this game can be played with younger children as well. While there are a lot of little rules concerning train movement, the actual player turn is straightforward. Also, the game relies heavily on graphic design with the only text being the city names, so if your kid struggles with reading, it’s not a hindrance here. As for play time, you can easily play this game in under an hour, including setup and cleanup.
Next destination, the rulebook. I found the rules to be well written, simple, and clear. It’s an easy game to teach and the rulebook is well laid out with a train load of excellent graphic examples. Even better than the rulebook though is the app tutorial. Initially, I had started reading the rules, but then downloaded the app so that my daughter could watch it alongside me. It only takes about 10 minutes to watch the app. It’s filled with example simulations and is easy to navigate to specific parts if you need a refresher or want to check a rule. The most difficult part of the game is understanding the time token penalties when the game goes off the rails.
Next stop is the setup. For a nice family-weight game, Switch & Signal provides a lot variance right in the box, increasing its replayability while allowing you to adjust the game to the players’ level. As mentioned above, by simply adding or removing cards, you can change the game clock that is the departure deck and make the game easier or harder. I will say though, at the standard difficulty, I have found the game to be fun, but still challenging. Each game I have played has come down to the wire, with only one or none of the departure cards left. Also adding to the replayability is the double-sided board which provides two unique scenarios. The addition of the second port city to the North American map creates a very different puzzle to solve. While the base game comes with plenty of variety, there is an opportunity here for future maps that present a new scenario or create an iteration on the rules.
As we keep chugging along, let me touch on the overall gameplay. At first, I didn’t know what to expect from Switch & Signal. I didn’t even realize it was a cooperative game until I received a copy, but that bit of information made me and my family even more excited to try it out. The cooperative aspect of the game is very prominent. We found ourselves continually discussing overall strategy from turn to turn, depending on the board state, what cards that player had, and what new twist the departure card introduced. At its core, Switch & Signal is a puzzle game with each turn presenting an opportunity to advance it towards completion. However, it’s not a brain burner because the actions are simple and limited. There are only 3 types of cards and it is often best to use them for the base action instead of spending 2 for a wild action, so that you can get maximum benefit. There are times though when you need a specific action, but didn’t draw any of those cards and will be forced to use the wild action. Adding to this decision space is the management of the different trains. The maximum speed of the gray trains is 3 while the brown and black trains are 4 and 5 respectively. And since there are only 3 trains of each color, you will be forced to deploy all three colors onto the board. This is where the namesake of the game comes into play as you coordinate the switches and signals, opening the the right routes to get the fast trains through before having to swap discs to clear the tracks for the slower ones. There is a lot of fun in the movement of the trains. Not only do they have some toy factor, being able to load the cubes directly onto them, but rolling the movement dice is exciting. The last gameplay element I want to discuss are the departure cards. Revealing one each turn generates lots of anticipation and tension because no matter how well you plan the previous turn, the departure card can throw a kink into the whole kit and caboodle, bringing it all to a screeching halt. But don’t fear, you have your helpers to assist you and truthfully, even if you have a bad turn that throws you off the rails, it’s easy to reroute yourself on the next turn and get back on track.
As we reach the end of the tracks, I would say that Switch & Signal was a very pleasant surprise. This game worked well for both my family and gamer friends. There is a great balance of strategy, tension, and fun, all wrapped up in a simple ruleset and able to be played in an hour. To date, I only had one train game in my collection – Ticket to Ride, which is a family favorite. However, Switch & Signal delivers such a different experience that there is absolutely zero competition between these two games and I am happy to have them both on my shelf. So, if you are looking for a cooperative train experience, then Switch & Signal is the ride that you are looking for. So hop on board and keep chugging along!
To subscribe to GeekDad’s tabletop gaming coverage, please copy this link and add it to your RSS reader.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.