Train of Thought: Touring Snowdonia – Trains

Train of Thought: Touring Snowdonia – Trains

Despite there being many many games about building railways, trains themselves are often a slightly background feature to the network of travel on the board. In Ticket to Ride, the coloured train cards are an abstracted resource required to connect 2 destinations. In Railways of the World, trains function more like a technology, representing how advanced the trains on your network are and thus how many links they can deliver goods across.

In Snowdonia though, trains are more specific and unique. Rather than being representative of a network of locomotives, they are a single train your company uses to assist in the construction of the railway. This gives them room for more individual personality and so mechanically, they represent the engine building part of the Euro genre (no pun intended). Trains can touch every part of the game so there’s a lot to unpack here. Hop on board and we’ll get started.

So what are the rules for trains?

Train cards and the rules around them change a lot depending on the scenario and trains being used. The following list is true of most trains in most scenarios:

  • They can be purchased using 1 or 2 steel bars. 
  • They cannot be purchased until the 2nd event: “Trains may now be acquired” has occurred. 
  • You can only have one train at a time.
  • They allow you to hire your 3rd worker from the pub by paying 1 coal.
  • They come with some coal or other resources when you buy them.
  • They provide you with a unique additional bonus. For example, +2 to your work rate whenever you excavate, an extra build action each round or some victory points.
  • They are lost when the 6th event” Train maintenance” occurs unless the owner spends a steel bar.

Wow, that’s a lot… can we maybe break that down into chunks? What’s the most important bit?

I would argue the most important function of trains is their ability to give you a 3rd worker from the pub. Snowdonia only gives you 2 workers by default each turn, so getting a 3rd is a 50% increase in output. I.e If you have a train and your opponent doesn’t, then in just 2 turns you’ve placed 6 workers to their 4, effectively an entire turn ahead of them.

Okay, that’s sounding very strong… What about the effects?

The effects can be totally game changing. Most trains’ effects give you augments to an existing action. +1 track work rate, +2 excavation work rate, +1 resource every time you take from the stock yard etc. It’s obvious these things are good on a surface level. But these seemingly small benefits can often have outsized impacts thanks to the unique nature of action compression in Snowdonia.

A common arc in Snowdonia is that scoring/resource opportunities come and go in groups. While the sun is shining, players make use of the high excavation rate and a new station is reached, meaning new opportunities to lay rail build stations. But then the rain comes, and players focus on using these scoring options while the excavation slows. During these times of limited opportunity, a train offering +1 track laying isn’t just good because it’s doing the job of an extra worker, but because it’s doing it all in a single action. You take so much of the available value in the first worker space that you reduce or totally nullify the quality of other players trying to take a later worker spot on that action. This forces them to more fiercely compete over the other limited worker spaces to try to get value.

We haven’t really touched on action compression before and there’s plenty more that could be said. It’s a critically valuable way to lock down bigger scoring opportunities, force out opponents and help you complete riskier contract cards. So always strike hard and fast!

I’m sold. I’ll be buying a train every chance I get.

Hold your horses there!

But isn’t the whole point of trains that they outmoded horses for the transportation of goods?

Well, yes but I meant it figuratively. Trains in Snowdonia come with quite significant costs and drawbacks that need to be accounted for.

Firstly let’s further interrogate the option to spend coal and gain a worker. The main way to get coal is placing a worker on the stock yard to take 3 cubes, one of which can be coal. So if we only have one coal, and spend it to get our 3rd worker, we’re forced to immediately use them to collect a new coal if we’d like them back next round. That’s only a net profit of 2 iron/stone cubes. It’s still good, but it won’t win a game single-handedly.

Then we have the steel costs. All the exciting train effects I’ve covered today cost 2 steel bars to buy. In the base game the 1 steel trains have no effect, instead providing an extra coal or 9vp. 2 steel bars is a huge cost. 2 actions collecting 6 iron ore, a 3rd to convert and a 4th to build the train itself. All of which scores you 0 points up front. That’s a lot of sunk value the train has to make back up to be worth it when those same 2 steel bars could have been spent laying track or building a high scoring station. 

Sadly the costs don’t stop there either. In most scenarios, the 6th event is Train Maintenance, which when triggered requires all players to pay a steel bar or lose their train. Meaning if you want to keep the train you’re paying yet more for it in the mid-game.

Finally the value of a 3rd worker is relative to the other players and opportunities available. Take the following scenario: everyone has a train, they’ve all paid coal for their 3rd worker, the weather is fog and you’re last in turn order. Realistically your 3rd worker will likely be taking a low value surveyor move not worth the cost.

Why can’t anything in this game just be straightforwardly good!?

Because then it would be boring. Let’s talk about how we can use trains effectively and when we might not want to. Trains in my eyes broadly fall into one of 2 categories: “value” trains which provide more benefit the longer you have them and “up-front” trains that give you most or all of their benefits within a turn or two of purchase. It’s important to buy the right train for the right context and play it accordingly.

The No3 Wyddfa which provides +1 cube from the stock yard is a clear “value” train. You want to get this train as early as you can and then keep methodically taking cubes to keep ahead and leave the stock yard thin for your opponents. Spending these cubes in large quantities at the works and through building puts them back in the bag, reducing the likelihood of event cubes that threaten to shorten the game and reduce your train’s value. The plentiful resources it’s generating means paying the steel tax on maintenance is likely worth it and it compliments your plays all game long. That’s good for an average game.

But in another game, perhaps the 2nd event cube to open the engine shed was slow to arrive and after their initial resource gathering, players are now focused elsewhere while resources pile up in the stockyard. The Wyddfa no longer pushes other players into resource scarcity and a higher event density means it won’t last as long before it must be paid for again or lost… you might be better off not buying it at all and just playing the game with 2 workers. Or waiting till after train maintenance to then buy the cheaper No4 Snowdon to burn the incidental coal you picked up over the game for a final push and provide you a solid 9vp in scoring.

These two different situations could even occur in the same game. Perhaps you buy Wyddfa but other players stop using resources so much in the mid-game and train maintenance comes early. It could be possible that the resource edge you made so far was actually enough to last you the rest of the game. You let it go and use the steel you would have paid to lay track and close the game out over your opponent’s that opted to keep their trains.

Are there any exciting trains to look forward to in Grand Tour?

Absolutely there are. Grand Tour continues the trend of scenario specific trains that augment or interact with the unique mechanics of the scenario. In fact sometimes they’re not even trains at all! In the Florida Overseas Railroad you can build boats to deliver your 3rd workers from the pub. The dredgers provide you with additional rubble to fill in the track sections crossing the water, the big anchored boat will protect you from the tropical storms that threaten to destroy the other boats while the S.S governor Cobb lets your 3rd worker ride for free the first time after purchase.

Grand Tour’s trains are tightly integrated into the design of new scenarios so that each feels like an entirely new puzzle of possibilities.

As you can see, trains touch a lot of the game and have tonnes of careful considerations to be made. It’s a testament to Snowdonia’s design that there’s still more on the table that could be said. But an article can only be so long!

How do you use trains in Snowdonia? I’m personally a sucker for a “value” train, trying to squeeze them for every drop of advantage. Meanwhile Tony the designer wins many games without buying trains at all! Please let me know in the comments.

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Jaya Baldwin

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