Stephen Glenn (thanks to Alan Moon, Darwin Bromley & Bill Fawcett)
SPIKE joins the ranks of Railway, resource delivery, games that are so popular amongst board gamers across Europe and the USA. There are so many stories and possibilities associated with railways, stations and track building, that there is an almost unstoppable source of game material. SPIKE has all the hallmarks of an Alan Moon game, colourful, bright, cheery-eye-candy production, a variety of track types and a selection of component pieces that are favourably easy for players to identify.
SPIKE is a really friendly game which comes with rules for four languages, English, German, French and Italian, all in one glossy rules booklet. When I say "friendly" I mean it looks like a sunny summer's day, all bright and fluffy and nice. Of course it has a few not so niceties hidden (or not) where players can be less than favourable to each other which gives it a neat edge that removes some of its fluffiness and replaces it with a tinge of naughtiness.
It's such an enjoyable game that it's a shame it is only for 2-4 players as it could easily occupy 5 players with very little adjustment - and 5 player games are currently at a premium I am informed from a games warehouse-distribution company. Stephen Glenn is obviously a disciple of Alan Moon and has designed his game accordingly; even the illustrations by Pedro Soto are reminiscent of many of Mr Moon's games. I say this because it is a good thing, especially if you are a fan of Alan Moon or Mayfair Games (Darwin Bromley association) railway style of games.
So you begin your new life as a railroad tycoon setting up a new network of rails across the Eastern United States of America - using Eastern USA is a sensible move as it gives the designer a lot of scope to revise this game at a later date just by adding a new map and associated cards - and just like all the railway moguls of the past the idea is to speculate to accumulate, ie make the most money.
The rules are simple and have been condensed into just 6 glossy colourful pages of large text and large illustrations and examples. This makes playing your first game after opening the box quicker than most new board games, and as it only takes about an hour for 4 players it ticks all the right boxes towards being a game you really should have. I should say that from an experienced player's viewpoint we were up and running within 10 minutes of tearing off the shrinkwrap, but looking at the rules from a newbie's view we found a few gaps that are by no means errors but could have been worded a little better for new players, in our opinion. It is difficult to try to look through a newbies eyes when you are quite experienced; it's like trying not to have seen something that you know you have seen (I'll leave it to your imagination to remember something in your life that you wish you hadn't viewed but now cannot forget).
Here are a few things for new and core players to take on board, as we understand them - obviously these points are open to interpretation and of course if we have misinterpreted them then we apologise. We play the game using them and it works really fine.
1. Although it isn't made clear, when you want your train to enter a station (and not pass through it) to collect or deliver, physically remove your train piece from the track. Then when you "put your train in motion" you place your train back on the track thus you remember to count that first piece of track.
2. When you remove your train to place it in a city it does not need a movement point. As long as you stop the train on the city space and then remove the train from the track. For example, if your last movement point lands you on the circle that is the city of Columbia you can still move your train into the city (ie remove it from the track).
3. The rules intimate that you can build as far as you want as long as you have the cards and that you end up in a city. This isn't quite right. You can build UNTIL you enter a city space and then your turn ends whether you have cards remaining or not. You cannot build into (through) more than one city in a turn.
4. Once players have been given their contract cards for the game the other cards should be returned to the box, they are not used in this game. Players used to railway games may think they are to get new cards after delivering to one of their contracts.
5. As far as we can ascertain you are allowed to use your Free Move into a city, pick up or drop off and then set the train in motion all in one turn.
The game revolves around players making money by building their tracks and attempting to LOAD ONE cargo per contract card onto a Freight car on their train and deliver it to a city that requires it. Each Freight car can only take one type of cargo and you may only use each contract card once; you can re-use Freight cars. Each city will only accept one type of cargo so route planning is essential. As you make money you can improve your train by exchanging the engine to allow faster (longer) movement, adding power to be able to draw more Rail cards each turn or adding Freight cars which allows you to carry more than one goods at a time but still only one goods per freight car. Improving your train costs you immediately - there is no actual cash in the game it is accounted for by a running track around the outer edge of the board/map, adjust it forward or backwards as it is gained or spent.
When you build tracks you literally lay plastic track pieces on the board. You need Rail cards with the same track type on them as you wish to build on, though there is a rule that allows you to exchange a number of same-cards for one track type that you need - you just accept that the track is available for you to build on, you do not physically gain a card of the kind required. Rail management is another important part of play as other players may force you wide or even prevent you from reaching your target city. This can be disastrous if you let it happen too often.
Unlike most games where the value of a commodity (goods) depends on the distance you have carried it in SPIKE there is a rolling market which shows the changing price of each good. Every time a commodity is delivered the player who delivers gains its current value and then its position on the market immediately changes so that two players delivering the same goods in the same turn will get different values. However because of the way the market works it is not always the player who delivers first that gains the better value. Keep an eye on the market and try to deliver goods at their premium value.
The game only lasts three full rounds which last 15-20 minutes each once you are au fait with the possibilities. A fair amount of the time is usually spent right at the beginning just after the players receive their route cards and they have to work out the best places to begin their trains on the board. Players do not have to link the cities on each of their route cards but there is a bonus per route card if you do so. The route cards are kept secret from all other players until the end of the game - route cards should not be confused with contract cards. Route cards show a start city (though you don't actually have to start your train from there) and six other cities. To complete a route card you need to be able to trace a route of your tracks from each of the cities on the card to the Major city on the card. Contract cards are double-sided (you have to play the side that is dealt face up to you, you may not turn the card over) show the amount of cash (VPs) you will get from delivering the specific goods to the specified city. It is important to remember that you will only ever deliver to ONE city on each contract card - this is the most frustrating and yet the cleverest part of the game. You should also remember that you will not get any more contract cards throughout the game, so careful, thoughtful planning is required.
Like many European and American games SPIKE is a family game with grit. Also like so many 2-4 player games it is not such a challenge or interest holding game when only 2 players are involved, with three players it is good but with four players it is divine. In the USA it sells retail at around the $40.00 mark so I would expect to see it in UK games stores at around £35.00 which in today's market is a reasonable price for a very enjoyable game.