an excellent Board Game from WATTSALPOAG'S KRIS GOULD
2-5 Players 45-60 Minutes Ages: 10+ Languages: English, French, Spanish, & German
You can generally rely on a train game being popular, in fact there are very few that aren't and another fact is that there are people who rarely play anything but train games. Mayfair Games have made their name on their train game range whereas WATTSALPOAG have made their name by producing colourful games of all types with excellent components and simple but effective rules. SWITCHING TRACKS is a game you could easily have expected to belong to the Mayfair range because of its collect and delivery theme, but here it is under the Wattsalpoag banner full of colourful, well made, components and short but sweet rules.
The Game Board should have been better ! I want to make this observation first because I believe it actually does affect the playing of the game. The board depicts a map of the USA (minus Alaska and Hawaii) several colour coded regions and 18 major cities grouped into threes with each three being colour coded as a set. Also on the game board are: card and discard spaces, visual representation of the five commodities snd a large depiction of the game's name. The cities on the map are joined by rail tracks with junctions marked as orange squares (these are where switch tiles are positioned at the start of the game and can be turned or flipped as needed by the players on their turn. All of this is impressive and first looks give just that, a good first impression. Unfortunately when you play the game and have pieces on the board, commodities, train markers etc you realise that if the map drawer had just taken a little bit of artistic license and widened the USA a little (there really is no need for the card and discard spaces, visual representation of the five commodities snd the large depiction of the game's name) then the playing of any pieces wouldn't be so fiddly, and believe me it does get really fiddly at times. The bottom part of the board, where the Office, Draw, Item cards etc are placed is most useful and far better than trying to set all these pieces up in order on the table.
Players may not begin in the same region (thus not the same city) as each other but that's only a constriction at the beginning of the game, thereafter all spaces are open to all. Players do not have to begin with exactly the same setup, which makes the game not only additionally interesting it also gives reasons for playing it several times in reasonably quick succession so you can try out all the starting possibilities. Players have a station (made up of two pieces of heavy card, a wooden train, which they move on the tracks on the board, a die which begins at "2" and shows the speed (number of spaces) the train can move. The train also has a flat car for carrying goods, other flat cars can be added, as can switchman tiles and die points and one of the main additions is the acquisition of an office, of which there are many to choose. Players can gain additional offices throughout the game but never more than one of the same office. Offices are, in a manner of speaking, event cards that have very useful effects. The rail stations are also a little bit of a pain as the two pieces slot neatly into each other to present the player with a shield. Unfortunaltely the box isn't deep enough to hold the stations when they are made up and although the stations are made of very heavy card they are also a very tight fit, meaning that they scuff up quickly when being constructed and deconstructed to the point where they expand beyond being of use.
The game chugs along at a nice pace. Players can generally see or deduce what other players are going to do as well as planning their own moves. Every component is useful and every rule covered clearly. Trains can be moved between cities but cannot turn round halfway along the line; they can, however, return the way they came once they have entered the city. If you have an empty flat car you cannot pass through a city with goods without picking one up, only one, even if it is not a currently desired commodity. You deliver goods to cities of the same colour as the goods you are carrying; you cannot refuse to deliver the same as you cannot refuse to pick-up.
Collected goods are held in your Station Yard and you can spend them at the end of your turn to do one of the things that upgrade your train. Along the base edge on the board are item tasks and to win you have to complete a number of these. As you complete an Item contract (task) you receive a new office and thus your possibilities automatically get better. The 3 Item, 4 Item and 5 Item contracts are all different, needing various dissimilar goods, but the 6 Items are all the same and always require six of any goods to obtain. To win you need to have completed at least 5 contracts including only one six-contract and one of each of the other three types (3s, 4s and 5s).
SWITCHING TRACKS is what I call a "comfortable" game. This doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable or that it's boring, in fact it is very enjoyable and it isn't at all boring. It has a little luck but it depends more on how the players play and the decisions they make, as well as when they make them. Each game is similar but never quite the same. Even if you choose the same setup for yourself each time your opponents are less likely to choose the same setup for themselves thus each game isn't a replay of the last.
It has the Wattsalpoag specialness of being a gamer's game that plays in under an hour, which puts it firmly in the family game section as well. Wattsalpoag are great at producing this style of game, combining the planning of a strategic game with the ease of a simple mechanic. It is well thought out, quite clever in places and beautifully illustrated by Mike Raabe. SWITCHING TRACKS is a prime example of how a KICKSTARTER campaign can successfully work.