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Santa Fe Rails

Designer: Alan R. Moon
Publisher: GMT Games
Players: 2-5
Time: 60 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

The White Wind game Santa Fe was published in 1992 and since it was limited to 1200 copies, is somewhat difficult to acquire. GMT Games has recently re-released the game as Santa Fe Rails and while it has some changes, it remains very similar to the original.

Portion of Santa Fe Rails map.The game puts the players in the role of land speculators hoping to profit from the westward expansion of railroads across the United States. The map depicts the western US from the Mississippi to the Pacific ocean. Printed on this map are 38 cities with an array of train routes between them. Five major railway lines start at the eastern edge and will slowly work their way across the board. The majority of a players' points will be gained through the play of city cards. These represent a players' interest in that city and she'll try to have as many different railway lines pass through her cities as possible. Accomplishing this is the tricky part since her opponents will be trying to send those same lines through their cities instead.

Each player is initially dealt four city cards. These show a single city on the board and its relative value (from 2 for the more easterly cities to 7 for the coastal ones). Each round, players will select and simultaneously reveal a card from their hand. (A player only receives points at the games' end for revealed cards, cards left in a players' hand are worthless). Then there will be two rounds of track-laying where each player, in turn order, places a single piece of track for any of the five major railway lines. Obviously each player will try to direct the lines towards cities he has already played or intends to play in future turns. Additionally, there's an incentive to connect the first railway line to a city. The reward is small ($2) but Santa Fe Rails is a game that will be won with small baby steps rather than one grand play. There is another bonus which represents the historical routes that each line took. Certain cities on the board will pay $4 to the first player to connect a specific line to that city. For example, the bonus is paid to the player who connects the Kansas Pacific Railway to Denver. Once two rounds of track-laying have occurred, the players replenish their hands and repeat. This continues until no more track can be laid for the five railway lines. (Each line is limited in its track pieces, from 17 for the Kansas Pacific Railway to 32 for the Santa Fe itself.) If this was all there was to the game it would be interesting but dull. The clever part comes in the replenishing of your cards.

When drawing a card a player is presented with several choices. She can draw a face-down city card or she could pick one of several face-up special cards. These are as follows:

  • 2X - When played this card allows the player to place two pieces of track in both subsequent track-laying phases. It also doubles any bonuses paid when laying track, so if you connect a new city, the bonus is $4 instead of $2.
  • 3X - This card allows the player to place three pieces of track in both subsequent track-laying phases. However, the player will receive no bonuses at all that turn.
  • 4-in-1 - This card allows the player to play four pieces of track in one of the subsequent track-laying phases (and none in the other phase). Regular bonuses are paid.
  • Branch - Each of the five major railway lines has three such branch cards available and they allow that line to form a branch. (That is, start laying new track from anywhere along that line rather than just at the head of the line.)
  • Boomtown - Play of this card allows a player to "upgrade" 2 and 3 value cities to 4 and 5 respectively.

These special cards offer a player much greater control of where the lines are directed and this is where the game's greatest decisions arise. Clearly you want to play as many city cards as possible since these will be worth many points at the end of the game. However, unless you actually get the railway lines to pass through your cities, they'll be worthless. Further, the 2X cards, with their double bonuses, can pay off large sums of money throughout the game so you cannot afford to ignore them.

It's this struggle between playing city cards or having greater control of the routes that elevates Santa Fe Rails from average to very good and, make no mistake, this is a very good game. The decisions are non-trivial and there are occasional bouts of "delicious agony" when deciding your best move. Perhaps the only general complaint I can level is that it does not have distinct "phases". That is, the beginning plays (and feels) much like the middle which is itself much like the end. There's little "ebb and flow" forcing you to modify strategy and tactics to compensate. The types of moves that are good at the beginning of the game are practically identical to the types of moves that are good at the end. This is not a major problem but it limits the game to being merely very good rather than excellent.

A more specific complaint (actually, more of an observation) is that the Boomtown cards are rarely used. Increasing the value of your cities simply does not seem to be as effective as any of the other options at your disposal. You'd be lucky to gain as many as 6 points for playing a Boomtown and since you're likely to gain at least as much (and possibly much more) from any other card, they tend to be ignored. I wonder if it would be better if the Boomtown cards were played in addition to your regular card play (just like the Branch cards)? This may make them too powerful but I think it's an idea worth investigating.

Santa Fe Rails city cardThe components are very good quality and the board is bright and clear (with the minor caveat that the arrows on the "one-way" routes are entirely too small). The cards are not the ultra-nice "linen-ized" ones but are well-designed with the appropriate city shown clearly circled. The track pieces are wooden and even have little notches to simulate actual track. The bonus cards are clear although they could have been improved if they had listed their effects right on the card. Also, it would have been preferable to print the 3X, 4-in-1 and Branch cards with different coloured backs as these cannot be saved from turn to turn. (Tip: Place these cards in plastic card protectors so that a player can't forget to play them. Also, it makes the game easier to teach by saying that "you must play any card in plastic the turn in which it's drawn".)

One of the chief complaints I've heard is that there's a significant luck of the draw in regards to the city deck. Some cities will be worth significantly more than others and so drawing a high-valued one near the end of the game can greatly sway the outcome. Our scores have generally been very close and so this is certainly something to be concerned with—no one wants to fight a long, hard battle and then have it decided by a lucky draw near the end. I've thought about this issue the last few times we've played and I don't think that it's as big a problem as some make it out to be. My thinking is that the players will be drawing and playing so many city cards throughout the game that any such luck will tend to even out. Further, you're very likely to have three city cards un-played in your hand at the end of the game no matter what you do so drawing Memphis (a poor card) isn't as bad as it might seem. Overall, I think it's a minor issue and the game will usually be won by the player who played the best.

The box lists the playing time as 60 minutes and while I normally find such claims optimistic, they're usually not too far out of line. However, with Santa Fe Rails we would regularly take over twice this long! I've talked with a few other groups and it does seem that we're slower than most so maybe this is a localized phenomenon. Either way, it's not really a problem for us because even at 150 minutes, we've found it engaging the whole time.

Overall, I am very impressed with Santa Fe Rails. I never had the chance to play the original and had looked forward to trying it for quite some time. Fortunately, it has lived up to my expectations and has deservedly been played many times in the past few weeks. Highly recommended.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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