As if there weren't enough games about railway building we have yet another entry with Trans America (a redesign of the earlier Winsome game Iron Road). Of all the track laying games I've played this has to be the simplest and I dare say that you'd be hard pressed to make it any simpler or easier. But is this a good thing?
The board is a map of the United States with a triangular grid overlaid. 35 cities are scattered and colour coded into five regions. There's one card for each city and every player will receive five of these (one from each region). The object is to connect all five of your cities before any of your opponents connect all of theirs. Once players have inspected their cards, they will, in turn order, place their "start marker" anywhere on the board. Once all players have done this the main game begins and this consists of each player, in turn order, placing one or two pieces of track on the board. All track is communally owned and the only restriction on placement is that you must be able to trace a route of already laid track back to your start marker. If the track crosses a mountain or river then you may only place that single piece of track that turn. Turns continue until one player announces that she has connected all her cities and has won the round. All other players receive penalty points equal to the number of tracks they would need to complete their connections (with mountain and river sections counting double). The players start the game with 13 points and you continue playing rounds until one player loses all his points. The player with the most points remaining wins and generally this will take three or four rounds.
At the start, players will tend to be spread out all over the board as they place their start markers near one of their cities. As they lay track they'll start to join up with the track others have laid and a large network will emerge. What little skill there is in the game is in manipulating how well you join up "your" track with others and make use of what they've already built. Ideally, you want Bob to spend his turns building out to Portland so that once you join up with his network you can lay a single piece of track to Seattle. Of course Bob would prefer that you do all the work so there's often a desire to wait and see where others are building before you start out on a long trek. You often have several directions that you'll need to build so determining which lines someone else will build for you is important if you want to succeed. Usually this means that the initial placement of your start marker is the most important decision in the game.
If there's a problem with Trans America it's that once the game begins your moves are often very obvious and automatic. Often you'll have no one else around you and so you'll move as directly to your nearest city, hoping not to help the other players too much. This whole notion of helping each other is integral to how well you'll do in a round. While it's true that some players will get a better set of cards than others, they tend to be pretty well balanced. (It's become a tradition to moan loudly when looking over the cities you've been dealt complaining about their far flung nature.) The "obviousness" of your moves does have a big upside though and that's that the game moves along very quickly. Individual rounds can sometimes be played in as little as five minutes and this is the game's saving grace. Even in a six player game you're often shocked at how quick your turn comes around.
There's something about creating a rail network that's very appealing. Witness the number of train-themed games available, from Empire Builder to Santa Fe Rails to the 18xx series. I think much of these games' popularity is precisely because of this rail building and that certainly applies to Trans America. The game is nothing but rail building! This seems to be reinforced by the very addictive nature of the game, there's a real feeling of wanting to play "one more game" after finishing.
The components are top-notch, the board is very clean, well laid out and pleasing to the eye. Each card shows where that city is located and the score markers are small trains. I've complained in other reviews about little touches that can be done, at no cost, to help those with colour blindness. The illustrator (Marcel-André Casasola Merkle) has done an admirable job here by including unique symbols for each of the regions on the board. (All yellow cities have a star while all red cities have a diamond for example.) This sort of attention to detail really improves a game in my mind. The only thing I didn't like was the size of the cards, they're small (44mm X 68mm) and I would have preferred full sized ones.
The game does feel rather different when played with three players than it does with six. There's obviously a greater feeling of control with fewer players but ultimately I still think that luck prevails. In a six player game the distribution of cards seems almost irrelevant, someone is going to be next to your cities and so there's a great deal of luck in how they lay track that you can use. (Strangely, I've found that it's actually rather satisfying to have others help you in this manner.) While this happens much less in three player game, the initial draw of cities has a much greater impact on the results. If you've got Seattle and your opponents have San Diego and Los Angeles, well, don't expect a very good round.
Trans America seems to cause a real divide amongst players, there are those who really enjoy it and those who simply don't get what all the fuss is about. All the luck and "obviousness" of turns begs the question "Does the game play itself?" I can't argue with the detractors' points but my answer is "Maybe, but so what!" I find the game compelling and that's good enough for me. I recommend the game very highly but I will add, as a concession, that it's a game that you may want to try before you buy.
- Greg Aleknevicus