Cool things sometimes come in small packages. That’s as true of board games as it is of gingerbread villages in the British countryside. Now you can enjoy both at once in Village Rails, in which you’ll vie with other players to build scenic railway routes through a green and pleasant land.
The player who operates the game’s miniature economy and variable goals best, rolling through different terrains and railway features like sidings and signals, will have the top line and win the day.
Village Rails: Price and Who It’s For
Small box games are often great value and Village Rails is no exception, although since it’s from a UK publisher, US buyers will pay a bit more. You should be able to pick up a copy for around £15/$25. The box contains a few cardboard coins, scoring dials and borders for your expanding rail line along with two big decks of small cards bearing hard-to-read terrain icons.
On the other hand, it’s easy to presume that a little card game like this has wide appeal and in this case, Village Rails is deceptive. Not everyone will get on board with its steam train theme. For those that do take the ride, they may find it bumpier than expected: while fairly easy to lean, the game is surprisingly demanding in terms of tactics.
You’ll need to enjoy both juggling both economic and spatial strategy as well as planning ahead to get the most out of this. As such, it's very much a game that’s aimed more at hobby gamers than the family end of the market.
Village Rails: Rules and How It Plays
Each player gets some starting cash and a border outline that creates a 3x4 grid where they’ll be placing route cards to make their railways. The borders also have terrain and railway features where the lines start. They also get three secret terminus cards which feature special scoring conditions that only they can fulfil for extra cash.
The other deck is double-sided. On one side there are railway route cards with a spaghetti of lines, terrain and track features and on the other are trips which are public scoring conditions which you can pick up and apply to your growing line if you think they suit. On your turn you must take a route card from the seven laid face-up. The one furthest from the deck is free, but you must place a coin on each preceding card you want to skip. Players who take those cards later in the game get the coin.
Your aim is simple: you’ve got to try and use the route cards to build high-scoring lines. Many cards have features that score points as soon as a line is finished, that is it runs from one edge of the grid to the other. A farm next to the line, for instance, scores one point for each different terrain type the line runs through whereas signals score depending on the total number of signals on the line, multiplying as you accumulate more.
This would make an interesting game in itself because arranging your tracks starts out easy but rapidly becomes a challenging puzzle. The tracks on many route cards are not straight but cross one another or feature twists and turns. A “line” therefore can be longer than the 3x4 grid initially suggests. Getting all the track pieces to adjoin while maximising the points each one will score is a tough ask.
But it’s only half the story in Village Rails. For the princely sum of £3, you can also pick up a trip card from the four face-up choices and add it to a row or column of your grid. These will score you substantial bonus points if the adjacent line fulfils the condition on the card, such as having exactly three terrain types or having no fields on the line.This adds another ball to the several you’re already juggling on each line, and then you realise you’re juggling multiple lines and the whole mental model begins to collapse with the dizzying possibilities of what you want to achieve.
However difficult the challenge becomes you’ll need trip cards for their bonus points if you want to win. But given you only start out with £5 that price tag looks almost insurmountable if you want any choice at all of the routes. You can eke out a coin here and there by taking cards other players have passed on but they’re equally unwilling to splurge the dough, trapping everyone in a viciously tight economy where you’re desperately eyeing up tasty cards down the row while praying a nice one flips off the top just in time for your turn.
The answer is the three terminus cards you start with. These also feature special conditions, such as the number of stations on the line, but they earn you cash rather than points. As ever there’s a catch and the clue is in the name: you can only play them on a finished line. So in addition to trying to balance the features on the line and trips you want to attach you’ve also got to keep one eye on cashing in a terminus card. There’s also a desperate pressure to rush and finish a low-scoring line just to enrich yourself. It can be worth it if you get the timing and priorities right, but that’s yet another balancing act to master.
While Village Rails throws a lot at you as it unfolds, it can’t escape a vague sense that you’re doing maths homework as you play. The route-building feels more like a spatial puzzle than anything to do with actual trains and the points will have you mentally calculating various cost-benefit analyses as you buy cards. That’ll be grist to the mill of a certain kind of strategy gamers, but for many it might feel a bit too much like hard work. It also results in a lack of variety as, despite all the different cards, everything boils down to numbers in the end.
Village Rails: Verdict
If games were rated purely on the amount of strategy they could squeeze out of brief rules and a few components, Village Rails would be up there with the best of them. There’s a lot of crunchy, thinksome depth in the game that belies its tiny box.
And if you like crunchy, thinksome games it’s well worth checking out, despite a slight sense of repetition. Gamers who are more maths-averse might feel like staying away but the lead-in is so approachable that if you fancy trying something in this vein, it’s a great place to start.
Village Rails: Also Consider
If you want something that feels similar but is a bit more approachable and less math-y then another game by the same publisher, Village Green, might fit the bill. This is also about the English countryside and sees you arranging cards in a grid to meet scoring conditions. Unlike Village Rails there’s no need to line-up routes or compete in an economy, making it easier to play while still offering a fun challenge. It also has much prettier and clearer card art.
A game that works the same kind of strategies but is more open and dynamic is The Guild of Merchant Explorers. In this, players build routes across a map based on the draw of terrain cards, trying to reach new land and found cities which are used as jumping-off points for future turns. It’s a bit longer and more complex than Village Rails but the extra rules help hide the maths at the core of the game and it has more variety.