By Fred Manzo
Settlers of America: Trails to Rails
Settlers of America: Trails to Rails was published in 2010 by Mayfair Games. It was designed by Klaus Teuber, who is probably the most famous game designer in the world having given us Settlers of Catan and such follow-up games as The Settlers of the Stone Age (the one that included the desertification of Africa) and Starfarers of Catan.
SoA is a larger and more detailed version of the venerable Settlers but this time, as its name suggests, it has been matched with a train game. And the various paths to victory one normally finds in a Settlers game have been narrowed to one. In a twist from the usual practice in train games, the player who first delivers a certain number of cargoes by train to his opponent’s cities wins. The limiting factor being that only one cargo may be delivered to each city.
So, in order to win a player must build cities and connect them to train networks, starting on the east coast and slowly working his way to California.
Of course, as Settlers of America: Trails to Rails won the 2011 Best Historical Game at Origins we are talking about a better than average product. Though for my tastes, it’s awfully light on the historical part, even if I find it more enjoyable then the original. Basically, it’s a Euro’s take on American history, as red cubes race blue cubes across the board. While it does give you something of the feel of 19th Century American westward expansion, what the exhaustion of the eastern hexes represents, or who exactly each player is suppose to be, remains unclear.
As a wargamer I’d say it’s more along the lines of “How Beer and Pretzels Settled America.”
To be a bit more specific, in SoA players start out with a steam engine, a length of track, some gold and a few friendly cities on a standard Settlers map of the U.S. That is, the U.S. is divided into hexes about 300 miles across. Each hex produces one and only one type of product: Wheat, meat (cattle), wood, coal or iron. With player being able to build cities only in certain pre-printed sites between the hexes. Plus, most of these hexes have printed numbers running from 2 through 12, with the dreaded “7” generating the “bandit,” which shuts down production in that particular hex. Players then take turns rolling two six-sided dice to see which hexes generate their products each turn.
So, for example, to create a wagon train you would need hits on hexes that produce wheat, wood and cattle. To move your wagon train you need your wheat hexes to produce (to “power” the horses). Once a wagon train gets to a pre-printed city site, it turns into a new city, which in turn (hopefully) generates more raw materials from the surrounding hexes, with which a player can build yet more wagon trains, rails and steam engines, with which he can ship more cargo. If he is the first to repeat this 10 times, or whatever the victory conditions are for his number of players, he wins.
In addition, SoA has the typical Settles random event cards, which may be bought for cattle and coal. They generate such events as cavalry to drive away the bandit blockading your hexes, free trackage or more gold, etc.
Now, I must admit I was never a big fan of the original Settlers as it seemed too generic. To me it was just a puzzle dressed up as a game. In my opinion, while Settlers of America is definitely an improvement over the original, the problem with it is that it seems to fall between two stools: those that like the generic flavor of a Euro will find it too long, with typical games lasting around 2 ½ hours or so, while wargamers who never mind long games may find it too generic.
Plus, there is not a ton of player interaction, so once a player opens up a big enough lead, the game is over for all practical purposes. But, having to sit through a 3 hour euro, and then watching a guy breeze inevitably to victory for the last 45 minutes, can be a real let-down.
On the other hand, if you are one of those people who do not mind a long Euro, and the occasional run-away leader problem, then it’s a B+ level game. For everyone else I’d drop it at least a grade.