Given that I have a site specifically about train games, I must have an opinion on which ones are the best, no? I’m so glad you asked! Here are my choices for some of the best train games I’ve played so far. I expect this list to grow once I find some opponents for the assorted train games in the Winsome Essen packs I’ve been collecting, so check back for updates.
The 18XX series tends to have very little to no luck, depending on the game, and thus to reward good play. There are dozens of variants, allowing you to choose the one that best matches your style of play, while generally being able to move between various games in the system with little difficulty. On the downside, it can take a long time to play a game (the longer ones in the series may need to be split up over several sessions) and new players may feel a bit overwhelmed for their first few games. It also tends to have a lot of downtime, particularly as you add more players, due to the need to calculate the best move.
That said, it’s a strong system that a lot of people enjoy. I’ve only played a few of the games in the series, myself; so far my favorite is 2038, which actually has a little more randomness than many of the others and is set in space. The 18XX games are stock market games as much as they are train games, and some of them allow quite a bit of nastiness; the CEO of each company (the person with the most stock) has very few checks on his power, so buying too much stock in a company you don’t control can really mess you up when the CEO sells all of its assets to another one of his companies for a dollar and then dumps all of his stock, leaving you in control of a company saddled with debt..
Chicago Express is a remake of Winsome’s Wabash Cannonball with Queen’s usual high quality production values; the games are identical except for one change to the stats for Chicago. This is a no-luck, no randomness game; everything is completely deterministic from before you take the game out of the box. At the start of the game, four shares of stock are auctioned off, one for each train company available; each of these companies are starting on the east side of the board and racing to reach Chicago; connecting to Chicago causes a bonus to be paid out to all stockholders. Once the first line reaches Chicago, the Wabash Cannonball (a 5th train company) also comes into play.
Each turn, you choose one of three options: play up to three trains for one company (paid for out of that company’s treasury), develop a tile (which increases its value to the companies connecting to it), or auction off another share of stock; each action can be taken only a limited number of times each round, and when two actions are maxed out, the round is over. As you may have guessed already, the game is largely about manipulating the stock market, although to a much lower extent than with the 18XX series; while you need to auction off stock to get more money into the treasuries of companies you control, more often you’ll be doing so to dilute the value of other people’s stock, particularly right before dividends are paid out.
Age of Steam
I have to admit, the first time I played Age of Steam, it was a six-player game and I didn’t particularly care for it. The second time I actually understood what was going on, and I was hooked. AoS is a game system; while the base game comes with one map (two in the remake), players are free to make and publish their own maps, and there are multiple designers who publish a new map every year. As a result, new maps tend to come out faster than I can even play them, which is nice because one of the strengths of the game is in the variety: there is a set of base rules, and each map tweaks the rules to better fit the area that it’s designed for. These can be small, realistic tweaks, such as increasing building costs for maps set on difficult terrain, or more ambitious changes, such as the maps that involve volcanoes and zombies..
Each turn, there is an auction to determine roles, then each player has the opportunity to build track and then ship up to two goods. For every length of track shipped over, the owner of that track gets an additional dollar of income every turn for the rest of the game. Of course, building track requires money, which means issuing shares, and your shareholders are an impatient lot..
The rules for Age of Steam are fairly easy to understand, but it often takes a couple of games for people to get a handle on the strategy. The base game was difficult to find for several years, but was remade in 2009 under the name Steam; the new version has most of the same rules, but simplifies the end of game scoring and removes the dice that are used to determine the flow of new goods in Age of Steam, making it completely deterministic after the board is fully set up. There was also a 3rd edition released, which is exactly the same as the older version rules-wise but uses plastic trains rather than the nicer wooden components in the other versions.