When I first heard about Rail Pass, a train game from Mercury Games, I just knew I had to try it. Here is a railway game that was doing something completely new and different.
Rail Pass is a real time, cooperative, pick up and deliver train game where you actually load trains with cubes, and physically pick them up and deliver them to the other players.
Disclosure: Thanks to Mercury Games for sending me a copy of Rail Pass to check out. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What do you get with a copy of the train game Rail Pass?
Rail Pass was designed by Tom Green and features artwork by Michael Christopher and Andrew White. It was published by Canadian publisher Mercury Games in 2019. Rail Pass is a cooperative game for two to six players that is most entertaining with a full table of six players.
Each round of Rail Pass lasts five to ten minutes depending on the number of players, though that doesn’t count for setup which can take as long as a full game especially for the first round of the night. Due to this I suggest planning to play multiple rounds in one sitting which you will probably want to do anyway.
In Rail Pass, players control one or more cities depending on the number of players. Each city has a colour associated with it and starts stocked up with two trains and a bunch of cargo cubes in every other colour.
Once the timer starts players will work together by loading their trains, supplying them with an engineer and passing the trains to the other players with the goal being to get as many cubes as possible to the correct cities. While doing this they will need to make sure their engineers don’t get sent too far from home, deal with rail bridges and tunnels and watch to make sure they don’t spill any cargo or even worse cause a train wreck.
The component quality in this game was way better than I expected, as you can see for yourself in the pictures here and in my Rail Pass Unboxing Video on YouTube.
While I was a bit disappointed that the city boards are just thin cards everything else is a step above what I expect in a board game, especially a train game. The cargo cubes are rounded plastic, the engineers look a bit like golf tees but are designed so that they won’t roll when placed on a city board, and the trains are chunky and made of heavy plastic. Even the cardboard train bridge is sturdier than I expected it to be.
The rules are clear and feature a full component list and plenty of examples. The rule book is a bit longer than I would have expected, but it ends up trying to describe how to pass loaded trains back and forth takes more words than you would expect. This is one case where I actually recommend watching a how-to-play video, like this great Rail Pass How to Play and Playthrough from GameNight and Board Game Geek!
Overall you get a lot of stuff in this box and all of it is of great quality.
How do you play the real-time train game Rail Pass?
I hate to say it but Rail Pass has a pretty long setup time. Setting up to play can actually take longer than playing the game. There’s a lot of bits to sort out and the amount of stuff in the game doesn’t reduce when you have fewer players. I do have a really good suggestion for speeding this process up which I’ll get to later in this review.
When you sit down to play Rail Pass you first choose one of the various setups from the back of the instruction book which provides two different layouts for each player count. Each of these layouts will have you place the six city boards onto the table and build connections between them. These connections could be open, blocked, have a tunnel or use the train bridge. The game comes with blocked connection tiles for blocked paths as well as a 3D cardboard bridge and cardboard tunnels that will need to be assembled before the first time you play.
Next players grab a set of arrows for each city (a set is one arrow of every colour except for the colour of that city). These arrows are placed on the top or sides of the city boards and indicate the quickest route to each colour. This will help you a lot once the timer starts as you can quickly see the best way to deliver each good. Remember to account for the blocked paths when setting out these arrows.
Next, for each city, you take twenty cubes, four of each colour other than the city colour, randomly drop them onto the city board and then push them into the shipping yard area at the top of the city board. Note with less than six players some players will be controlling more than one city.
Each city then gets two trains, one short silver train and one long gold train. An engineer of that city’s colour is placed in each of the trains, and the third engineer goes on the hotel space on the city board.
Each city board has two rails, either rail can fit a silver train but only the top trail is long enough to fit a gold train. This will matter quite a bit once you start passing trains.
Once everything is set up, you set a timer. This starts at ten minutes for two players and is one minute shorter for each additional player, down to as low as five minutes. Note there’s no Rail Pass app or anything, the game expects you to own some form of a timer in order to play.
Once the timer starts players start trying to deliver cubes, simultaneously doing a number of things in an attempt to get the right cubes to the right city.
Players can load a train by taking cubes from either end of the shipping yard on their player board. Cubes have to be taken off in order and only from the two ends. Each cube taken is then loaded onto a train on that board (note you can’t load trains in your hand, they have to be “in the station” on your player board).
When two trains are in the station you can freely swap cubes between them.
You can add or swap an engineer between trains and/or the hotel. You can either swap the engineers in two trains or swap them with one in the hotel or take one from the hotel and add it to an empty train. The colours of the engineers in your trains matter as engineers are only willing to travel to adjacent cities. If you send an engineer too far from home they quit and are removed from the game, they also count as negative points at the end of the round.
When a train containing cargo cubes is in a station of a city that matches the cargo’s colour you may unload those cubes and place them in the cargo storage area of the city board.
Finally, players can move or swap a train. To do this you pick up the train and then deliver it to an adjacent city. If you are own both cities you can just place the train on the other city board (possibly having to pick up another train to do so). If another player controls the adjacent city you must pass them the train. You cannot let go of the train until they are holding it. If there’s a train tunnel between you, you must pass the train through the tunnel. The same goes for the train bridge, though with the bridge you will be sliding the train along it.
A train can never be left sitting on the table or on the bridge. If this happens it’s considered to have been part of a train wreck and all of the cargo, the train and the engineer are all removed from the game and will count towards negative points at the end of the round.
Before putting a newly-handed train into the station you will want to check to make sure the engineer hasn’t travelled too far. If you don’t notice until the train is down on the city board, that engineer quits and is removed from the game.
You must be careful when passing trains. Any cubes that fall off of a train are considered lost and are removed from the game. If you actually drop a train, this is also considered a train wreck, the train engineer and all cargo are removed from the game.
Oh, I almost forgot the most important rule in the game: when you pick up a train it’s now considered “on the rails” and you MUST say “Toot! Toot!” before handing the train off to anyone else. Not only is this technically required it’s also a really good way to get the attention of whoever you want to hand the train to.
Play continues until the timer runs out. Players may then put any trains in hand into their stations and deliver any cubes of the proper colour that just arrived. You then look at the cargo storage area of every city and find the two cities with the lowest number of cubes. To get your score you multiple the number of cubes in these two cities together, then subtract points for anything that was dropped during the game (dropped trains are minus five points, engineers are minus two points and each cargo cube is minus one point). Once you’re done working this out, if your total comes to over a hundred you win!
The rules also include an expert variant. To play the variant you first need to place a set of stickers on every train. Each gold train gets a sticker with two colours on it and each silver train gets a sticker with one colour on it. When you start playing the game, these stickers act as reserved spots that can only hold those colours. If you don’t have cubes of the right colour to load you won’t be able to fully fill the trains. This greatly increases the difficulty of the game and I have a feeling most groups are never going to use this rule regularly except maybe to try it once for laughs.
Rail Pass is a very unique Train Game doing something different with the train theme.
When I first learned about Rail Pass I knew I had to give it a shot. The concept of a pick-up and deliver train game where you actually physically pick up and deliver the trains sounded fascinating. When Mercury Games contacted me and asked me to check out their 18XX component upgrades (which you can see in my 18Coins and 18Shares review), I asked if they would be willing to toss in a copy of Rail Pass for me to check out, and I’m so glad they said yes.
Once the game showed up and I recorded an unboxing video I discovered a few more things about the game that I had missed in the research I had done. First was just how much stuff comes in this game. Rail Pass doesn’t come in a very big box but it’s packed with stuff and surprisingly heavy. As noted earlier the stuff you get is also top-notch quality.
The next surprise was that this is a cooperative game. In my mind, I had pictured people passing each other trains trying to compete with each other in some way. Thinking on it now, cooperation is probably the only way this game would work, as otherwise, people could just refuse to accept trains. The final part that shocked me is that this is a real-time game, which again makes total sense based on it being cooperative.
Once I figured all of this out I was a bit worried. See, my wife, Deanna doesn’t like dexterity games, but I thought she would dig this one due to the theme, but she also hates real-time games and likes very few cooperative games. Deanna is the one I expected to be playing Rail Pass with the most often, at least while we’re still in lockdown, and I thought I may have just been delivered a disaster waiting to happen.
To my complete and utter surprise, Deanna ended up really enjoying the game. I think we discovered the sushi effect in board games. That’s where you take a bunch of things that shouldn’t work well together but somehow in some magical way they combine to create something wonderful. Rail Pass had the sushi effect on Deanna.
Overall Rail Pass exceeded my expectations in almost every way. I had no clue I was going to get such great components in such a small box. I love the fact he included train elements like tunnels and bridges, something that was another surprise when I opened the box.
The entire system just brilliant and works so well, managing to avoid a lot of the cooperative game foibles. There’s no time for quarterbacking in Rail Pass, you have far too much to worry about on your own to be able to be trying to tell other people how to play.
This does lead me to some potential problems with the game. Because everyone is rushed and is so focused on loading and unloading cubes and passing trains, it’s really easy to miss a mistake. The most common of these mistakes is sending an engineer too far from home. Due to this I actually think that Rail Pass could be a better game at three to seven players with one player sitting out to “run” the game and watch for things like wrong coloured cubes delivered to a city and overworked engineers.
Another issue is you can get frustrated, both with yourself for not reacting quickly enough and also with other players when you have your trains all ready to go but no one is ready to take them. We found this especially true for players playing dead-end cities. All they really need to do is pass everything they can out as quickly as they can and that’s hard to do when the players in the middle are trying to deal with trains coming from both sides.
To be honest this isn’t going to be a game for anyone who doesn’t handle that kind of stress well. This was one of the worries Deanna had and during one of our plays where she made a couple of mistakes she got frustrated with herself which just made things worse and led to more mistakes. Similarly, this game was a bit too much for my youngest to handle, at last for now, in a couple of years it might be right up her ally.
The other part of Rail Pass that I found a bit annoying was just how long it takes to set the game up, especially for that first round of the game. To start with, there are a lot of components to sort out. Then there’s the fact that you need to make six sets of cubes each of which has to be missing one of the six colours so that you can drop them onto the appropriate city. Sorting through one-hundred and twenty cubes isn’t quick and the way you drop them on your board is pretty inelegant.
While I don’t have a solution for stocking the shipping yard, I do have a suggestion to use when cleaning up the game so that it’s quicker to set up and get playing the next time. What you need is a small container to sort each cities bits into.
I personally like to use the plastic containers that air dry clay comes in. My kids get to play with the clay and I get a bunch of sturdy board game component storage containers for cheap. However, ziplock bags or really any other small containers would also suffice.
In each container put the three engineers of one colour and then four of each other coloured cube plus a set of five arrow chits. This way you can just dump the container on each player board the next time you go to play.
It’s also probably worth noting that this game can be HARD, especially with new players and seems to get harder the more players you have. Now, this is something I expect from a cooperative game. You don’t want it to be too easy. After even a couple of plays, you will notice you get better at managing everything going on in Rail Pass. You will be ready for the advanced rules in no time!
One final complaint is that I wish the player boards were thicker. This is only a minor issue though as you don’t have to shuffle the boards and they are only used for placing components on. You won’t be sliding things around or needing to pick up the boards.
One of the most brilliant parts of this game is the way you use the arrows to point out which is the shortest route for each colour. We found these invaluable during our first few plays.
A final surprise for me was how well the game plays with only two players. With two players you each control three cities. I expected that to be overwhelming but it wasn’t, though it does feel odd at first to be passing trains to yourself. I do like that they realized this and didn’t put any tunnels or bridges between a single player’s cities. While it’s not mentioned in the rules I think you could also play this game solo, seeing how many cubes you can deliver on your own, though again I recommended not using the bridge or tunnels.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to try Rail Pass with the full six players. I will say that the game gets more chaotic and much louder with more players and I think it will be a real blast with six.
I think Rail Pass qualifies as a true hidden gem train game. I have heard very little about this Canadian game since its release. No one is really talking about it and I think that’s a total shame.
Rail Pass isn’t going to work for players who get stressed out by pressure, especially the type where more than one person is demanding your attention at the same time. Once you get past two players in Rail Pass there’s always at least one player dealing with cities on two or more sides.
That said, based on my wife’s reaction, even if you hate real-time, dexterity and/or cooperative games you may find that Rail Pass combines these elements in a way that’s more fun and engaging than expected.
I Rail Pass is going to appeal to a broad range of gamers. It’s a totally new take on train games and on pick up and deliver games, which is a refreshing surprise. If you are a cooperative game fan and want something different, I strongly suggest checking out Rail Pass. If you thrive off real-time games and are a fan of games like Fuse and Escape you will love Rail Pass. If you are a train game fan and want to see that theme used in a unique way, give Rail Pass a shot.
While I didn’t realize it at first, looking at how my board game collection has grown over the years I think I have to admit that I’m a train game fan. If you aren’t sure what I mean by Train Game be sure to check out our What is a Train Game? YouTube video.
I’m very happy to now have Rail Pass as part of that collection. I love discovering any game that does something different with a theme and I can’t think of a more unique way to do a pick-up and deliver train game than this.