Board Game Review: Chicago Express – A Legit Train Game for Non-Train-Gamers | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Chicago Express – A Legit Train Game for Non-Train-Gamers

Full disclosure up front, I’m not a train gamer. I didn’t much care for the one 18xx title I played (1846) and haven’t enjoyed many train games beyond Ticket to Ride (that counts, right?). So it was with extreme trepidation that I let some train gamers in my group convince me to try Chicago Express. Players are wealthy individuals seeking to accumulate more. And they do it by buying stock and running companies.

The Basics. The game has four rail companies (red, yellow, blue, and green) and begins with an introductory auction. A single stock of each company is auctioned off to the players. Once that is done, the player who bought the red company goes first and play proceeds around the table.

On a player’s turn, they can take one of three actions. They can auction, develop, or build track. Importantly, only a certain number of each action can take place in a round. For example, only three auctions will take place. If there have already been three, you need to choose one of the other two. When two out of the three actions have been exhausted, the round ends.

These handy dandy dials make the upkeep easy

When a player auctions, they choose any company with stock left to purchase. They must start the bid. Bidding goes in turn order until all players have passed. The winner pays the money not to the bank, but to the company. Each company has their own mini-bank.

Developing allows a player to mark a particular location as developed. A city or mountain development adds income to whatever train companies have passed through it. A forest development gets an immediate return for the company.

Finally, players can build track. They can choose any company in which they have stock and build up to three segments. Each hex on the board has a cost associated with it. But the payment for those links comes not from the individual player, but from the mini-bank of the company. Traveling to more hexes – especially city and mountain hexes – increases the value of the company.

Red maneuvers to block blue’s path

At the end of a round, there is a payout. Each company pays  what it is worth to the investors.  The investors divide that based on number of shares. So if players A, B, and C have two shares, one share, and one share, they would split a twenty dollar payout $10, $5, and $5.

In addition, it isn’t called Chicago Express for nothing. If a company gets to Chicago, not only does it’s valuation increase by 7 (which is huge), but it has an immediate mid-round payout. Getting to Chicago also introduces the black rail (Wabash).

The game ends when three companies either have no stock left, or have no trains left (among a few other less common ending conditions). The player with the most money in his personal possession at the end wins.

The stocks are the single most important aspect of the game. Everything rides on them.

The Feel. Chicago Express is fantastic for a couple of reasons, but the biggest plus to me is emergent alliances. Whereas other games rely on promises and threats (and some sad games even formalize them mechanically), the alliances here are far more organic.

Let’s say you and I each own a share of red. We profit equally and might both be interested in racing the company to Chicago. After all, any payouts will make us richer as against the other players. We are allied by our own self-interest.

But that alliance is also easily broken. Maybe another player puts up a third red stock for auction. If you buy it, now you’re profiting double to me. Suddenly, cooperating and moving us to Chicago doesn’t seem such a good deal to me. Maybe now I purposely build track to nowhere to prevent the mega-payout that benefits you far more. Or, maybe a third party buys that third share. Now we’re splitting it three ways and among more opponents. Perhaps I try looking for more profitable investments elsewhere.

Yellow trains, yellow stocks, and even a place for yellow’s money

As a result, the game takes on a life of its own as players become competitors, then partners, then stab one another in the back. And managing the auctions is critical. You don’t want to overpay for stock. After all, the game is won by the player with the most money and you need to recoup any investment. But if you don’t build your portfolio, your options will be limited and you may end up forced to move companies that help players you’d rather not help.

Now, I love games with emergent alliances. Especially where, as here, they occur organically from the mechanics themselves and are not simply a mechanical addon. However, there are a few other reasons that this particular train game rises above some others in the genre.

First, the tedious calculations are dramatically reduced. In an 18xx game, you might have to add up a dozen or more small numbers several times each turn to find the route that nets you the most income. Chicago Express does away with that in favor of a single track that is easily calculated. All that’s left is some simple division once per round.

The board is colorful and aesthetically pleasing … unlike some other train games

Second, the playtime is very doable. Even with new players, the game never goes much more than an hour. And an experienced table can complete a well thought-out game in about 45 minutes. Usually a short play time is a selling point for games who overstay their welcome. But here it’s great because the game is simply packed with decision points. You definitely get your time’s worth when playing Chicago Express. It could probably even last a little longer and still be a solid experience.

Finally, Chicago Express has phenomenal pieces for a train game. Many such games – especially of the 18xx variety – are either Print-N-Play or come with what are potentially the most drab pieces in modern games – outside of some wargames. But here, the Queen edition has great wooden bits, colorful stock certificates, dials on the board to keep track of actions, and thick cardboard mini-banks for the companies.

But what about the negatives? Well, Chicago Express has a few of those. Most notably is the player count. The box says 3-6. That’s a filthy lie. This game is for three and four players only. With only four companies, a five or six player game means that one or two players will not have access to a company at the start of the game. And, that first round (including turn order) becomes absolutely critical. Mess it up, and those players might be effectively unable to recover.

Also, I’m not a fan of paper money. Yes, it’s serviceable. But it isn’t ideal. It can be hard to handle, isn’t great to deal out, and is torn or mangled easily. When I play, I use a set of suited poker chips that work nicely. Since they stack, you can easily see how much is in each company’s mini-bank.

Green improves the city of Cleavland

Components: 4 of 5. With the exception of the paper money, Chicago Express has a wonderful production value. Wooden bits, on-board trackers, cardboard side-boards for each company. It’s great.

Strategy/Luck Balance: NA of 5. Other than the randomly determined start player for the initial auction round, there is absolutely no luck in Chicago Express. As such, there is no “balance” to speak of. Still, while “luck” may not be the best word, you can sometimes be at the mercy of co-owners with a  different agenda than you. But that player management is part of the game.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5 (for 3-4 players). With three and four players, this game is an absolute delight. The rules are not overbearing and easily taught. But they provide a wonderful framework for decision. The real game is in effectively pricing stock and manipulating the incentives of your opponents. With five and six players, though, I think the balance tips over and there are certainly some problems. It’s too easy to get hosed in the early game and creates strange and incongruent incentives that first round.

Replayability: 4.5 of 5. Despite the lack of any random elements, Chicago Express has fantastic replay value. The replay value comes from exploring different strategies – especially in bidding and auctioning. The game rarely plays out the same way twice and the manipulable interests keep it moving in new directions.

Spite: 3.5 of 5. Spite is pretty potent. There are no “take that” cards or direct attacks against opponents. But there are plenty of indirect attacks. For example, if I think your green company is making too much money, maybe I auction a green stock simply to dilute its value. Or maybe I buy a single cheap stock just to place trains to nowhere ensuring that you never make it to Chicago. And, of course, there’s always blocking.

This little Wabash line can twist things up right at the end

Overall: 4 of 5. Chicago Express is my kind of train game. The play focuses on economic incentives more than mere route building. Analyzing the stock market and seeing potential is critical. But even more key is allying with players at the right time and breaking the alliances of opponents. It’s a great experience even if you’re not a big fan of heavy train games.

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