GTM #224 - Railroad Rivals
by Forbidden Games



The story of how a game is born is usually a tale of a long process full of pain, hard work, and agonizing decisions. This isn’t one of those stories. Railroad Rivals was inspired and almost completely designed in an hour.

It was late one December night at the Drover house, and everyone was fast asleep…except for me. I was curious about a domino set that my son Ethan had received at the family Christmas party that afternoon. I stood there holding the box and wondered if dominos was an interesting game that might hold the inspiration to the next game that I could design. I hadn’t played dominos since I was a child and had completely forgotten how the game worked. So I popped open the set and started reading the rules. I quickly decided that dominos was a silly game, and that it had no redeeming qualities for a modern gamer…except, maybe it did.

Dominos is a ridiculously simple game that is really just about tile matching. Players take turns matching one side of one of their tiles with one side of a tile that has already been played to the table. As the game proceeds, the tiles on the table grow into a network. That doesn’t mean much in the simple world of dominos, but maybe it could mean something in a new game.

When trying to imagine what this new game could be, I simultaneously thought of two things: tile laying games like Carcassonne, where players match the edges of tiles (like dominos), and railroad games where players connect cities into networks. And just like that, it struck me that a tile-laying game with a railroad theme where the tiles were cities being connected by railroads along the edge of the city tile could work.

Railroad games tend to be long, complex affairs where the players spend much of their time building railroads to connect cities. This new tile-laying game would have that same idea, but it would be fast and simple: connect the cities by matching a famous Railroad represented on the edge of the tile. For example, if you had a tile in your ‘hand’ that had the B&O Railroad along one edge, you could lay it on the table matching the edge of a tile already there that also had the B&O on one edge. Simple as dominos!

But what should happen then? How should you be able to score points to win the game by doing this better than your opponent? To answer this question, I asked myself what mechanics were in classic railroad games other than track building? Answer 1: They had pick-up and delivery of goods from city to city. So the new game should have that too. When a city tile was laid down, goods cubes could be placed on the city based on the size of the city (in 1890 of course) that could be delivered for points.

Answer 2: Classic railroad games also have stock speculation. Tycoons in the golden age of railroads issued and manipulated stocks to fund railroads, gain control of them, or to destroy them. Stock speculation was definitely a major element of building a railroad empire…and a way of keeping score. It struck me that each railroad in the game could be represented by railroad stock tiles, and the value of that railroad’s stock could go up whenever a delivery of a cube was made on that railroad. In this way, the value of the railroad stocks would rise, especially on those railroads that get used most often. And players who owned those stock tiles would score points for each stock tile that they owned.

The final piece to the puzzle that I had to figure out was how players were going to acquire the city and stock tiles? I like the drafting mechanic because it presents players with an interesting decision. They have to decide which item they want the most out of all of those available in the draft. In the case of this game, which city has the railroads that they can link to the network and which railroad they want to deliver on to drive up the value of their stock tiles…and which stock tiles support their strategy.

So there I was on that December night, and in less than an hour I had just designed a new tile drafting and laying game with a railroad theme that contained all of the fun elements of classic railroad games:

  • Build track and connect cities
  • Pick up and deliver goods
  • Build a portfolio of railroad stocks
  • Own and operate some of the greatest American railroads of all time, including the B&O, ATSF, and The Burlington Route

Sometimes game design is easy…just not very often. 

Railroad Rivals will be available at your FLGS in late September, 2018.


Glenn Drover is a game designer and publisher who founded Eagle Games and Forbidden Games. His board game design credits include: Age of Empires III, Railroad Tycoon, Victory & Glory: Napoleon, and Raccoon Tycoon.