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Boxcars: A reprint of Rail Baron with some subtle and not-so-subtle differences

An old feel to a new title
Publisher (Rio Grande Games



Fans of Avalon Hill's Rail Baron game, reviewed here just a little over five years ago, have long been clamoring for a reprint. When Hasbro purchased the rights to Avalon Hill's titles in 1998, they chose not to issue a reprint of the 1977 Rail Baron title, and moved the label into less hobby-oriented games. By the time I attended the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) for the first time in 2002, my copy of the game was shopworn enough to look as though it required disinfectant spray before play could commence. I brought the game to the event, assuming, with my years of experience, dating back to college, that I'd walk home with the top prize. Instead, I was schooled by a contingent of Rail Baron veterans, who continue, to this day, to attend the WBC and play this game.

They'll do so again at this year's WBC, scheduled for August 4-10 at the Lancaster Host Resort in Lancaster, PA, where for the fourth year in a row, I will represent Rio Grande Games at Cafe Jay; a multi-table area in the resort at which I will display and teach a variety of Rio Grande Games to any and all who'd care to learn. One of the games that will be on display will be the much-anticipated reprint of Rail Baron, with, however, a new name, a new look, and a new App, designed to augment play with a program designed to do some of the game's tedious housework; perusing a massive Payout Chart that lets you know how much money you've earned by completing a trip from some Point A to some Point B.

The publication of Boxcars by Rio Grande Games is something that you would think would have been met with a great deal of enthusiasm by the cadre of die-hard fans who, like me, have been playing the game for years. I know I was excited when it showed up on my doorstep, as part of a delivery package of games I was going to have to learn before I headed north to become the 'host' of Cafe Jay again. It's got a sleek new look about it, with top-notch components, and comes with that link to an Android or IPhone App. I was looking forward to getting it back out onto a table.

It occurred to me almost immediately that the legions of Rail Baron fans who were going to show up at the WBC to play in the tournament would be looking to upgrade their old boards, deeds and markers and launch right into Rail Baron 2012, now known, as it was in the beginning, as Boxcars. I wrote to the tournament Gamemaster (GM) of Rail Baron, Ron Secunda, in his 12th year at the helm of the Rail Baron tournament, and let him know that I'd be teaching the game at Cafe Jay, and asked him if he thought that Rio Grande Games should maybe beef up available copies of Boxcars with the distributor, in anticipation of a swarm of Rail Baron fans, clamoring for copies of Boxcars (I don't sell Rio Grande's games at the WBC. I just teach them. Owner/president Jay Tummelson leaves sales to his distributors who are on-hand at the WBC to sell the products).

The response I received from Rail Baron's GM was not what I expected. Mr. Secunda agreed that the one-piece board of Boxcars was superior to the three-piece board of the original, which came with black plastic retaining clips to hold the pieces together; his board, he added, didn't come with clips and he had to affix Velcro to the back of the board to keep the three pieces together during play. He considered the map coloration of the original to be far superior to the new release; Boxcars utilizes a single color for the background of the entire USA, while Rail Baron employs different colors to differentiate between regions.

"It is difficult to (distinguish) the different regions," he said, "which are very distinguishable on the Rail Baron board, with each region having its own color. It has been my experience that even seasoned players sometimes lose track of which city is in which region."

Though he agreed that the Boxcars deeds are "more substantial," and, he noted, "take up more space," he found that from across a table, the new deeds, in the display of opponents, can be difficult to identify because of their coloration. He also found that the coloring of the rail lines in the new release was "completely different," which, he said, "makes play slower and more difficult." There were also, he said, "many mistakes (being made) with the (paper) money, because of the new dark colors."

"They tried to be creative with the train markers," he went on to say, "but the Express marker is too big and the Superchief is even bigger; so big, it can occupy two points at the same time, and has to be placed perpendicular to the rail line."

So, not the overwhelming positive response I had been anticipating. He's right, of course, about all of it, although I suspect that brand spanking newcomers to the game would not find the differences to be as problematic as the contingent of veteran Rail Baron players who travel from all over the country to compete in the game every year. Newcomers will tend to take the color differences in stride, and while it's true that Boxcars rail lines can be a little visually confusing, at first, once you settle in, that becomes much less of a problem.

Mr. Secunda did note that the Boxcars rules allow for re-use of a given section of rail line on a player's subsequent turn, whereas, with Rail Baron, once you have traveled on a given segment of track, you can't re-use that track section until after you have arrived at your destination and embark on another trip. There are a few other differences, some thought to be significant, others not so much.

With Rail Baron, the probability of rolling your three dice (to obtain a Home City or new destination) and ending up with "Northeast" as a region was 20.8%, making it the most likely roll. This, according to John Cousins, reporting on BoardGameGeek, was done to "approximate the rail traffic/population within each region as of the early 1900s." In Boxcars, the probability of rolling "Northeast" as a region is down to 18.1% and the region has been replaced as the "most likely roll" by the "Southwest" at 19.4%.

With Rail Baron, you have to roll your set of three dice, twice, to determine your Home City; once, to establish a region, and again, to establish a city within that region. With Boxcars, you roll once to determine a region and then, may choose any city you want, within that region, as your Home City. There is, too, the Boxcars rule that you cannot (as with Rail Baron) choose to sell one of your railroads directly to the bank, until after it has been put up for auction to other players.

Another difference is that Boxcars features an alternate map of the UK, on the flip side of the familiar US map. The game featuring this map is reported to be a shorter game experience. It's kind of a 'two games for the price of one' scenario.

"It is my belief that there won't be much of a stampede to purchase Boxcars, because of deteriorating Rail Baron games," said Secunda. "The die-hard Rail Baron fans keep their games going for the most part, and there are even good, used games or mint-condition games available at auctions or on EBay."

"My game is about 14 years old," he added, "is in excellent shape and is used for the Rail Baron (WBC tournament) final."

Mr. Secunda has obviously not seen my copy of Rail Baron, older than his by at least 10 years, but again, he's right about the condition of Rail Baron games owned by many of those who attend the tournament every year. These die-hard fans treat their copies with a measure of respect not normally associated with inanimate objects. I've seen Mr. Secunda's copy and though it shows some obvious signs of its age, it has been well-maintained, and shows every sign of continuing to be so.

Rail Baron, at the WBC, is one of only a few games that does not offer potential tournament entrants the opportunity to attend a demonstration of the game prior to the start of the tournament. You are expected to know the game if you sign on to play, although if you don't know the game, most of the veterans would be happy to give you a quick rundown of the rules and the process of game play prior to the start. Nothing too complicated about it - randomly choose a Home City (dice roll), randomly choose a destination (dice roll), head out on rail lines, moving your train marker from Point A to Point B, and collect money for the trip when you're done; the longer the trip, the more money you make. Use the money to purchase rail lines, which will eventually create a network of personal rail lines, granting you access to as many areas of the board as possible (the cost of traveling on opponent rail lines is counter-productive). Repeat the new destination process, head out again (and again, and again), until you've amassed a minimum of $200K, at which point, you head back to your home city and with the $200K in hand, you win the game. Nothing about this process has changed with Boxcars.

It is hard to underestimate the value of the App that comes with Boxcars. The payout chart that comes in the box (identifying earned money between any Point A and Point B, much like the one that came in the Rail Baron box) can be difficult to read, and at minimum, is time-consuming. The App will also randomly select a player's new destination. Before the release of Boxcars and the free App it offers, players used a program called Boardgame Conductor to handle 'lookups' on the chart and the random generation of new destinations. Created by Steve Okonski of Intersystem Concepts, Inc, Boardgame Conductor was a companion program to a computer version of the game itself, and was introduced to the WBC tournament experience a few years after I'd signed on for the first time. The resistance to Boardgame Conductor was palpable; the veterans insisting that they were quite capable of reading the payout charts, and unconcerned about the extra time involved with doing so, while the program's ability to randomly generate a new destination (as opposed to the dice rolls that do so) was met with suspicion. Some refused to allow players at their table to use a laptop for the purpose of utilizing the Boardgame Conductor program. A standard game of Rail Baron can take up to as much as four hours; time slots at the WBC for the game are generally about 3 1/2 hours in duration. Though I have not engaged in any scientifically significant research on this, use of the Boardgame Conductor and/or the new Boxcars App can reduce this time significantly.

I like the new release. It's a typical, top-notch quality publication from Rio Grande Games, which is something that my employment by the company at the WBC each year does not require me to say. Nor is it influenced by my receipt of a review copy. The concerns expressed by Ron Secunda are valid, in so far as they articulate his personal belief that Rail Baron is the better of the two games and that he'll be holding on to his 14-year-old copy. I'll be ditching mine, or at least, passing it on to someone, and be settling into the process of absorbing the new color schemes and slightly altered rules, as I introduce newcomers to the game.

Boxcars, designed by Robert S. and Thomas F. Erickson, Jr. is published by Rio Grande Games. It can be played by 2-6 players (rare to see it played as a two-player game), with a suggested age range of 13+. The box indicates a playing time of 2-4 hours, which is about right. Suggested retail price is in the area of $50. Copies of the original Rail Baron can be found in a variety of places, usually, dependent on condition, starting at around $100, and moving up.

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