A more metropolitan train game.
Maglev Metro, new from designer Ted Alspach and his Bezier Games imprint, is a train game but it’s one that is more in the tune of “Transeurope Express” than “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”. It’s a spectacular production, combining streamlined Helvetica-esque minimalist graphic design with unique physical qualities. The rail tiles are clear acrylic so that the connections you and other players lay during the game are super-imposed. The large, chunky station hexes sit in recessed spaces on the board. The trains themselves are wonderful little metal and translucent plastic bits that make me think of the Micronauts.
The concept is cool. In the near future, competing rail corporations deploy three different types of robots (gold, silver and bronze) to perform various engineering, construction, and development tasks as they build out the magnetic levitation subway system throughout either Berlin or Manhattan (the board is double-sided). Delivering robots to their worksites (labs, factories, and warehouses) via your rail system allows you to place them on your player board in various positions, which is how the game abstracts upgrades to your abilities to take additional actions over the base two, build track, move across multiple links, pick up/drop off passengers, and so forth.
In many rail games there is a transition from investing and development to operations and profit, and that is absolutely the case here. But there is no money, instead what happens is that players eventually build “human” stations (stores, studios, embassies) and flesh-and-blood passengers are added into the mix. Delivering salespeople and diplomats generally allows you to put them on your player board in a sort of set collecting matrix with bonuses for like and unlike sets.
The endgame resolution is a little complicated and requires a scoresheet, but there are also bonus cards that you can earn for making certain connections, having or not specific passenger colors, or for various rail building achievements. You get four of these bonus cards but can only score one unless you assign delivered passengers to spaces that unlock additional bonus card scorings. It’s not overly complicated, overly analytical, or overly long and by the end of it you’ve got a neat looking subway map with colorful rail lines criss-crossing all over it.
Maglev Metro has quickly become one of my favorite games in this genre. My gold standard is Railways of the World, a more accessible and much larger version of Martin Wallace’s classic Age of Steam design, and there is undoubtedly some traces of that game’s influence here. But it’s a leaner, less financially punitive game where the tight economy of actions can be more delightful stressful than taking out additional loans to cover operating costs for another round. Opening up extra actions, which each take four deliveries, is a priority because you quickly find yourself needing to do more than two things a turn- but you must balance that with assigning delivered robots to upgrading the efficiency of each action.
There’s a lot to consider throughout the game- each upgrade category needs specific robot colors after the first one, which may cause you to consider opening a lab, factory, or warehouse just to get the free robot it comes with. You might need to spend a few actions refilling a station, hoping to get a couple of artists to load up and take to a studio assuming you’ve got the capacity to get them on board. And here’s a twist- you can’t just run all over the rails, you’ve got to ride them out to the terminal stations to turn around unless you’ve invested a robot into developing the Reverse Train tech. Above it all, you have to always be considering your rail lines and where the most lucrative routes are and how you can go about your deliveries most efficiently.
I find the scoring to be just a touch cumbersome but I wouldn’t say it’s overwrought as it abstracts performance, valuation, effectiveness, and profit in a fairly tidy fashion. It’s a little spreadsheet-y, but the end result feels satisfying. I do think the pocket calculator brigade might over-analyze aspects of the game, as they do, but I am also not sure that this is a game that the hardcore train gamer is going to choose over an 18xx title.
The multiplayer game is great at 2-4 players and scales just fine. Of course there is more competition for passengers with more players, but at 2 it’s a nice outing for an hour or so. The solo game, thank god, does not require a rebus-driven automata and is instead a simple score challenge. There are a couple of minor rule deviations including removing a passenger from the bag every turn- this is an interesting one because the game ends when there are no more to draw. This means that building the human stations and introducing those passengers into the mix is extremely important, and there is a palpable time pressure to get those stations unlocked on the player board. I’ve really enjoyed setting it up and playing two or three games in a session to see how utterly miserable I am at it.
This game has been quite a surprise. As most of our readers know, our writers and content creators here at ThereWillBe.Games have a more curatorial approach to what we review. We do not get a lot of unsolicited review copies. So we have to go out and ask for them, which means we generally have to vet what we review. I saw this game and at first I didn’t think much about reviewing it but then I saw that it was a train game about subways and robots with unusual pieces so I thought I’d give it a shot. And I’m glad that Bezier gave us the kind consideration of a review copy because this is one of the most fun games I’ve played this year - so far it’s the one I’m most excited about playing again.