CHOO-CHOO GAMES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

My most recent choo-choo game, The Soo Line, was weird and experimental, in that it involved me deliberately breaking "rules" of train game design: it's very front-loaded, there are fewer companies than players and therefore some players will be taking a less active role, and all the companies are rubbish. It was always intended to be a sort of an oddity rather than a crowd-pleaser, and as expected, there were folks who really dug it, and there were folks who found it frustrating and self-indulgent.

I did see some comments about how Soo and the equally experimental/divisive For-Ex proved that without Winsome to rein me in, I didn't really know what I was doing. The gist being I suppose that I was a font of wild, untempered ideas, some good and some bad, but I lacked the judgment to tell which was which. I actually thought that was kinda hilarious, because other than Northern Pacific (where John did a whole new map from scratch), Winsome essentially published the games I submitted without changing a single hex. While Irish Gauge admittedly sprung rather effortlessly and fully-formed during an hour stuck in traffic, it's not an accident that it was an approachable, crowd-pleasing game, anymore than it was an accident that Soo was abrasive and niche. I design different games in different ways for different reasons, and my choices, while often made intuitively, are nonetheless made deliberately. 

With Dual Gauge - releasing in a few days from Hollandspiele - the reason I designed the game was that Mary told me to. Specifically, Mary told me I needed to design a new train game every year for Hollandspiele, and that sounded like a lot of work. What sounded like less work was designing a new train game system, and then knocking out an expansion map or two each year. I was feeling pretty clever about this loophole, but Mary closed it on me real quick, explaining that I would now be required to do a new set of Dual Gauge maps and a new train game each year. Curses! Foiled again! 

Because this was intended to be a multi-map system, this couldn't be a weird, abrasive, experimental game like Soo Line. Oh, some maps could be weird and/or abrasive and/or experimental, and no doubt some will be. But for the thing to work as a series, the guts of the thing had to conform to certain expectations, and provide a baseline experience that would appeal to a somewhat wider (if still niche) audience. That wider audience would make designing annual expansion packs worthwhile. 

A larger publisher I spoke to said he expects sales of an expansion to be about thirty percent of the base game's sales. That's a "normal" publisher who does a lot of business through retail, and as a result is able to reach not only dedicated hobbyists but also the much larger and more casual audience that doesn't care who designed the game, doesn't use BGG, and isn't likely to be interested in the nuances of this expansion map or that one. Since we deal only in direct sales, our audience is more likely to be limited to enthusiasts, and our expansion conversion rate is usually closer to fifty percent. And so the more we sell of the base game - the more it appeals to a wider audience - the more expansion maps we'll sell, and the more it will be worth my time and effort to design them year after year. 

That probably sounds rather mercenary, and in a way, it is. I’m always yammering on about games that have something to say – games that make arguments, games that have a point of view, games that engage with history and with the world around us. But my train games don’t do any of that, and aren’t intended to; they’re not games about life or even games about trains but games about games, about riffing on and occasionally subverting genre conventions. 

While I’ve been very fortunate that my more ambitious and opinionated games like This Guilty Land and Westphalia have sold very well, and been very well-received, even if they had bombed, even if they had gotten zero traction, I would probably still keep designing those sorts of games, would still need to design those sorts of games. There’s not quite the same compulsion deep down to make new train games. I enjoy it, mind you. They’re fun to work on – certainly they’re a bit cheerier than spending a year and a half immersing myself in the arguments surrounding systemic human rights abuses! There’s a purity to the craft of making a game that’s only about mechanisms and player interactions, and it makes for a charming and unpretentious palette cleanser when I’m between weightier projects. But the primary motivator for me doing a train game (besides Mary telling me I ought to) isn’t to give myself that breather, nor is it because I have something to say about, I dunno, capitalism and industrialization. I’m not even sure if it’s because of money – goodness knows if one wanted to make money, there are easier ways to do it than making board games for a niche market. 

Mostly I make train games because people seem to like them. Perhaps one of the initial and most endearing things that attracted me to the craft and art of making board games is how integral the audience is to shaping their own experience of it. Creating a space in which old friends (and new ones) can enjoy one another’s company is deeply gratifying. And with train games, that’s all there is: no message, no model, just play, just you and me and us and that one time when.


  • So many great games from Hollandspiele, it’s hard to choo-choose a favorite!

    Tim M

  • Always enjoy your offerings, the interesting decisions and even the quarkiness that rears it’s head in some offerings. Looking forward to what comes in the future! Thanks for your hard work and sharing your thoughts/ideas.

    Joel G

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