Gaming Unplugged: On The Underground

September 4, 2007

A large subset of modern board games are commonly referred to as “rail games”; typically, these put players in the positions of railroad builders (or even a Railroad Tycoon, in the board game version of the popular PC sim series), criss-crossing various countries in an attempt to connect the most locations and earn the most cash (and/or points). On the Underground, one of the newest entries to this venerable genre, has a slightly different thematic take on the genre, confining you to just one city — specifically, London and its famed Underground transit system. The board itself is even based on the London Underground map.

Players are assigned from two to four colors (lines) of wooden rail pieces (depending on how many are playing), as indicated by their scoring marker. One player is randomly assigned to be the Start Player, with play proceeding clockwise around the table as usual. On a player’s turn, he has four builds available to him; these builds can consist of any number of the player’s lines, but a given line can only be extended at its ends unless two Branch Tokens are spent to extend in the middle of a line. A player can earn a Branch Token by forfeiting one build or by connecting to a Terminal location, the latter of which will also score the player two points (but close off that end of the line); other spaces on the board can score points as well, as can completing a loop. The only other source of points is the Passenger.

Despite representing a mass-transit system, On the Underground features only one Passenger; at the start of the game, four Destination cards are dealt face-up and markers are placed on the board at the corresponding stops. At the end of each player’s turn, the Passenger will go to an Express Destination (gold-colored) first if one is available, then travel to a regular Destination (white), according to his own simple rules: 1) He will go to whichever destination involves the least “walking” (spaces not connected by rail lines); 2) In the event of a tie for “fewest walks”, he will take the path that uses the fewest number of lines; and 3) if both walks and lines are tied, the choice of which path he takes is up to the player whose turn it is. Each time the Passenger uses one of your lines to reach his destination(s), you score a point (per line, if applicable). The visited Destination cards (or card, if no Express) are then discarded and replaced by the next ones on the top of the deck. When the last card is dealt from the deck, the Passenger is removed from play and the game ends before the Start Player’s next turn — meaning that everyone gets the same number of turns, although not the same number of Passenger moves.

On the Underground is a fairly quick and close-scoring game, with complete games occupying only about an hour depending on the number of players and how good each player is at planning his move; while I’ve never felt impatient waiting for my turn to come around, you can’t really plan ahead, due to the constantly-shifting Destinations and potential for other players to cut you off from stations with limited junctures. Set-up time is minimal, with some special tokens being randomly distributed among specific locations for scoring purposes and then everything else is either kept handy or assigned to players. Investing in some small plastic bags might be a good idea, however, as the wooden rail pieces come in eleven different colors; I don’t know why there’s eleven when only ten are really needed, but all eleven are assigned at one time or another (three pairs are always assigned together, which can help a bit with organization). Additionally, all of the pieces are very small and easily lost.

As is the case with many rail games, On the Underground is incredibly easy for new players to grasp, with simple rules and gameplay. Moving the Passenger has a little bit of a learning curve to it, but you really only need one person to understand it; his “program” only changes when he has two or more equal choices, at which point the player generally defaults to whichever path either helps himself the most or helps the player in the lead the least.

While On the Underground is simple and fun, it is not without its faults. It is possible for inexperienced (and/or careless) players to find themselves cut off from most of the action, but that danger is really only present in games with four or five players with only two line colors each. On the other hand, having a lower number of players could actually slow the game down, as it would take longer for you to burn through the Destinations; at most, four cards will be refreshed per “turn cycle”, whereas in a four or five-player game you could flip through seven or more before it is your turn again. Ultimately, however, On the Underground is a solid gaming experience that emphasizes a balance of strategy and tactics, with very little luck or time involved.

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