The last thing we need in board games is another train game, right? It’s definitely up there on the list of most overdone board game themes, right up there with collecting wood, drawing five cards for your hand every turn, and setting games in central European cities that I’ve only heard of because they’re on the Thurn und Taxis board. And when I saw Whistle Stop at GenCon, I loved the look of the board, but was concerned the designer had packed way too many concepts into it: you’re building routes, collecting goods, gaining stock in rail companies, and managing coal resources that define your movements.
If the intro didn’t make it obvious, Whistle Stop is fantastic. It’s the train game we needed, fitting in that middle ground between the best gateway titles like Ticket to Ride and heavier titles like Martin Wallace’s Age of Steam (an economic, route-building game) or Russian Railroads (worker placement with zero randomness). Whistle Stop manages to borrow from the best train games out there, but takes just a little off the top, so that the game isn’t heavy, turns stay short, and you’re never burdened with money or other serious accounting. It’s also bursting with possibilities for each turn, so while you do have a lot of decisions to make, you’re nearly always choosing from great options. And, most important of all, it’s fun.
Whistle Stop starts with a half-formed board: There’s a frame, and three columns of the possible eight are filled with hexagonal tiles. The leftmost (“western”) column has end tiles, which award points if you get a train there and can trade in the exact three resource cubes depicted on that tile, and/or stock bonus tiles, which give you three or four points per stock certificate you’ve acquired over the course of the game. The rightmost column will have basic tiles with tracks and, usually, at least one stop where you acquire a resource. The one column near the center that’s completed has “special” tiles, including tiles where you trade in two resources to acquire a stock certificate; trading posts where you can swap resources for other colors or to gain coal or other tokens; coal yards, which I seriously hope is self-explanatory; and other types.
At the start of the game, each player places all of his/her trains on the open spots on the right/eastern edge of the board, and on the first turn those trains will begin to move on to the tiles. (It’s five trains in a two or three player game, four in a four-player, three in a five-player.) You get an allotment of two coal tokens per turn, and start the game with coal and one whistle token. You can spend four tokens per turn on actions. A coal token lets you move one train to the next stop to the west or anywhere in the same column. A whistle token lets you move one or two stops (you simply skip the intermediate one, without collecting anything), and you can go in any direction. When you move any of your trains to an empty spot on the board, you get to place a new tile on the board from your hand of three tiles, and thus can place tiles to gain specific resources you need for other actions in that turn.
Each turn bulges with opportunities, and thinking through them is a big part of the fun in the game. You want to get your trains to the end tiles, since those offer big point bonuses, and when you reach one you place your train on a reward space where you get some combination of three tokens and/or resources. The sooner you get there, the better the reward. But you also gain stuff—points, coal, gold (worth points), resources—along the way, so moseying across the board isn’t so bad either. Maybe you want to race one train to the end tiles and let the others take their time. The game isn’t very long, though, and it can end early if one player gets all of her trains off the board.
The stock mechanism is simpler than the term implies. Each of the five companies has six certificates, numbered one to six. If you go to one of the tiles for that company, you can pay the two matching resources, earn five to seven points, and take the lowest-numbered remaining certificate. (If you go to that tile but can’t pay the resources, you lose one or two points. So don’t do that.) At game end, the player with the most certificates in each company gets 15 points; if there’s a tie, the player with the lowest numbered certificate gets the points.
You can also acquire up to three upgrades, which cost two resources and add little tweaks to the game. One lets you collect a “toll” of one resource if another player wants to land on the same stop where you have a train. Another lets you pay a coal token to reuse a stop where you have a train (otherwise you’re required to move the train to another stop in the interim). Another lets you hold up to five tiles in your hand rather than three, and also eliminates the game-end penalty for having any special tiles left unplayed in your hand. They’re all modestly helpful, and it seems like the most obvious avenue for a future expansion to the game.
There’s only one off note in the game play itself—gold tokens, which just don’t seem to be a very good use of a turn. You can send a train to the gold mine and take a random token from the pile, gaining three, four or five points in the process, but it’s a poor ROI for a turn; unless you have no other options or are looking to score a few extra points in your final turn, you’re better off grabbing resources or even getting more coal/whistles to give you more options next round.
Whistle Stop is best with three to five players; with two, you’re never blocked from many options and might not compete at all in the stock certificate scoring, so you play the game in an unfettered, solitaire sort of way. With more players, you’re chasing the same few things, such as the scarcer resources, but Whistle Stop doesn’t make it impossible to get those if another player is after them, just more of a challenge. I played this with my daughter and her board game-loving friend, both of whom are 11, and they loved the game on first play and had no trouble grasping the mechanics or the gist of the scoring. It’s a great midweight game if you want to step up from the gateway level but still love to play with trains.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.