Looks can be deceiving. We all know games that attracted us with great components and gorgeous artwork, only to realise they are not as deep as we hoped or the mechanisms are simply broken. And yet still, when we stand in front of a game shelf, browse kickstarter or click on a YouTube thumbnail, it often is the coat of paint that attracts us. How does the cover look? What components does it have and how many? Does this look like worth reading through what probably is a dozen pages of rules…?
In a sea of overproduced games, there is another, more interesting category of deceiving looks: games that lure you in with great artwork and then hit you with unexpected depth. The classic example is probably Brass: Birmingham. There are quite a number of played-it-once copies out there, sitting happily on shelves because people saw the gorgeous artwork and never expected that kind of depth! I’m not immune to it either. It took me three plays to even like it, and then a couple more until I saw what others see in it. Another great example is Photosynthesis: if you only see the box and those lovely trees, you would never guess what a ruthless game it is … which might explain why there are so many inexpensive copies on the second hand market. Or think of how many people like Root but would never, ever play a war game.
Maglev Metro came on my radar when I saw ThinkerThemer’s Review and realised it’s by Ted Alspach / Bezier Games. Suburbia is one of my favourite games, I’m eagerly waiting for my copy of Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Collector’s Edition, and I have mad respect for Ted’s ability to combine simple mechanisms into games that are approachable yet you can sink your teeth in. So I had to try it out despite being neither a train- nor a pick-up-and-deliver-gamer … and it did not disappoint!
When you pick up the box from the shelf, you’ll find it is unexpectedly heavy. Yet it’s not the amount of components but their quality that creates the weight. You’ll find a two-sided, double- (or rather-triple because it has recesses on both sides) layered board showing Manhattan on one side and Berlin on the other. The board is somewhat smaller than expected which is a pleasant surprise with all the table-hogging games of late. Manhattan adds a special hub-piece that makes playing the game a bit more straight forward while Berlin throws you into the deep end when it comes to the interaction of the individual mechanisms. If you are a heavy gamer and approach Maglev Metro with a “give me your best shot”-attitude, start with Berlin and it will respond with a vengeance. If you are a casual gamer or have more of a “let’s see what this is about”-attitude, start with Manhattan. The great thing is: this is not a beginner/advanced mode, it’s just two different flavours and even after repeated play it is fun to come back to either one.
Since this is BGG, let’s pick Berlin for the further explanation. I’ll come back to Manhattan later on. One assembles the board like a 4-piece puzzle, places the chunky double-height station hex pieces in their respective slots in the bottom supply area of the board and in case of Berlin one warehouse, factory and lab station on the plan itself. This could have been a simple, flat board and some standard 1-2mm tiles but no, you have 6mm thick station pieces and the slots on the board are so tight that those stations are going nowhere unless you pull them out. It’s an unusual mix of enjoying what at first might seem like overproduction (we’ll come back to that later) and feeling like a toddler that places wooden chunks into the correct holes. That might already be the best metaphor for Maglev Metro I have: at first glance it might look like a kids game but the clues are too obvious that something else entirely is going on…
Next is a bag full of little wooden passengers in various colours: gold, copper and silver are “robots” that will help you with your engine, pink, lilac, coral and purple are commuters that are primarily for gaining victory points. Depending on the player count, a certain number is removed from the game, each player gets a set of robots to start with, some robots are placed on each potential station building slot on the plan as well as the already placed stations, and one passenger of the respective color is placed on each station in the supply. All the remaining robots go in the bag, all commuters are placed next to their respective stations in the supply area. Finally, give each player a player board as well as the train and track pieces of the same color.
The train pieces are weighted and have a nice, heavy feel. In their back compartment, up to four passengers can be placed. But the standout component are the see-through track tiles. In contrast to many other games, in Maglev Metro you can build on top of hexes where your opponents have already built which results in a beautiful, colourful plan that actually looks like one of those subway maps! Since two of the colours use the outer lanes and the others the two inner lanes, all four players can build track on the same hex field and nothing is obstructed. It just looks amazing and is a huge point everyone I played it with commented on. When you place track pieces you also notice why the station pieces are so thick and they stick so tightly in their building slots: the stations act as fixture points which help that the track pieces stay in place. It works so well that sometimes it’s a bit tricky to actual get the track pieces all in place, but in general it works very well.
Finally, deal bonus goal cards from up to four categories to each player and decide on a starting player. I’ve glossed over a few details but in general that’s it. Setup is quick and easy, just sorting the passengers can be a bit of a hassle to some. But you’re done fairly quickly.
When it’s your turn, you have 2 actions plus up to three extra actions you can unlock during the game. There are 9 different things you can do with an action, all of which are luckily printed on the player board and rather straight forward: build (or tear down) track, move your train, increase the capacity of how many passengers your train can hold, pick up or drop off passengers, put new passengers on the station you are currently at, re-assign the robots on your player board, build a new station or reverse the train.
Next to each action, there are 1 to 3 recessed slots for robots. For most actions, you always have one unit and can extend them by placing robots next to them. For example, if you do a move action, you can move your train from one station via your track to the next station (regardless of how many hex fields long it is). If you have two robots placed in the slot next to the action, you can now move up to 3 stations away with a single action. Same thing for capacity: no robot = 1 capacity, 3 robots = 4 capacity. The problem is: you only start with 3 (Manhattan) or 4 (Berlin) robots which you can initially place. If you want more, you have to pick up robots and drop them off at a station of their color. So a gold robot wants to go to a warehouse, a silver to a factory and a copper to a lab. Once you drop one off, you can place it on your player board, increasing the effectiveness of your action. However, the actions are color coded and you have to slot new robots in from the left. So without going into too much detail, let’s just say you have to be careful to pick up the right colours for what you want your engine to be like.
The result is that the game flows quickly in sort of “micro-turns”: you build some tracks with your first action, move your train with the second, and then it’s the other players’ turns before you can pick up passengers once it’s your turn again. With only few exceptions, it’s a breeze. Quite often you will find that it’s your turn again already. This helps the real-time feel of trains actually moving around and picking up passengers, all (almost) at the same time.
Robots can also be used to unlock commuters: in the lower left part of the player board, there are four columns, one for each commuter color. If you want to be able to build such a station or – and this one is crucial – pick up or keep a commuter of that color in your train, you have to have the respective column filled. For the latter two colours, you need one robot and one commuter so they naturally come into play later and bring more VPs. Finally, you can use robots to unlock your third action in the top left part of the player board. As long as you have the complete row filled, you now have three actions each round.
I say “as long” because robots can be re-assigned using the adjust action. This is a brilliant part of the game because you don’t have that one engine you build up and have to stick with for the rest of the game. If something goes wrong or you see a great opportunity, adjust and suddenly you have more movement or whatever you need. The downside is of course that this costs you an action so you want to re-adjust as little as possible but as much as necessary.
So far so easy: build tracks, move around, pick up passengers and drop them off to be able to add them to your engine. Here comes the caveat: nothing is easy in this game! You have far too few robots to do everything in one turn, so others rush in and pick up “your” passengers before you can. You can only have a single line of track without branches (Manhattan relaxes that one a bit) so sometimes you need to tear down and rebuild lots of tracks to get somewhere new or move a lot. You’re limited to moving around commuters for colours you have unlocked. There are only two stations of each color so if someone builds the last one before you can, it might be almost unreachable for you. You can put new passengers on the map but commuters only go into the bag once someone has build the respective station. So it can happen that there are a couple of copper robots you want to draw but someone builds a coral station and suddenly the bag is flooded with passengers you cannot transport!
There are lots of tiny wrinkles in this game that make you go “aaaah, I didn’t think of that”. Which brings us to scoring…
Remember those commuters we talked about? They are on their own worth 1 or 2VP. In addition, they can be used to unlock two additional actions and are required for unlocking the red/purple commuter colours for you. And if that wasn’t enough, the whole right portion of the player board can only be filled with commuters. The top right part allows you to increase the VP for a particular colour if you fill that column or increase the number of points you get for each link (=connection between two stations) you have. The lower part is for unlocking more goal cards.
During setup, you get four goal cards (three is recommended for first play) that give you points for things like direct connections between certain station types, filling various areas of your player board, collecting certain colours of commuters and so on. To start with, you can only score a single one those. If you want to score more, you have to unlock them by filling rows in the bottom right corner of the player board. One thing to note is: while robots can be adjusted, commuters cannot be moved once they are placed on the player board! So each commuter used to unlock a further action is one that you will be missing dearly to score more points.
The game ends once the last passenger is pulled from the bag. The current round is finished and an additional final round is played. Then you use the included scoring block to get points for your commuters, links between stations and unlocked goal cards, all of which can be modified depending on what you unlocked on your player board.
Solo & Manhattan Variant
Solo play works pretty much exactly like multi-player with only a few minor tweaks. You draw two goal cards that indicate which colors of stations you are not allowed to connect directly. Otherwise the bag of passengers is used as a timer: each turn you draw one passenger and set it aside. Not only is that passenger lost for you and brings the game’s end closer. Each round costs you 1VP which you have to subtract from your score.
So there is no opponent to play against, just a rating system which goes to heights of VP which I never even came close to thus far. Not sure how realistic it is to actually score 140 points in solo, the best I’ve managed is 48! How satisfying this is depends on what you are looking for. It’s a crunchy puzzle of trying to figure out how to save time. Personally, I don’t see myself playing it a lot. What I like in multiplayer is having to be careful where I build my track, passengers suddenly popping up at the other end of the board because another player refilled a station, etc. The solo mode is quite good to learn the intricacies of the game though.
As I said in the beginning, the board has two sides. While Berlin forces you to keep only a single line (or loop) without branches, Manhattan adds a large hub piece. The hub acts as a delivery station for all robot colours and allows you to have multiple exits, making it easier to reach new areas. It’s a little more direct way of playing where nothing is safe, while in Berlin you can build stations close to the middle of an opponents route and have relative safety that he/she cannot reach it without tearing down large parts of their route. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other but I liked the increased relevance of where you place your tracks on the Berlin map.
With a game of such obviously high attention to production value, it makes sense to take a small detour and talk about the quality: In most parts, it’s way more than you would expect. Double-layered player boards, heavy train pieces, see-through tiles, a metal coin as start player marker, two different maps, great cover, the list goes on. For me personally, the experience was slightly spoiled by a few minor issues: While the cover looks great, the box is printed on some coated sheet of cardboard that I’ve already managed to get a big fat scratch in despite only having traveled with it once. The tolerances of the recessed slots are so tight that removing station pieces can feel uncomfortable difficult but so far everything is okay. I can understand that part because the tightness helps to keep the transparent track pieces in place really well. However, on the player board I have a few places where the robot does not even fit into its slot. All in all, those don’t really bother me. You could say they only surprised me because everything else is done so very well.
The one point that can be an actual problem is the choice of colours for the passengers. In my own experience, in virtually every play I had someone mistake a copper for a gold robot at least once, regardless of whether it was in daylight or at night with the lights on. I once even had problems between silver and a lilac one but that was due to bad lighting. Interestingly, this only seems to be a problem for some players while others have no problem at all with it and despite of what you might think, the game is designed with colour-blind people in mind which is great! There are mentions of people painting their gold robots, but I’ve opted for getting the darker replacement copper robots that Bezier Games now offers. You have to see for yourself if this is an issue for you or not.
I’ve omitted a number of rules to focus on the feel of the game. To put it bluntly: it’s clever, sneaky and sometimes brutal. A large part of the game is looking out for mistakes your opponents have made and where you can snatch up passengers before they can. While you can adjust your engine by re-assigning robots, it not only wastes actions but the color limitations might prevent you from doing so if for example you have tons of gold robots but desperately need another silver one.
The visual presentation and haptic feel are great and definitely help to get new people to play the game. While each action by itself is simple, I noticed that it has an “and this, and this, and this”-feel during explanation. There are 9 different actions, each with side notes and implications, unlocking extra actions, goal cards, color limitations, etc… so while it is suitable for casual players, they should be willing to go through a bit of a teach. Moving the trains around and building tracks is all great fun, but I’ve found that the game can get frustrating for some players. It is a competition and someone can sneak in and grab those last two purple passengers you desperately needed if you are not careful. Or someone can build a station in the middle of nowhere, simply because they get one passenger of that color as a reward for building. There is a lot of manipulation you can do with just building stations alone: it’s an easy way to get a commuter if you just need one to unlock something. You can influence when you build it and thus pour a flood of new passengers into the bag, shaking up the mixture of what is drawn when trying to refill a station. Looking for that last silver robot? Well, there are suddenly 10 pinks and 11 corals in the bag now, too! And that’s only one aspect of the game.
This puts Maglev Metro in an unusual place: it’s visuals are inviting for new players and might – on first glance – look too cute for some heavy gamers. On the other hand, the level of expert play and competitiveness that is possible can become frustrating quickly. It’s as if Suburbia would allow you to send the mob to mess up your opponents’ suburbs if they weren’t locking all the doors. Then there are the goal cards which feel unbalanced to a number of people I played with and the play time of 90 minutes which both might turn off some heavy gamers.
So you might be wondering why I chose the tag line “a beautiful Trojan horse” instead of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Maglev Metro fills a unique place in my collection. It can be brutal but it is approachable. You might fall into a trap but you learn your lesson without having to get 10 plays in. To get back to the comparison with Brass: Birmingham: I had a number of people that said Brass is not for them and they won’t play it again. In contrast, everyone I played Maglev Metro with said they would enjoy another try. For heavy gamers, Maglev Metro can almost be a casual game, it’s quick and a breeze to play. For new players, it can be something they invest in and stretch to come up with clever moves.
For a full review, I still want to get more plays in. I’m only beginning to get a feel what strategies work and when it makes sense to unlock further actions or not. The question of how many robots to collect and when to start focussing on commuters is also a tricky one. But this one is a keeper and I’m really excited about the new map expansions that have been announced. Bezier Games: if you need another playtester or someone for an early preview post, pleeeeeeease contact me.