There are many features that define board games. Some are so obvious, they are barely worth mentioning. Games, for example, have a sense of playfulness about them. That‘s pretty self-explanatory. It‘s the reason why they can feel so liberating. It‘s also the reason why people like to describe games as ‚escapism‘. When adults put serious effort into a game, this word lends their willingness to dive into them a kind of legitimacy. You distance yourself from the childlike and infantile aura that board games still sometimes carry. Since games can so effortlessly cast their spell on us and draw us in, some people find it necessary to explain themselves.
Rail Pass does not bother itself with such justifications. It is a cooperative game about something that‘s occasionally thought of as bone-dry and dull: trains. It succeeds in avoiding that criticism, by presenting its theme with a strong sense of playfulness. At its heart this is a game about dealing with a logistical challenge. You‘re asked to deliver cargo (in the shape of plastic cubes in various colours) to their destination by transporting them by train. This cargo may only be loaded off the train when it arrives at its proper destination. So there is some planning involved in how and when to load the trains and where to send them. In addition to that each train needs an engineer, who may only commute between certain train stations. So you need to keep in mind which engineer can lead a train to which train station before you have to replace them with another.
Admittedly, this does not sound particularly playful. But there are two important rules that shape the feel of the game. Your train models, loaded with colourful cargo cubes, aren‘t pushed across a board or on the table. Instead players have to hold them and hand them off to their neighbours. Trains may only ever be put down in train stations. If they are ever placed somewhere else, it is considered a train wreck and all cargo is lost. Additionally, tunnel entrances are placed between players. Loaded trains must be carefully guided through them to be received by another player. All this plays out in real time and within a time limit of 10 minutes.
Board games that incorporate dexterity elements always have something playful about them. But that isn‘t what makes Rail Pass special. There is also another, very important rule and it is the only one to be explicitly labelled as mandatory in the rulebook. There is a reason for that. In Rail Pass you may only signal your intention to hand a train off to another player by saying „toot-toot“ (or any other noise you would associate with an old-timey steam train).
This rule is as silly to read, as it is genius to play with (and also a little bit silly). There are some games, that embed similar rules in the game. Both Mountains of Madness and Betrayal Legacy make use of such an approach, but in those games these rules are treated as an intentional break with normalcy. In Rail Pass it becomes a central element of play. It is a necessary and non-negligible part of the game, that you may only hand over a train after you‘ve announced it by saying „toot-toot“.
Two things happen as a result of this rule. First of all, the challenge of the game, i.e. delivering cargo to the associated train station is never given more importance than is necessary. Some players cherish the sense of immersion when a challenging game requires all the brain power they can muster. Even if it comes at the cost of play feeling like a shared gaming experience. These players are swiftly brought back to reality with the stead repetition of „toot-toot“. Instead of losing yourself in a flow state, the game repeatedly emphasises that you‘re playing together to have fun with other people.
What‘s far more impressive, though, is that this rules requires players to repeatedly pledge themselves to the magic circle. This esoteric-sounding term covers, among other things, the additional layer of meaning that we ascribe to the game‘s components. Within the magic circle, these aren‘t plastic cubes we move around, but cargo or containers we transport by train. These aren‘t just fully-coloured play mats in front of us, they‘re train stations for our locomotives to stop in. But more importantly, our actions also gain another meaning within the magic circle. We‘re not just handing over game components, vaguely reminiscent of a locomotive, to our neighbour, it‘s a train driving through a tunnel to arrive at a train station one town over. Depending on how our game ends, we talk about victory or defeat, because point scores have an additional meaning within the magic circle.
The game is experienced as important and even intense, because we are repeatedly reminded of this additional layer of meaning. When we play other games and refer to yellow, brown or white wooden cubes as wheat, wood and reed, we acknowledge and validate the fictional layer of that game. When we neglect to do this, because the terminology is too cumbersome to handle or its relation to the rules too hard to follow, it weakens the significance of the game. We realise that we‘re merely handling game components by following imagined rules. The game feels dry and abstract, and the magic of play evaporates.
Rail Pass makes the simple, yet effective change to not tie the affirmation of its magic circle to game terminology. The cubes, models and play mats do not have specific names, we have to remember and employ. Instead it‘s the sound of „toot-toot“ we repeatedly use to communicate with each other, that serves as an affirmation of play. Our actions are put at the centre of the experience. We are reminded of our role as players, as well as our responsibility towards the other players and are drawn deeper into the magic circle.
Because “toot-toot” so simple and a little funny to say, we can laugh about our failures. The childlike imitation of a locomotive sets the tone for the whole experience. Even when we‘re overwhelmed by the occasionally challenging logistical puzzle before us, we get to share it with the whole group. Many cooperative games create great memories by confronting us with particularly hard challenges to overcome. Thanks to a forgiving time limit, Rail Pass offers a challenge that is entirely manageable. But when you find yourself yelling „toot-toot“ as you hand over fully loaded trains and squeeze them through a narrowly cut tunnel entrance in a touch of panic, it gets pretty memorable all the same.
Rail Pass captivates with its playfulness and gets you to deeply engage with it and your fellow players. Which means it succeeds in one of the most important tasks a game has: it brings people together. And despite its dry theme, it gets to pretty hilarious along the way.