Who here likes traveling? I do! I do! I even like to romanticize traveling, although admittedly somewhat differently. Some people feel the call of adventure when they think of the Grand Canyon or perhaps their loins shudder at the mere mention of the Eiffel Tower. Well my loins shudder as well but I'm more attracted to something like a journey to Longyearsbyen - the northernmost city in the world (think Norway and now think even further north) or Pitcairn Island (which only takes about 10 days or so to reach by boat from New Zealand). And then there's the trip that's on many people's bucket list - the Trans Siberian railway. Starting from Moscow and finishing in Vladivostok, you get to scope most of Russia and its wilderness, reaching one of its most remote cities (be wary - according to Hollywood you might be shot at by Ben Kingsley). And now, thanks to Z-Man Games, you can do it from your living room. But you don't just get to travel on the Trans Siberian - you get to build it.
Russian Railroads is a worker placement game made by a company that's built its name on worker placement games, and as such it brings some hefty expectations. Inevitably it will be compared to Agricola, Caylus and the other greats of the genre but to me it's mostly reminiscent of two other games - Tony Boydell's Snowdonia and Z-Man Games' last year's superhit Terra Mystica. Much like the latter, the theme of building various railroads in end of 19th century Russia is just a pretense for the game's intricate and complex mechanics. I think Snowdonia managed the execution of the same theme much better - no matter what you do in the game, the railroad is getting built. Whether you're profiteering from coal mining or abusing the Welsh workforce, those tracks are being laid and you're just a cog in the grand scheme of things. But knocking a Eurogame for its lack of theme is like blaming a parrot for not being able to write essays on Proust - they're just not built that way.
Production quality is where this game shines. Inside your cardboard box you'll find some more cardboard, which is good - everybody likes thick cardboard. You get a main board to share with your friends (don't put Tapas on it) and then some more boards for yourselves. It seems you're all building tracks on the same railways - Moscow to Vladivostok, Moscow to St. Petersburg and Moscow to... err.. Kiev (and whilst I can avoid political commentary on this review, just try and do it when you're playing the game with your friends). Then the developers somehow managed to fit an entire pine tree into the game - wooden tokens galore. The rulebook is crisp and explains the game very well, although I did feel like it was holding my hand a little bit. It does try and scare you at the beginning by stating that this game is very complicated, and well... it's not, really. It's complex, which is a good thing, but it's not at all difficult to understand.
If I'm honest then I have to admit that I dreaded playing this game, mostly because I had to play it with someone new to board games. Nowadays boardgamers know better than to try and entice new recruits with epic weekend-spanning games like Twilight Imperium. We're supposed to try and coax them with small doses, giving them a taster of Resistance, or just a dab of Coup. Maybe Settlers of Catan. Russian Railroads is undeniably a gamer's game, and possibly not the best first foray into the hobby. However, I was astounded by how well our convert understood not just the rules, but the intricacies of mechanics - which is fantastic. That's the best result.
And gameplay is where the game is at its most spectacular. Right from the get-go you're faced with multiple decisions. Do I try and get better railroad tracks? Or do I capitalize on industrialization? Should I just focus on the Trans Siberian or do I expand into other railways? Do I buy a factory now or do I wait till a better one comes along? Maybe I should just grab some Rubles whilst they're still there. And then that decision branches into a multitude of other decisions and it all grows exponentially until you find yourself tearing your hair out and screaming at the table "WHAT DO I DO?! WHAT. DO. I. DO!" The game has some heart-wrenching moments when you realise you created your own red herring and followed it, and backtracking is just not an option. Once you choose a strategy - don't dawdle. Just follow it through to the bitter end.
One of the greatest design elements is that the game has its own internal language. Everything is symbolic and once you understand the symbols - you understand how everything works. You never need to ask what a certain action does or what a card will give you. It's all there and you instinctively get it. This is why the game reminds me of Terra Mystica so much. That, the copious amounts of wood, personal player boards and the intricate mechanics. There's a reason this was the most popular game in Essen 2013. The hype is well deserved.
But would I recommend this game? It depends on what kind of gamer you are. Do you like worker placement games or complex strategic games with little to no luck? Then this game is definitely for you. And unless the answer to that question was a resounding 'no', I'd say give it a go anyway.