On The Underground
Look at this cover! Doesn’t it scream FUN to you?!
First published: 2006
Publishers: JKLM and Rio Grande
Length: 60 minutes
Okay, hands up who dreamt of being a train driver when they were a kid? The romantic notion of ch-ch-ch-chunging through the countryside with steam pouring up and out of that funnelly thing on the top and some poor old dusty bloke shovelling coal in while you flash your smile at ladies as you rumble past, pulling on your whistle.
Or who even fancied the job with emotions and imagination grounded in reality – the careful turning of the speed handle thing, keeping strictly to timetables (well kind of strictly), and having days off at the first sign of snow on the tracks…or wet leaves…or if it’s too warm.
Well, I spent five years in Japan where the train driving dream is pretty much right up there just behind playing baseball professionally, singing in an orange-haired, regimentally-clothed J-Pop group and marrying a blue-eyed foreign guy who agrees to stay in Japan and get a proper job. Trainspotters are everywhere. Train museums seem to exist in all major cities. Timetables are wonderfully organised with drivers keeping to them to within a minute, working through a series of hand actions, salutes and spoken statements as they drive. The best of the best get to drive the Shinkansen, but millions of kids country-wide wouldn’t say no to driving the national trains, private trainlines or even the subway trains….Gotta be better than being a salaryman anyway.
On The Underground is about the London Underground. It LOOKS like the London Underground map (at least at the end of the game) and it is based around delivering a fat, lazy (possibly American) passenger around London to a series of Underground stations. Then he can haul his fat, lazy backside up the escalators and take photos of the local buildings, declaring everything to be “quaint” before grabbing a Diet Coke and heading back down into the Tube to head off on his next exciting adventure.
Oh wait, I did say the game was about building the Underground tracks and not actually being a train driver? Right? Right?
So, hands up who dreamt of being an underground train track builder when they were a kid?
Sheesh, tough crowd.
So many options ‘pon th’canvas blank
On The Underground takes 2-5 players, although through personal experience (and no doubt preference) I would leave it on the shelf if I had five players to entertain. Even four players offers an experience which is borderline frustrating and a little too tight. I’ve played it a lot two players, which I feel works excellently, while three players adds just enough nastiness and struggle without taking away too many options.
Depending on the number, each player will take 2, 3 or 4 different sets of “track”. The track are colourful thin lengths of wood that look rather lovely when played onto the board. Some of the track colour sets have more pieces than others – for example when playing two player you will receive four sets of track, two sets with more pieces and two with fewer. The board is laid out – an “empty” map of the London Underground with all the stations named (well not ALL, it’s slightly simplified) and with possible routes etched onto the board between them. Cards are shuffled and left face down in a pile, before the top four are turned over. These are all stations that the passenger wants to travel to.
Oh yes, the passenger. I can’t remember if it says so in the rules (and I don’t want to know), but for us he’s a big fat, lazy American sightseer. Basically, he will always travel (starting at Euston Station on the first turn) to the one of the four face up stations that is easiest for him to get to. I will go into that a bit later.
Four player game ends with a VERY confused blue line and a sexy little pink number
Gameplay itself is extremely straight forward, like the best “Euro games” are, making it easy to teach and learn, with just a few wrinkles along the way, but offering deeper strategy as you get to know the game. On a player’s turn they have four actions. With each action they can either lay one piece of track or take one “Branch Line” token. Generally you will play four pieces of track. These can be of the same colour or different colours BUT you must lay a piece of track on the END of that same colour track. For example, I can’t start my blue line out of Euston and then suddenly start laying blue track down in Canary Wharf. After all, that’s all kinds of crazy! You also cannot branch off from the centre of your track, unless you give two Branch Line tokens back to the bank which then allows you to branch your track.
Ok, so does that make sense? Four actions and 99% of the time you’ll be laying four pieces of track. Easy.
The player then scores a point if he connected a track to an above ground station (a blue circle), three points if one of his lines connects two stations with the same lost property symbol (green circle with a disc on it), two points AND he collects a Branch Line token if he runs his track into a terminus (red circle). Also, if a player completes a circle track, he scores a point for every station INSIDE of the circle and then applauds himself smugly for making such a beautiful track.
Then after a player’s turn, our fat friend makes his move. He will always travel to the easiest station. The thing he HATES doing the most is walking so if one of the face up cards is for a station one space away but he has to walk, and one of the cards is for a station on the other side of the board and he’ll have to change onto three different train lines….well he’ll take the train, cos he’s fat and lazy of course. However if he can get to the same station by either one train line or two train lines, he’ll take the direct train because he’s too lazy to change trains if he doesn’t want to. You see?
It’s a little complicated to work out his route to start with but after a while you start to work out where he will be travelling to and if you can change his mind by building more track. Every time our chubby chum uses one of your lines to travel then you get a point. If he uses two, you get two etc.
After he has moved, you discard the card(s) he moved to in that turn and the next player takes their turn. There are a few extra rules and exceptions but that’s the core of the game:
- Lay your track.
- Watch the fat guy move (hopefully using your train lines).
Game ends when the pile of station cards has been depleted. You complete that round of play and then the player with the most points has won! Huzzah! You beautiful genius.
A two player game allows for more planning in advance and sensible routes
So, we’re in that post-third-picture chunk of the review so I need to say what I think about the game. Basically I like it. I like how simple it is to play and I like how beautiful the game board looks at the end of the game. It’s beautiful to see the game board grow and evolve as play progresses, seeing tracks spread out across London majestically and beautifully, or see them curl around and branch off in an ugly, spidery pattern. The colours of the wooden tracks are bright, however with red, orange, yellow, pink, green, blue, black, grey, white and purple, there’s a whole world of hurt there for the colour blind and under some light it’s hard to differentiate sometimes.
As you learn the game more, you learn the nuances of play. Do you always try to chase our bulgy American buddy around the board, or do you build and plan for the future. Some areas of the board allow more tracks but some are tight, allowing players to block each other off. However this doesn’t change depending on different player numbers so, as I said before, five players is FAR tighter than two players, even though two players get more coloured tracks. With five players, a lot is happening between your turns and so it can be hard to make decent long term plans, meaning you have to react more to what other players do.
The different ways to score points is well done and does generally make sense – sure, it’s good to connect to over ground train stations and of course you should get points if our blubbery mate uses your line. Running a line through to a terminus on the outskirts of the centre of London WOULD make sense for bringing in more people. The other scoring is just there with loosely themed reasoning though. Why connect two lost cameras together for points? Why get points for creating a circle line (yay! My house is in the middle of the circle line but they haven’t actually built a station NEAR me! Oh well, I’ll give them points anyway!) Still, I think the designer did his best with theming those points and the mechanism of the point giving makes sense so I can forgive that.
In a similar way to Ticket To Ride, On The Underground is not a “train game” in the way that those who play “train games” talk about train games (the kind that take hours and involve buying stock in trains, building track and delivering stuff). Instead it wraps itself in a pleasant theme, one that fits well, and says “let’s build some pretty wooden track and move this big old pawn around the board”. It could have been done on a random board with some made-up names BUT there’s something magical about the London Underground and the map. It’s iconic. The bar owner at my local bar in Japan had a t-shirt with it on….but then he IS Japanese and I’m sure if he didn’t have his bar he would be one of the millions dreaming about being a train driver.
- The rules are simple but there is some deep strategy there
- The board looks beautiful at the end and evolves wonderfully throughout
- Plays in about an hour which feels like the perfect length for the game
- Not one for the colour blind
- Feels too tight with five players and you don’t have enough control
- Will never be as popular as Ticket to Ride