Pacific Northwest Rails

Railroading board game by Robert Carlsen, published by Gandy Dancer Games, 1998

[Update as of January 16, 2002: the Gandy Dancer Games website seems to have gone offline.]


Billed as a railroading game which is "neither an 18XX series game nor a crayon game, but a new adventure in the steam railgaming genre", Pacific Northwest Rails comes in a long box with a rolled-up, laminated map as well as the following: The components are attractive enough, some typefaces showing signs of Macintosh origin. The game is set in the late 1800's and the use of actual period railroad company logos throughout is a very nice touch (made-up logos have been supplied where research did not yield any). The rules are clear and except for one or two very unusual situations, complete. The components mostly work well. The Stock Market Chart would have been easier to adjust if the logos on the Year cards had exactly matched. Also, most of the time one's train is supposed to be headed in a particular direction, but the pawns are incapable of indicating that. We have taken to substituting with trains from the game Union Pacific instead and using the pawns to mark which dispatch card a player is currently working on. And, we have taken to placing the board, which tends to roll up, and a photocopy of the stock market chart, under a plexiglas sheet to keep everything secure and stable.

Designer Robert Carlsen has previously published the games Mount Saint Helens (1980), It's a Wonderful Life Trivia Quiz and Harvey Trivia Quiz, while, at the time of this writing, Atlantic, Chicago & Pacific Rails, appears to be in the offing. All are or will be published by Gandy Dancer Games.

This game's board features a geographically-recognizable if abstract map of railroads in the Washington, Idaho and Oregon territories in the late 1800's. The game's central city is Spokane with tracks emanating outward to other cities in the interior and margin of the board. Milestones on the tracks are marked with the owning railroad's logos or heralds. Along the four sides of the board are Monopoly-style spaces on which players may conduct other activities such as stock transactions and dispatching new cards.

Game Play

Players basically represent investors and also operators of railroads, there being five major lines and ten minor ones. All of the player pawns begin in Spokane and race to the board edge spaces, some of which permit purchase of different railroading stock or stocks. These stocks are crucial because without them, one cannot fulfill Dispatch cards, which generate the money in the game. A Dispatch card is basically a requisition for a delivery from one location to another. It specifies a start city, an end city and a list of the railroad paths that a player pawn must take to fulfill it, by exact count. However, the catch is that the player must own at least one share in each railroad specified in order to run on its track. Completing this run earns money for the player as well as for each holder of a share in each of the companies used (the more shares the more money). And, as a side effect, the price of each of these stocks increases by $5, with a player option to spend $10 to increase them even more.

Player trains have interesting options for movement. First, one may roll the die and simply move that many spaces. Or, one may play one of the movement cards (dealt out at the beginning of the game and re-dealt whenever anyone reaches a Shuffle space) and move that exact amount. Finally, one may pay 1-6 dollars and move that exact amount. Thus, one is not at all dependent on luck of the roll for position, but can pretty much strategically plan location and activities.

Another type of space is the Dispatch Card space which brings up another Dispatch card immediately, instead of having to wait until a delivery has been completed. The number of Dispatch cards available always varies between the number of players and two times this amount.

Intermixed with the Dispatch cards are twenty of the much-dreaded Year cards that spell the arrival of the tax man. Tax calculation is elegantly simple, each player paying $1 per stock share held, multipled by the number of Year cards which have appeared. This serves as an effective brake on stock acquisition since players unable to pay must auction all of their most valuable stock, often at bargain basement prices, a severe penalty indeed. When ten Year cards have appeared, or rarely when one player has earned $1500, the game is ended. Players cash in their shares, the winner being the one with the most money.


The game then, although seeming somewhat weakly-themed, is very satisfying and in our circle has earned itself a high number of replays (especially when one considers that a typical game lasts 2-3 hours). The chief reason is that the player must creatively solve a number of interesting dilemmas. How much stock should be acquired vs. cash saved to pay taxes? How much time should be spent acquiring shares vs. completing Dispatch cards? Should stock shares be concentrated or diversified? Which Dispatch cards should one complete and which leave to others? Should one spend time to complete a current card or try generate a better one? Perhaps if your holdings are low, it would be advantageous to try to generate taxes? Or maybe one should sell shares to ruin the price for other shareholders?

In this game, the five major railroads even have different characteristics, amplifying the strategic considerations. The SP&S has the best grade. The Great Northern has the steadiest growth on the stock market. The Milwaukee railroad may be acquired more quickly than others and it acquires more short lines than any other major line. The Northern Pacific has a special bonus movement feature. And the Oregon Washington Railroad and Navigation company is involved in all of the highest bonuses (i.e. those over $100).

You should be getting the idea by now that a wide variety of strategic options are available. This situation is made even more exciting by two factors: (1) the high variability of the Dispatch deck, which will differ greatly from game to game, both in terms of which railroads appear and the appearance rate of the Year cards and (2) the "group-think" or playing style of your opponents. Because of these factors, players will not be able to find a pure formula for success that will guarantee victory each time. Instead, the victory will belong to the player best able to assess risk and improvise and under rapidly-changing conditions. It should be noted that this possibility for wild swings may be disagreeable to some. Players who wish complete control over all the variables may not find this feature to their taste.

Overall however, Gandy Dancer Games is to be lauded for an extremely impressive first outing in the railroad game genre. The importance of a wide variety of strategic and tactical options has been well-understood and realized. This game should be appreciated by any player who likes to think and especially by railroad enthusiasts, those who like the challenge of optimizing a whole series of actions and anyone interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest. I can hardly wait to see this company's next exciting publication. By the way, even the rules presentation is innovative. The newspaper format contains actual advertisements which helped to fund publication.

This game supports 2-6 players although I have not tried the 2-player version. Suggested for ages 13 and above, it is probably not more complicated than many games which are rated as 10 and above. It is well supported, including rules, photos and other information at the Gandy Dancer Games website.

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Last updated: Wed Jan 16 11:34:24 PST 2002
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