Does the world really need another train game? I feel like the answer is always “yes,” even though trains are rather well-represented, to put it mildly, in the tabletop gaming space. BoardGameGeek lists 1351 train games on its site, or about 1% of all games in its comprehensive database. Perhaps the best family game of all time, Ticket to Ride, is a train game at its heart. Steam (also published as Age of Steam) is the king of pickup-and-delivery games. Brass, by the same designer as Steam, is a favorite among fans of heavy economic games. Colt Express, which won the Spiel des Jahres a few years ago, pits the players as bandits all robbing the same train in the Old West.
Maglev Metro enters this crowded space with a very familiar pickup-and-delivery mechanic, but changes the dynamic of most train games by getting rid of blocking moves, taking advantage of better manufacturing to include high-quality clear plastic components that stack on the game board. This reroutes the competition (pun intended) away from worrying about where your opponents are building and focuses it on delivering the most valuable passengers to the right stations, with certain passengers more useful early in the game and others more useful at endgame.
The game comes with a two-sided board, showing Berlin on one side and Manhattan on the other, with a few differences between the two; the rulebook suggests Manhattan is better for casual players, but I think they’re just different rather than one being easier. Players will then work to place their tracks, shown on clear plastic hex tiles, between the stations there at the start of the game and the recessed hex spaces on the board, in which they’ll build the 11 stations to which you’ll deliver the game’s various meeples.
There are seven types of meeples, three robots in metallic colors (gold, silver, and copper) and four passengers in pastels (light and dark purple, pink, and coral). When you deliver a meeple to the matching station, you can place it on your player board, which has recessed spots that show what color of meeple can go in them. Robot meeples are functional, but don’t deliver points; you primarily use them to unlock more actions or expand the power of existing actions (e.g., laying two tracks per action instead of one). Passengers are primarily there for points, as you get points for the passengers you have at game-end, and placing them in the right rows or columns can score you more points per passenger or let you score more of your personal objective cards. You get two actions per turn to start the game, but can boost that by placing four specific meeples in the three rows for that purpose, and you can’t place any of the pastel stations until you’ve unlocked those with two meeples apiece, again in specific combinations.
You have a slew of choices for your actions each turn, and the ones you use will vary as the game progresses. The most important one is laying tracks, one per ‘unit’ on your board in that row, up to four for one action. You may lay those tracks anywhere, as long as you don’t exceed two tracks connecting to any station (your line can’t branch out of any station, except from the central Hub on the Manhattan board). When you’ve laid tracks to an empty, recessed hex, you can build a station there for an action. You can move your train for an action. Picking up passengers and dropping them off are each separate actions, and at the start you can only handle one passenger per action—and you can only carry one passenger until you use robot meeples to boost your capacity. You can even use the adjust action to move robot meeples (never passengers) on your board if you need to boost different actions.
There’s one action I really could have done without, though. Your train must move in the same direction until it reaches the end of your line, at which point it can turn around. You can’t turn it any other way until you’ve unlocked the Reverse Train action, at which you can turn it but burn an action to do so. I understand that this is thematically consistent, but because you’re so limited in early turns in Maglev Metro, this ended up adding more frustration than anything else.
The first half of the game, roughly, focuses on building your engine, grabbing meeples, delivering them, refilling empty stations with meeples randomly drawn from the bag (another action), picking up more, and building your route around the board so you can get to at least one station of each type, or at least six of the seven types, and move around somewhat efficiently. Once you’re rolling, though, those robot meeples are less important, and you’ll want to bear down on the passengers to gain points and/or unlock more of those personal objective cards, which can be worth up to 15 points each in a game where 70 points is probably going to win.
We played this strictly as a two-player game, although it accommodates two to four and has a solo mode. With two players, we competed a little for certain passenger meeples, but there were also enough to go around so that neither of us was ever shut out of something we needed. (We played both boards, and this aspect did not change.) With four players, however, I imagine it’s a bit more directly competitive, especially for the dark purple and coral meeples, which are scarcer and worth more points.
The physical components here are just ridiculously good. The plastic tiles look great and overlap so that all track colors will be visible from the top. The trains themselves are heavy and fit up to four meeples quite snugly, so they’re not falling out as you vroom around the board. However, I don’t see how you could play this game if you have any kind of difficulty distinguishing colors; even as someone without any form of color blindness, I found it very hard to tell the copper and gold robot meeples apart, and the light and dark purple passenger meeples are also too similar in color. (Their spaces on player boards and station tiles are much easier to distinguish.) All meeples are the same shape, with no symbols or icons on them or on their spaces on your player board, so if you can’t separate any pair of colors, you’re kind of out of luck.
I mentioned (Age of) Steam earlier as the granddaddy of all pickup-and-delivery games, and you can draw a straight line from that family of games to Maglev Metro. Stripped of theme and art, they’re quite similar underneath, as you build routes on a hex map to deliver goods of specific colors to their matching stations. Steam and its brethren ended up feeling very abstract, though, and while I do enjoy the Steam app, the end-game is sort of a mess because there are so few viable options for laying tracks once the board has started to fill up. Maglev Metro avoids that, and also keeps the game lively by requiring players to keep drawing new meeples from the bag—the game only ends once at least one of each of the four pastel stations is built and the bag is empty—so that you also never run out of things to deliver. It trades some of Steam’s simplicity for what I think is a better and more fun playing experience, and reduces the frustration you can face at the end of the earlier game (and Brass, for that matter, both designed by Martin Wallace) because you can’t do anything. The reason we see so many train games is that train games are awesome. Maglev Metro, even with the clunky name, gives us something old and something new in a great package.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.