Review: Yardmaster: Rule the Rails

By Dave Neumann 18 Sep 2014 0
I hear that train a comin', it's rollin' round the bend I hear that train a comin', it's rollin' round the bend

Tabletop publisher Crash Games is a newcomer to the digital world, and Yardmaster is their first card game port for mobile devices. It's tough to make a good iOS board game in your first crack at the platform (Cyclades, anyone?), but we’ve seen other first-time publishers/developers make great apps. Pandemic and the upcoming Galaxy Trucker come to mind as games that feel like the products of much more experienced studios.

Yardmaster is a first-time effort and it feels like one, too. It’s definitely not a total disaster, but the app is broken in some very important ways, even now a few weeks on from release. Worse still, the Yardmaster card game itself might not have been the best choice for a digital port.

Orange is the new black? Orange is the new black?

Yardmaster is a simple set collection card game with a train theme. There are two sets of cards, Cargo and Rail Cars. Cargo cards are the cards you hold in your hand and come in five colors. Rail Cars lie in the middle of the table, Ascension-style, each one depicting a type of rail car as well as a point value between one and three. Your job is to use the Cargo cards in your hand to buy the Rail Cars in the middle of the board. The trick comes in that you must “chain” the cards you buy together to fit on your train. That is, each card must match either the color or point value of the card preceding it.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say I have three purple Cargo cards in my hand, and in the middle of the table is a purple Rail Card with a 3 on it. As one of my actions, I can buy that card and add it to my train. The next card I can then add to my train need to either be purple of any number, or a 3 card of any color. First person to string together a certain number of points triggers the last round, and the highest score wins.

Each turn you will have either two or three actions, based on the Yardmaster token that is passed from player to player in the opposite direction of turn order. Whoever has this token gets 3 actions on their turn, instead of the normal 2. Actions include drawing Cargo cards, buying Rail Cars, or swapping out your Exchange token. Their are five Exchange tokens, each with one of the five Cargo colors on them. You can use Cargo cards of the same color as your token as a 2:1 wild card. The game also has “bonus” action cards that let you break the rules a bit, like gaining an extra action or buying a Rail Car without wasting an action.

My favorite mechanic is that of the Sorting Yard. Basically, this means you can buy cards even if they don’t fit onto your train. They get placed in the Sorting Yard and can be added to your train later and cost no actions to do so. Thus, one of the strategies is to build up a huge chain of cards in your Sorting Yard, and after you buy another Rail Car, loading everything you have in your Sorting Yard in one turn.

That said, the Sorting Yard is the only mechanic that is remotely interesting. It’s not a bad game, by any means, but it sure isn’t very engaging. It feels like Crazy 8’s or Uno, with limited choices and tons of luck based on what Rail Cars get drawn. Oh, and don’t bother playing with more than three players. I would say two is ideal. Any more than that and you have absolutely no reason to plan, as the Rail Car row will be completely different by the time it gets back to you. You were collecting purple because there was a juicy 3 purple car in the center? Well, it won’t be there when your turn comes around again in a 4-5 player game.

This is as far as you can get in an online game This is as far as you can get in an online game

The game does ship with two expansions that can be bought for $1 via IAP. One includes five new bonus cards and the other introduces cabooses, which forces you to end your train with a caboose that’s waiting in your Sorting Yard. Having the caboose helps focus your gameplay, but didn’t add enough to the game to make it interesting for me.

So the gameplay isn't bad, and the games visual design is a standout. But Yardmaster gets derailed by some other stuff. As an online multiplayer app, Yardmaster is just flat-out broken. I have yet to play even the first move in any online multiplayer game that I’ve either started or joined. It's tricky to try and reverse-engineer somebody's development process, but clearly there was something amiss when Yardmaster was being tested -- or the multiplayer didn't work and it got launched regardless. Either way, it’s not a good introduction to the game. The developer has promised a fix for the issue, but nothing has appeared in the two weeks since the app launched.

Luckily, it’s only the online portions of the app that are broken. Single-player and pass-and-play with up to 5 players works flawlessly and you can play Yardmaster to your heart’s content, so long as it’s local.

But the issues with the app don’t end with the online play. No, the rulebook is merely a pdf of the physical tabletop game’s rule book. This is terrible for a couple reasons: there’s a bunch of information in the book you only need if you have the physical version, and there’s nothing to tell you about the app interface itself. The rulebook talks about where things should be on a table, but doesn’t indicate where they are in the app. This leads to the fact that there is no tutorial, so trying to learn the game is a tedious back-and-forth between the game and this rulebook. The bonus cards aren’t defined anywhere other than the rulebook, either, so if you want to know exactly what that 1:1 card does, you’ll have to leave the game and page through a pdf to find it. Considering all the empty space in the app, there should have been plenty of space to include some of this information within the game.

Your rules. Useful if you own a physical copy, too! Your rules. Useful if you own a physical copy, too!

Even if the PDF had been adapted for the app and more easily accessible, it's 2014 right? In a world where the bar is set by Lost Cities and Agricola, a well thought-out interactive tutorial shouldn't be a bonus in a professionally-made digital board game, it should be a given.

The game looks good, with a distinct art style, and your growing train section is gratifying to watch. The sound effects are great, and the AI is competent on lower levels and very competitive on the higher levels. Without the previously mentioned issues, the app is actually quite polished and plays great. That said, it’s hard to overlook the problems with the app as well as a game that just isn’t very interesting as a digital product.

Yardmaster isn’t a bad game and, I’m guessing, works great as a physical product. As a quick card game consisting of nothing but a deck of cards and a couple tokens, I can see this being a great filler to throw into your bag on game night or to take along on vacation. As an iOS game, however, I have so many more, and better, options to choose from. Need a good two player card game? Why not Lost Cities or Ascension. Want a train-themed game? Ticket to Ride is right there on my home screen. All those apps are more polished, offer online multiplayer, and are just better games. In the physical world, if I have 30 minutes and want to get a train game in, Yardmaster trumps Ticket to Ride every time. In the digital world, however, they both play almost as quickly so the selling point of being a good, portable filler doesn’t quite work.

Review: Yardmaster: Rule the Rails

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