Trans Europa: A four-sided game review

Trans Europa* is a family board game first released in 2005; but which is almost identical to its predecessor TransAmerica/Iron Road, first released in 2001.

The 2018 re-release from Rio Grande Games uses a similar map to the classic 2005 release, but changes the colour of many of the cities to help accommodate a new mechanism, ferries – but more on this idea later.

In the box you’ll find the game board, around 100 wooden matchsticks, four cute little wooden trains, four starter markers and 36 cards. Overall this is a hard reissue to love, ‘bits’ wise. In an age of ever improving components this is a trip back to, politely, simpler times. The wooden bits are fine, while the board art copies the original (bland, but functional). The cards are nice, having a Tintin cartoon quality, but the box art – well, see for yourself. Maybe someone won a school competition? Overall, it feels just about reasonably priced online at just over £25 (but not at its £35 RRP).

This simple 30-minutes-ish train game really is super low on rules, weighing in lighter than Ticket to Ride. But don’t let that fool you: there are some interesting decisions to be made. This is definitely in the abstract zone though, with the theme not coming across at all. But as this is a route-building game, it certainly serves its purpose in teaching terms, as you build your networks from city to city.

Teaching Trans Europa

The basics are simple to teach, with a game taking place over a variable amount of identical 10 minutes-ish rounds (usually three to five). By the end of the first round, everyone should have the rules down – so if you play with hyper competitive people, you can always play a dummy round then start for real.

At the start of a round, each player randomly receives one card from each of the board’s five coloured regions: these are the stations they’ll need their network to reach to end the round. Next, each player places their start marker on any space on the board – then away we go.

On their turn, each player must lay at least one piece of track that extends their network. You can lay up to two pieces on your turn, so could lay two pieces of track on single line spaces – or one piece of track if it was a double-line space (these represent trickier to build lines over mountains or rivers). What this new edition of the game adds to the original are ferries: green wavy lines over larger areas of water.

Ferries takes the idea of the very popular 2007 ‘Vexation’ expansion and, well, complicates it. All the usual track you lay is black (more on this in a minute), but each player also gets three pieces of track in their own colour. When you build a ferry, it needs two pieces of track (not one) – but you can only build half of it per turn (you could still place another piece of track, but it would have to be elsewhere on your network). However, you can build your ferry with your own coloured track – which, if both pieces end up being your own, means other players can’t use it.

And herein lies the simple beauty of the game. As each player builds their network, eventually they’ll join up – at which point, all the connected players have one big network. The trick is to get other players to do all your hard work for you, while you do as little as possible to help them, before joining it all up. Which isn’t as simple as it sounds, as you don’t know where people are going…

When one player announces their network reaches all their cities, you play out the current player’s turn and then score. Everyone starts with 13 points. Anyone who has completed scores zero, while each other player loses one point per piece of track they were short of completing their own network (so one per normal section, two per mountain/ferry). When one player reaches 0 points they lose, and the game ends – with the person on the highest score winning.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’ve always enjoyed route-building games and they don’t come much simpler, and clever, than Trans Europa. The original game was an elegant and interesting multiplayer puzzle, but I’m not 100% sure about the ‘improvements’ here. There’s nothing stopping you ignoring the wiggly ferry lines on the board and just treating them as normal routes – meaning you can use the coloured track with the original Vexation rules if you like (or ignore them completely for the basic/original game experience). But I don’t know yet if the changing of the map’s station colours will make it a fair game if you do that.
  • The thinker: While I won’t turn down a game of it, this has always felt a little long for what it is – and repeat plays can become tedious quickly. Experienced/good players will soon work out set strategies for use in each of the game’s situations (depending on your card mix), after which it plays out with much similarity each time, despite the seemingly large array of board options. An alarming amount of weight is placed on your initial placement decision, after which things tend to play out in a rather plodding manner. But rounds are short, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it is a clever design that deserves respect.
  • The trasher: While games tend to appeal to me the fewer players they have (the less of you there are, the more I can concentrate on the whites of your eyes!), Trans Europa is a game that works poorly at lower player counts. It’s OK with three, but much better at four or five, where you can really see the game evolving and try to choose your allies – and those parts of the network you want to avoid. And it doesn’t seem to play much longer with more players either, which is a great bonus for a super filler game that can accommodate up to six players.
  • The dabbler: As a big fan of Ticket to Ride, I was happy to give this one a go – but was sceptical when the (rather uninspiring) bits came of the box. But I was wrong – it was fantastic! Unfortunately, it’s not very good with two people, but with a table full it is great fun. You get a different dynamic depending on the group too: I’ve seen serious poker faces some weeks, then others laughing and chatting while we play the next. The board is really bland, but I guess it needs to be – you need clear lines and to be able to find everything on the map easily. But the Ticket to Ride boards would’ve been a good example to work from, surely?

Key observations

I’ll only going to talk about version specific observations here; the first of which has to be the ferries. While I can see what they’ve tried to do, it just feels clunky and rushed. The Vexation expansion was elegant, adding a bit of bitchiness to an already great game. Sadly, the ferries don’t do the same for me.

A big problem is having to place two sticks to complete a ferry route – while you only place one on a double black route. It means there are three different ways to do what should be a very simple turn, but is instead now confusing and counter intuitive. I’ve already house-ruled this, so you place two black sticks on a double route (to keep the rules simple) – but doing this can definitely lead to running out of track at higher player counts. What were they thinking?

Secondly, you can only use the coloured track on the ferry routes. While this can make for interesting decisions in some rounds, you very rarely have to build more than one ferry – so even if you double-down on a route there’s still no jeopardy in terms of, ‘where shall I use my precious coloured sticks?’ (which was made even more delicious my Tom Lehman’s variant). Again, I’m going to try and house rule this to allow people to use them wherever they like as in the original Vexation rules and see what happens.

Despite having a board that would fold into the original roughly eight-inch box, this version comes in a roughly 10-inch box. Everything floats around in there in an embarrassing fashion, which is only exacerbated by the ugly box art. All of this points to an embarrassing lack of love and attention being paid to this edition, which is far less than this classic board game deserves.

What makes the whole thing strange is the imminent release of Trans Europa (yup, the same game) from German publisher Ravensburger. It doesn’t seem to include Vexation at all (I guess you can add it, DIY style, very cheaply though) – but includes both the Europa and Amerika maps; comes in a ‘proper’ big box (not sure why, but at least it looks like it fits neatly); and has much nicer new art on both the board and box cover. It also looks to add a new twist via a deck of cards (one is drawn each round to add a unique extra rule for the round); but this is listed as a variant, so the game can easily be played like the original (unlike the Rio Grande version).

I presume Ravensburger only has rights to produce the game in certain territories, but I’m sure I’ll find out at Essen this week. I’ll keep you posted…

Conclusion

Trans Europa is a brilliant gateway game: short, light and fun, while the quick play time/multiple rounds are fair cover for the amount of luck the game has. A version of it should be in any game evangelist’s collection, as you can teach it to anyone and it accommodates that slightly awkward five to six-player range when you want something a little bigger than a simple card game.

I was thrilled to see a new edition arriving, and while I have some reservations about the ferries (and will always give the shonky box an awkward sideways stare), the pros  outweigh the cons: if you want a simple train game that weighs in with less complexity than Ticket to Ride, look no further. However, if you’re looking for a new shiny version you may want to take a close look at the Ravensburger edition before you part with any cash – unless the ferry idea particularly appeals to you. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on a copy of that when it drops, to be able to do a direct comparison.

* Thanks to Rio Grande Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy for review.

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