Game designer Brenda Brathwaite is perhaps best known for her work on the classic Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series of PC games, although she has certainly kept busy since. Her latest project is in fact a series of six non-digital games, and it is one of those games that I write about today.
Train is not your standard board game. It comes on a full-sized window, not in a cardboard box. There is no company logo on the rules, because there is no publisher. You cannot buy it, because only one copy exists in the world and it is not for sale. You cannot play it, unless you see it in person. If you do see it in person, it will not be at a game store but at an art gallery. And when you do play it, you will only play it once because it was intentionally designed to have no replay value. This goes way beyond the “indie” aesthetic, beyond perhaps where many so-called “art games” have gone, to something that is such uncharted territory for games that we don’t even have a name for it yet.
In terms of mechanics, Train is a relatively conventional roll-and-move, race-to-the-end game. Each turn you roll a die and either add that many passengers to your train car, or move your train car that many spaces forward. The objective is to deliver passengers to a series of locations, the names of which are printed on “terminus” cards. To give the play more of a German-game aesthetic, event cards are introduced that allow you to speed your car forward, switch tracks, block other people’s forward progress, take over other players’ cars, or derail a train car.
It doesn’t take very long for the first person to reach the end of the track with their first load of passengers. And they turn over the card and discover that their destination was Auschwitz.
And then you realize all of the subtle things that you missed in the printed rules and on the game itself. The broken glass on the window, an allusion to Kristallnacht. The word terminus itself, that now sounds more ominous than it used to. Most telling of all, the end condition in the rules that cryptically states, “Train is over when it ends.” So much of the rules are like that, intentionally left open to player interpretation – incidentally, this is also why you will be unlikely to see an online version any time soon.
With the flip of one card, you realize what you have done during play. You crammed a bunch of wooden pawns uncomfortably into your train car, even stacking them on top of each other, because you thought it didn’t matter. You played cards to speed your train to its destination. You played intelligently and optimized the mechanics in your favor, and you won. And that means you lost.
It’s easy to claim ignorance: I didn’t know what I was doing, I was only following the rules. But once you do know the results of your actions… do you keep playing? This is the important question that Train asks. It asks using the play of a game, in a way that could not be replicated in any other artistic medium. And now it is no longer a board game, but takes on the properties of a tabletop RPG. Do you refuse to play? Do you continue playing, with the new goal of saving everyone (a goal that is very possible within the framework of the mechanics)? Do you keep playing anyway in order to further explore the dark efficiency of the system?
As with Super Columbine Massacre RPG, the very mention of using a game to examine a serious topic is something that will surely follow with some critical praise from people who desperately want any excuse to claim games as an art form, and horrendous damnation from people who will assume that by virtue of its game-ness it automatically trivializes the subject material. Both positions are unfortunately arguments from ignorance, made all the more frustrating by how difficult it will ultimately be for people to play this thing. And yet, Train is what it is, and having played it myself I have to say that it could not be any other way.