This isn’t a list of the top 10 train games. If we tried to make that list, it would just be 9 18XX entries and Age of Steam, and no one would care except 18XX fans and that one guy who’s trying to convince his friends that Age of Steam is just as good as 18XX.
Instead we’ve decided to focus on how much variety there is in train themed games, and how not all of them are 18XX games. We’ve picked out 10 train games that are either critically acclaimed or have been really influential, and all of them are different than the other games on this list.
Because this isn’t a top 10 list, the games aren’t listed worst to best, but in chronological order. Here are 10 great, influential, and different games about trains.
1. 1829 - 1974
1829 is a game about running a railroad company and laying tracks between cities. It's also a game about buying and selling stocks in railroad companies. When 1829 was first released, it was revolutionary. It quickly developed a loyal fanbase, and its design has been reimplemented in dozens of official spin-off games, which are collectively known as the 18XX series. Along with games that have been heavily influenced by it, the 18XX series that started with 1829 is arguably a complete genre of board games, and 18XX is usually what people are talking about when they talk about 'train' games.
When it came out, 1829 was unlike any other board game that had ever been released. Since then the design has been tweaked and reimplemented again and again, both by the original designer and by fans who have released official games in the series. Its hard to recommend playing 1829 today, because there are so many other 18XX games on the market that do everything 1829 does, but do it better and do more things as well. 1846: Race for the Midwest is a good modern take on 1829's specific style of gameplay. Some other 18XX favorites include 1856: Railroading in Upper Canada, 1853, which focuses on India and building tracks in its rough terrain, and of course 1830: Railroads and Robber Barons, a game which is important enough to earn its own spot later in this list.
2. Empire Builder - 1982
Empire Builder is the granddaddy of crayon based railroad games. Players build tracks across the board, and then they move their trains across their tracks and opponents' tracks to pick up and deliver goods to fulfill contracts. Fulfilling contracts earns money which can be used to build more tracks and upgrade trains. Players win by connecting five major cities and having 250 million in the bank. The game's twist is that players build tracks by drawing on the board with crayon, and the board is made of a special material that crayon can be wiped off of.
In the 80s Empire Builder was pretty popular. Despite taking three to five hours to play a game, its rules were much lighter and it was much easier to play than 18XX games, making it a good alternative for younger players, families, and anyone who liked trains but wasn't really into 18XX games. Empire Builder's publisher, Mayfair, has reimplemented the game's design into 11 other games that take place in different regions, with the most recent, Martian Rails, being released in 2009.
Empire Builder is one of those games that's more influential and popular than good. Part of its problem is it hasn't aged well. For the most part, modern Euros have made light games that take forever to play obsolete. In the time it takes to play Empire Builder, you could play Ticket to Ride eight or more times, and Ticket to Ride is a much better game. If you really want to play a game with route-building and pick-up-and-deliver mechanics, you're better off playing Age of Steam or Steam. The rules to those games are a bit more complicated than Empire Builder, but they're much better games, and they even play a little bit faster.
Depending on how you feel about games, it may be worth playing Empire Builder once or twice to experience it, because it is a really important game. If you grew up with Empire Builder its worth coming back to every now and then for the nostalgia. The game's a thrift store staple, and I've seen cheap copies on clearance in game shops as well, so it's not a very expansive game.
3. 1830: Railroads and Robber Barons - 1986
1829's designer, Francis Tresham, went back to the game's design several times to improve it by releasing expansions for the original game and creating new games in the 18XX series. Twelve years after 1829, Tresham released what is arguably the best game in the 18XX series, 1830: Railroads and Robber Barons. Even if you don't agree that its the best game in the series, and many 18XX fans don't, 1830 is definitely the most popular game in the series.
Although earlier 18XX games included a stock market, those games were about running a good railroad company while building a solid stock portfolio. 1830 focuses a lot more on the stock market and how you manipulate it. The game's all about exploiting the companies you control to enrich yourself, preferably at your opponents' expense. Using assets from company A, which you control, to buy an expensive train which you then sell to company B, which you own completely, and then dumping all your stock in A and saddling your business partner with the company's debt is so much fun.
A second edition of 1830 was released in 2011 that included many of the different rules variants that had been released for the game over the years. The second edition also has higher quality pieces, and considering that most first edition copies haven't aged that well, the second edition is definitely the version to get. If you enjoy 1830s stock market manipulation tactics, be sure to check out 1817 as well. It has a much more developed and complex stock market system, and it has a lot more ways for railroad investors of low moral character to screw everyone else over.
4. Age of Steam - 2002
Age of Steam sits alongside Brass as Martin Wallace's magnum opus, and so far it's the definitive train game of the 21st century. Due to issues with Age of Steam's publisher, Wallace released the planned 2nd edition as a new game, Steam, in 2009. Age of Steam's design was also reimplemented by Glenn Dover in his 2005 board game adaptation of the computer game Railroad Tycoon, which was renamed Railways of the World after the publisher lost rights to the Railroad Tycoon name.
Age of Steam is all about building routes between cities and using those routes to deliver goods. At the start of a turn players bid for turn order, and then each picks a special ability for the round. Players build tracks, upgrade their trains, and deliver goods, with good deliveries earning players higher incomes. The rules get a bit more complicated than that, but it mostly has to do with how goods are distributed on the board and specific rules for putting down track. Unlike 18XX games, there is no stock market, and the game's focus is entirely on route building. Also unlike 18XX games, a game of Age of Steam can be played in just a few hours, instead of taking half a day or more.
Most fans consider Age of Steam to be superior to Steam. Age of Steam also has more map releases, but most of these can be adapted to work with Steam. Steam has better artwork and is considered easier for new players to learn, and it comes with variant rules for new players that don't require as much foresight or punish them as heavily for mistakes. A Steam expansion, Steam Barons, includes optional rules for a stock market. The stock market rules turn Steam into a sort of 18XX-lite game that still plays as fast as Steam, and some players prefer this to normal Steam and Age of Steam. Railways of the World is the weakest game in the series in terms of gameplay, but it has better quality pieces and artwork than the other games and looks amazing. Several expansion maps have been released for it as well.
5. Ticket to Ride - 2004
Train games have a reputation of being complicated, having lots of rules, and taking forever to play. None of that is true of Ticket to Ride. Its rules are simple, it's a great game to introduce new players to the hobby, and it's a good family game to play with younger children. Most of the time the game can be played in under an hour, and that includes time spent teaching the game to new players.
Like most train themed games, Ticket To Ride is about building routes between cities. Routes are built by playing enough cards of the correct color, with longer routes being worth more points. Each turn a player may build a route by playing cards from their hand, or they can draw two cards, either from a face-up selection or a blind draw from the deck. Players can also draw destination cards that give them additional points at the end of the game for connecting specific cities together.
Ticket to Ride has a lot of expansions that add new maps and occasionally a few new rules to the game, and three additional Ticket to Ride games have been released in the series, Ticket to Ride: Europe, Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries, and Ticket to Ride: Marklin. There's also an expensive 10th anniversary edition of the game, a card game spin-off, and Ticket to Ride Rails and Sails, an attempt to add more rules to turn the game into a medium-weight Euro. Unfortunately the things that make Ticket to Ride a great light-weight Euro make it a mediocre medium-weight Euro, and Rails and Sails isn't as beloved as the rest of the series.
Ticket to Ride is one of the best selling games of all time. It's won a ton of awards, including the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award. It's received a lot of critical praise. Its had a huge influence on board games, especially in regards to lighter Euros. Its unequivocally a great game. The only reason why someone might not want to play or buy this game is that it is a light game. Players who prefer medium or heavy games may find Ticket to Ride too simple and lacking enough depth to hold their interest.
6. Baltimore and Ohio - 2009
Baltimore and Ohio is a game for 18XX fans who have work in the morning and need to be in bed by a reasonable hour. It's a game that's not very well known outside of fans of heavy train games, but among fans of heavy train games its got a pretty solid rep.
Baltimore and Ohio borrows a lot from the 18XX series. It's about railroad companies circa 1830. It takes place in the New England and Midwest regions of the US. It has a stock market. This game could've been called 1830 and 1/2 and been an 18XX game.
There are some big differences between Baltimore and Ohio and 18XX games, and those differences make up most of its charm. The biggest difference is, relative to 18XX games, it's really short. Experienced players can easily get a game finished in under three hours. It also has a pretty cool track laying system which uses cubes to lay tracks instead of tiles. Each company uses a different color of cubes, and cubes can be expanded in any direction and multiple companies can occupy the same space. Not having to search through a pile of tiles for one that's the shape you need to extend your track makes Baltimore and Ohio so much less fiddly than 18XX games and speeds the game up so much. Baltimore and Ohio also focuses on building good railroad companies and having a strong stock portfolio and not the stock manipulation shenanigans that games like 1830 focus on.
My main gripe with the game, which a lot the people I've played with shared, is that it has a really slow opening. Unlike 18XX games, you don't float a company. Railroads open as soon as a stock is purchased and with just the money that's already been invested in them. If a railroad isn't profitable, the company's president loses a share to the bank. This means if you invest in a new railroad you have to invest enough money to purchase a train, or hope someone else invests that money which is unlikely, because every turn you don't have a train you're going to lose stock. Players have to spend a lot of time building their initial company's up and earning capital before the game really opens up.
If you don't like 18XX games, you probably aren't going to be a fan of Baltimore and Ohio, which plays like an 18XX game that's less exciting. If you like 18XX games, there's a good chance you'll enjoy Baltimore and Ohio, and it's a good alternative when you only have a few hours to play. Four small expansions were released for the game, and these were later released as a set on the BGG store.
7. First Train To Nuremberg - 2009
First Train To Nuremberg was originally released under the title Last Train To Wensleydale. Nuremberg was released a year later, and it's the upgraded version featuring an additional map. The game was designed by Martin Wallace, the designer of Age of Steam and Steam.
Nuremberg's gimmick is that instead of playing as a major railroad company, like in most games, you play as a small local railroad company that profits off the back of its larger counterpart. You have to raise investment capital to run your company, influence local politicians for land rights, lay down tracks to create routes, rent old trains to deliver goods, and sell your tracks to one of the larger companies before they become unprofitable.
First Train To Nuremberg is a medium weight Euro with auction and route laying mechanics. The rules are short and fairly easy to learn, and it's one of Wallace's simplest games. It usually plays in less than two hours, it has a cool theme, and it's pretty fun as well. If you're into route laying games like Age of Steam or Empire Builder, but want something that plays quicker, or would appeal more to your friends who aren't into train games but like Euros, this is the game you've been looking for.
Unfortunately First Train To Nuremberg isn't that popular of a game, and it can be difficult to get it to the table. Outside of a very specific niche, it gets outshined by better games. If you're a Martin Wallace fan and want a route building railroad game, Age of Steam and Steam are better games. If you want a simple and fast route builder, you'd probably enjoy Ticket to Ride more, and its easier to learn. If you just want a Euro to play, there are a lot of better Euros out there, and if it has to be railroad themed, there's Russian Railroads. It doesn't help the game's reputation that a year after releasing it through his own company, Walllace released a better version of the game with a major publisher, and didn't even offer upgrade kits to those who purchased the original.
8. Trains - 2012
Trains was originally published in Japan with a 19th century theme. AEG picked up the rights to release the game internationally, and changed it to a modern theme.
Trains is a deckbuilder. Players start with a deck made out of a few starting cards. Every turn players draw a hand from their deck, and then they play cards from their hands to take actions and buy more cards. Every game, the cards players are able to purchase for their decks are randomly selected, except for a few cards that are available every game. If it sounds like I'm describing the game Dominion, its because I am.
Trains uses a board with hexes on it for laying down tracks, but other than that it's essentially Dominion. That's not a bad thing. Dominion is a great game. Trains is a lot of fun, and like you would expect from a Dominion clone, it plays quick. If you want to know if you'd like Trains, ask yourself if you like Dominion, and if you do would you like Dominion as much or more than you do now if it implemented a board and was about trains?
Trains has had several map packs released for it, and one expansion with additional cards, Coastal Tides. A spin-off game, Trains: Rising Sun, has also been released, and it can be combined together with the original game.
9. Russian Railroads - 2013
Russian Railroads is a worker placement game, and it's one of the best worker placement games ever published. The goal is to build three different routes between Russian cities. Workers are placed on the board to build and upgrade tracks, build factories, buy trains, gather resources, and to recruit and use engineers, pieces that allow players to take special unique actions. Bonuses are given for reaching certain milestones, and points are scored for progress at the end of each round. Beyond manipulating turn order and racing to the best spots, like in any worker placement game, most of Russian Railroad's strategy comes down to which routes you choose to build up and when, with each route offering different milestone rewards.
Three expansions were released for Russian Railroads. The first was a mini-expansion that added a few new engineers, and more importantly balanced the game a bit and created more viable opening strategies. The second expansion, German Railroads, added four modules to the game that could be used individually or together. The first module switched the Russian routes for new German routes. The German routes had their own special rules and different milestones. The second module introduces coal, which is a new resource that allows players to take new coal-related actions. The third module was for solitaire play, and the fourth added new engineers to the game. The final expansion, American Railroads, added new American routes and additional rules for playing with them.
Russian Railroads unfortunately went out of print a few years ago, with the publisher citing low sales. That was surprising since the game garnered a ton of critical acclaim, is lots of fun, and the base game has relatively light rules. Everyone we've seen play the game enjoyed it, and most loved it.
10. Colt Express - 2014
Colt Express has a 3D train made out of cardboard, and players move cowboy meeples through and on top of the train's cars. If that didn't convince you that you have to play this game, then Colt Express probably isn't a game that you'd enjoy playing, because it was designed for the kind of person who thinks that a 3D cardboard train with cowboy meeples on it is awesome.
Colt Express is a light game about wild west train robberies. Players play cards first and then take actions according to the cards they played to race across the train and grab loot while shooting each other and evading the marshal. Round cards are used to add more chaos to the game with constant rule changes, and each player has a unique ability. The game plays in about thirty minutes, and its one of the few games that can handle up to six players.
If you're looking for something light and easy to learn, or if you want a game that can be played quick, Colt Express is loads of fun. Much like Ticket to Ride, players who prefer medium or heavy games might feel Colt Express is too simple to be appealing. Unlike Ticket To Ride, Colt Express isn't one of the greatest, most influential, and best selling board games of all time, however its train looks awesome!!!