Spectral Rails by Z-Man Games is a railroad game in which the players send their ghost trains around the old west in search of souls. Instead of building the tracks ahead of you to travel on, your trains leave a spectral wake that other players can ride, but blocks your own train. It’s an interesting twist on the genre, but the game ultimately didn’t capture my interest.
Although my Origins coverage was curtailed by food poisoning, I did get a few demos in. Z-Man Games’ booth had this game set up, and it caught my eye. While the cover art for Spectral Rails is stunning, the graphic design of the game itself leaves something to be desired. The flat colors and artistic grime are meant to evoke a faded, ghostly western U.S., but mechanically the colors are a bit too close together, and aesthetically it just looks dingy.
Each turn, players move about the board going from town to town picking up souls and dropping them at their destinations. Each successful delivery gives you points. The number of spaces you can move is limited by numbered cards that are played face up. If you play your ’4′ card, you can move four spaces. Play a ’2′ and a ’1′ and you can move three spaces. The cards are played in a sequential line, and at the end of each turn you only get the “oldest” six cards in the line back. That means that cards you played this turn will probably be unavailable to you for a turn or two.
The cards are also used for an auction segment of the game, in which players bid to determine who goes first. In my demo game, going first or not didn’t seem like a big deal, so it didn’t make much sense to spend cards on the bidding. The whole auction mechanic actually felt a bit shoehorned in, perhaps to offset the fact that the train portion of the game is not especially interactive between the players. Thematically, the auction doesn’t really make much sense either.
The ether trail mechanic is pretty cool. As your train moves, it leaves a trail of ether in your color. You can never move back along your own ether trail, so sometimes you have to plan carefully the order in which you visit towns. Other players get to move along your ether trail for free. There’s a limited number of “track” tokens, so eventually you pick up the oldest bits of your ether trail to play them when you make a new move. Still, the board can get interesting with scattered bits of track and players calculating elaborate paths that let them cross almost the entire board while spending minimal cards.
In the end, I just wasn’t that excited about this game. There’s a cool idea in there, but it could have been executed better.