Posted by: gschloesser | August 3, 2011

Hell Rail

Designed by:  James Kyle
Published by:  Mayfair Games
2 – 4 Players, 1 – 1 1/2 hours

Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review also appeared in Moves Magazine #108 

Normally, I am not a big rail game fan. I must preface this, however, by saying that I haven’t played very many rail games. Indeed, I have NEVER played any of the hard-core ‘rail’ games, such as the 18xx series of games. So, when I first heard about Hell Rail, I dismissed it as just one more in the seemingly endless line of train games.   There seems to be more train games out there than there are actual trains! 

However, a few years back, I began hearing some very good things about this game, so decided to part with some cash and purchase a copy.  At the time, the game was being released by the tiny game company Galloglass Games, which is not a very well known name within gaming circles.  When the game arrived, it was evident that it was clearly a homemade effort.  The package was very basic, a thin cardboard box with a nice laminated design on the top and bottom.  Most of the components were also of thin card stock with very basic artwork.  The only exception was the playing pieces, tiny … and I do mean tiny … locomotives, which were finely crafted lead miniatures.  Very cool. 

The game, however, transcended this mediocre quality and was actually quite entertaining and challenging.  Further, it played very well with 3 or 4 players and usually played in less than an hour.  Clearly, this was a game that cried out to be released in a higher quality, professional edition by a more mainstream company. 

That time has arrived.  Hell Rail – The 3rd Perdition (Galloglass had released two previous editions, known as the 1st and 2nd Perditions) has been repackaged with more professional components and packaging and been re-released by Mayfair Games.  Apparently, the railroad theme of the game attracted the attention of Mayfair, a game company who spends quite a bit of its time and resources on releasing and promoting rail games. 

The new Mayfair version has kept all of the mechanics virtually intact. The only real thing they added was additional circle effects tokens. The effects are no longer directly printed onto the various circles of hell, but rather shuffled and distributed randomly.  There are 15 circles possible circle effects, so each game should see some different ones appear. This is a nice touch. The components are generally better and a bit sturdier, with the exception of the train tokens. Gone are the really nifty lead miniatures, replaced with tiny wooden trains. They’re cute and functional, but no where near as nice as the lead trains.

The Game

The theme is rather bizarre: You and your opponents are engineers in Hades delivering

souls of the damned to their proper Circles of Hell.  As engineers, you have a wide variety of tasks assigned to you, including the building of the actual rail lines, the loading of these damned souls and the successful delivery of your cargo to the proper circles of Hell.  Players must be efficient, lest they incur the wrath of their infernal boss, who is notorious for his lack of mercy!  The player who successfully delivers the most souls is spared bathing in the lakes of fire for one more day.  Not much of a reward … but I guess it’s something! 

Surprisingly, for a fairly mainstream company, Mayfair kept this somewhat politically incorrect theme intact. I’m sure the theme could have been changed to something less questionable and one with more widespread appeal, but, to their credit, they left it intact. 

Nine Circles of Hell and one Gateway to Hell cards are set upon the table according to a diagram in the rulebook. Players begin the game with three cards apiece.  These cards are multi-functional and deciding on exactly how to use each card is the tricky … and agonizing … part of the game. Each card can be used to perform a variety of functions, including: 

                           1) Lay track onto the table;

                           2) Overlay previously laid track;

                           3) Move your train;

                           4) Pick up damned souls;

                           5) Deliver damned souls to their proper Circle of Hell; OR

                           6) Discard and draw new cards (known as ‘Fanning the Flames’). 

Each card depicts track, a passenger car with a numerical value (which is the movement allowance that the card allows OR the value of the card if successfully delivered to the proper Circle of Hell), a Pickup number (which is the Circle of Hell you must be at in order to pick up the damned souls listed on the passenger car diagram), a Setout number (which is the Circle of Hell you must be at in order to successfully deliver the damned souls) and, finally, a Brimstone number (which is the number of cards you may draw from the deck if you discard this card, thereby ending your turn).  That’s quite a bit of information to be included on the small, 3 x 3 cards, but they are laid out extremely well and are easy to decipher after a few minutes experience. 

On a turn, a player may perform as many of the above actions as he desires, provided he possesses the cards to do so. Managing these cards properly and deciding which task to perform and which cards to use for these various tasks is the key to success in the game. A card used for one task is thereby ‘used’ and no longer available for another task you may have had in mind. Choosing between several possible uses for a card, all of which may be equally attractive, can be quite a tough decision.  This is the real feature of the game.  Somehow, this ‘multi-functional’ card mechanism is much more satisfying and far less taxing in Hell Rail than in db Spiele’s Yukon & Company, another game which uses a similar mechanic but with far less satisfying results. 

The basic idea of the game is to move your train to various Circles of Hell and pick up damned souls, delivering them to the proper Circles of Hell listed on that card. Once you successfully arrive at a Circle which is the destination of one of your cargo cards,  that card is then considered ‘delivered’ and will score its point value (the number listed in the passenger train picture) at the end of the game. The player who has the highest point value of ‘delivered souls’ wins the game.  The game ends when there are no further cards in the draw or discard piles. 

The Strategies 

Before a player can begin the process of transporting these lost souls, the actual rail lines must be constructed.  Each card depicts various tracks and the card can be rotated to properly fit and align with previously laid tracks.  The idea here is to analyze your hand of cards and formulate a plan based on the cards you hold.  What you desire to accomplish is the establishment of a route wherein you can pick up souls and deliver them quickly to their destination Circle.  Constructing long, time-consuming routes is extremely wasteful, not only in terms of time, but in cards as well.  You want to waste as few cards as possible to build track and move your locomotive.  The cards are far better utilized as human (well, perhaps deceased human) cargo.  

Movement is from track tie to track tie.  In a clever and somewhat gruesome touch, the track ties are actually tiny bones.  As mentioned, it is wise to create short routes so that you don’t spend too many of your cards on movement.  Another tip is to avoid ending a turn on open track as opposed to in a Circle.  Why?  Well, it is possible for other players to ram your train and force it onto a section of track you did not intend to travel.  This could cause you severe headaches, as well as an abundance of cards, as you try to ‘get back on the right track’, so to speak.  Worse still is the possibility of being shoved completely off a track section which had not yet been completed.  This is known as ‘derailing’ and has devastating consequences.  If you suffer this dire fate, you must: 

1)      Discard your entire hand of cards;

2)      Discard all of your loaded, but not yet delivered train cars;

3)      Move your engine piece back to the Gates of Hell Circle; and

4)      End your turn. 

Ouch!  Such an event can easily knock a player out of contention.  At the very best, it will take him numerous turns to accumulate more cards and pick up new passengers.  The lesson bears repeating:  if at all possible, end your turn in a Circle, not on open, especially incomplete, track. 

Keeping a steady and abundant supply of cards in your hand is also critical.  Each player has the option of ending their turn by ‘fanning the flames’.  This is accomplished by discarding a card and drawing a number of cards equal to the ‘brimstone’ value of the card you discarded.  Thus, it is wise to discard a card with a high brimstone value; i.e., a 4 or a 5.  Of course, you usually want to use this card in some other fashion during the course of your turn, but it is best to resist this temptation as it is far wiser to use it to draw new cards.  Besides, from the fate of the doomed passengers you are transporting, you can see the dangers of temptation! 

The Spice

There are some additional features which add more spice to the game. As mentioned, in the Galloglass version, each Circle of Hell had a special power which, if evoked, could wreak havoc upon your opponents … or yourself.  In the Mayfair version, these special powers are not directly printed on the Circle tiles.  Rather, the game includes 15 special powers, each on a separate circular token.  These tokens are mixed prior to the beginning of the game and nine of them are placed randomly on the various Circles.  Thus, each game will be a bit different. 

Upon entering a Circle, a player has the opportunity to evoke the special power conveyed.  These powers vary from causing a player to derail (with the same effects as mentioned above) to the removal or rotation of track tiles. Most of these Circle powers require a random resolution, usually involving the drawing of a card and comparing a value on the card drawn with some other factor.  The potential effect may be beneficial or harmful to you, or perhaps an opponent.  Sure, it’s a chance, but one which can pay off handsomely if successful. 

Lest the game grow stale, there are several variants included to keep things fresh.  These involve the placing of the special Circle Effects face-down so that there powers remain a mystery until a player moves onto the Circle, as well as various starting layouts. 

The Verdict 

Hell Rail is quite simple to both learn and play.  It packs quite a bit of challenge and fun into a small package.  I don’t fully believe it is terribly deep, but there is enough card management responsibilities to keep me interested and move the game beyond mere luck. Increased familiarity with the Circle powers will certainly alter strategies and help players keep the lead player in check. 

The rules and the components are quite satisfactory, with the only real confusion arising over which symbol was the delivery circle and which was the pickup circle. Strangely, the cards don’t line up properly with the player aid/locomotive card. It would seem that the transport cards should partially slide under the locomotive card, revealing the delivery circle but keeping the information on the player aid card un-obscured. However, if you arrange them in this fashion, the only visible ‘circle’ is the pick-up circle. The best method we could discern was to set the transport cards off to the right of the pickup circle and then overlap them. I don’t think this is how you are supposed to do it, but a PhD and a bunch of college graduates sure couldn’t figure out how the cards were supposed to align properly! 

I applaud Mayfair’s decision to add this fine little game to their ever-growing line of train games.  Well, I guess it is not really a train game, but more of a tile laying and hand management game.  Sigh.  I guess I still haven’t played a REAL train game!


  1. Picking up the dead and taking them to their destination. There are better pick up and deliver games available. 5/10

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