The randowriter is dead! Long live the randowriter! Have we reached peak roll and write? Are there any more ideas left with flip and writes? I heard numerous times at BGG Con that there was nothing left in that sandbox, yet just when predictions that the market is saturated, a Twilight Inscription or a Hadrian’s Wall breaks through the noise to become hyped up games.
Personally, I would settle for just a little bit of incremental innovation. How about a randowriter that plays smoothly but tweaks the concept enough to keep it fresh? I’d play that. Which reminds me…
Next Station London is a small box game from Blue Orange designed by famed designer Matthew Dunston with art from Maxime Morin. It comes in a just-bigger-than-your-palm sized box with the trendy little magnet clasp that makes it seem like you are opening buried treasure, if the treasure was doused in hot pink and blue coloring from the 80s.
Inside, we see the first innovation, four pencils. Okay, that was kind of a let down, because dear reader, you were probably already expecting to find pencils in a randowriter game, weren’t you? But what if I told you they were colored pencils? In four different colors?
The game’s beauty is in how simple Dunston has made the game seem, even if the paper you are writing on seems a bit “busy”, shall we say. Players each get a map of London and one of the four brightly colored pencils. Starting from the departure station on the map that matches that color, players will trace lines around the subway system in London (known to Londoners as “the po’boy” I think). The goal is to score points either by passing the po’boy line through a bunch of different underground districts, or by filling up a district with a ton of Underground lines. You can even score bonus points for how many times you cross the river Thames and additional points for visiting tourist sites.
The quirk is that the directions on how to draw your lines are on eleven station cards (streets and underground) that the group will flip randomly. Flip. Write. Flip again. Write again. We’ll do this until the fifth Underground card (the pink ones) is flipped up. That’s the end of the round, after one last draw, and we’ll score up according to the above. Once done, players rotate the colored pencils, and shuffle up the station cards, and rinse and repeat two more times until all players have used all four colored pencils.
The little map does look busy, but surprisingly, just 1/4 or 1/2 of one game is all you need to figure out where everything is going. Sure, there’s chance involved — you might not get the box you really need until late or even not at all. But there is a delicious puzzle inside this little box. The city map is made up of nine large districts — with the Thames cutting right down the middle — and four smaller ones. Do you go to maximize one or two districts with tons of stations scoring a bunch of points? Seems doable. Or do you try to spread them around, hitting tourist sites and crossing the Thames along the way?
And you need to leave room for the other three colors. It’s almost — but not quite — too much to think about. Really, it’s the Goldilocks principle. Not too shallow, not too deep, just right.
Jerod and I have been playing a lot of two hour games lately, and a lot of my favorite ninety minute euros, too. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a “set ’em up again” game instead. Next Station London is like that. As soon as you finish one game, you just want to set it up and try again, thinking you can squeeze a few more points here and there if only the cards will flip just right.
That’s kind of the rub. The eleven cards that are shuffled each tell the players what kind of station to connect, or whether a branch can be created. So, the game is not just a free form of placing numbers or routes around the board like the Ganz Schon Clever series allows. There is a spatial element to consider.
And a timing one to think about, too, because the rounds are not set by anything players do (like in Welcome To, for instance). Mixed in with the six blue cards that dictate your actions are five pink ones. Whenever the fifth pink card is flipped over that signals the end of the round. Players get only one last opportunity based on that fifth pink card to link their lines to a station.
And there’s a little bit of langiappe, too. The game comes with two modules that frankly we threw in almost right away. In the shread objectives one, there are five different shared objective cards, with two being used each game. These are independent objectives that everyone can try to hit during the round. If they do, the players can add an additional ten bonus points to the score. Oooh lah lah!
I really like the Pencil Powers module. There are only four cards, and each one is randomly assigned to a color and follows that pencil throughout the game. But those powers add a power tweak to the color! Players could treat the station card that had been flipped as a “wild” joker instead, letting you geaux to which ever station you need. Or draw two sections. Or make one station worth double. Since they follow the pencil, everyone will get a chance to use each card, so the contest is who can use the cards the best.
But even with those modules, there are still restrictions to consider. Some people may not like the restrictions. Me? I found the fencing which narrows my maneuvers a little refreshing. My worst analysis to consider is the first move of each round, where I have only eight choices as to where the line goes, and it’s never that many because of the way the cards come out.
So, before each game, there’s a soliloquy that runs through my brain:
I have a relatively small map of abstract symbols…ahem…po’boy stations all over the place. I know I only have between five and eleven moves until the end of the round. How many points can I score with that timer in my head? I’m like an SEC quarterback, on a three step drop, with an 4* defensive end barreling around my right tackle. I’m hearing “tick…tick…tick” and I know I have to decide.
Move to the left?
Move to the right?
Grab that tourist station?
I think I’ll just cross that Thames river one more time.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.