Chicago Express ★★★★

Chicago Express cover

Chicago Express is a game of alliances. But they are not the kind of alliances made explicit through negotiation. Rather, they are the kind that naturally arise from shared interests.

Set at the height of railroad expansion through the Appalachians, Chicago Express is a challenging game of stocks and manipulation. Quick and heavily streamlined, its simple rules hide a tremendous amounth of depth and a degree of tension that it’s often missing from many other train games.

After an initial auction, players invest in and expand the game’s four railroads by advancing a series of dials. The first builds track and lets companies reach valuable towns and narrow mountain passes. The second develops infrastructure, increasing the value of the hex they are placed on. And the third, and most important one, puts a share of of the player’s choice for auction. When two of the dials have been used up, railroads pay dividends and players profit from their investments.

These three mechanisms are simply but allow for a huge range of possibilities. For example, one might build to increase a company’s value but it’s also possible to do so to block valuable routes or incur in needless expenses. Auctions can be used in both offensive and defensive manners, building up a new alliance or watering down an existing one by asking for a share of the profits.

It’s really fun to try and position yourself so as to benefit from other player’s moves. The interaction is indirect and tricky. The game has no luck in it, but the smallest of moves have results that aren’t obvious at first glance. It is a very opaque game.

But the great thing about Chicago Express is that all this strategy and depth is matched by its excitement. This is not a dry, soulless game of optimization. There’s real emotion to it. Should you accept someone buying into a company you like? Will crashing the Pennsylvania Railroad help me win? How high can I rise the price of stocks in the auction without buying them?

This excitement is driven by a series of explosive elements that can turn a game around. If a company manages to cross the whole map and reach Chicago, it triggers a special divided only for owners of that company. So there’s a huge incentive to build towards it but also one to prevent anyone who isn’t you from doing the same.

And, if a company does reach Chicago, there’s another catch in the form of the Wabash. The Wabash is a small company that is not available at the start of the game. Rather it only appears when another company gets to Chicago and it’s immediately put for sale. Even better, it’s only three hexes away from that city so it can trigger the special dividend very easily. The temptation of buying into it is big, but so are the risks.

Because the trickiest part of Chicago Express is how the game ends. It’s completely player-controlled and all the shares players bought over its course count for nothing. You may have the richest portfolio and lose, because the game ended before you could make the best out of it.

There are so many positive qualities to Chicago Express that I’m always amazed at how simple and accessible it is. It has nothing to envy from larger, more involved train games and, yet, it plays in an hour. Paired with the high production values of the Queen Games edition, this fact has allowed it to be one of the most played games in my collection. All in all, a great game and a testament to good game design.

CHICAGO EXPRESS (2007)
GAME DESIGN Harry Wu
ART Michael Menzel
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 3-5 (Best with 3-4) LENGHT 60 Minutes

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