Stephenson’s Rocket Review

The first time I played Stephenson’s Rocket I blundered with my very first turn. This 1999 Knizia classic, given a 21st century facelift from Grail Games, was too smart for me. We’re in England and trains have just been invented. Obviously they’re going to be the next big thing, so you’re going to invest in a bunch of rail infrastructure. But you also want to own the stations that will transport people from town to town.

You get two actions per turn, but you can’t place a station next to a train line, prohibiting you from placing a station and immediately connecting track to it. I thought I could get around this by placing a station two spaces away and moving the train adjacent to it, setting myself up for a simple connection next turn. 

Feeling smug, I sat back to watch the next person attempt to move my train away from my station. What indignity! How dare they divert such pristine train routing! But, as a shareholder in that company I have the right to veto his decision. I bid my lone share to block his corruption. But Knizia outsmarted me. I’d forgotten that the active player only has to match any veto bids to override them. Heartbroken, I watched the train swerve away from my station like it was plagued. 

So, yes, it was a blunder, but now I can push that train forward again to get a second share in that company, allowing me more control of it in the future. Is that worth the tempo loss of the action and the component loss of the station? Stephenson’s Rocket is played on such small margins, making every action feel like both a tiny part of a much larger whole and extremely important.

It’s also dirt simple. In fact, I’ve already explained most of the game. There are seven train companies scattered throughout England, and players will be gaining shares in those companies by advancing their routes. By the middle of the game there will be multiple snail trails of track pushing towards the center of the board. Points are given out whenever a train route touches a city or town. If you’ve spent actions to invest in a city when a train reaches it, you’ll get a couple of points. If you’ve got the most stations on a particular train line when it reaches a town, you’ll get even more points. At the end of the game shares matter, and whoever controls the most shares in the remaining companies will be given a bounty of points.

Yes, I said the remaining companies. Whenever a train line collides with another it folds into that company, and shares in that company are put into the new company 2 to 1. Manipulating that to your advantage is a significant part of the game, and how to do it is not easy to grasp or straightforward. Something everyone realizes in their first game is that they’ve dramatically underestimated how important the end game is to final scoring. Having a vision of how that will play out and reverse engineering how to do it is an incredible puzzle, and each time I play I learn more and more what’s possible.

So that’s it. You can invest in a city, place a station, or move a train, but like the best abstract games simple rules lead to deep, fascinating decisions. Investment can bring in a good number of points only if you’re alone in investing. As soon as others join in the points dilute and make that strategy less worthwhile. Controlling stations can be extremely lucrative, as they’ll score over and over as that train reaches towns. But to get the trains to go through your stations you’re going to have to control where those trains go, and that will require spending shares to overcome veto attempts from your opponents. Want to retain shares? You’d better be smart about your vetoes and lose some opportunities to steer the trains.

These three aspects exist in beautiful tension. Every turn there will be five things you’ll want to do and you can only do two. Every turn you’ll have to choose between advancing your own agenda and stopping someone else’s plans. Every turn you’ll have to choose between short term and long term advancement. If there’s any other game Stephenson’s Rocket reminds me of it’s Go. You’re presented with a number of fine decisions, but the best players will see beyond fine. It’s a game of tempo, where each player can advance about the same amount each turn, and the trick is figuring out how to squeeze marginal gains against your opponents anyways.

While it does feel like an abstract game, there are some clever thematic bits. Cities want investment and towns want to transport passengers. Sure it’s odd that shares in a company can be sold in order to override decisions, but it sort of makes sense if you think of those shares as a type of political capital.

Some people I’ve played this with have found it dull, and by many standards of modern gaming it sort of is. There’s no engine building, very little sense of progression, and it’s interactive in a way that might rub people the wrong way. Vetoing frequently is necessary, and nearly everything you do will be met with resistance. But I encourage you to look past this and dig into the tight, involving gameplay. 

Stephenson’s Rocket is the best game I’ve played in quite a while, one that’s invaded my thoughts as I think about my previous games and try to tease out what I could have done better. It’s a game I’d love to play with the same group over and over in order to see a meta develop. I can guarantee you that I’ll be seeking out more Knizia games, as I’ve so far tragically missed out on most of his acclaimed designs. Stephenson’s Rocket and, spoilers, next week’s review, should convince you to do the same.

Score: 8.5/10

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