Union Station Review

Union Station is on kickstarter now.

Travis D. Hill’s Union Station is admirable in its transparency. It doesn’t disguise itself with excess; it’s confident in its simplicity. It’s like a knife: clean, functional, and with purpose. And if you slip, if you lose focus, you’ll be cut.

Union Station comes in a box no bigger and no smaller than it needs to be. That box houses a very small board, a modest stack of mini cards, and some (you guessed it) small discs. The slim rulebook outlines the initial auction and the three options each player faces on their turn: buy, sell, or lay track. This is all you need to play an engaging game. In an industry that seems increasingly fixated on flashy knick-knacks and an aesthetic of more, Union Station is an act of rebellion.

Of course, given its lineage I shouldn’t be surprised. Train games have never cared much for what people might call “visual beauty”. They’ve largely been designed for purely functional purposes, with little money behind them, by enthusiasts of a niche within a niche. As they’ve become more popular we’ve seen more concerted efforts to increase their visual appeal. New Mill’s production of Union Station sits alongside Capstone with their Iron Rail series and Grand Trunk Games’ 1861/1867 as representative of this progression.

On Union Station’s board there’s a map, which isn’t particularly important, and a grid of numbers, which is everything. You’re going to stare and stare at those numbers and the five discs sitting on them, often wishing you had the psychic ability to make those numbers something else because you’re stuck in a trap of your own design. 

Games that give you a bunch of bad options are often great. Similarly, games that give you a bounty of good options also frequently work well. It’s the games where the good and bad options are easy to discern that fall flat. Union Station is all three. I’ve encountered turns where I wished I could choose multiple actions. I’ve found myself in zugzwang. Sometimes the right decision was right in front of me, like a prize dropped in my lap by a board game fairy.

It’s all in the timing. Five train companies want to expand out from Chicago, en route to other midwestern cities, and your goal is to squeeze as much money out of these companies as possible. After an initial auction all of the company shares are shuffled together and slowly reveal themselves to be purchased throughout the course of the game. At any given time a maximum of three shares may be available to buy. The shares that have remained un-purchased the longest increase the value of their company the most when they finally do find an owner.

But to buy shares you need money, and to get money you need to receive dividends from the shares you do have. This is where the grid comes into play. Any time a company rising in value hits a dividend location on the grid it pays out to all shareholders. Companies only rise in value by players buying shares of that company or via route-building. I’m not particularly familiar with the “cube rail” genre, only having played 5 or so different titles and only this one multiple times, but the route-building here seems particularly insignificant. That is to say, the routes themselves will essentially look the same every game. It’s not so much about where, but when.

In almost every route-building action the company will be able to land on a town or city, both of which raise the value of that company by a small amount. Only two discs can be on a given space, so while there is some potential for blocking, in practice it doesn’t happen very much. 

Union Station doesn’t care about this, as it is unabashedly a game of timing. What action will you choose at this moment, and what consequences will ripple out from that decision? Is there an option that helps me without also opening up an opportunity for another person? This game is the opposite of “multiplayer solitaire”. You’ll be looking at your opponent’s shares and coffers as much as you’ll be looking at the central board. But as a general heuristic you’re trying to receive as much net gain from dividend payments as possible.

Sometimes I look at Union Station with suspicion, though, wondering if the control I thought I had was a lie. If I find myself without any good choices, was there any way to avoid this fate? Could I have made any different decisions to alter this outcome? How much does the shuffled deck of shares influence the outcome of the game? What about the turn order for the initial auction?

The Train Rush podcast argues that Union Station is essentially fixed from the start, with random elements overwhelming player agency. I don’t know if I buy their arguments. Indeed, the last game of Union Station I played I received extremely favorable luck and played their preferred opening auction strategy, and I only managed to tie for first place. On the other hand they have much more experience with these games than I do.

Even if Union Station ends up as a mirage, it’s one I’ve enjoyed exploring immensely. It’s a breath of fresh air to play a game so clean and direct. With simple scaffolding, Union Station creates a web of player-driven complexity, and I’m fully invested.

Score: 8/10

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