01/10/2022

Mini Express: A game of stocks and influence on train companies [Review]

If we take a peek at Mark Gerrits’ creation list, board games with trains are dominating his résumé. Mini Express, one of his latest opus, was successfully funded on Kickstarter in late 2020. Under the umbrella of Moaideas Game Design, they have planned to release a new expansion for this game. The crowdfunding project will be live once more on the same platform as this base game was.

To be frank, this is not our first game from the Taiwan-based company. In fact, Geoffrey has expressed his positive opinions on Moaideas Game Design’s previous works. Frankly speaking, we have been a fan of their games since meeting them in our very first SPIEL Essen. Will this trend keep going with Mini Express?

Disclaimer: I am an avid euro gamer and a hardcore Legend of the Five Rings LCG player. I am not a fan of solo game/variant. This statement will give you an overview of what kind of bias I might have while writing.

First impressions

I think you’ll agree with me that when most think about board games with trains in it, they’ll associate them with the classical Ticket to Ride and all its variants. Some expert gamers may connect their thoughts with the more sophisticated 18xx series. At first, I speculated that Mini Express belongs to the latter group — because it involves not only building train tracks, but also trading of train company stocks.

My speculation was however far from accurate; Mini Express belongs to another category — the cube rails. I’ll be completely honest here, it’s my first time to know that this series exists. Funnily, it turns out that Mini Express is not my very first encounter with such a game. I’ve tried Tony Chen’s Iberian Rails in 2017 as well, for example. Unlike its older cousin (read: the 18xx series), this category strikes the tile placement mechanic out of the equation. We do still have both track building and stock exchange, as mentioned before, though.

Component-wise, the box obviously contains train wagons and other tokens, which practically a must in a railway game. Its design is kept simple and humble — it radiates that classic euro game vibe perfectly. Unfortunately, we had some minor difficulties when differentiating between the gray and white ones. More contrasting colours to represent these two in-game railway companies.

And that concludes my first impressions from this game. Before you proceed further, I advise you to watch the game tutorial on YouTube first.

Comments on the gameplay

Mini Express consists of two primary blocks of actions: taking a share of one of the train companies and building the train tracks. The first action builds your share portfolio as a train tycoon — possessing these stocks becomes the main mechanic to earn victory points (VPs) throughout the game. Nonetheless, there’s a catch incorporated in this action, a smart prevention for players from becoming too greedy.

Just like any other decent game, Mini Express wards off the possibility where players may keep spamming one action when there are only two present. The thing is, whenever they take a share, they may lose their influence they have within that company. Why does influence matter? We’ll talk more details about it later.

This always-changing influence affects the value of the shares you own at the end of the game. We all have influence in each train company in Mini Express. We are not only constantly contesting for the number of shares we own; we are also fighting to exert the most influence within those companies. The shares may become worthless without the proper degree of influence at the end of the game.

In short, sheer greed, in this case by deciding to only take the company stock, is rather pointless — players also need to balance their capitalism spirit with contributions.

With that being said, the second action (building train tracks) has the same importance as the first one. For instance, not only it is the only way to earn the influence; this action is also useful to increase the value of a certain train company along the way.

As you may have guessed, contributing blindly is not a reasonable action, either. The influence cost when obtaining the company stock is not fixed in a certain nominal.

It depends on how many currently available train tracks in that company (at maximum five tracks). Building the tracks on the map always means a cheaper influence cost for the next player to gain that company’s stock; the next player can even take a company share for free if the previous one built using all the available rails of the company.

Moreover, if you contribute much to a certain company without having any of its stock, it does not reward you any VP at the end of the game. The tug-of-war feeling between losing and gaining the influence, while increasing the value of the company you own, contributes to the always-changing environment on the board. Planning ahead is almost impossible with the rapid development within the game, and thus, making the game pivoting in a more tactical manner.

Influence as the currency in Mini Express

After playing several times, we can confirm that no substantial currency really exists in this game. Certainly, the aforementioned influence fits to cover that hole. Yet better, maybe it was designed actually to act as the legal tender in Mini Express. Of course, this statement stands in a correct-me-if-I-am-wrong basis. Let us know what you think in the comment section!

This exchange medium is not easily obtained — it is valuable, period. In that instance, taking company stocks from the board can deal a hefty expense. The question like, ‘Is this share really worth that cost?’ will often surface in the mindset.

The value of that certain stock becomes different for each player. How profitable it is for you really depends on how much authority you have in that company when the game ends. As mentioned before, it becomes pointless to hoard the train stock without having either decent or null influences within that company.

Variants and the contribution to replay value

Moaideas provides two maps in Mini Express, printed on each side of the main board. These modules bring some new aspects into the equation. In short, we have a variety of how players play Mini Express. They make it possible for players to have a new starting point from a certain city on the map — the only difference lies in how it gets triggered. Personally, I like the European map better.

Mini Express, as a whole game, is a simple one, in terms of learning, teaching, and setting the game up. It becomes easier to take it from the shelf and ask the group to play and replay the game. Hence, for me, the replay value could be higher for some groups.

AN ABRUPT STOP IN EACH GAME

There are no predetermined numbers of rounds in Mini Express, and as expected, some games may end without any warning. Technically, though, players can predict when the game ends from the numbers of stocks left from each train company. Nevertheless, a sudden resolution like this may feel like anti-climatic for some players.

VERDICT

Mini Express is, in short, a meaty yet lightweight train-based game. It has a good depth; it is tactical; and it needs more than sheer luck to win the game. The rule is very straightforward, and it requires less than half an hour to set up and to digest how it works.

With only two major actions, it is important to balance between taking the first action, obtaining the stock of the train company, and the second one to build the railway. Many players in my group mentioned to me that it feels like a lite version of 18xx series — if it’s true, then maybe it can be a stepping stone to this more sophisticated railway game series.

To sum it up, I think Moaideas and their design team have created a neat and solid game. It will entertain a broad spectrum of audiences, for sure. The game is slightly more complex than the common hybrid euro-family game out there, but with some effort, they can still enjoy and appreciate Mini Express.

Moaideas and crews have planned to release the next expansion for this game. They will be live on Kickstarter during Q2 in 2022.

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