I don’t own many train games. I never considered myself to be the kind of person who is enamoured with large vehicles like tanks, ships, or trains. But then in 2020, I discovered a game called Train Valley 2, and suddenly, I was hooked. 200 hours of gameplay later, I had 5 starred every level and my partner was making fun of my mid-life love of train awakening. Now when I see trains (which, to be fair, is incredibly infrequent due to the fact that I live on an island with no functioning rail system), I can’t deny I feel an excitement in my chest.
With that excitement in my chest, I find myself staring longingly at board games that feature gorgeous trains on the cover. Ultimate Railroads, Age of Steam, and the Iron Rail series to just name a few. So when Switch & Signal popped up for sale, I just couldn’t say no! After all, I barely own any train games!
How to Play
Switch & Signal is a cooperative game in which you are tasked with corralling speeding trains from their points of origin to cities to collect goods, then to the port to deliver the good. The board contains 4 different cities, each producing 2 goods of the associated colour, and 11 points around the board in which a train might appear. Players win if they can deliver all the goods to the port, but lose if you run out of departure cards.
The game starts with 8 signal discs and 26 switch discs on the board. At least one signal disc must be on each city at all times, leaving you with 4 extra signal discs to deploy as you wish. The switch discs mark which direction a train will move at any junction. All 9 trains start in the depot on the side of the board at the start of the game, and will be deployed as the game wears on.
Players are dealt 5 action cards, of which there are 3 different kinds. Signal setting, switch setting, and train movement. A turn always starts with a Departure card being drawn, which will either spawn a train and/or move all the trains of a colour on the board. The location in which a train spawns depends on the deployment dice, two little cubes that will ruin your day. Roll two dice, and place the train on the location matching the sum of those dice. Train movement is similar, in that it’s controlled by a cube that hates your guts. You roll the same coloured die for each train on the board, and move that train that number of spaces.
A train can only move through a signal location if the signal is green. If a train reaches a junction, it must move through the open route. Should your train run into a red light, you lose time tokens. If a train runs into another train’s rear, you lose time tokens. If two trains collide head on, you lose time tokens and the moving train is removed from the map. If you can’t deploy a train because a train already exists on that location, you lose time tokens.
So I just talked about time tokens a bunch, but what the heck are they? At the start of the game, there are 7 time tokens on the board. If you ever run out, you discard one of the departure cards to the box, then refill your time tokens. If you run out of departure cards, you lose the game.
Anyway, with train deployment out of the way, you’re finally able to take your turn. Playing a signal setting card allows you to move a single green disc, opening a new path for trains to travel, while closing the path left behind. Similarly, playing a switch setting card allows you to move a single switch disc, changing a direction a train would travel when it reaches that junction. The Train Movement card allows you to pick a single train and roll its die, moving it along the track. You can also discard two cards to do any of those three actions of your choice.
When you’re done your turn, you draw 5 cards, then the next player can take their turn, starting with drawing and resolving a departure card. Play continues until you win or lose!
Switch & Signal starts slow. With 3 trains on the board (one of each colour), and no movement on turn one, you can almost hear the gears of the system creak and groan as the game slowly inches forward to leave the station. Players are tasked with picking up goods from the hub cities, and delivering them to the port. It’s pretty easy to get the first train to that city by adjusting the signals and switches as necessary.
By the third or fourth turn, things start to become a bit dramatic. A few more trains have spawned, perhaps a pair of trains have moved somewhat unexpectedly, and while your primary goal may be still to deliver that first good you picked up, a bottleneck is starting to develop. Two trains are approaching the same junction from different directions, and you don’t have enough signals to allow everything to move. The engine has built up speed now.
Plans will get changed, losses will get cut. You’ll deliver empty trains to the port just to get them off the board, you’ll risk collisions, hoping that a train only moves one or two spaces, so it comes to rest just behind the train waiting for a signal change before it can move into a city. You’ll juggle switches and signals, closing paths the moment a train crosses the threshold because that signal resource is required elsewhere. Everything is moving too fast now, and you’ll desperately lean on the brakes, lest everything crashes in a spectacularly horrible fashion.
Just as the bottlenecks get cleared, and the start to trains flow down a single track, the game will approach its end. The departure deck will be nearly empty, and you’ll need to step on the gas and take risks to get your trains delivered in time. Maybe that train you delivered empty in round 5 when you had too much on your plate means you just won’t have enough trains to deliver all the goods. Maybe if you had rolled a 10 instead of a 4 when deploying that last train, it would have been on the right side of the board, and you could have secured your victory. Alas, that’s the game.
Cooperative games have some unique challenges to overcome, like, how to avoid being a perfectly solvable puzzle, while not being totally and completely random. How to balance long term projects against short term goals. How to give players agency when their friends are bossing them around. I feel like Switch & Signal does a good job in offering competing objectives. It’s tempting to direct an empty train to the port city, instead of having it cross the entire country to get to a goods city, then back again. But when unexpected things happen, like a train failing to deploy because you left one train in a station somewhere, You’ll be glad you have a backup plan. Unless that backup plan is a black train barrelling down the tracks faster than you can keep up, and now it’s on a collision course with the plodding grey train!
Switch & Signal isn’t a complex or difficult game. After a handful of plays, you’ll know the basic strategies that should lead you to victory. If you happen to find yourself in a good position early in the game, then it behooves you to pass early and take extra cards into your hand. Once your hand is full of 10 cards, you’ll pretty much always be able to do anything you want to. With only 3 card types, the odds are that you’ll have at least 2 of each action, and, if you have a surplus of one type of action, discarding two literally lets you do whatever you want. I appreciate the flexibility, but once your hand of cards is full, the game is just to mitigate your luck.
Switch & Signal includes two maps to switch up your gameplay experience, but the level of discovery in this game is low. I do like that you can randomize the stations, so you don’t always have trains flowing in from the north, or, if you just hate the deployment dice, can use cardboard chits to randomize the train deployments. But the game is the same every time. I would love to see some expansions for Switch & Signal, just to shake up the experience a little bit.
I’ve mostly played Switch & Signal solo, which has been a really enjoyable experience. It’s fast to play, and the tensions I feel mid-game when I’m corralling several trains simultaneously is exciting. There’s a lot of luck, as all the train deployments and movements are decided by dice. “If only my grey dice rolled anything than a 3 this round!” or, “Deploy this black train to anything higher than a 4”, then rolling a 2 can leave you a bit disheartened. But overcoming these calculated risks is what makes the game fun. Including other players doesn’t change the game at all, other than each player has their own hand of cards.
Overall, Switch & Signal is a fast, fun, and easy to play cooperative game, with some lovely little train toys to play with. I like lighthearted games that give me space to just laugh and have fun with my friends. There’s a lot of luck, there’s a lot of flexibility, and there’s not much variability. Switch & Signal is a great game to use to introduce others into the wonderful world of cooperative games, or, to lull them into a false sense of security in thinking train-themed games are light and breezy, then suggest playing a cutthroat game like Age of Steam.
The risk I took was calculated. But man, I am bad at math