I have a confession to make. While I love board games of all genres, there is one incredibly popular game that I hate with a fiery passion. I cannot stand Ticket to Ride. It appeals to so many different people, and yet, I loathe it. My biggest problem with Ticket to Ride is that I always want to actually do something with my trains as opposed to collecting sets and placing them on the board. I want to upgrade my train. I want to deliver goods. I want to plot my course across the countryside and feel clever about the decisions that I've made. I want to make "chugga chugga CHOO CHOO" sounds as I move my train around the board. Ticket to Ride doesn't let me do any of this, but Switching Tracks lets me do all of these things and have a ton of fun while doing them.
What is Switching Tracks?
Switching Tracks tasks players with controlling a single train, moving it around the United States to pick up goods in one city and deliver them to another. Players do this by traveling along the routes shown on the board to a number of cities based on the speed of their train. If a player's train has an empty car, they must pick up any available goods that they come across. Those goods can usually only be delivered to cities in which that good is in demand. Players will take ownership of the goods that they deliver and will use them to purchase upgrades or to fulfill Contracts. The first player to complete five Contracts, including one three, one four, and one five goods Contract, wins the game.
The mechanics in Switching Tracks are straightforward and easy to teach. Most importantly, though, they are thematic and actually let you have fun maneuvering a train around the board. What makes Switching Tracks strategically interesting are the Switches that give the game its name. There are nine Switch tiles on the board that determines which direction your train will take once it reaches. Each player will have one or more Switchman tokens that let the player change the Switch tokens on the board before they run their train for the turn. Players need to consider exactly where they want to go and how to get there before they pull the trigger on moving their train.
Planning, Switching, and Contracts
Altering the Switches and actually reaching your intended destinations is important, as the game is a race to complete five Contracts. Contracts are completed by delivering goods to cities in which those goods are in demand and then turning in sets of delivered goods that match those shown on the Contract cards. Not only are the goods needed to fulfill Contracts, but these same goods can be spent to upgrade a player's train, which, in turn, makes them more efficient and effective at transporting and delivering goods around the board. Players will have to balance the need to complete Contracts with their desire to manipulate more Switches each turn, make their train faster, and increase their train's carrying capacity.
Planning ahead is crucial in Switching Tracks, from the immediate need to manipulate Switches for the current turn to the long-term goal of stockpiling goods in order to complete Contracts and upgrade their trains. As each Contract is completed, it is removed from the board and replaced with a new Contract drawn at random. This means that clever players who pay attention to what their opponents are doing can swoop in and fulfill a Contract before their opponent gets a chance, possibly hindering their opponent's progress. With more players, the need to be malleable and adjust to the situation on the fly becomes nearly as important as planning ahead, as the board and Contracts on offer will change far more quickly.
Switching Tracks has one additional layer of strategy for players to take advantage of in the form of Offices. Each player starts with a different Office and can acquire more as they fulfill contracts. There are nine different Offices included in the game, and each grants the controlling player a limited number of uses of a special ability. Making smart use of the Manager's Office for example, which lets the player deliver goods to a city where they are not in demand, can mean the difference between completing a Contract just ahead of your opponent and having that opponent snatch a Contract out from underneath you.
A Few Notes on Switching Tracks
A Note on Playing With Younger Players
Switching Tracks has great "kid" appeal. The simple visuals and the train theme absolutely draws grade-school-age kids to it, and the rules and mechanics are easy for kids to grasp. Due to the race-to-the-finish style of play and the strategies needed to be the first to complete five Contracts, kids can be left in the dust when playing against adults with the rules as written. Thankfully, handicapping to keep younger players competitive is a snap, as it is simply a matter of requiring younger players to complete fewer Contracts or requiring older players to complete more in order to win.
A Note on “Chrome”
The components of Switching Tracks are great. Each player has a cardboard Station and trains that looks really cool on the table. The goods are all made of wood and colored consistently, and the cardboard has a great finish that almost feels like vinyl. The art, on the other hand, almost feels like placeholder or prototype art. The art style initially put me off of the game, although the more I play the game, the more I warm up to its effective simplicity. The game box includes four separate rule books, stickers, and cards for English, French, Spanish, & German, which is a nice touch for non-native English speakers.
Is Switching Tracks Worth Your Money?
Switching Tracks is a joy to play. Running a train around the board while picking up and delivering goods appeals to players of all ages. The cute, if a touch utilitarian, visuals of the game are easy to understand, and the rules are easy to teach. While Switching Tracks is a lighter game, there is still a decent amount of strategic depth to be found. Players need to think about which Contracts are available, how to most efficiently move goods around the country, which Offices and train upgrades will best facilitate their goals, and when to use the abilities offered by the Offices. The race to complete five Contracts usually means that the last few turns of the game are very tense as players try to make sure they can be the first to finish their fifth Contract and win the game.
The copy of Switching Tracks used in this review was provided by Wattsalpoag Games. This review was originally published on 06-30-2015. While care has been taken to update the piece to reflect our modern style guidelines, some of the information may be out of date. We've left pieces like this as they were to reflect the original authors' opinions and for historical context.