The theme, as if you couldn’t guess, was running trains in Hell. You are trying to deliver damned souls to the different circles of Hell. Yes, it has a very Dante feel. The art is more a fire and brimstone, renaissance Hell than a metal or cutesie one. According to the rules, the winner gets to put off burning in the pits for one more day. So feel good.
Okay, who doesn’t love train games? And trains in Hell? Doesn’t that sound cool in a black nail polish kind of way? But what was really cool is that, except for tiny wooden trains, the entire game is made up of square cards that do everything. The cards can be used as tracks for the map, cargo, points and fuel.
I first came across it in 2006. I’d already discovered multi-use cards through San Juan but HellRail was still one of my earlier experiences with the idea and I thought it was super cool. And it was a full train game (pick up and deliver, track development, resource management) that was condensed down to a deck of square cards. That was super cool.
So where did it all go wrong?
First of all, since you use the cards for EVERYTHING, you burn through the deck fast. The game feels like it should be at least as twice as long. The tracks and deliveries are just starting to get going and the game ends.
I’d actually considered buying a second copy and combining the decks. And I’m glad I didn’t because that wouldn’t have solved the other problem.
HellRail is really random. Too random. In games like San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, specific cards only matter for one purpose (adding them to your tablea) Otherwise, be it goods or money, cards are equal. Every use of a card in HellRails depends on the specific card you’re playing. Which makes it too easy to derail any planning you’re doing and one bad enough turn can actually completely kill your chances of winning the game.
And in a train game, that level of random just isn’t fun. I’m not against random but HellRail took it to a frustrating place,
Years later, I tried HellRail again and honestly found it even worse. Time has not been kind of HellRail. It has not aged well. I have a feeling that it was more of a standout game almost twenty years ago but so many better light pick-up-and-deliver games have been created since then. Some games are timeless (Hi Acquire!) but HellRail felt dated and not in a retro, fun way.
A light and flexible pick-up-and-deliver game is really something to be applauded. It’s a very satisfying genre for me and an accessible one that can fit into under an hour is something I really look for. But HellRail fell apart, particularly when there are a lot of better options out there.
HellRail had a lot of mechanical ideas that really appealed to me but, I got to admit, what it might have done is proven how some of them don’t work.