Northern Pacific is a game about tasking risk bidding on the ever-building train network and potentially getting the rewards.
Total Game Play: 60 minutes
Designer(s): Amabel Holland
Artist(s): James Davis (II)
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Do you like trains? Because I love trains! And, luckily for me, there are tons and tons of games about trains. I have discovered that many people are intimidated by train games (especially those of the 18XX varieties).
I feel like one of the big contributors to this intimidation is the sheer number of pieces that these games tend to have. While Northern Pacific does contain several cubes, it couldn’t be simpler. Northern Pacific is a great introduction to route building and the fun of bidding on something that may not be a safe investment!
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This is a general overview to provide context for the review, not an in-depth how to play. Some rules may be glossed over or missing.
Northern Pacific is a game of 2-6 players that can be played over multiple rounds. Each round takes about 15-20 minutes. The game recommends playing three rounds but as many (or as few) can be played. I would highly recommend playing this game at 6 players.
Northern Pacific is a gem of a game with few pieces, few rules, and many players. This game feels more like a party game than anything and I find that the best times come from where that are as many players as the game can handle. The game becomes more and more wild!
The game is played in rounds. If you’re looking for a quick game, you can play it in one round. If you’re looking for a longer game, you can play until you don’t want to play anymore. One key aspect of this game is seating order, where players are seated heavily influence the outcome of the game. I highly suggest randomizing seats between rounds when playing a longer game.
The set up for the game is extremely simple. Every player grabs their own player cubes and places one small and one large cube near the scoring track. That’s it. The only other pieces needed will be the train meeples. These should be placed off to the side of the board but just need to be placed in a pile.
On each turn, a player can take one of two actions. They can either place a cube on a city or they can place a train. I find that the term placing a train is a little misleading. I like to think of it more and placing the train track to connect the two cities. The cubes represent if you think that the city you bid on will be added into the route for this newly developing train line.
If the train is moved to a city with cubes on it, each player there will get their cube back as well as an additional cube from the supply. If they bid using their big cube, then the player will get two small cubes from the supply.
Concept: Incentive Chain
It’s easy to place your cubes out onto the board with out thinking much but that is a dangerous move. Because you must think, will the person to the left move the train? How about the person to their left? And what about the player after that. Looking at the incentives of all the people after you is a must for this game because why would a player move the train if it was going to help everyone but them out?
The game ends when the track is completed by reaching Seattle. The whole game is about creating that route from Minneapolis to the Northern Pacific. As such, Seattle and Minneapolis are cities you cannot interact with. Each player then gets points for each cube in their pool (not supply) minus one point for each cube they still have on the board. The person with the highest score at the end wins!
Who Will Like it?
Northern Pacific is great for gamers of any experience and is just a fun a goofy time for the table all around. This game is on the lighter side in terms of rules but can cause some analysis paralysis for those who like to completely optimize their game play. It’s hard to strategize around what another player might do.
What I Think
I really like playing Northern Pacific as it’s a game that has a deep feeling while being easy to play with anyone I can lure to the table.
What did I like?
There are many elements of this game that I like which might seem surprising since there aren’t many parts to this game. But I have never seen two games that were exactly alike. Northern Pacific is a player driven game which leads to funny situations that you might not expect. You can never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s mind.
What didn’t I like?
Trying to read the minds of all the other players at the table can be exhausting. Especially if someone acts out of the norm than you expected. Maybe they don’t see the optimal strategy you saw. Maybe you’re not seeing the optimal strategy they saw. Or, maybe they’re like me, and just want chaos to reign supreme.
Northern Pacific is a great game that can fit into a lot of environments. While it’s not a game that would be the main course of a day full of board games, it’s a light and refreshing game that fits well as a reset for all the players. And it can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be since the game is player driven. I highly recommend playing this game at 6 players because the chaos truly comes to life at this player count.
Rulebook/Learning the Game
This is one of the easiest games to learn and teach. The rulebook itself is only one double-sided page and quite a few examples are shown to clarify certain situations.
When I first played this game, I suddenly became overwhelmed with all the potential options that the other players around the table could play. But after I accepted that I can only control myself, I decided when to push forward and when to take risks. And the potential downsides of those risks. There is so much to think about, and I love it.
Each play I seem to discover something new about the game and, more importantly, discover something about the people that I’m playing with. It’s fun to see how others think and what they see as reasonable risk or actions that would be detrimental to other players.
Northern Pacific is a great game that always brings smiles and laughter to the table. I really adore playing the game, but I would only play under the right circumstances (i.e. if we have 6 willing players). The insanity of the game at six players is too good to ever pass up.
*See my rating scale Here