First Class Review
A 2-4 Player game from Hans im Glück by Helmut Ohley
FIRST CLASS comes with a 16-page Rulebook and an 8-page booklet of Modules. If you have picked up the German version, as I have, there is a good English translation for both books available on Boargamegeek.com. The translated rules do not feature as many coloured illustrations as the original rules booklet but they have enough for you to be able to know how to play and what pieces to use - besides you can always look at the pictures in the German edition if you get stuck. The artwork is excellent throughout and helps create the period atmosphere of the game setting. The English rules have a couple of minor translation transgressions but nothing that cannot be understood with a little patience and a re-reading.
This is a game from the same designer who gave us Russian (and German) Railroads (also published by Hans im Glück) and therefore it has a strong pedigree to follow and compete with. Our opinion is that although Russian/German Railroads are very good games, in our opinion FIRST CLASS is better by far. There are many nice, neat, mini-mechanics running through FIRST CLASS that ensure all players always have options, okay sometimes they are a bit limited but there are still always choices, and that right to the final whistle the game remains in the balance and thus interesting until the final scoring phase.
Each player is the owner of their own railway company competing for the most prestidgious and lucrative passengers and to be the richest (in VPs). All players have a personal player board on and around which they collect coins and attach Carriage and Route cards which are placed in the specific niches, two for Carriages, along with wooden pieces/conductors, and one with a little wooden train and a small amount of railway line to which the track cards are connected.
Looking at the components you can see that a lot of time, effort and money has been put into creating and producing this game. Obviously having a lot of quality components doesn't mean that the game is going to be good to play, but it does mean that the publishers believe in it and that's generally the sign of a good game. I know in some case it may take a lot of looking to find in such a game just what the publishers believe in but in this case once you have read the rules through the simplicity and brilliance of the game shines through. I will admit that while reading the rules out for the first time they seemed to go on a bit but throughout the reading there were lucid moments of clarity which by the end of the rules had become more than fleeting moments. I am not saying that the rules are badly written, they're not, but they are quite expressively long for such basic game mechanics.
Played in Rounds, the players select a card from the display and have activate it. Most cards are used for their ability and then placed face down in a pile to be counted up at the game end, some may simply give you an amount of coin or a Contract to complete at your convenience. Others are Carriages which you use to build up your train or route cards that can extend your railway, giving you cash and regular additional bonuses. FIRST CLASS is mainly a game based around your card selecting decisions and those of your opposing players, for if they are having their turn before you they might just take a card to purposely upset the way your Railway is building towards. Naturally this means that long term planning isn't over-associated with this game, but strategy can be.
The game comes with four modules in a single, separate, booklet. At the beginning of the game you all decide which of the two modules you are going to be playing; A,B,C and D being your choices. Each module adds something to the basic game by way of cards, winning conditions, in-game goals and so on; thus you will be playing each game using different add-ins according to the Module.The rules suggest you begin with Modules A and B which are Contracts (A) and Celebrities and Postcards (B). In later games you can add "Who's the Killer?" (C) and "Passengers and Luggage" (D). To well-weathered, old-time gamers like myself, this means that next year we shall almost certainly see an expansion book with more modules; I'll be very, very surprised if there isn't. One of the most excellent things is that you can play any combination of the modules together; it doesn't have to be A & B and C & D, you just organise the components accordingly and play.
As I said the first game uses Modules A and B which adds Contract cards and Celebrities & Postcards cards to the display. Contracts are exactly that, contracts (or goals) which you need to collect the necessary components of to complete and thus gain the bonuses. Celebrities and Postcards are additions to your train carriages and multiply the value of the carriage they are attached to and Postcards do similarly to Route cards. You can play this version many times without it ever getting to the "samey" point where your interest begins to waiver. However, after a couple of plays it is best to introduce another Module, replacing A or B, so that play is always totally fresh; it is quite amazing how different each game feels when you change a module and also how many possible variations for play that four modules give. Module C, for example, gives players the chance to be part of "Murder on a Train that is similar to the Orient Express" and Module D gives bonuses for carrying Passengers and their Luggage (when you play this Module just hope Rincewind doesn't turn up).
There are 6 stacks of Carriage cards that are double-sided to show how the Train's value progresses, thus Zero value cards have a One on their reverse, Two's are paired with Fours, and then Sevens are backed by Twelves; you have to work hard to get the higher value Carraiges but when the game ends and the scoring is taking place a Twelve Carriage with a Celebrity x 2 is worth 24 points. There are several types of cards that make up the display but mainly these are in two variants; the Carriages and the Action cards. The Action cards are set out in a grid display of 4 Rows, six cards in each. On their Turn the players take one of the cards from any row and use it and then place it face down by the side of their own personal board. There is another option, instead of taking a card they may take the First Player Tile which misses them a turn as far as adding to their Railway goes but gives them the First Turn for the next Round - obviously only one player may takje the First Player Tile each Round, but from experience we have found that this Tile is actually rarely taken unless the player is desperate, because losing the opportunity to take a card is quite a heavy decision.
Taking cards from a display isn't an unusual game mechanic but there is a neat difference with this game, and that is once the same number of cards have been removed from a row as there are players (3 in a 3 player game, 4 in a 4 player game) the remaining cards in the row are discarded out of the game. This is how players can get into situations where they have to decide whether to take a card they really want that is in a Row that isn't going to be discarded when they take it or from a row that will automatically discard the remaining cards. FIRST CLASS can be one of "those games" where you want to do more than you are allowed to, both frustrating but invigorating at the same time.
The Carriages on your train do not have to run in consecutive or ascending numerical order even though your first Carriage will be a Zero; effects on selected cards can cause them to upgrade. Players have two Rows of Carriages (and one conductor for each) to feed and one Train track along which to move their train. The Action cards from the display can do many things, depending on which you choose, from adding Carriages or upgrading Carriages to Contracts, Passengers, Rail Tracks etc. Some of the speciality Action cards allow you to move your Conductors and some allow you to move your Trains. When you move your Conductors they will score, at the end of the game, the Carriage they stand on and any to the left of them are counted as scoring, any Carriages to the right are not counted. When you move your train along the track you can gain immediate bonuses and possibly continuing bonuses, but you have to move your Train from station to station until you land on or pass the target station of that card. The game isn't long enough (they allow 20 minutes per player but once you know the rules and the cards you can almost halve this) to balance Track building/Train moving and Carriage adding and Conductor moving.
Money isn't plentiful. You can mainly gain it from Rail track laying and from Action cards. When you gain coins you place them on your personal board in the spaces provided, beginning with the left hand column which you must fill before you can start the central column and finally the right hand column. When you spend money - there are cards you might wish to buy to give you additional scoring bonuses for example - the coins have to be removed from the Right. This is important because each column sits over a special effect that you can do in your turn at a cost of one coin per use but only if you have coins in that column. So for example, the second column allows you to spend a coin to move your conductors or your train; thus if you have 3 coins in that column you have three movement available; thereby you cannot move four spaces by spending the three coins in the column and one from the left column even if it is all being done in the same turn. Remaining coins are worth a VP each at the end of the game.
Each of the six Rounds of the game brings with it a new challenge as the 18 cards in the display are randomly drawn, beginning with the "1" cards for the first two, then the 2s for 3rd and 4th and finally the 3s for 5th and 6th, thus in every game the cards appear in different rows and at different times. Rounds end when all players have drawn 3 cards and taken 3 Actions. So for example with 4 players there are 18 cards in 3 rows of 6 if all players all draw from the first row then the remainder of the cards in that row are discarded. This idea really works well and keeps the players involved.
There are many good things about FIRST CLASS but for me the best one is that the basic game structure and principles remain the same throughout however many players there are and whatever Modules you are playing. Of course this makes it perfect for expansion packs of Modules (as I already suggested). The only complaint I have heard levied at FIRST CLASS is that it isn't long enough and that's as much of a compliment as it is a complaint. You know when the end is coming so you know which is your last turn, but in almost every game we have played when the last turn is played there are still things you want to do and that's both frustrating and annoying, but it's also good because you are left wanting more.