A Review of Switch and Signal: A Cooperative Train Game

I have many friends who love trains: talking trains, taking trains, training trains … Don and Patrick in particular. When I go to lunch with Don and Patrick, I’ll say: “I’m going get to a drink refill, you guys talk about trains while I’m gone”. It’s not that I don’t like trains, I just don’t have the same passion that they do. So, I was excited when I discovered Switch and Signal: a cooperative train game from Kosmos! This ticks the boxes for all of us: trains, cooperative, game!

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Unboxing and Gameplay

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Switch and Signal comes in a standard sized box. It’s about the same size as what we call the Ticket To Ride sized box: I suspect this is not a coincidence.

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The rulebook is colorful and easy to read. 

This is a train game, so it has to come with a map! In fact, the game board is a two-sided map! The Europe side (above left) is the introductory map.   The North America side (the flip side, above right) is the more advanced map.

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This is a train game, so there have to awesome little plastic trains! Note that each train has space for a goods cube!

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In fact, there is a die for each type of train!  Players will roll those dice to move trains of that color. 

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Also, because this is a train game, there have to be goods cubes to deliver!!  See the colored cubes (yellow, red, white, blue) above. This game is all about delivering goods cubes to the harbor before time runs out!!  And because this game is called Switch and Signal, there are switches (the little black circles above) and signals (the green discs).  The signals open train lines, and the switches redirect trains along different lines.

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For example: the black train above can’t move across the Salzburg switch because the switching is the blocking the way.

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The grey train (above) can move into Marseille (with the white goods cube) because the (green) signal on his track is open.  Notice the (red) signal on the leftmost (east) entry into  Marseille is NOT open!

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How do players operate the switches and signals?  Through card play!  Each turn, each player plays his 5 (or more) cards to cause stuff to happen on the train tracks. The cards are dirt simple: you can move a signal (left green card), update a switch (middle black card) or move a train (rightmost train card).  And that’s it!   Note that we say “move a signal” because you can only move a signal from some other part of the board to an empty signal slot … you can’t introduce more signals!  Similarly, on a switch space you can only reconfigure a switch (no moving them off the switch).  And finally, you can move a train via dice. Remember those dice you saw earlier?

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When you play a train card, you can move a single train, using and rolling the appropriate die.  Notice that the trains all move different speeds! The grey trains tend to moves slowly, brown trains  tend move normally, and the black trains tend to move very fast!

How do trains get on the map?  The departure cards (see above) specify what color trains come out (and also move them). Usually, one comes out every turn.  If you run out of departure cards, you have run out of time and players lose the game!

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The time tokens (above) help count down time as well.  Every time one of your train gets “stuck” (can’t move because it’s behind another train, or at a closed switch, or at a closed signal), players lose some time tokens.  If players lose too many time tokens, they discard an extra departure card! The normal flow of time causes the departure cards to count down slowly, but blocked trains lose extra time. It’s important in the game to keep all your trains moving!

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You’ll notice the two brown numbered dice above: the sum of those two dice tell you where a train will come out! There are 10 locations, labelled 2-12. This mechanism adds a a bit of randomness in the game, but the locations 6,7,8 tend to be the busiest locations.  See below and below.

Putting all together, players need to try (cooperatively) to deliver all the good to the harbor before time runs out!

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If you deliver all the cubes, you win!  If you run out of time (no more delivery cards), you lose!

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Overall, this game looks good.  All the cards and locations are easy to read and see.

Rulebook

This is a very good rulebook.  It’s short and succinct: only 8 pages.  The pictures are very helpful and useful, especially the set-up which spans two pages!   It is so easy to set-up!! The base rules are explained well. More importantly: all the edge cases seem to be discussed one way or the other.   This rulebook is easy to read, easy to peruse, and easy to search.  

Solo Play

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Somewhat surprisingly, this game doesn’t adhere to Saunders’ Law: Switch and Signal doesn’t have a solo mode!  In the modern gaming landscape, many cooperative games add a solo mode just to appeal to more gamers.  Nope!  Not Switch and Signal!

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Weirdly, I don’t think it would be that hard to add a solo play.  I went ahead and played two-handed as if I were two players and it worked fine (see above): in fact, it was a great way to learn the game. After getting through the game, I could see how easy it would be to play this one-handed for a solo game!

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This is nominally a hidden information game, as players are allowed to talk about the cards in their hands, but they can’t show the other players.  (It’s not 100% clear: the rules explicitly say you can “talk about the cards in your hand” but the rules only imply you can’t show your cards to other players).  So, a two-handed solo game has everything laid bare like the picture above: there’s no hidden information!  So, is the game too easy with all information laid bare?  Perhaps that’s why there’s no solo mode?

Honestly, I had a great time playing a two-handed solo game!  Even though I lost my first solo game (see above), I could easily see playing this as a solo game again.  It was fun!  So, my recommendation?  Play it two-handed  solo to learn the game: that was a great way to learn it.  If you like that mode, there’s nothing to stop you from playing solo that way!  I don’t think the board game police will come and get you for playing this solo.  I think.

Cooperative Play

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I was able to get this played with 2, 3, and 4 players and we all had a blast!  It was quite a hit at RichieCon 2022!  As we look at the board, we decide as a group which things we need to deal with: we set direction for the current player and a little bit of direction for the next player.  We have fun just having these discussions! I mean, the train people love just having the discussions about trains!

I could see there might be an element of Alpha Player Syndrome in Switch and Signal, as you really do need to discuss things and come to consensus as you play: Alpha Players aren’t as good at coming to consensus.   This is especially true (when sometimes your hand isn’t very good) when all you can do is set-up the next player!   So, I am pretty sure that’s why you can only discuss what’s in your hand and not show it.  I think if an Alpha Player shows up in your game, you have to lean hard into “I can’t show you what I have” rule and simply engage discussion at a higher level.  If your group luckily avoids the Alpha Player, I don’t think there would be a problem showing your cards.

Conclusion

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If Switch and Signal were trying to be the cooperative replacement for Ticket To Ride, I’d say they succeeded!   Switch and Signal is a light game that plays quickly (in 45 minutes), it’s easy to teach, it’s easy to play, but it has lots of interesting decisions!  There’s not quite as much cooperation in Switch and Signal as other cooperative games (like, say The Reckoners, which we’ve reviewed here, where every dice face and order matters), but that’s probably a good thing: my train friends tend to be fiercely independent creatures!  There’s just enough cooperation to make us feel like we are working together, but there are enough independent decisions to keep each player focused on their hand.

Switch and Signal is a rare thing: a cooperative, simple, light, but deep game that plays quickly. I suspect me and my train friends will be playing this quite a bit in the future.  If you aren’t a train person, I suspect this game will still appeal to you.

 

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