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Canal Mania – A review by Mike

Published by:

A review by Mike

Designer: Gary Dicken, Steve Kendall & Phil Kendall
Publisher: Ragnar Brothers
No. of players: 2 to 5
Ages: 10 and up
Time: 90 – 120mins

In Canal Mania you recreate the golden age of English Canal building of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Each player takes temporary control of one of five different famous engineers, to help him, on his turn, to build canals using Stretches of Water (called “stretch” tiles), Locks, Aqueducts and Tunnels. Once a canal joins up two towns, two cites or a town and city, then the player can ship goods down his and other people’s canals to gain extra points. You score points for your canal once it joins up two locations, as specified on your “Contract from Parliament” card, as the game progresses, you get to complete a number of contracts and run a lot of goods. The winner is the player with the most points at game end.

Opening the Box

You wont get the same feeling opening Canal Mania, as did when you opened Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, the component quality is perfectly acceptable, just not visually stunning. The board folds out to a good size and shows a playing area stretching from Ripon in the north, Arundel in the south, across to Maidstone in the east and Taunton in the west. Interestingly, for me, it’s one of the few games I own that has my home town of Gloucester on it! The plastic canal barges are of reasonable quality and the goods cubes are made of small wooden blocks, not unlike those found in Tigris and Euphrates. The canal tiles are made of good cardboard and don’t look like they will fold or break, additionally, the cards look fairly robust.

The Cards

There are 3 types of cards, “build”, “contracts” and “engineers”, plus a couple of Turn Action player aid cards.

Build Cards

There are 5 types of build cards, Stretch, Lock, Aqueduct and Tunnel, depicting the 4 different types of Canal Tiles you can buy, with which you build your canal. The last type is a Surveyor Card; he acts as a wild card, and can be used instead of another. It’s worth stating now, although I will cover it in more detail later, you cannot build two canal tiles of the same type next to each other, so you will have to have a diverse strategy. Additionally, some of the stretch cards have a goods symbol on, this means you need to place a goods symbol onto the board, matching the colour on the card to the colour of the towns and cities on the board. There is a hierarchy of where you place the goods token, if the city has a connected canal, then the token must go there, if not, then a connected town is the priority, then down to unconnected city and finally an unconnected town. If there are multiple valid locations, then it’s player choice. The build cards are placed in a deck, with five, face up for selecting.

Contract Card

These card detail the contracts that the players are allowed to build, this is not like Ticket to Ride, you can’t just build anywhere, you can only work on the contract(s) you have in your hand. the contracts will name two locations that you must connect, sometimes using a via (for example Stratford and Gloucester – The Avon and Gloucester Navigation, or Leeds and Liverpool, via Skipton – The Leeds and Liverpool Canal). The other piece of information on the Contract Cards are a contract value, this is used to show the maximum number of tiles you may play to make your canal – this is to stop you going on a circuitous route to take in as many locations as possible. The reason you may want to do this will become apparent in a bit!

Engineer Cards

There are 5 engineer cards, detailing 5 different famous engineers. Each of which has a special ability, which helps the player who holds the card to build something.

John Rennie – Allows the player to pick up 4 rather than 3 build cards

Thomas Telford – Players may use one aqueduct card rather than two to build an aqueduct

John Smeaton – Allows the playing of a Surveyor card to represent any two other cards

William Jessop – May play two tunnel cards rather than three

James Brindley – Can build a lock tile when playing a stretch card

The Board

The board shows England, with a number of towns and cities on it, with a scoring track around the outside. The towns and cities are each marked in one of six colours, the cities being made obvious by having a light coloured circle within the coloured marking. It is marked out in hex form, but doesn’t show where the canals are, so these are determined by the players, there are many ways of getting from London to Reading!

The Turn

The turn is split into 3 phases.

First Phase

In the first phase, the player may take a contract from Parliament, exchange engineers, of discard the five, face up build cards.

At the start of the game, five contracts are shown face up, as they are selected, they are not replaced until they are all gone, then five new ones come out. If you currently have one contract from Parliament, you may select another one, sometimes this is a good idea, if a particularly good one is showing, perhaps it joins up with your current contract or opens up an area of the board that someone else has a monopoly on. If you have no contracts, i.e. you completed your last contract on the previous turn, you MUST take a contract. There are some quirky rules on this (designed to encourage taking more contracts, and driving the game forward), if there are only two left face up in Parliament, then you can take both, if only one left, you can take it and replenish the next five, then chose one more. This gives you the option of taking two contracts in one go, thus saving a phase later. You can only hold two live contracts in your hand.

You may opt to exchange engineers, this simply allows you to swap “the tunnel guy” for the “aqueduct dude” or any combination – the player who currently holds the one you want must exchange it, he cannot block the swap (although grumbling under one’s breath appears to be encouraged!)

Or, you can simply replace all the build cards face up, with the hope of getting something decent!

Second Phase

There are only two options in this phase, take cards or build tiles, typically you alternate this on turns, so one turn you collect cards and then next turn build tiles.

You are allowed to take three face up build cards (or four, if you have Rennie). As you pick them up, if they have a goods symbol on them you must place two goods cubes on the locations of that colour. This can either be great for you, or a real pain, you want to place a goods cube on one of your towns, but first you have place one on an opponents city – this is a great mechanic, it really makes you think as to what to do!

Alternatively, you can play build cards to build canal sections. There are two terrain types, shown as light and dark beige on the board, the light is normal terrain (where you can build stretch and locks tiles) and dark is difficult (where you build aqueducts and tunnels), but be careful, you don’t have many aqueduct and tunnel tiles! To build, you pay the cost in card of the correct type (stretch = 1 card, lock = 1 card, aqueduct = 2 cards and tunnel = 3 cards) and then place your tiles down, remembering that no two sections can be the same as their neighbour, so stretch, stretch, lock would have to be stretch, lock, stretch. You are allowed (and it’s a good idea!) to take slight detours to pick up extra towns, this will give you more points in the goods shipping phase, so well worth doing. For example, Birmingham to Worcester would normally cost three tiles, but for four tiles, you could take in Coventry and Stratford as well. Once you have completed a section of canal, and your contract is complete, you turn it face down and score your canal. You receive points for each section that isn’t a stretch, so locks score one point, aqueducts 2 points and tunnels 3 points.

Third Phase

In the third phase you may “run” a goods cube. This means you may take a goods cube and sail it down canal sections scoring points. There are a couple of rules, firstly, you cannot go through a location that has the same colour as a location you have gone to on this run (essentially, this is to limit you to six points per run, maximum), you must own the last canal section you use, although you are allowed to use other poeples canals. If you do this they also score points! You receive one point for each location you travel through (including start and finish), plus anyone else’s canals you use, they also get points for the sections they own. This part of the game is key to scoring points, and there is real value to having connections that you can use, plus being connected into other players routes, particularly if you connect to a city, which should be “goods rich”!

Phase Alternative

Instead of any phase above, you may opt to select one additional face down build card instead of anything else.

End Game

The game enters the final stages, when one of two criteria are met. Either someone has passed a specified number of points, which changes depending on player numbers, or the contracts have run out.

Then … the following happens:

  1. All incomplete canals are scored as if they were finished. This allows you to throw on as much as you can in the final round, knowing you’ll get points for it.
  2. Goods Decline: All goods are removed from the board, starting with the player with the lowest numbered engineer and proceeding in engineer-order. If you can’t ship one, you have to pass, but if you can you must – even if it helps others more than it helps you.
  3. Once all the goods are off the board, points are scored from completing the most contracts. The points range from 10 down, depending on the number of players. If 2 players have completed the same number of contracts, then you add up their values to break the tie. If this is still the same, the most prolific builder amongst those tied is the one with the highest engineer card.

If scores are tied after all that, the one with the highest engineer card wins.

Mikes Overall View

Me? I love this game, it has just the right blend of luck (you never know what cards are coming, or what contracts are coming), tempered with a large amount of both strategy and tactics. You can definitely have a game plan, but ill probably have to alter that as you go, which in my opinion is a good thing, I like to have to react to situations.

It’s true, that some of the contracts are more valuable than others, but again, you can mitigate a lot of this by clever positioning of your goods cubes, so if you get bogged down in an area then break out and play somewhere else for a while, scoring points using your goods cubes. If you are not scoring points this way most goes, you are going to struggle in the final reckoning.

Overall, this is very much a gamer’s game, I have heard it described as a bit like Ticket to Ride – it’s not, it’s heavier than TtR, it has a lot more depth. Overall, it’s definitely a thumbs up from me.

Grab yourself a copy while you can!