Canal Mania

Canal Mania is a new game from the reliable, if somewhat less-than-prolific, Ragnar Brothers. Thinking about that for a second, one might reasonably ask: what exactly do they reliably deliver? Well, games … like the ones they make.

As such, Canal Mania is a bit of a departure for them, because I can tell you right here that Canal Mania is basically a favorable combination of mechanisms from Age of Steam and Ticket to Ride, with a lot of the problems and rough edges of those two previous games smoothed over.

To write any more than that about the specific game-play of Canal Mania is really to go past the point of diminishing returns (and if you play the game you’ll know what I mean), but because I’m expected to write a little bit more than that on the details of the game in this business, I’ll keep going. Canal Mania presents you with a board with different-colored cities on it, and those cities have good cubes. You score points by delivering these goods cubes over your canals; the rule is, any delivery route can be as long as you want, but it can never contain two cities of the same color (all good cubes are generic). Like in Age of Steam, you can use other players’ canals, and when you do, they get part of the payoff. Building between cities is controlled by drafted cards, a la Ticket to Ride, although with a different mix of restrictions. You can draft contract cards, and these contracts (analogous to Ticket to Ride’s tickets) specify which two cities you may connect and the maximum number of tiles you may use to do it. You then lay those tiles by drafting locks, stretches, aqueducts, and tunnel cards, which you can then parley into actual bits of canal.

As I say, it’s striking the degree to which Canal Mania can be easily and simply described as a cross between the better halves of Ticket to Ride and Age of Steam. Where Canal Mania scores over its two antecedents is in the smoothness of play. Canal Mania glides along, without many frustrating bumps or detours. Compare to the unevenness of the tickets in Ticket to Ride or the auctions in Age of Steam, both of which feel inelegant. Canal Mania constrains you with the contracts – unlike Steam or Ticket, you can’t just build anywhere – but the constraints seem less painful overall. You still almost always get to draft tickets from a set on offer, and unlike in Ticket to Ride, most lots seem to include something useful. Also, the contracts are set up to circumvent the arbitrariness that both Age of Steam and Ticket to Ride can sometimes have. In Ticket to Ride, sometimes you’re hosed because you and the player on your right really need the same route, but he just happened to see all the cards he needed first. In Canal Mania, the real competition is over delivering goods cubes, not over routes. When you get a contract, that route is yours, it’s just a question of how to trade off speed vs. efficiency in getting it built. Speed, because maybe you want to deliver that generic good in Liverpool before anyone else gets there; efficiency, because at the end of the game the person who has built the most routes gets points.

So, Canal Mania rolls along pretty well; it’s a friendlier game than either Steam or Ticket, while still managing to be a serious game without the sharp edges.

At least, until you get to the endgame. While I was generally pleased with Canal Mania, the endgame troubled me. Once a player crosses a certain point threshold, or a certain number of routes get built, you enter the endgame during which all that happens is that all the remaining goods on the board get delivered. As in Age of Steam, you will sometimes have to use other players’ connections, and thus give them some points, in order to deliver a goods cube yourself. In Age of Steam, because your network is usually pretty coherent, it’s rare that this is more than a small handful of points. In Canal Mania, though, due to the unpredictable flow of contracts, it seems much more likely that your “network” is really just going to be a collection of canals in various places. So as the endgame approaches, you will almost always have to give other players money to make a delivery.

The effects of this are predictable: endless calculation about who is “really” ahead based on their score plus their apparent deliveries remaining, multiple calculations of whether it’s better to give 3 pounds to player A or player B, situations in which a player gets to pick who wins, and (maybe) whining by the aggrieved. It’s potentially not pretty, both in terms of the unreasonable level of calculation required to play well and in terms of possible hurt feelings.

Honestly, I don’t have any idea of how you would do the endgame to Canal Mania better. It all seems part and parcel of what makes the earlier game successful, and so I don’t mind it that much. By the standards of games with kingmaking problems, it’s certainly not in the same league as the notorious Kill Dr. Lucky or multi-player Attika; but the problem does exist, and some people will be turned off by it. Likewise, Shannon Applecline complains about games that force you to do too much math, and Canal Mania has some trouble with this. I would think Canal Mania actually has a potentially more severe problem than Santiago, a poster child for this sort of thing for me, although it depends on how the game pans out (Santiago has calculation problems by default; Canal Mania might not).

The other downside is the game length and downtime. Canal Mania is in the neighborhood of 2 hours, and given a system that is less interactive than Steam and turns that are definitely longer than in Ticket, length and downtime seem just slightly on the wrong side of where things should be.

So what does all this mean? Do I recommend Canal Mania? As a US buyer, I’m on the fence (it’s expensive here). I think Canal Mania very nicely fills a niche between Ticket and Steam. I think that the game has smoothed over the unevenness in both of those games, as well as put the theming on more solid foundations. But at the end of the day, it is still a game that has a few issues (the two significant ones being the endgame calculation and the game length) and is fairly derivative, and is going to set you back no less than $50 (US). Which makes it a tough sell. We played on a loaner copy from a friend, and my ultimate decision was that it was not a buy. But it’s certainly worth playing on someone else’s copy.

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