Station Master is a fairly simple game that can be learned in a few minutes, a definite advantage when you're debating which game you should try playing after you finish unwrapping presents. In terms of plot, the players are all station masters at a train station who are attempting to get as many passengers as possible onto trains and out of the station. Mechanically you're trying to get as many points as possible by assigning your passenger tokens to the most advantageous trains and then getting those trains out of the station.The game contains thirty-six passenger tokens, and two decks of cards, one of locomotives, and one of station master cards. Each player begins the game with six passenger tokens and three station master cards. During your turn you may choose to place a passenger token on a train, or play a station master card, drawing a replacement card at the end of your turn. Once a train containing your passenger tokens leaves the station, you get those tokens back and you can put more passengers on more trains. Once the deck of locomotives is depleted the total score is tallied and whoever got the most ridiculous amount of points wins.
The locomotive cards, as you can imagine, have locomotives on them, and are helpfully colored blue. Each locomotive has a maximum number of passenger tokens it can carry on it, as well as a maximum number of carriages it can pull. Once the maximum number of carriages has been reached the train departs the station, however it can depart with less than a full compliment of passengers. The station master deck is divided into four types of cards, green, red, green/red, and yellow. The green cards are passenger cars and you want to add them to your train because they'll increase the train's overall score. Red cards are freight cars and have negative value, so they'll decrease the train's score. (Unless they're attached to the one freight train.) Green/red cards are special luxury cars that are a positive value if they're attached to an express train, but negative value if they're attached to any other train. Because one percenters get mad if they have to ride with common people, I guess. Yellow cards have instructions on them and let you change up gameplay to your advantage. The game really only gets complicated when you have to keep score because the value of the train cars is multiplied by the value of your passengers, resulting in some ridiculously high scores if you pull off a decent train combo. Just keep a calculator, pencil, and some paper handy and you should be fine.
What we found really interesting about this game is that it can be simultaneously competitive, and yet cooperative at the same time. Obviously you want to get more points than your opponents, however sometimes the best way to get a lot of points is through cooperation. If everyone has passengers on a specific train, everyone has a motivation to make sure the train gets as many points as possible. You just have to look out for the people who didn't get any of their passengers on the train and now are motivated to do anything to keep everyone else from getting a ton of points. There's still a motivation to get more points than the guy next to you, but you can work together to an extent as well.
I do kind of wish there was more than one freight train, considering how many freight cars there are, but that may actually upset the game balance so I'm happy to accept the game how it is. Really, the only difficulty we had playing this game was the massive calculations we had to do when someone got a really good combo train out of the station. The limited options during your turn also mean the game takes forty-five minutes to maybe an hour to play, that includes going over the rules, and the game actually has some built-in mechanics to keep the game from dragging out indefinitely.
Overall, it's a short and very fun game, which may actually be a little better for my blood pressure than Ticket to Ride. (Anyone who's played Ticket to Ride can tell you that game can get super-intense, especially towards the end.) Because there's still opportunities for collaboration rather than confrontation in Station Master, it definitely feels less stressful. I for one look forward to forcing more people into playing trains with me in the future.