Let's Make a Bus Route is the latest game from Japanese game designer Saashi & Saashi. This time, the game is a roll and write (but with cards instead of dice.) This Japan import is hard to get, but is it worth tracking down?
In this game you will be tasked with drawing a bus route that collects tourists, commuters, students, and the elderly on through Tokyo. The route segments you draw are determined by the color of cards drawn from a 12-card deck. You can't just pick up passengers, you also need to drop them off at tourist destinations, stations, and universities. The efficiency of your route is represented by the order you add new destinations to your route. For example, you should avoid going to shrines too quickly, or tourists won't score you many points in the end game.
The difficulty in route playing comes from your inability to cross back over an intersection you have been to previously. You need to think ahead as you plan out your map to make sure you get the stuff you need, while also making sure don't accidentally trap yourself on one side of the board.
Player interaction comes in the form of traffic. If you cross other player's paths, you may need to add traffic to your board which will give you a score penalty at the end of the game. You also get points for achieving unique game goals and your personal goal which will involve connecting three very spaced-out stops on the map before the last card is drawn.
Stand Out Features
Fun Dry Erase Playmats: each player gets a dry erase board for keeping track of tourists, elderly passengers, commuters, students, and universities that they cross on their route. Additionally, each board has a unique set of routes associated with card colors meaning that everyone is making a slightly different path each turn. This is an interesting way to add some player asymmetry (albeit with an extremely light touch.) Marking on the boards is just fun, and is definitely a highlight of the game.
Card-Based Roll and Write: This game illustrates several examples of how using a small deck over dice for the "roll" part of the roll and write game can have many advantages. The draw deck only has 12 cards, which allows for the gameplay to be tight and easily tracked on the player boards. While the order in which the cards come out, ultimately, you're seeing the same cards in the deck, and towards the end of the game you can predict the likelihood of getting a card you need to complete a route.
"Snake" in Board Game Form: Unlike a game this is probably most compared to, Avenue, Let's Make a Bus Route is maybe a little less strategic, and a little more what I would describe as "arcade-y." The crunch of the gameplay comes from the immediate gratification of the rewards you get on your turn as opposed to a huge payout at the end of the game. Of course, achieving major goals like connecting the points on your route card can still require some strategy and can provide a satisfying payout. Additionally, just like Snake you can instantly lose if you loop back on your own route; plan ahead!
What We Liked
Everything about this game is fun, its pace, writing on the board, avoiding causing traffic by crossing other player's paths. I believe the key to the fun of the game is allowing players to focus on any particular strategy and still have a chance of being successful if they can pull it off. In many other Roll and Writes, your strategy can be heavily altered by the roll of the dice. Since you can move in any direction in this game, and at any point ignore the path given to you by the cards, it opens up a lot more options for victory points.
While tourists clearly have the most points potential - a potential 42 points vs. 24 from students and universities - it's very challenging to pull off a full tourist row. Alternatively, spreading your points around between areas can be effective as well; its often much easier to score one max-point row than 3. The game is carefully balanced, and it's difficult to completely screw up your score by adopting the wrong strategy early on.
That said, you can still instantly lose if you aren't paying attention and back yourself into a corner. Not being able to cross a previously-marked intersection means you can't just move willy-nilly to the next reward, you need to keep an eye on your overall path to ensure you don't block yourself in. If you do manage to block yourself in, it's entirely your fault! Other players can only get in your way and give you traffic.
What Could Be Improved
With five players (the maximum), the game can drag a bit if you are playing with inexperienced gamers who aren't necessarily giving the game their full attention. If everyone is paying attention the game flies by, but if people aren't ready to place their route it can really slow down. In fact, with 5 players there are 60 player turns. This means a significantly longer game than the lightning-quick 24 player turn two-player game.
Another potential drawback is limited replayability. There is only one board (the reversible boards all provide English/Japanese sides, but identical layouts.) And there are only five objective cards and five route cards. This means you're going to be seeing the same goals frequently if you play a few times in a row.
Let's Make a Bus Route was my first introduction to Saachi & Saachi's games. I am now obsessed with his games and have ordered several from Amazon Japan. (We also really like Coffee Roaster and will be reviewing that in the future.)
Time To Learn: About 10 minutes reading the rule book / looking at components.
Price: This is sold out everywhere in the U.S., but you can still get a copy on Amazon Japan.
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