Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de

Canal Mania


Steve Kendall &
Phil Kendal

Ragnar Brothers




Gamebox author Doug Adams writes about the game:

Canal Mania (3 to 5 players) is the latest game from Ragnar Brothers, who always seem to publish interesting games. They are usually referred to around here as "the tea towel games", due to the fact their games boards are normally printed on a linen towel. Breaking news - there is no tea towel in Canal Mania!

Canal Mania is set in the golden age of canal construction, which a swift piece of research informs me began around 1760. During the industrial revolution in England, a reliable transportation system had to be developed to cope with the increased goods production. Steam trains hadn't been invented yet, and horses couldn't cope with the size of the loads. Roads were subject to the weather conditions. The solution was to construct a network of canals across England, where goods were shipped on canal boats.

Canal Mania places players at the head of "companies" that acquire contracts to build canals, construct these canals, and operate them by shipping goods. Players earn victory points for canal infrastructure, shipment of goods, and bonuses at the end of the game for completed canal contracts.

The components in the game are solid and functional, and serve the game systems well. A hex grid game mounted game board shows a large chunk of England, from Kent to Lancashire. There are six cities and 36 towns on the board - each city and town has an associated colour, which is important when it comes to placing and transporting goods. The other feature of the board is the two terrain types - "clear" and "difficult".


There are around 100 cards in the game, and I have to say the card quality is not good. The cardstock is quite thin, and the cards receive a good amount handling during the game. I popped my cards straight into protector sleeves before my first game.

The cards broken up into decks of Canal Contracts (30), Engineers (5), summary cards (2), and Build Cards (approximately 70). At the beginning of the game each player is dealt an engineer, a clever chap who gives some sort in game bonus, and also helps determine the starting player at various points in the game. Five starting Canal Contracts are revealed (the Parliament), and five Build Cards are revealed to form a drafting pool.

Each player receives a set of playing pieces in their player colour. These consist of 3 plastic canal boats, and a set of 35 canal construction hex tiles (if you can picture a train game, these are just like track tiles). The tiles come in four flavours - stretches/locks, which can only be constructed in "clear" terrain; and tunnels/aqueducts, which can only be constructed in "difficult" terrain. The canal tiles feature a straight section on one side, and a 120-degree curve on the reverse side.

The game is played in turns. Each player takes a complete turn before play passes to the left. Each turn, a player gets three phases of play, and may take one action each phase. In lieu of taking an action, a player may simply draw a card from the Build Deck and add it to their hand. Phases and actions are not as complex as they sound, and a player's turn is quite quick.

During phase 1, the actions available are "Claim a Canal Contract", "Exchange Engineers", or "Refresh Build Cards".

The most useful phase 1 action is to claim a contract from Parliament. This is mandatory if you are not holding any uncompleted contracts. Claiming a contract is a statement of intent that the player will construct a canal between the two locations listed on the contract. Sometimes the contract will indicate a "via this-town" qualifier, indicating the canal route must include that location. To keep things on the straight and narrow, each contract also lists a maximum number of tiles that can be used in the canal - this is a good rule that allows a little leeway in the canal route, but not too much.

A second option for phase 1 is to exchange your current engineer. You simply take the required engineer from whoever is currently holding him, and give that player your unwanted chap. Engineers break the rules, giving discounts or bonuses during appropriate phases of a turn. Using the right engineer at the right time is crucial to success in the game.

The third option for phase 1 is to clear the current draft of Build Cards. The build deck is padded with stretch and lock cards, while aqueducts, tunnel and surveyor (i.e. wild) cards are like gold. If you want to draft cards this turn, and you don't like what's on offer, clear the draft and flip up a new set of five Build Cards.

During phase 2, the actions available are "Build Canals" or "Draft Build Cards".

Drafting Build Cards is exactly that - you pick up three cards. However, some cards have a coloured goods symbol on them, and if they're claimed then two goods cubes have to be seeded onto the board. The colour of the symbol on the card indicates what coloured cities and towns on the map are seeded with a cube. Priorities are given to cities over towns, and connectivity to the canal network over no connectivity. These goods seeding rules add a lovely layer of decision making to the draft - a card that you would like may help others via cube placement on the board.

The other action option for phase 2 is to construct canal sections. When a contract is claimed from Parliament, one of the player's canal boats is placed on one of the terminus towns - this forms the construction "bridgehead" where the canal will begin. To build canal sections, build cards are played and associated tiles are placed onto the board. Clear terrain is easy to build across - stretches and locks only require one card per tile. Difficult terrain is more ... difficult - aqueducts cost two cards, and tunnels cost three cards. The wild surveyor cards are very handy substitutes for the rare aqueduct and tunnel cards, while the engineers Jessop and Telford give very welcome discounts to the costs of aqueducts and tunnels.

Canal construction isn't quite as straightforward as it seems. There is a further requirement in that each canal tile must be a different type to the tile adjacent to it. A player cannot simply lay out a chain of stretch tiles to connect towns together across clear terrain; it will have to be lock - stretch - lock, or stretch - lock - stretch, etc. This simple rule manages to unlock the engineer inside everyone, and gives the construction process something to think about. It's not as simple as slapping down tiles.

If during canal construction the requirements of a contract are met, the contract is flipped face down and each tile in the canal is scored for infrastructure points. Stretch tiles in a completed canal score no points, locks score 1, aqueducts score 2, while tunnels score 3 points each.

Phase 3 is the goods phase - the only action available is to move a goods cube. Goods cubes that have been seeded onto the board are available for shipment. Goods are shipped down canals to other cities and towns, and the more towns the merrier for the canal owners. Each player may ship one goods cube during his or her phase 3 action. They simply pick up the cube and run it over a canal network, with each canal owner scoring a point for each city that cube touched during the run. The restriction on goods movement is that no city of a particular colour can be touched twice - so if a cube starts in London (red), it cannot enter another red town during this run. This effectively caps the run to six towns - one for each colour on the board. Cubes can be run over other player's canals, earning those players points, with the restriction that the final canal section has to be owned by the moving player.

The end game is triggered when either the final five contracts are flipped up into Parliament, or when a player crosses a victory point threshold. The game appears to be so finely tuned, that both of these events seem to occur within a turn of each other. When the end game is triggered, the current round is completed, then each player has a further two turns. After this, any incomplete canals are scored for infrastructure, and players take turns shipping any goods cubes still on the board. A final bonus points payment is paid out to the players based on how many contracts have been completed.

The player with the most points is the winner of the game.

Canal Mania is a very solid design that takes many elements seen in other games, typically train games, and blends them into something different. It's very easy to spot mechanics from the Lancashire Rails/Age of Steam family, Alan Moon's drafting mechanics (lately seen in Ticket to Ride), etc, however this game has it's own personality - contracts are fixed, and once completed cannot be extended. The use of the theme of canal construction into the design is refreshing, and excellently implemented - both in terms of the mechanics and the presentation of the components.

Theme and presentation are worthless if the game doesn't work. Rest assured, Canal Mania works very well - the phase 1, 2, 3 actions are nice and quick, and downtime isn't an issue. There is a nice decision tree to climb, as theoretically your turn could be one of 24 different combinations of actions (4 by 3 by 2). Setting up an effective network of canals is a nice puzzle to solve, and the order that the Canal Contracts become available in Parliament will ensure every game is different.

The game asks some nice questions of the players. The obvious opening move is to connect a canal to a city - they will get priority on the goods cubes and earn a nice income of points. Whence from there, though? Do you go for lots of short contracts? They are quick to build, you'll likely get the contract bonus at the end of the game, but will you pick up enough points via infrastructure and goods? Early short contracts may be a good thing, as they will attract cubes to ship - but is 2 or 3 points per cube enough? The flip side is long routes, potentially taking in several cities and towns, throwing up a swag of points from both tiles and goods - however you're likely to not receive the juicy bonus points at the end of the game. Also, how many turns will it take to get a long route up and running (and earning)? It's all nice stuff to consider.

I strongly recommend Canal Mania, especially if you are a fan of delivery, train or connectivity games. On the weight scale, it sits between the fluffy Ticket to Ride games, but beneath the heavier Age of Steam/18xx games. A typical game will take around 100 minutes, although glacial players who like to think will slow it down. It gives the gamer some thinking to do, without frying the brain too much.

Canal Mania is an excellent game, and one of the best new games I've played in 2006.

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Copyright © 2006 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany