Pick a card: a shunting game for the garden railway

At the 2013 “Longest day” steamup some of our visitors were taken with the operational possibilities of the line, and wanted to actually, you know, operate the railway. At that stage I had a few pipe-dreams and half sketched out ideas for operating schemes, but needed to come up with something right now, that would be quick to produce, simple and easy to understand but challenging enough to be interesting, and fun. As it was a free-for-all steamup full-on timetable and working to rulebook was out, so I decided to concentrate on shunting operations and let the trains run freely once made up. It seemed to work, and kept the keen one amused for quite some time. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients: An assortment of wagons, some small self-adhesive labels, a pack of cards and some dice.

Preparation: Count the total number of wagons available (home and visitors’) for the shunting game, and count out that number of cards from the pack. Write on the labels, one to correspond to each card eg 7♣ for seven of spades, J♦ for Jack of diamonds. It doesn’t have to be pretty, merely readable. I used black and red pens to help identify the suits. Apply the labels to the wagons (choose easy-peel-off labels if you’re worried about delicate paintwork). Put the wagons out in your various loops and sidings, and leave the corresponding card in a stack at the appropriate station. We had one stack at each terminus, not using the intermediate stations so as not to block the running line for other visiting steamers who weren’t playing the game.

Play: Steam a loco. While pressure is building, roll the dice (how many dice depends on the number of wagons available and the preferred maximum length of train: For example 3 dice will yield and average train length of 10.5 wagons with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 18). Shuffle the pile of cards for that station and draw a number equal to the result of the die roll: eg Roll, 3, 2 and 3 for 8 so draw 8 cards. The challenge then is to find the wagons represented by the cards drawn, and marshal them into a train in the order drawn (representing the fact that pickup goods trains weren’t built up any old how, but assembled into the proper order for maximum convenience shunting, attaching and detaching en route), not forgetting the brake van at the rear. Once the train is assembled, take the cards representing the train with you and head out onto the main line for a run (as long as you like, we’re not being strict here) before arriving at the other terminus. Upon arrival, add your cards to the bottom of the pile already present, and begin again with a fresh die roll for the return journey. Alternatively you could shuffle the cards, but adding them to the bottom of the pile is more realistic because it took time to unload wagons and one freshly arrived is unlikely to be ready to go back straight away (unless it can be unloaded very quickly, like a hopper or a cattle truck).

In practice it worked quite well, with enough work for three or even four engines (two working goods trains, and one shunting at each end while the train engines were refreshed and re-steamed). Whilst we didn’t use the intermediate stations and sidings, they could be added into the game with some simple rules changes (eg 1st wagon dropped at 1st station, either every time or maybe flip a coin and drop a wagon if you get heads), and 1 terminus off the circuit would be sufficient (we just used two because I have two). Have a go, modify to suit yourself, and if you come up with an improvement feel free to share it with us!

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