|Setup time||10 minutes|
|Playing time||90 minutes|
|Skill(s) required||Strategic thought|
The game is in two stages; in the first part players draw tracks on the card using washable finetip pens (allowing the board to be cleaned for reuse). Players have a building allowance each turn; building through difficult terrain costs more moves. Players earn money for connecting cities to their railway network, and pay other players for connecting to or building alongside their track.
Once all cities are joined by railway tracks, the second part of the game starts. Players race their trains along the tracks between randomly chosen pairs of cities; just as in real life, players must pay other players to use elements of their track if they don't have a complete route of their own. The choice of routes raced is random; each city is used one or more times. Money is awarded to the trains that arrive first and second, and the player with the most money when all routes have been raced is the winner.
Watts, a geography teacher, originally developed the game as a teaching aid to help students become familiar with the geography of industrialized countries and to try to demonstrate how geography and competition had resulted in lines being developed in some places but not others. He had self-published the game, initially in kit form (hex sheets and colouring instructions) for many years, from at least the early 1970s, before it was released in a boxed set. Trading as "Rostherne Games", Watts sold individual maps, together with brief instructions and the special dice required. Many maps were available, based on Watts' own encyclopedic knowledge of railway history, and each set in a specific geographical area, such as England, Scotland, Leeds to Liverpool, or India. The maps were made of laminated paper, and the Rostherne Games edition of Railway Rivals was both addictive and very cheap. During the height of the UK postal Diplomacy hobby in the 1980s and 1990s, Railway Rivals (with slightly adapted rules to allow for simultaneous building) was probably the second most widely played game after Diplomacy itself, with several zines (including Watts' own Rostherne Games Review) dedicated principally to Railway Rivals.
In the 1980s, the game was formally published first by Butehorn and then by Schmidt Spiele (from 1981), both in Germany, and won the Spiel des Jahres in 1984. In the UK, it was the mass-market Games Workshop edition that brought it to many people's attention. The GW game board was made of laminated card, with a map of Central England on one side and the Western USA on the other; pens, dice and small plastic trains were also included. The game has subsequently been republished under its German name, Dampfross, initially by Laurin (1990) and then by Queen Games (1995). In 1998 Watts sold the rights to all Rostherne Games to Theo Clarke.
Initially, the towns on the maps were indexed by the 36 numbers 11-66, allowing a town to be randomly generated by rolling two standard dice. Some towns could have more than one index number associated with them; for example, on maps that included London, it was usual for London to have 4 or even 6 index numbers to reflect its size. As Watts' experience increased, map design got more complex. It became standard for a map to have six "special runs" to destinations at the edges of the map, or special classes of town (for example, sea ports). In redesigns of some early maps, valleys were widened, to make it easier for more than one player to have a route along them. The building cost of going into or out of a hill was also reduced, again increasing competition for previously secure groups of towns.
The first digit of a town's number was considered its "sector" and in postal games GMs would ensure that in the racing phase each sector would see one race to each other sector and one to a special run, to ensure a uniform distribution of the races. In the game's late-1980s and early-1990s heyday, Watts appeared to target a more "gamer" than "family" audience, producing maps on larger hex sheets and with 52 towns indexed by cards rather than the 42 given by the towns + special runs. This led to games taking longer to complete; this appears to have been unpopular with the market, as from 1992 on new map designs in general went back to having 36 towns + special runs and using smaller hex sheets. At this point Watts began to make more use of "small towns", towns which shared their index number with one other town and only scored 3 points rather than 6 for the first player to connect to them; this seems to have been a compromise to allow him to encourage the development of historically occurring tracks without lengthening the game.
The original maps are now out of print. Nevertheless, hundreds of after-market maps have been developed for Railway Rivals (including one for Middle-earth), and they can be developed straightforwardly by enthusiasts. It is also interesting to compare the results of games of Railway Rivals with the way that real railways developed in a particular area.