meteing capital

On the difference between full and incremental capitalisation systems:

In full capitalisation games a little money creates and controls twice as much money. You invest $500 and get to control $1,000 and only half the income. In incremental capitalisation games there is no inflation of capital. Instead it is about income: a small investment controls a larger income flow. $500 controls $500…and 100% of the income. You don’t get free money, you get control of twice as much income. Which is why high pars are so difficult (you can’t get enough of the income you control to buy more shares quickly enough) and cross-investing rather than a gift of capital is a direct attack (your investment has stolen their income and fundamentally weakened their company for the long term).

Which in sum shows what’s needed for a successful second company: enough opportunity (usually time but can be track etc) for enough income to out-perform other opportunities.

counting cain

I’ve long mused on writing an article on Track-Tile Rosters In The 18xx: Their Use & Management. And clearly until now I haven’t. Well, almost. Perhaps a collection of quotes from my posts on the area will suffice.

A collection of minor and marginally impolitic rants about track-tile management and use in the 18xx, with focus paid to their use and abuse by players and the process of learning to do so.

On the use, abuse and lack of recognition of the existence of the track-game in the 18xx:

Summarising: You and your opponents are either too incompetent to see the track games before you or (less likely but it happens) are unwilling to engage them, and are (as sadly the vast majority of players are) utter crap at offensive track management and route building. Which is fine. It just means that there’s large chunks of the game you have neither seen or learned yet and so you have things still to do. Good stuff. The first step is recognition of the opportunity.

But your and your opponent’s incompetence does not mean that the game is absent.

Done well, track will just seem to happen, to be obviously impossible or inevitable and of course it came out that way. But it came out that way because a good track builder knows the tile distribution and the timing constraints of the game and made it happen. They saw that you’d need a #23 in a few rounds and arranged for them to all be used elsewhere, that you needed a #46 to do the second best thing and…oh well, that too. And that all the tiles they need are just automatically available when they need them, perhaps liberated by the upgrade their other company did just before. And this all looks so natural and easy that it seems incidental.

And it isn’t. No more than Curry’s casually tossed off 3-pointers or Messi’s corner kicks that tuck into the net with the light inevitability of gravity, or Bjoern Borg’s effortless ground play driving McEnroe to his knees – those aren’t just fate either, and for the same reasons.

But most players are crap at track. Really utterly dreadful. Even many of the old hands have just never put in the work to fully learn how to play the track game. Instead they think it is about drawing point-to-point lines using funny-shaped tiles…and then they struggle and hem and haw over irrelevant details and wondering what tile does what or if there is a tile that does this…and never give a thought to having planned those lays three ORs ago and having already considered and managed the implications of the other connections incidentally created by that track lay and what that does to the mix of available tiles and how that affects every other company’s track future…and thus they miss the game staring them in the face.

Which is not to say that the track game is the greatest or best sub-game in the 18xx. It isn’t. It is just one sub-game among several, and it happens to be the one that novice players are most ready to claim is obviously absent…(as I did)…and then spend untold hours faffing about and mostly accomplishing nothing and using that as a demonstration of their conclusion rather than of their inability.

Start out by learning the tile roster. Every tile, every count, and all of its connectivity and upgrade paths. This is easy enough in 1830 – there are only 85 tiles across 46 tile types in the game, so that’s fairly easy. Then start thinking about the implications of dits not upgrading, of the double dits and OO tiles in particular, of how many edges are ever connected by a given track tile and why 1830’s permissive track rules are important there…and then you should be able to give a reasoned argument for why there are only four #7s and #57s in the game…any why, and thus how you setup to use that limit to or against your advantage.

Then leading forward into the particulars, the actual management and definition of the problem space:

How many different possible ways are there for one line of track to cross a tile? A moment’s thought tells you 3: straight, broad & sharp curve. Okay, that’s 9 tiles down: the simple track, dits and yellow cities. Ooops, two of the yellow city types are missing, so 7. (I wonder why? Go to the map and fiddle for a bit, imagine what could be done with broad and sharp curve cities – ooooh, lots of balance problems there!) Next, let’s look at tiles with two routes. How many different possibilities are there? Yeah, a lot. Okay, break it down: How many where the two routes don’t intersect and join at an edge? So two different routes joining a total of four edges.... There are 9. Ergo there are 9 possibilities for green co-existing track tiles, 9 possible double dits and 9 possible brown OO tiles. Of course 1830 doesn’t have them all, for instance there are only 5 double dit tiles – so 4 are missing. Same for the brown OOs. And only 4 greens? Which are missing, and do the different tile types overlap?

Okay what about the green switches? Two routes connecting only three edges? How many of those can there be? Well, obviously one route could be a straight, broad or sharp; and the other route could also be a straight, broad or sharp…but they have to connect, so they could connect at either end of the first track. Oh, and some of them are impossible like straight/straight can never connect only 3 edges and broad/broad is either 3 or 4 edges and is rotationally symmetric…and yeah, a bunch of them fall out for being the same shape, just rotated, like the broad/broad switch is the same track no matter how you spin it. So fiddle with pencil and paper for a few minutes and you should come up with 10.

There are 10 possible green switches. 9 possible coexisting patterns and 10 switches. That’s not so many. Are they all in the game? Grrrrr, some are missing. Which?

Green cities? They connect 4 edges. How many permutations? Yup, 3: X, K and chicken foot. Except the last isn’t in 1830. Hurm, these exceptions are starting to be annoying. Still, we’ve just done 26 of the 46 different tile-types in the game and have spent what? Only a few minutes? More than half way done in so little time or effort.

On to the browns. Oh, they are a mess! So confusing! Or are they? We’ll use the same tools to cut them down to size. How many different routes on a brown tile? Yep, 3 or 4. Unghh. Okay, how many different edges are connected on any given tile? Yep, 3 or 4 and…yes..all the ones with 3 edges also only use 3 routes. And a given edge with track only ever has 1 or 2 routes. Never 3. Okay, grab your pencil and paper: How many possible ways are there of doing that? Now for the 4s, how many? And…which are missing from 1830?

Nothing joins 5 or 6 edges…? Oh, just the brown cities. Everything else tops out at 4. Really, everything. Go check. Does that have any…significance? Yeah, connected edges never go away across upgrades…so every time you lay a yellow tile you’re committing 2 of the 4 possible edges to be connected for the rest of the game. And when you do a green upgrade to a switch you’re committing the 3rd edge…which means that only one more edge can ever be connected. There are only 4 edges, ever.

There are no 5- or 6-edge simple track tiles. So during upgrades you can just count the edges, and if its 3 or 4 its possible, but otherwise, no go no how. Hang on, 1830 track is permissive! That means that when you plop down a green co-existing tile you’ve just dictated, forever, which 4 edges of that hex will be connected for the rest of the game. And switches…they commit two routes to an edge. Once that switch is down, nothing else will ever connect to that edge. Ever. Those are pretty strong commitments that you’re making with simple track-lays. Maybe, just maybe, you could use those little tidbits to make decisions?

So far in this little exercise you’ve spent what? We’ll call it an hour, maybe two hours; a little under or over. And yet you’re already significantly ahead of most 18xx players. Truly. Now keep going and figure out some more patterns. As you’ve seen, it isn’t hard and pretty quickly things like that 4-edges bit fall out, and that’s one hell of a handy weapon. Are there more?

Is any bit of the above process hard or even particularly time-consuming? No. Its just simple stuff, applied simply, one step at a time in simple and even obvious ways. Just plod along thinking it through, step-by-step. The only things that screw it up are the exceptions/missing-tiles – but even those tend to fall out in fairly clear-cut ways when you carry them back to the game and ask yourself, What would happen if these were present in the game? Would they significantly change things or would they just be irrelevant? Why? Does it make things easier or harder? For…everyone or just in these special cases? Do those special cases matter? Really?

It is easy. A bit laborious I’ll give you, but easy enough that just spending time and low levels of effort will get you there – things to fiddle with in your head while in the shower or commuting – and the pay-backs are strong and close to immediate in your games.

On holding the bar and setting expectations:

No, you’re way overstating and in the process affirming the dilettante’s self-reassuring assumption of, “That’s too much work…” Rather than holding up the clearly visible and should-be-rotely-assumed goal: Of course people know these sorts of things about the games they play.

The idea that things like the above aren’t an automatic part of playing any game, that they are just as obviously necessary as knowing the rules, is something continues to baffle me. What do you think of the player who asks the same questions about the game rules, makes the same mistakes, again and again and again, game after game after game after game after game after game? The same rules questions. The same mistakes and stumbles. Every game. Again. Why is that any different than a player asking and stumbling and tripping over the same questions about the track-tiles in a game, game after game after game after game? How is it different? The track tiles and their arrangements are just as much game rules as those about selling shares or running trains.

That said, I’ll happily admit that it took me a long time to get to seeing the above and using them constructively, starting from scratch with no guidance, but that wasn’t for lack of pushing. It was manifestly obvious to me that something was possible even if I didn’t yet see what it was, and so I hammered away and didn’t get far for a while. (It took a comment from Mark Frazier before the flashbulbs all went off)

Estimation of effort and structural similarities to trick-taking card games:

At no point am I deriding people who haven’t learned or figured out this stuff. I am deriding those who aren’t even trying. We all start out not knowing. The question is, What are you doing about that?

I assume you play or have played Poker or Rummy or Canasta or Euchre or some such. How many cards are there in a standard french suited deck? 52? How many suits? 4? What are the suits? Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades? How many colours? 2? How long is each suit? 13? What are all the cards in a suit? Ace, 2, 3, 4…10, jack, queen, king?

Simple, right?

You know all that, and I bet know it without a second thought and consider it “easy” and “automatic”. You likely use this knowledge in deciding what cards to play in games like Hearts without blinking. 1830 track tiles are not substantially different. They are just funny shaped cards. Their particulars are a bit different, but not a lot different: they just have a colour and 1-4 lines drawn across them in some pretty limited and standardised ways. They’re actually simpler than playing cards!

You also know the various melds for playing cards like 3 and 4 of a kind, runs of cards in order etc. Track tiles are also laid out in ordered structures, essentially cards in a shared tableau we call the “board” and the placement rules are even simpler than those for say Poker melds: Put down any tile anywhere so long as it:

a) Matches the type of what's underneath it.
b) Doesn't change what was there before.
c) Can trace a line from the new tile back to one of your
station markers.

And that’s pretty much it. (Everything else is basically an edge case or exception) Or if you want:

a) You have to follow suit.
b) The card must be bigger than the previous card if any.
c) Some connection rule which maybe doesn't map to
trick-taking card games well.

That’s really not so hard.

This isn’t a question of me operating in realms beyond mere mortals. Ptui! There’s not a single damned thing listed out above which you and every other reader here can’t observe, utterly and completely, in a few seconds. I’ve done nothing unusual above beyond articulate something that’s mostly obvious in one (hopefully) fairly cogent lump.

And of course, the parallels in Carcassonne, honing in on structure:

Carcassonne tiles have basically three types of features: castles, cloisters & roads. Each feature has simple constraints/patterns: castles always join 0 or 2 corners of the tile; cloisters sit in the middle of the tile; roads always run from the midpoint of the edge to the center of the tile, are never inside castles, and there can be 0-4 of them. And…that’s it. If you want to add in the river, it follows the same patterns as and is exclusive of roads. That’s pretty much everything structurally. Everything from there is about the distribution, how many of this tile versus that.

And I don’t think memory is really useful – certainly not in the presence of a tile sheet that’s just handed out – or for 1830 either. It isn’t being able to chant off how many #45s there are in the game (2), but rather understanding the patterns and rules of the system that’s been built. What is possible? What isn’t possible? What are the constraints? Which priorities does this create on players? How do you detect, determine and assess those? What edges does this knowledge create and how can you use it? Etc. None of that is based on learning tile counts, though that tends to happen as a side effect, but instead on understanding the implicit rules of the game as explicitly encapsulated in the tiles. There is a pattern and a logic and a set of structured limits there that can be readily understood and used.

In Carcassonne players learn really quickly to count the number of open edges on their castles. The more edges, the harder it is to ever close. Simple enough and not a memory thing. 18xx track has similar structures: 2 routes maximum on an edge, no more than 4 connected edges, 3 basic track types, 9 co-existings, 10 switches, all brown tiles are pairs of switches (there’s a new one for you)… All these things define the space in which the game happens and implicitly define the game rules even if they never have words put to them in the rules. They are just as much the rules to the game as what the train limit is or how much money the players start with.

So learn the rules to the game.

goes around, comes around

Until now the development of 1820 has been mostly discussed on BGG. Given the new blog stack etc, it seems time to bring that back home.

1820 has been developing apace1 and is now in rather fine if not-quite-complete fettle. I don’t know that there are any problems2, but the end-game hasn’t been fully proven out3 and I don’t think I can adequately validate that here. At least not within my lifetime. To the bat c…, umm, external development! So play-tester copies need to be made and that means not only more use of XXPaper’s new-found support for The Game Crafter, but also getting John Tamplin’s/Deep Thought Game‘s track-tile generation4 and production system setup here5.

So, what to do while that’s going on? I’ve been talking about setting a game in Java for a few yearsnow, but those ideas are too undeveloped to use now. 18RT is an older and troubled design. Many of its ideas were taken by 1820, but not all and while most of what’s left is crap, perhaps there are worthwhile bits to rescue. Thus 1836 is born – in Cuba7 commemorating Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros‘ founding of the first railway service in Camagüey (aka Puerto Príncipe aka Port-au-Prince)8.

Sugar train

In launching any new design it is always easy to make it a derivative or extension of the prior design. While I don’t want difference for difference’s sake, 1836 should stand on its own feet as an independent and original design.

Already a troublesome goal.


The center of the game of 1836 is Cuba’s sugar trains. Those are the minor companies that start the game.

Sugar train

Then, later, come in the trams to ferry people – these are the major companies. It is unclear which might be more profitable.

As Cuba is poor, 1836 will not be a rich game. Instead the expectation is that players will be deep in debt for the entire game, but through asset growth their net values will end up being positive (maybe) by the end of the game. Figure winning scores in the $hundreds, maybe just over $1,000-ish after accounting for a fat handful of loans (eg: ending the game with $5,000 in assets and $4,200 in loans for a net score of $800).

  • Basic economic model the same as 1820 (incremental capitalisation, where shares pay, no half pays etc).
    • Stock movement is a little different:
      • Pay a dividend of your stock price to move up.
      • Pay a dividend of double your stock price to double-jump.
      • Pay less and fall.
      • Fall again if you didn’t have a train.
  • A variation on 1820‘s free track system.
    • No simple track.
    • Every hex is a double dit.
    • Double dits can then upgrade to OO and more typical green cities (eg #14, #15, etc).
  • As Cuba is long and skinny and free-track-like systems don’t work too well with narrow constraints, I’ve “fattened” the island10.
    • This made the map too large, and so I’m cutting into two sections along the coloured lines seen below, with a two-hex overlap between the sections.
  • Players start with no capital, but can borrow money.
    • Yes, players take loans, not companies.
    • Loans are probably for $200.
    • Currently expected interest rate is 40%.
  • The train progression is the typical yellow, green, blue, brown, red, gray.
    • Minors can only run/own “G” trains. Majors can only run/own “N” trains.
      • G trains ignore cities and pay dits.
      • N trains ignore dits and pay N cities.
    • Brown rusts green, red rusts blue, gray rusts brown.
    • Yellow 1G trains are rusted by brown and replaced by permanent brown 2Gs.
    • Green trains are thus N trains (for majors only)…and are probably 2Ts.
  • The game starts (SR1) with a ~dozen ~5 share minors,
    • Auctioned by an as-yet-unknown method.
      • I want a simultaneous auction ala 1820‘s lobby system, but do not want to recreate/re-use 1820‘s lobby system.
        • Goa’s spatial auction has been haunting my head.
          • But it is too involved.
          • But I love the idea of players paying other players in the initial auction.
    • Minors are only available in SR1.
    • Minors must start adjacent to ports.
      • On a yellow city.
        • The sole exception to the rule of all yellow track tiles being double dits.
    • Minors can lay two yellow track tiles per OR or one upgrade.
    • Minors do not pay terrain costs for yellow track.
    • Minors have a single station marker until later in the game when they gain a second station marker which may be placed for free(?).
    • Minors start with a 1G train which pays dits and not cities.
      • Yellow dits are worth $5. More in later colours.
      • The 1G rusts in brown and is replaced by a 2G train.
        • This is probably when the second station becomes available.
  • In SR2 and later majors can be started.
    • Two stations (home plus one, free placement)
    • Cannot lay yellow track but can do 2 upgrades per OR.
    • Major’s N-trains cannot run on yellow track.
    • Minors can merge into majors:
      • Each pair of minor shares trades for a major share.
      • Loose shares can pay up or get cash instead.
  • Yellow double dits upgrade to:
    • Green double dits (one of the dits grows a third leg, the other dit gets more revenue)
    • Green OO cities (same spacing requirements as big cities in 1820)
    • Green normal cities, but with 5 legs.
  • Upgrades from there do nothing interesting except that the brown OO tiles have one of the cities growing a leg and the other getting more revenue.
  • No director’s certificates.
    • Same buy-to-40% to float as in 1820.
      • Yeah, this really is its own game…
  • All shareholders are liable.
    • Mostly this means emergency buying trains.
      • Like loan debts in 1820, shares in play are obligated to cover their fraction of the expense.
  • Game ends after…?
    • Probably after N ORs in gray.
    • Intended game length is 6 SRs.
      • Well before Castro.

1836 development map

  1. I guess getting to here in about 4 years is a “pace”. 

  2. I’m not expecting anything big. A cousin or a port might profit from a small adjustment, a terrain on a hex here or there perhaps. 

  3. To wit the tension BR and the final viable with a FLOOD. I suspect that the game is a little too heavily canted against the final viable company, but that’s dashed hard to tell conclusively. 

  4. The software stack, custom die for my Ellison Prestige Pro and whatever physical system they use for die registration. 

  5. Conceivably I could hack ps18xx to produce track tiles to fit DTG’s dies, but I expect that bleeds would be a problem. 

  6. I’m going to miss using ps18xx for track tiles… 

  7. I’d originally intended Ireland, but it seems mannerly to give Ian Scrivins’ 18Ireland some room. 

  8. Albeit horse-drawn. While Cuba has one of the most extensive railway systems in the world, arguably the largest per capita, Cuba operates on small scales. 

  9. But can borrow money at only faintly usurious rates. 

  10. Hopefully still recognisable. 

Shivering Newness

Welcome to the new old blog.

In short I’m moving off Wordpress and moving to a static-HTML solution built atop Nikola. Why? Because it doesn’t come with the load and security concerns of Wordpress, PHP, database servers, XSS, etc. Smaller, simpler, easier and rather more care-free, not least across upgrades.

The old blog:

The prior blog format

Some features are being lost in the transition:

  • dict integration (I’d link keywords to their dictionary definitions) is gone. Mayhap I’ll get around to writing an extension for PyMarkdown for that, but it won’t be now.

  • Automatic cross-linking of keywords and phases to other pages/sites. This mostly means that a lot of links to BoardGameGeek for various game names have fallen out. The names are still there, but the links are not. Again…maybe I’ll write an extension some day to do that.

  • Comments. They’re gone. Sorry. I’m not yet sure what I want to do here. Isso is a strong possibility – not least because I’ll have a possibility of porting the old comments over – but I don’t want to hang up this migration with the larger question of what comment system to use.

  • Image galleries are not quite so nice. Sigh.

And of course there was an excuse for a visual redesign. I so rarely do UI work; this was rather enjoyable.

Ahh well, I now see 20 things to fix 5 seconds after hitting deploy. ‘Tis ever thus. If you notice any problems, please feel free to drop me a note at the email address in the footer.

Let run the maps of foreign lands

I’ve finally (ha!) gotten around to preparing three of the maps I put together for commercial publication for free print-and-play:

  1. Age of Steam: Wales
  2. Age of Steam: SE-Australia
  3. Age of Steam: Denmark

Age of Steam: Wales

Age of Steam: Wales features a lot of terrain, multiple track gauges, and different Links for narrow and standard gauge track. The result is a remarkably smooth game which rewards track and expense planning more than most maps.

Playtester feedback (which stretched over a year) consistently rated this game highly with couples (which surprised me).

Age of Steam: SE Australia

The changes in Age of Steam: SE Australia are large, sweeping and easy to under-estimate. More work went into this map and the analysis behind it than any other two maps I’ve designed put together (other than Denmark). There’s a lot of months spent with spreadsheets in there. But that’s what happens when you rework the a game’s economic system from scratch.

Age of Steam: SE Australia introduces an entirely new economic system, more dynamic and player responsive than Age of Steam’s default system, and one which bears surface similarities to Steam’s system (but was developed long before Steam’s release), but puts much heavier focus on accurate long-term planning and precise execution than Steam’s system – most especially end-game planning starting in the very early game.

And yet it seems so simple and fluid on the surface. No more income reduction until the very late game, simpler expenses calculation, several limits relaxed…so nice and easy…and then it isn’t. If anything the game is tougher and crunchier than classic Age of Steam…but it is easy to miss that until the late mid-game when you’re suddenly painfully haunted and crippled by your early game.

Age of Steam: Denmark

Age of Steam: Denmark is the culmination of the changes started in Age of Steam: SE Australia; taking the new economic system introduced there and carrying it all the way forward to also rewrite how Links are handled with an entirely new and somewhat ground-breaking definition of the Locomotive action.

Yep, you can upgrade from 2 Links all the way to 9 Links…in one upgrade action…but not with Locomotive…

Without reservation, I recommend three players here. Try dominating the Locomotive action every single turn until the early late game…and then upgrading all the way to your end-game Links in one step (and a lot of income). There’s a fundamental opportunity for a fully viable (but not dominant) hail mary approach to the game here that’s simply not seen in other maps. That, and auction price management becomes an even bigger deal than usual.

Age of Steam: Denmark marks the zenith of my explorations into Age of Steam.


Pidgeon opponents

Another thing written elsewhere

Part of respecting your opponents is respecting them as opponents and thus being willing to have them win or lose, to be hurt or happy, to succeed or be crushed or be somewhere in the middle. They are grownups now: they can and should take care of themselves. They are your opponent and that is what they are there for, so respect them for it and give them the roughest, most aggressively unforgiving, unrelenting and challenging game you can along with and as part of your respect.

Evaluating evolution

Note: The below was originally written as an email to a friend just starting out with an 18xx design project. I’ve copied (and lightly edited) it here for preservation.

More directly, I think you are losing sight of the game, or at least where the game lies within the larger system.

The 18xx are fairly simply structured from two and a half almost-complete games bolted together. There is a spatial route building game and a stock market game, and they are glued together with a creative destruction technology race to make one complete game. Each of those components is damn near a standalone game in its own right, and certainly other games have been made from just those subsystems (Greentown, Lokomotive Werks, etc), but at the end they are just mostly-isolated subsystems with the actually interesting bits in their connections to each other (the players sit in the connections).

The internal structures created by that glueing process are also boldly simple:

  • There’s an evaluation function which each company uses to generate a number using as inputs the network on the board and the trains in the company, and we call that evaluation function “running trains”. You can get all sort of complicated here about the details of track and tokens etc, but at the end of the day there’s just a function that does something and returns a number that is input into the stock market game. All the rest is internal implementation details. Sometimes the number is a bit special in that it expresses a liability for the president (emergency train buy), but it is still just a number communicated from the evaluation function to the stock market game.

  • The stock market game takes the numbers that the network game generates and thence changes its own numbers in well known ways.

  • And, as a back-flow, the stock market game moves some of its numbers back into companies (withholdings, etc) via the creative destruction technology race glue to change the inputs to the network evaluation function (train purchases and rustings).

And thence of course those new numbers go into the stock market game and so forth.

And so we have a triangle: The network game informs the stock market game which informs the technology game which informs the network game which…etc. And the players sit in the middle fiddling with the dials in all three sub-games: moving the numbers around in the stock market game (shares), moving the numbers around in the technology game (trains), and moving the numbers around in the network game (building/changing routes), all while the loop keeps cycling as a feedback loop, round and round and round.

Which I assume you already know – there should be no surprises there – but you might not have articulated in such a stark format. More usefully and more to my point, what this really basic deconstruction does is to highlight where the game is. The game is in the players fiddling at those three key junctures in the triangular feedback loop while the game spins underneath them:

  • Players can fiddle with shares

  • Players can fiddle with technology

  • Players can fiddle with the evaluation function inputs

And that’s pretty much it. Everything else is in the feedback loop orchestrated by the rotating sequence of SRs and ORs stepping around and around the feedback loop and relentlessly driving the game forward.

What this means however as a game designer, is that it outlines where your interests and activities lie. In order to do something interesting in the 18xx world you have to either alter one of the three interaction points (shares, technology, evaluation function) in a way that substantially changes player concerns, or you have to alter the properties of the feedback loop itself (1880 did this latter with its new intertwingled OR/SR model; 1846 did this by fundamentally changing the feedback loop of money with how its incrementally capitalised companies work; 1860 did this by allowing entities to enter, leave, roboticise and re-enter the player interaction-space, etc etc etc).

My general sense is that at the litmus-test level, in order for any change to be interesting, it must substantially affect at least two corners of the triangle in ways that provide both substantial opportunities and problems for the players to address. Just touching one corner isn’t enough, as that’s almost instantly an internal implementation detail rather than anything materially interesting. And so you need at least two player touch-points to change in a way that’s substantial and different and interesting.

But more usefully (I hope), that deconstruction provides a set of analysis tools and litmus tests for your candidate changes. You can look at any candidate change and ask how it affects those three contact points, how that change to those contact points significantly alters the three stages of the feedback loop and thence how it changes the player’s competitive lives. And if you come up with a good answer, your idea potentially has some good legs under it, and if you don’t come up with a good answer, then your idea is more likely just shuffling the deck-chairs around.

And, shrug, I find that useful, as it sure weeds out a lot of options that fiddle little numbers inside one of the touch points without actually doing anything structural. Oh look, now this little internal number that isn’t actually a primary contact point is a little larger or smaller or different or has little brass bells and is painted red…but everything else is exactly the same…and…this…is…interesting…WHY? I do that a lot, and then I slap myself on the back of the head, say “Doh!” and move on.


PS BtB this deconstruction has an amusing side effect of also dropping out the four basic types of 18xx by extrapolation – which is kinda cute and unexpected (by me).

Notes on a vantage

Three quick quips which I’ve had cause to reference multiple times and thus seem useful to keep stashed. First a comment on how and why I live:

Meanwhile the universe is interesting, delightfully interesting even, and I apply and dedicate my awareness and interest to that end. I assume, generously and with scant evidence, that it is a Good Thing to Have Understood, or at least to have Striven to Understand. I don’t know if that is in fact true, it seems quite likely that it isn’t, but it also seems a fine and possibly even wonderful conceit to live under.

And thence on the critical structures and requirements of something being a (viable) game:

That the answer is complex.

Primarily I see it as a function of cognitive ability. Oh, not in any elitist or superiority sense, but simply in terms of capacity. Tic-tac-toe is a fine game for younger children as they simply don’t yet have the cognitive abilities necessary for recognising what’s necessary to remove the game. It is rather less interesting if you or I played it. Similarly, the game of Go is very interesting for people precisely because we don’t have the cognitive capacity to remove the game. In short: in order to be a game the system as presented must fundamentally exceed our ability to comprehend the system.

How it exceeds us, by complexity for instance, or by stressing analytical forms we humans are inherently weak at like conditional probability, or by requiring modes of thought that we’ve not yet fully developed (and thus a lot of games for pre-adolescents stress symbolic thought as they’ve only just developed that capacity (it comes in around age 11)) – how it exceeds us really doesn’t matter, just that it exceeds us and is hauntingly close to the apparent edge of our capacities so as to provide the taunting illusion of almost-graspability. And it will remain a game only to the point that no matter how hard we study and analyse and work it, that we will still not fully understand the system represented or implied by the game.

(Somewhere in here there’s a fine rant that I’ll skip for now on the necessity for ambiguity in games, and how far too many so-called “games” are not in fact games because they don’t contain ambiguity: they just have game-states that are hard or laborious to parse)

Now a kicker in this is that most games rely on the fact that as humans we cannot completely model another human (of comparable capacity to ourselves). Godel’s incompleteness theorem guarantees that, and provides the primary reason I rarely ever play 2-player games. The problem here is that the modelling problem is also a cheap out for lazy game designers (ahem – there’s no subjectivity in this declaration, no sirree!). In this I find that the more interesting games exceed their players in both their systemic demands and in their demands of modelling the other players (and thus in the intersection of multiplayer interactions and the system, an implicit third factor).

After that basic, well, it gets murky and subjective and ever so much more complex. A lot of the subjective preferences there are arm-wavingly discussed in my profile text here on BGG. And, not to short shrift you too badly, I need to get ready for a gamesday with one of the top 18xx players in the world (Todd vander Pluym) who is in the area for a few days…and fascinating as this question is (and it is truly interesting), that’s a time-bounded opportunity and this question isn’t. Sorry.

And finally on the activity of playing games:

I find that face-to-face games provide context and variety which is largely not available in solo study. That alone more than makes face-to-face play worthwhile. Just participating in a game with other actors, and observing those actors, actors not in my mind, suffices a lot of my requirements for playing a game as you say. Much of anything I may think during that time or later will be catalysed and informed by my observation of those actors during the game – which is the great thing about playing games rather than merely thinking about games.