Gulf, Mobile & Ohio by Eddie Robin is a member of the Winsome Games 2008 Essen Collection and it is an odd game, a curiously odd game. Every player I’ve taught it to has exclaimed what a strange game it is!
On the face of it the game is relatively simple. Across player turns a variety of companies start and grow, worm-like from their start locations to connect to other cities and each other. There are 25 companies, each represented by two shares, a founder’s share and a secondary share. Initially only 8 companies are available, scattered about the edges of the board. During the course of the game additional companies from the rest of the 25 become available based on the activity of earlier companies. Victory points are earned by connecting companies to cities and to each other. Money is used only as a funding source for winning shares which give the right to build with a company.
Physically the companies are represented by coloured cubes placed in hexes. The restrictions on cube placement are simple:
- A railway company must start with a cube in its home city
- Company cubes are placed in hexes adjacent to one or more cubes of the same company
- One one cube may ever be placed in an empty/clear hex
- No cubes may be placed in the gray mountains
- Any number of cubes may be placed in cities
- No cube may be placed such that its ownership cannot be traced unambiguously back to a single railroad company.
Given that the colour of cube used by a given company is dictated by which cube colour is most plentifully available at the time the company was founded, that last placement rule is a doozie. In short it means that every worm-pattern of cubes of a given colour for a given railway company is surrounded by a one-hex [[penumbra |penumbra]] of hexes not containing that colour — and the player does not get to chose what colour that is (and thus what other colours it can connect to.
Structurally the game is a process of iteratively managing timing, opportunity and positional advantage. This is not a game of building up companies, establishing an economic powerhouse, carefully assembling synergistic systems or running faster. This is a game of ensuring that other player’s choices are minimally profitable for them and that your choices sum to be (a little) better timed and a little more profitable than their’s. The game is a [[minuet|minuet]] dance, a delicate series of fencing moves, parries, ripostes, lunges and recoveries, each one a tactical dance move carefully gauged to give little ground to others while grabbing every advantage possible. Advantages are often measured in single dollar differences.
While the shares are made available via player-selected auctions, winning a share has little long term implication. What is being auctioned is the opportunity to build for a given railway company. Building is done both to gain victory points1 (building is the only source of victory points) and to minimise or constrain the opportunity afforded to later players by that build. The bid money is spent directly on building track for the company with any unwanted or unspendable excess discarded. As the mesh of railway lines extend to new cities, railway companies that start in those cities become available for auction. Thus each build can also extend the set of companies available for auction by later players and so builds are carefully gauged, often with extra cubes unprofitably placed simply to prevent or discourage victory-point-generating connectivity by other colours. Sometimes shares will be won and no track built at all (all the bid money simply discarded) as building would create too much victory point opportunity for later players, either by exposing the colour for easier connection by other companies and players, or by making more companies available in the game which offer too much positional opportunity to other players. Measuring opportunity cost, both for yourself and others is a constant challenge.
In short, often, usually, later players are able to get more victory points for less cash than earlier players as they can build to connect to the colours already present on the board. However someone has to go first and if you never go first you’ll never win either. Remember that bit about how company colours are determined? Carefully tracking, controlling and predicting what colours will be available when and to whom, and thus what companies could build to connect where and to how many other colours is the logical centre of the game. It all depends on what shares are auctioned when and by which player in turn order considering the balance of cash holdings across the set of players. This is the core of the dance: watching cash holdings, opportunities, turn order, and income and selecting shares to auction and bidding and forcing others to bid exquisitely close to the line. Single dollar differences can make a huge difference — even if those extra dollars in a bid are discarded as opportunity cost in order to not build track or are used for blocking builds to prevent other future connections.
Ultimately shares also pay dividends at a fixed rate of either $5 or $3 per share. Shares are the income source the players use to fund future auction bids. Establishing a good income source is unsurprisingly important but is also not as critical as maintaining a tight control of opportunity and timing. A player low on cash often has better potential advantage to manage opportunity than a richer player who must balance their choices across more players and a wider bid opportunity variance. Thus a low cash player can re-establish themselves by very careful management of what is auctioned and what is built when and where as the richer player waits to swoop in with their cash behemouth. They can effectively force the richer player into ungraceful diseconomies simply because the rich player must spend their money or lose their positional advantage. This is not easy and is near impossible if the gap grows large, but it can be done and it is a wonderous thing to behold when done well.
Passing, a player passing on their entire turn, is a common action choice as part of the dance of opportunity control. Much like in King of Siam, passing is a way forwarding the onus for an unwanted decision to a player who cannot afford not to make a decision2. Of course they will attempt to make the decision that offers the east opportunity to the other players while also preserving their own victory opportunity, but careful play will limit their available choices while moving turn order forward to something more attractive to you. In this way the dance is lurchingly moved forward to the next unwilling player.
It is hard to describe Gulf, Mobile & Ohio as a strategic game. It is also hard to describe it as a tactical game. The decisions made each turn seem entirely tactical, but rest on an analysis that should extend out 2, 3 or even 4 turns into the future as the opportunity implications are assessed and weighed. This process seems tactical as that analysis needs to be performed on every turn given the current play state but also seems strategic as the look-ahead is fairly deep and there are core patterns in the game which can be built and leveraged.
Expect your early games to be filled with runaway winners. It can take a while to comprehend how to use the tools that the game provides. I’ve played about half a dozen games now, all with either 3 or 4 players3 and do not yet feel I’ve a good grasp of the game’s depths. I’ve merely seen a few small patterns and the hints of many more in the wings4.
The picture below shows the end of a 4 player teaching game. The player closest to the camera (green) won in the last two turns of the game despite being behind in points but marginally ahead in cash and income for the entire game.
Perhaps oddly I find 4 player games far easier to teach than 3 player games. The edges are a bit softer and the timing controls are a little less fragilely unstable with 4 players than 3. There is enough to digest and dance with here that the extra ease granted by a 4 player game is welcome learning space. However for those same reasons I find the game noticeably improved with 3 players. That’s where all the safeties and guard rails are off and every decision is filled with knife edges.
- One point per city connected and one point per new and different colour of company track-cube connected ↩
- The game ends if all players pass in a round ↩
- I would not go up to 5 players — too chaotic ↩
- For example there seem to be three basic models of track building in the game: a single tight knot of complexly interweaving track that grows slowly out from the edges and offers an irregular but nearly continuous ration of high colour connectivity points, a very evenly scattered track model that offers occasional spot points of high connectivity gains, and the (locally more common) semi-distributed model which offers a rich cloud of connectivity points only later in the game ↩
This weekend we visited the Northern California Renaissance Faire:
Having fought through much of the three day weekend with the Neuland-style action track for Muck & Brass, I’m calling it quits. It is not a good fit for the design. The mechanism has a number of interesting properties but they will be better used elsewhere.
I am haltingly, gingerly, considering the idea of setting up a small vanity press for my games. The initial target would be my Age of Steam expansions. Once past that only the gods know if it would fitfully stagger onward or die on the vine. But what to call such an ad-hoc publishing company? Suggestions for names are welcome.