Other Wise

Mucho Duo

Another realisation that struck during last night’s 2 player game of Muck & Brass was the value and utility of using the secondary companies as capital sources for primary companies via mergers. For some reason that use hadn’t struck me but as a technique it worked out well in last night’s game. It also clarifies the strange see-saw of incentive and interest that run among clear plurality holdings, ports, mergers, capitalisation and turn order control. The end-game is rife with cases of money-losing investments being the levers necessary for even more profitable returns. The classic example from last night was a share of the LB&SCR which was purchased for $61 and rewarded a lifetime revenue of around $16, but enabled other activities and incentives with the L&SR that generated ~$200 in dividends.

It is a strange thing to discover one’s own game.

Deux duggery

Work and local testing is continuing apace. I’ve gotten in several games with the new rules (and scores of simulated games) and so far it is all looking good. The big surprise was today’s two player game which worked far better than I expected.

I shouldn’t be so surprised. Muck and Brass, unlike Wabash Cannonball / Pampas Railroads etc is not primarily an auction game, but is much more about positional and timing advantages than auction values. As such with only two players the auction becomes a linear extension of that two player tactical battle and really works quite well. Of course eventually one player will tend to run away and be simply uncatchable, but that’s to be expected in any two player zero-sum perfect and certain information game, and this should be recognised when it occurs and the game conceded at that point. Don’t be too quick to pull the trigger though: there’s an awful lot of ground that can be recovered with careful exploitation of the default turn order. Still, it is a pleasant surprise and I’ve added two player support to the map and rules (a small change in all).

The last change, and this is a small one, is that I added another port to Liverpool and London with costs around $100. The current distribution of ports and their costs is a mix of guesswork and inspiration. So far it has mostly seemed about right in our games. I’ve added the very expensive ports for Liverpool and London simply to allow trimming back late game behemoths with egregiously expensive (and historically accurate) ports, thus providing a dramatic and welcome turning point in the late game.

Counting charge

The next round appears to be done:

map-11.png IncomeTrack.png


  • Images scaled to fit on US-Legal sized paper
  • The winner of a share pays time for a Capitalise, not necessarily the action selector
  • Time limit per round changes with player count (Thanks Tim!)
  • Moved the charters spaces off their own sheet onto the board edge, Wabash Cannonball-style
  • Put marked spaces on the charters for shares, sample colour markers etc
  • A few notes for playtesters in the rules
  • Several small clarifications of prices and edge/corner cases (eg no bids on a share)

New rules. I’ve worked through a few dozen simulated games with the changes and they worked well. The goal is to play face-to-face tonight and tomorrow night. If that proves out I’ll start sending copies to playtesters.

Boxing yourself

It is common wisdom that the box is often the most expensive item of a published game, and it is true. For small bespoke/vanity publishers box pricing is often prohibitive. It is a Catch-22. Boxes that display well and which retailers are happy to shelve (a significant concern) simply cost too much to afford, but without such well displaying boxes retail success is elusive.

Some choices that I’ve considered for my yet-to-be-named vanity press1:

  1. Paper envelopes as popularised by the many Cheap Ass Games analogues. Often simply monochrome images are printed on the outside of the envelope. Sometimes the rules are printed on the envelope. Many of the small press Age of Steam map products are sold in plain manilla envelopes.
  2. Polyethylene bags, seen recently for Sierra Madre Games and many Cheap Ass Games products. Typically the rulebook cover is the art (as seen through the bag).
  3. Small white display/shipping boxes as used by Cheap Ass Games (again) and various small card games. Large format labels can be applied to all the major faces. Despite the labels they tend to look rather packing-boxey but can deliver a professional albeit small press appearance. They shelve and stock reasonably well at the retail level but don’t display well. 1 Collectible card boxes as used by The Realm of Fantasy for Atta Ants. A paper insert, visible through the plastic on the various sides forms the box art. They can shelve, stock and reasonably display well.
  4. Polystyrene clamshells. Cambridge Games Factory have been using plastic clamshell cases, as recently seen for Aapep and Glory to Rome. There are a number of suppliers but Placon have been made well-known among small publishers as Winsome Games have used them extensively, but there are many other suppliers. Like the bags and card cases, a simple insert or the rule-book, visible through the plastic forms the display art. They are disliked by retailers as not only hard to shelve, stock and display, but fragile and prone to damage (sun/heat).
  5. Tubes, usually plastic. Plastic poster tubes have mostly come and gone for small press publishers but they used to be de rigueur for small press games. They are loathed by retailers and are usually consigned to the floor or other dead corners as impossible to display effectively.
  6. VHS cassette cases. Usually black plastic, sometimes white, not the sort with padded edges but rather the (usually) four-clip hard cases. GMT uses such cases for the expansion armies to Wizard Kings. It can be difficult finding cases without the posts for the cassette reels. Art is either a slip-in for three sides of the box, or a cardboard sleeve. They shelve, stock and display well given that the box-size is in an awkward middle-size range that doesn’t fit the display systems used for most other games, too big for card games, too small for big-box games.
  7. White single-piece shipping boxes. Mostly recently well used by Deep Thought Games and Hangman Games, these are readily available from shipping companies. Simple large format adhesive labels may be easily applied to the main faces for branding and display. Despite the labels they tend to look rather packing-boxey but can deliver a professional albeit small press appearance. They shelve and stock reasonably but don’t display well at the retail level.
  8. White telescoping boxes. Also available in black (harder to find). Most recently used by Deep Thought Games as their premium game box and by Vainglorious Games for Cambria, they are often readily available from shipping companies. Large format adhesive labels may be easily applied to the main faces for branding and display. They can can deliver a (more) professional albeit small press appearance. They shelve and stock well and display reasonably well at the retail level. Note: Most readily available telescoping boxes tend to be made of thinner/weaker/lower density material than the single piece packing boxes. The big advantage are that the telescoping box presents a cleaner top display surface (no gap where the lid tucks in along one edge) and they meet the basic expectation of buyers as to what a game box should be. As such they are preferred by retailers.
  9. Custom printed/full-wrap box. Two forms: full-wrap lid and plain base or full-wrap lid and base. Expensive and typically requires a large print run. The expense comes in two forms: the custom printing (which requires a large print run for an economical rate) and (if necessary) a custom die for a custom box-size/insert to cut/mark/score the cardboard appropriately. These are the boxes most liked by retailers as the easiest to shelve, stock and display. Caveat: Pick your custom box sizes carefully and after consultation with multiple experienced retailers from the market segments you are interested in. More than a few nice boxes simply don’t work at the retail level.

For my own interests I’ve been considering plain manilla envelopes for the Age of Steam maps, clear collectable card game boxes for card games and white single piece boxes ala Deep Thought Games’ products if I do anything larger.

  1. Unwelcome Advances and Conflict(s) of Interest are the currently favoured names.

Selling souls on the bayou

Capitalisation may be too expensive. Too often the only correct bid is however much or one more than the player with the second most cash has. Sometimes the correct bid is to even bid more in order to fund the company or to hide cash for turn order advantage. Surprisingly rarely is it to bid less than the second richest player. The result is that the only player who has an incentive to choose Capitalise is the player with the most cash. This is a problem of the first water, exacerbated by the ability to hide capital in company treasuries for recovery in end-game payouts (admittedly a loss) in order to gain preferential turn order.

In noodling the area last night I came up with a curious idea:

What if the player that wins a Capitalised share has to pay the 3 months, not necessarily the player that selected the Capitalisation action?

Among other things this would give the ability to fork the other players. They either allow the Capitaliser to get a share (cheaply) or they sacrifice positional advantage. That can be a hard position, especially in the setup for mergers and ports. The buyer-pays-the-time pattern would apply to both the directly selected Capitalise choice and those forced by ports and mergers. A player already past the round-cut-off would not be excluded from bidding — thus weakening or at least bounding the fork-ability.

Understanding Duck Dealer — Mark II

I wrote previously on Duck Dealer and got it all so embarrassingly wrong. Here’s the corrected version I promised.

Duck Dealer is a far simpler game and is a much closer derivative of Merchant of Venus than it first appears. Like Merchant of Venus there are only a few things in the game which are important. The rest is incidental.

There are only two things in the game which are really important: 50 point factories and 50 point consumer tiles. The 50 point consumer tiles are consolation prizes for the people who didn’t get there in time to build the 50 point factory. The 30 point consumer products are consolation prizes for the people who were dawdled and didn’t get either. With rare exception nothing else in the game matters; only the 50 point factories and 50 point consumer tiles are important. Everything else is either an incidental, a consolation prize or a stocking stuffer because there’s nothing else better left to do.

Examine the consumer tile table board carefully before the game starts. One of the bottom two tiles is not going to be placed. Which one won’t make it? Look at the mine placements. Look for synergies in the patterns of mines that lead toward specific 50 point consumer tiles as contrasted to the order of availability of those consume tiles. There should be 2-3 obvious opportunities. Those are what you and the other players will be heading for. Your goal is to get ownership markers on all the buildings in one or more production chains that have a 50 point consumer tile at their end. With good players you won’t get everything in the chain so compromises will need to be made. Look to the efficiency points along the way. Where in that process chain will you be spending the most discs? Forgo ownership markers on buildings which are used less frequently in your chain than those used more often. The goal is to be able to cycle from mines all the way up to 50 point consumer tile products as quickly as possible (least number of energy-taking turns required).

Your teleport link has two main purposes:

  • To add efficiency to your production loop


  • To get you to or from your production loop when re-jiggering your ship configuration before another player can interfere with your efficiency

Offensive use of teleport links is almost irrelevant. Using other’s teleport placements to increase your own efficiency is delightful.

The ideal situation is a loop of four mines in a row, needing only one red disc for each move between them, each mine paired with the proper adjacent factory, no back-and-forthing required for ideal production, and a telport from the end back to the start where the 50 point factory and consumer are placed (or one of the trivial variants of that pattern).

Once you have secured a 50 point factory tile and its matching consumer tile and built/flipped them both as applicable, there is a simple choice. Which is more efficient: to cycle on your loop for 30 VPs per product or to run off and cherry pick other 50 point factory or consumer tiles? If your ownership markers are well placed it will usually be to run your own cycle. However there’s a potentially interesting tactical decision, especially if it also provides the opportunity to bork other player’s hopes and plans.

Opportunism is everything. The other players will also see the same opportunities you do. They will be pursuing the same goals and possibilities you re looking toward. Getting there first and sewing up the key points along the way is critical. In doing this the key question is opportunity cost. By acting early you can get the jump on them, but by waiting you’ll have more energy and will be able to do/secure more. Attempting to correctly time the relative advantages of that decision forms a large portion of the game. This is the race portion of the game. It is entirely a question of who gets there first. Who gets the 50 point factory first? Remember: consumer tiles are a consolation prizes for the player(s) who didn’t get the factory. Careful timing and watching of the energy potentials of the other players is key. Count carefully and often.

All ship sizes are viable — for different purposes. A 1 hold ship can be very effective at sewing up the early stages of a production route before the players building out their ships can get there. However you’ll need to go back and reconfigure for more holds to make your 50 point tile runs. A 5 or 7 hold ship seems about minimal for making efficient 50 point tile runs but bigger can be better. Depending on your success in securing your production chain, bigger ships of various configurations make sense. Final ship configuration is entirely a question of minimising energy-taking turns per VP earned (or VP blocked from another player).

As the end-game approaches and players start sewing up their runs the VPs should come flooding in. 200 points in a single action is not uncommon an I’ve seen as many as 300 in a single action. This is why the little 3 and 10 etc point returns for smaller factories and consumers are just noise. In a tight game they may make the difference but that can’t be planned and accounted for at the start of the game and thus should be ignored. The big 50 point and 30 point runs at the end of the game are the goal to focus on and the primary determining factor in the game. One delivery of 5 top-level consumer products earns a minimum of 150 points. The real question is: How often can you do that or better?

The primary value of the 10 and 25 point consumer tile placements is to reduce the efficiency of other player’s production loops. They’re not worth bothering with otherwise. Flipping them yourself wastes a product that could be better spent building a 50 point factory or flipping a 50 point consumer. Put low value consumer tiles where other players wanted to ideally put their 50 point consumer tiles. Low value consumer tiles are more valuable as blocks than for points. There’s a similar though much reduced value for the lower point factories (the one’s you don’t need for your loop but others do for their’s). Put their desired factories in the wrong places and force them to be inefficient. The ideal is to have the factory adjacent to one of its inputs and logistically after its first input location. It is sometimes possible to ensure that a given 50 point factory is never placed and can never be placed. Also remember that one of the 50 point consumer tiles cannot be placed in every game. There is often advantage in ensuring that the factory or consumer tile another player was building towards is the one that won’t be placed, or if it will be placed, that it is on the opposite side of the board from their production chain. Of course they’re also thinking the same thoughts about your chain, so some attention to preventive defence may be in order. Opportunistic collateral damage is a wonderful thing.

Beware of the end-game. Most of the game consists of setting up for massive point runs in the end-game. It is not unusual for a player to have almost no points before they start their big end-game runs. In this way the game is extremely end-loaded. Most games end with players acting every turn and forcing the end-game, thus forcing other players to accelerate out of efficiency or else never get to act at all. It is not uncommon for a different player to have won if only they’d had one more energy-taking round or a slightly different mix of energy in-hand before the end-game rush started. Count, calculate and plan carefully.

A tour around the Mersey

We played a four player teaching game of Muck & Brass last night and there were a few production-level problems. Until now I’d habitually played on a large map printed on a large format plotter. I’ve recently been rejiggering for maps produced on my HP K8600 and had so produced a reduced-size map for Muck & Brass, but hadn’t actually played on it. I had those nice big maps already in my game crate you see?


Well. last night we played on the new smaller map using 1cm cubes for everything (shares, track markers, player markers, etc) and the new smaller edition map was just a bit too small for convenience. Not a lot, but a bit. Another 15% or so would have made things ever so much more handy. The income tracks page had the same problem but rather more so. You see, my old big maps had nice big income and company treasury spaces on them:


The income track on the new smaller page isn’t really big enough to use 1cm cubes for income markers1, not conveniently, and the company spaces to hold the shares and treasury are actually rather perfectly sized in terms of things fitting but are quite poorly sized for telling what company they apply to once they’re in there, let alone handling the money for payments2 or moving shares about. Not so good there.

To that end I spent some time today scaling the map back up. It now fits and prints fairly comfortably on three sheets of US-Legal paper in landscape mode3. I used a 35 point overlap in my test run which seemed a fine value when I came to piece the three pages together. Happily that also puts the two joins that traverse the map in relatively visually convenient places. The income tracks etc are proving a little more troublesome. The company charter spaces need to be bigger (see below), the labling larger and outside the charter box, and the income track spaces at least 30% larger4

I’m still fiddling with the new income track image and don’t yet have something I’m happy with. If it weren’t so damnably visually confusing and tempting to error I’d drop the income track idea entirely and just provide an income box to stack poker chips equal to the company’s current income.

The other lesson from last night’s game was that Capitalisation when early in the turn order is bad, but the reasons it is bad are not intuitive to players trained on more traditional German game fare. Rapid Capitalisation pushes money into the companies too fast for (that) player’s advantage and grants too much positional opportunity to players later in the turn order. Unlike Wabash Cannonball, Muck & Brass is not predominantly an auction game. When I ran through the reasoning and tempo and positional considerations around auction choices with the players post-game the light started to dawn, but only slowly. They intuitively saw the shares and auctions as a pricing and funding exercise, much as they’d been trained to in so many other German auction games, and not as an income and positional advantage management problem. When I got to the bit of how having money is desperately important, especially in the early game in Muck & Brass, they nodded understandingly, but when I then continued onto how having less money (cash) than the other players is in some ways even more important due to timing-related positional advantages I lost them. The players also did not understand the tactical advantages of port builds versus mergers. Again the patterns are fairly obtuse. They understood the words, they understood the sentences, but even when I walked through an example post-game the lights didn’t come on. Again this seems like habituation from prior standard German faire: of course players advance their most differentiated investments as that’s where their deltas are! Much like the weakness of large investments in Age of Scheme: Routes to Riches and the far larger value of minor investments in that game, the merger/port choice puts the focus and value on profiting through minor investment incentives, not through major investments. As a designer I (self-servingly?) don’t see their incomprehension as a problem, more evidence of the game having both a learning curve and potential tactical depth.

Even with all the early Capitalisations and thus the super-funding of the companies and the resulting loss of tension in the early game as the struggle among positional advantage, turn-order and investment portfolio was (mostly) lost, it actually worked pretty well. The game ended in the fourth round and the game was (effectively) dictated by the division of the super-treasury of the mega-merged company. That was a little disappointing but it was also clear to the players how that had occurred and they had ideas as to what to do about it next time. That was pleasing — and reminiscent of our early days with Wabash Cannonball.

Play time was a little under 90 minutes including rules teaching. I took a few pictures of the game and will post them later. Meanwhile Tim Harrison has questioned the action divisions across player counts. I recall working it out but I should review it again and ensure it is right.

  1. I’d drawn it intending to use Settlers of Catan-style road bits for income markers, but using the same 1cm bits for income markers and shares is just too delightfully simple.
  2. I assume standard-sized poker chips.
  3. It will be a bit tougher on Europeans who will likely have to resort to a couple sheets of A3 and to scale the map down slightly to fit the marginally reduced height.
  4. Corporate incomes for aggressively merged companies will commonly approach 100 and in slightly unusual cases will approach and possibly even exceed 200. The big-image income track thus runs from 0 – 200. The small income track runs from 0-100 and assumes that players will keep track of whether a given marker indicates an income of <100, 100+ or 200+. I'm likely to continue assuming that.

Playtest feedback systems

There has been some delay since I opened Muck & Brass to external playtesting. The delay is because I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to receive and collect feedback.

Historically I’ve used a mixture of email and BoardGameGeek geekmail. That worked fairly well but was also less interactive than I would have liked. In particular the feedback was always private (I’d prefer public feedback) and there was never any cross-discussion among the different groups (a side effect of privacy). (I think) I’d like a more facile system which not only more easily supported discussion between playing groups as well as between the groups and me, but also allows photographs and other non-textual elements to (more) easily accompany the discussion.

There is also the very small question of how to distribute the game files in the first place. The rules, shares and tracks sheet are already freely available. All that’s left is the map image. I’d like to know where the files are going and to track who has them. I can’t do that perfectly of course, but I’d like at least a good notion.

Email works well except for the privacy problem already noted. For large photo or movie sets which were clumsy to send via email1, I’ve provided an FTP site where they could upload the images and then reference the upload in their email. That worked well but the disconnect between the email and the FTP upload was occasionally jarring. I’m a habitual IRC user and am on #bgdf_chat pretty much 24/7/365. IRC is great for discussion and could be used for the file distributions via DCC SENDs, but it has concurrency and ephemeracy problems. I’m likely to have playtest groups scattered about and would like them to be able to communicate to me and each other asynchronously and IRC just doesn’t do that. Another option is to use the comment system built into this blog (WordPress). Groups would post their feedback as comments. This WordPress installation currently doesn’t support attachments to comments, so media components would still have to posted via FTP and I’d have to come in later to attach them more directly to the blog. We could also create a game entry for Muck & Brass on BoardGameGeek and have the reports posted there as standard session reports. That seems like an abuse of the system to me but others clearly have different views on that area. BoardgameGeek session reports also don’t come for free as supporting images couldn’t go through moderation, thus requiring them to be either hosted off-site or in contributor’s individual galleries, both of which solutions have their own ephemeracy problems. Movies and other media forms are also not supported by BoardGameGeek unless hosted off-site (YouTube et al), introducing yet other dependencies and problems.

I suspect there is no good easy answer, but I’m still thinking about it. I suspect I’m going to end up doing all of the above while encouraging the combination of this blog and #bgdf_chat as the default venues, the FTP site being used for asynchronous media. Perhaps.

  1. I’ve had groups sending turn-by-turn pictures of their entire games or even movies of several turns or some of the debates or discussions among the players which happened during or as a result of the game (both were highly appreciated)

Bay Area 18xx / SB-Boardgamers

Let’s play 18xx!


Second Monday of each month (first meeting 9 February 2009) starting at ~18:30hrs, and then every month after that.


  Yahoo! Inc.
  701 First Avenue
  Sunnyvale, CA 94089

Yahoo! corporate Cafeteria (“URLs”)/SB-Boardgamers. By the bye, we’re expecting multiple people from the North Bay (Layfayette/Oakland/etc) area. Carpooling is a likely possibility.


Depending on where you are coming from:

  • North on 101 to North Mathilda (just before 237 exit, go straight under the overpass and past Moffet on your left)


  • South on 101 to 237 then exit 237 immediately and turn left onto North Mathilda (go under the overpass)


  • West on 237 to North Mathilda (just before 101 exit, turn right onto North Mathilda when you see the blue cube at Moffet)


  • East on 237 to North Mathilda (right after 101 South exit, turn left under the overpass)


  • North on Mathilda to First St/Bordeaux (last light on the straight way)
  • Left on First St
  • Follow the curve to the right and turn into the Yahoo! parking lot
  • Park in Visitor Parking on either side
  • Walk away from the guard booth across the round-about
  • Go past the fountain and across the grassy quad
  • We play in the glass-fronted cafeteria on the other side of the quad


The idea is to play school-night friendly 18xx games (some of us have to get up in the morning!) but with a focus on teaching games and introducing new people to the 18xx hobby. To that end I’ve some games that can easily fit in an evening:

  • 1825 (Units 1, 2 and 3, all regionals and kits)
  • 1860
  • 1889 (we’ve been playing this a lot, great teaching/learning game!)
  • 18FL
  • 18Mex
  • 18Scan
  • 18TN

If you’ve games you’d like to play, please bring them! Coordination around what we’ll be playing, who will be attending etc should be done through the SB-Boardgamer‘s mailing list (they meet at the same time and place).

Returning clarity

The Muck & Brass rules are being exposed to a rather larger audience than they’ve had before. I’d greatly appreciate comments as to their clarity and utility, any problems with comprehending the game. unanswered or difficult to answer questions the rules left you with, etc left as comments on this entry. I am particularly interested in gaps, contradictions and unnecessary repetition. I’ve laboured to cover every possible contingency in the rules, but only just the once.

I have a rather non-traditional rules-writing approach (passive voice, no examples, close to minimum spanning tree etc) which approximates my ideals for rules. I’m interested in other’s perceptions of the rules as written. I should note that I’m actually not averse to examples, but I dislike putting them in rules until the very last minute (ie right before publication) as otherwise I find it too easy for the examples to start supplanting and extending on the actual rules rather than just exemplifying them. I loathe rules in which the examples actually define or supplant the game’s rules. The Platonic ideal of course is for the rules to simply not need examples as they are already so clearly obvious!

Establishing dot products

I somewhat inadvertently opened Muck & Brass to external playtesting on BoardGameGeek:

I (currently) have not provided a playable map image (the posted images are deliberately too small). The online rules are maintained at the latest version (don’t worry if they look like crap in Acrobat, they print beautifully). Within some limits I’m willing to send printable map images to interested folk. You’ll need to provide perspex and pens, shares (I’ve posted share images; I use glass bits) and income/action/etc markers (I use 1cm cubes from an educational store). As always, YMMV. As a game Muck & Brass is roughly in the middle of the set formed by Wabash Cannonball, Pampas Railroads, and West Riding/The Riding Series and yet is little like any of them. It bears little similarity to the rest of the Historic Railroads series after Wabash Cannonball (Preu├čische Ostbahn, Gulf, Mobile & Ohio etc).

What you’ll need

To produce a working copy of the game you’ll need:

  • A copy of the rules. The fonts may appear poor on-screen due to bugs in your PDF viewer. Don’t worry about it as it will print beautifully.
  • To print the map. Contact me to ask for a copy of the image file. Be persuasive. I print it on 24″x12″ paper. You can also split it over several smaller sheets. Whatever works for you. Problems in getting a good print, paper, printers, scaling etc are your own. Really.
  • To print the income track.
  • ~30 shares in each of 10 colours. 3 of them should be market shares, the rest merger shares. I cheat and use glass blobs and don’t visibly distinguish between market and merger shares. I could as easily use the same 1cm cubes I use for the income markers etc below and likely will in future. If that doesn’t work for you I’ve produced PDF share images which can be used instead (I wouldn’t and don’t bother). Print three pages of each share onto coloured construction paper (see your local office supply store). They are sized to fit well in penny sleeve card protectors.
  • Track markers, ~50 in each of 10 colours (same colours as the shares). Settlers-of-Catan road markers are ideal or you can just use wet-erase pens and put the game map under a sheet of perspex when playing as I do here. As wet ease pens come in only 6 colours, either hatch the rail lines when you run out of colours (yet to happen here) or have the merged company used the darkest of the merge-company pen colours and quickly scribble the previously built track in the new colour to free up the other pen colours (ie what I do).
  • Income markers, one in each of 10 colours, ideally the same colours as the shares (I use 1cm cubes from an educational supply store).
  • Action markers (I use 1cm cubes again). They can be different colours or all the same. You could also use cards or tiles instead. It really doesn’t matter as long as the distribution is right and you track the durations properly
    • 3 Capitalise (3 months)
    • 5 Develop (1 month)
    • 7 Expand (2 months)
  • Player markers each of 3-6 colours (however many players you have) for the player action track. Again I use 1cm cubes.
  • Money, lots of it. I use poker chips. I haven’t formally estimated bank size but $7,000 should work comfortably.
  • A General Dividend marker. I simply scribble with a wet erase pen on the the map as each one is paid. You could also use a marker if that works better for you.


I’ve not figured out how I’d best like feedback. I’ve no privacy bones. Email or comments here on the blog are likely best. I’ll work out something.


Ricochets toward stability

I haven’t gotten as much Muck & Brass played lately as I’d like, but I’m not complaining too hard given what else managed to hit the table (mostly a lot of 1889). That said and forgiven, I’m particularly pleased with how the new action selection method is working out in practice. The recent changes are two-fold:

  1. Action distribution changed to 3 Capitalise, 5 Develop, 7 Expand
  2. A Neuland/Thebes/etc-like combined action costing turn order mechanism is used to control turn order1.

The result is surprisingly dynamic. Wabash Cannonball has a fairly rote sequence of action selections in each round: 3 Capitalise followed by 5 Expand. Conversely Muck & Brass averages somewhere between 1 and 2 Capitalise actions per round with both 0 and 3 Capitalise actions in a round occuring if infrequently. The shift away from Capitalisation not only leads to increasingly cash-strapped companies but to a hurdy-gurdy pattern as the players struggle to balance short-term need with long-term viability. The patterns are delightful.

The core of the pattern is that a Capitalise early in the round takes so long (3 months) that it grants an enormous range of options and flexibility to the other players. Given the game’s blinding focus on liquidity, that’s simply unaffordable. The only players who seriously consider Capitalisation are the high-cash players who can be assured of winning the share. The result is that the early portion of rounds are dominated by Expands and Develops, the Develops usually being used to slip in an extra free action while catching up to a player earlier in the turn order. Then, as the end of the round approaches, usually it is the players early in the turn order who have the most control over when the round ends. They could Capitalise but their low cash position (which puts them early in the turn order) makes them unlikely to be able to win a share and none of the positions have developed enough to make alliance hunting/breaking viable — and in the meantime the Expand and Develop are both about to exhaust, ending the round anyway! Thus there’s great incentive to not Capitalise.

Which is fine and great until the companies start to run out of money. If a share isn’t capitalised those companies are dead ducks. This point usually hits either late in the second round or early in the third round, at which point there’s an added complexity. The fourth round is approaching, with its support for mergers, ports, double Expands, etc. The players are torn in multiple ways. They are still desperate for personal cash but they also want to start the next round with low cash (and high income) so as to have the positional control of early turn order, they have to get their companies Capitalised if they are to remain viable, and they have to build a tactical position to offer personally-advantageous ports-builds and mergers for when the fourth round starts. And just to make it worse, buying good shares will all too often earn such good dividends as to put the player late in the turn order! Arghh!

Then the fourth round starts, strong share-holders strive to merge their companies, accumulating their incomes and hopefully setting up a domino trail of mergers, weak share-holders build expensive ports to cripple their low-stake companies, leaving those companies prostrate to be merged into, hopefully by the companies they have larger holdings in. Meanwhile little tactical Expands, setting up honeypots and barriers for mergers and ports continues setting the scene. And again, companies are running out of money — except that now there are no shares left to sell to raise capital (only 3 per company)! Meanwhile the second round companies start to float, merging with the first round companies and injecting capital into their treasuries.

Often the game will end in the 5th or 6th round. It seems to only run until the 7th round if players have been really aggressive with the second round companies, blocking them out, building up their revenues and delaying the game while their income rate recovers their cash position. Certainly proper control and prediction of the second round companies can make the Wabash in Wabash Cannonball seem like a cakewalk.

It is all very delightfully tortured.

  1. Actions are assigned costs in terms of time: Capitalise (3 months), Develop (1 month), Expand (2 months).. As players select actions their markers are moved forward on a track. The player that has spent the least time and started the round with the least cash has the current turn. Iterate until two players have used more than 5 months.

Questions of breeding and selection

Consider a game with a number of possible player actions. Actions are limited to a fixed distribution (N of X, M of Y etc). Each action has a duration cost. The actions are represented as cards, one card per action in the distribution.

Arbitrarily order the players. In turn order each player draughts an action from the available set of actions and places it at the end of a growing sequence of action cards. Do this until all actions have been placed into that sequence. Put the player markers on the first, second, third etc cards in the sequence in accordance with their initial player ordering.

The player whose marker is earliest on the action card track has the current turn. On their turn a player does an action. They either do the action of the card their marker is on or pay a fee and to move their marker to and do an action further ahead in the line. The fee is proportional to how far ahead they go. Action cards which have player markers on them are not available. After doing their selected action the player moves their marker forward by a number of cards equal to the duration cost of the action they selected. The card for the executed action is discarded. Depending on the duration and placement of their action selections a player may have multiple turns in a row. Any cards which end up earlier than all player markers upon a different player taking a turn are put at the other end of the action card track in an order selected by the active player.

This process repeats until some round ending condition (eg all of two actions done or only N possible actions left in the track) . The next round starts with building a new action track using the discarded cards on the end of the current track.

Please sir, I’d rather not have another

Sometimes gaming bring unexpected rewards. Sometimes you really don’t want the rewards.

Wednesday of last week I went to play games up at Endgame in Oakland (map). While we were there there was a riot a few blocks away around the Bart station. We were thankfully oblivious to this silliness as we played our games.

That video was shot all of about 3 blocks from the Endgame store.

Last Wednesday I went up to Endgame again and noticed that there was a lot of free parking. That was unusual as there’s a convention centre across the road from the store and the spill over parking swamps the street parking. Normally I have to hunt for a slot but this time where were rows of open slots on both roads by the store. Just as I drove by on 10th Street I saw a parking slot right in front of the door on the side street, Washington Street, but I had gone too far to turn back. There was also a slot open right beside the side door. For contrarian reasons I looped around the block and parked on the side street right beside the store door. It took a little longer but the ease of being right beside the store door appealed.

While we were playing (Confucius as happens) we heard yelling and loud booms from outside. A gang of yobos were running down 10th street smashing car windshields by jumping on them. Somewhere around twenty cars had their windshields smashed. The car in the slot right by the side door where I nearly parked lost its windshield. Four people that were playing games with us had their car windshields smashed. By simple foible of being on Washington Street rather than 10th Street my car was left untouched. I later saw the couple that owned the car that had parked where I’d nearly parked. They’d lost their windshield. They seemed bright, young, eager, potentially parents of small kids, and not at all keen on not having a windshield. I almost wanted to apologise for not taking the parking slot. It was so stupid.

One thing struck me as I walked back upstairs to our game: gamers wouldn’t have been so stupid. Not that gamers are so wonderful or smart or simply better, not at all, but gamers would have understood the incentive models that drive change and would thus have understood the rank stupidity of smashing windshields. That’s no way of effecting change, just of wasting your time and other’s, expensively.

Limits of expression

I posted the following on BoardGameGeek and was a little surprised in retrospect at its truth:

I suspect that ultimately I will have designed one game, just one game, but it will be a game which has expressed itself in multiple published games, each one a different view onto that one core ur-game. That’s fine. My game design and development activities circle that ur-game, poking at it, extracting and applying ideas, working out various expressions of that ur-game in various splinter games. Some work out, some fail and whither, some meld back into the ur-game and disappear waiting for a more suitable splinter, and that’s all pretty much what I expect of the progression.

Vanity Exposed

Motions are still (slowly) under way toward releasing/publishing my older Age of Steam maps. A skilled artist is working on rendering the maps in far slicker form than my Inkscape scribbles. We’ve also started toward determining the supply chain etc.

There are five maps in the pipeline, the first three of which are Wales, South-East Australia and Denmark. None of this so far should be huge news…except that I’m now also releasing the full text of the rules for each design.

Age of Steam: Wales


Age of Steam: Wales is geared for 3 or 4 players and introduces track gauges to Age of Steam. Players select either narrow or standard gauge track when building track and must also manage their Links between narrow and standard gauge for deliveries.

Age of Steam: South-East Australia


Age of Steam: South-East Australia was designed for 4 or 5 players and is the first map of a series which introduces a significantly new economic system to Age of Steam that makes for a simpler and yet deeper, nastier and more dramatic game pattern.

Age of Steam: Denmark


Age of Steam: Denmark was targeted for 3 or 4 players and is the next step with that new economic system and adds the notion of limited train availability (borrowed from the 18xx). Age of Steam: Denmark may also be the first Age of Steam map which actively encourages highly dramatic hail mary victories. Leaping come-from-behind victories in Age of Steam: Denmark are quite possible if well planned.