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.

– JCL

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.

18xx Structural Analysis

I wrote the following on Boardgamegeek and it seemed worth preserving locally:

There are four basic types of 18xx:

  1. Run Good Companies
  2. Where’s the Free Money?
  3. Put Things Together (typically mergers or company pairs or synergies)
  4. Timing Games

Clearly some, most, all(?) 18xx games are mixtures of the four camps in various degrees and at various times during a given game. The private sales to companies in many games is a free-money element, but so are destination runs with multi-jump stock increases and the extra 40%-50% in free capital given when floating companies in full-capitalisation games. The mergers in 1817, 1824, 18EU, 18C2C etc are clear plug-things-together moments etc, but so are the synergies between privates and majors in 1846, 18C2C etc. The portfolio management of the 1825s, 1853 and the like fall out cleanly as timing games, but 1826’s focus on getting the right trains into the right companies arguably does too.

Few if any interesting 18xx seem to be purely any one of the above meta-types, rather they move and shift focus across a balance of those points over the course of the game.

Amusingly, 18xx players can also be classified across the above four criteria, and like the games, the Run Good Company players are considered the least interesting and the Free Money players get all the despairing head shakes.

Other structural divides centre around elements like:

  • Fast trains: Some games tend to focus on train rushes, and coming out on top after the dust has settled. The key metric is how large a fraction of the purchase cost is the typical run value and how many times they’ll run. 1843’s trains generally need to run three times in order to cover their purchase cost, but will often only run once or twice before rusting. Another key metric in this space is whether trains sometimes rust before they ever run. This usually means that the key decisions in the game are made leading up to the early cheap permanent trains. 1830, 1841, 1843, 1849, 18Mex etc all tend to feature blistering train rushes (though 1843 skips the cheap permanents bit). David G. D. Hecht designs (as a broad for-instance) tend to have rather sedate/processional train progressions.

  • Low or high income: A basic measure of how rich the game is, especially as a function of train purchase and company floatation prices, but it can also be as a function of more basic operational costs (eg tack-laying costs). 1830 is the most notorious example of a low income game, but 1849 gets in there too. 1843 tries to be a low income game and often is. 18C2C and most of the Double-O Games designs are high income games.

  • Tile manifest: Are the tile limits a significant function of Good Play? 1830, 1843, 1849, many of the Wolfram Janich and some Double-O Games designs fall into this camp. In other games, the tile manifest is explicitly generous, or at least rarely if ever a consideration in Good Play (1817, 18C2C, most-but-not-all David G. D. Hecht designs, etc).

  • Stock appreciation vs dividends: Which is more important: dividends and cash in-hand or stock appreciation? 1830 is the grand-daddy of stock-centric games with 70+% of player scores descending from stock appreciation. Most Mark Derrick designs are heavily cash/dividend focused.

  • Certificate limits: Are key strategies in the game focused on managing certificate limits (yellow fever, forbidden forest, variations in share density, number of presidencies, etc). Most any game with a classically coloured stock market falls into this camp with 1830 and 1870 being the two most notorious examples. 1817 plays in this space with share densities and thus the balance between stock appreciation and dividends.

  • Liabilities: Are investments possibly significant liabilities? The classic form of this is the potential requirement to buy a train out of pocket. Not all 18xx have that property (eg the 1825s, 1860 etc), and several of the Double-O Games titles feature not-very-onerous loans which smooth the edge there. The 1825s, 1853 and to some extent 1860 conversely impose no requirement for companies to own trains, just financial hiccoughs if they don’t.

  • Balance of share values: Which is more important, owning the best shares or owning more shares? Does that change over the course of the game? 1846 for example is notable in being readily won while still not at paper limit – it is a game in which owning better shares is commonly more important than owning more shares. Conversely 1830 is the poster child of owning more shares typically defaulting to being better than owning fewer better shares.

It is worth nothing that the shape of the stock market does not feature anywhere in this list. 2D and 1D stock markets are effectively identical, just with rather more complex price movement rules for the 2D markets.

Money can buy you privates

One of the 1839 playtesters argues convincingly that $2700 is too much starting capital for 1839. When playing, that feels right, it does seem too rich, but the numbers don’t make sense to me. Both games have a non-sellable B&O-type private for $220, so ignoring that:

  • Maximal total private sell-in value in 1830 is $latex (20+40+70+110+160)*2 = \$800$.

The privates in a given game of 1839 are semi-random, but the face value of the random portion ranges from $400 to $680

  • Smallest maximal private sell-in value in 1839 is $latex (40+160+160+300+400) = \$1,060$.
  • Largest maximal private sell-in value in 1839 is $latex (40+160+160+300+680) = \$1,340$.

That’s variously $260 and $540 more than 1830. In a 4-player game of 1830, privates generally sell as a collective set for a little under a 40% premium over face value, or 70% of maximal sell-in value. 1839’s privates shouldn’t be any worse than 1830’s in sum, and are often better due to useful special powers. That gives baselines for total expenditure:

  • 1830: $560
  • 1839: $742 - $938

Which puts the baseline additional expenditure on 1839’s privates from $182-$378 more than 1830. While I haven’t done a formal permutations analysis as to where the average total value is for 1830, my sense is that it sits around $1,150, which gives $245 more in overage. As such, adding $300 to the game’s starting capitalisation seems not-reasonable. Yeah, a bit rich, $15ea too rich in a 3-player game, but surely not overwhelmingly so? Or is the richness seen more as a product of the dutch auction for the privates rather than 1830’s traditional reservation auction?

39 steps of 1839

Early playtests of 1839 have been promising, but have not gone well. The game has played smoothly enough, it has clearly shown that there is an interesting game in there, but also that the then current incarnation wasn’t it.

But, it is getting closer. Perhaps it is time to review where it has gotten to.

Map

First, some background context as much has changed:

1839-OldMap

Track and stations

  • Companies may place up to two tiles per OR, one of which may be an upgrade.
  • The second tile is optional, and has an additional cost of $20 if placed.
  • All companies have 5 station markers.
  • Stations cost the value of the revenue centre where they are placed, multiplied by the number of hexes with that companies station markers after the placement.
  • A revenue location counts for revenue only once, no matter how many trains hit it.
  • There are exchange markers. An exchange marker is a second station marker placed underneath where the company already has a station maker.
  • Each company may have one exchange marker on the board at a time.
  • An exchange marker allows a company to count that revenue centre once for each train that hits it.
  • An exchange marker also makes that station market not-blocking. Other companies can run trains through it and lay track on the other side.
  • A route ending at another company’s exchange marker counts that revenue center normally.
  • A route passing through another company’s exchange marker counts that location for $0 revenue.

Train roster

The trains have stabilised as to definition, even if not as to count:

Colour Type Cost Rusted
yellow 2+ $100 by blue
green 3+ $200 by brown
blue 5+ $400 by red
brown 7+ $700 by gray
red 5D $1,000 by black
gray 7D $1,500 permanent
black FLOOD $2,000 permanent


Train notes

  • +trains don’t count dits and off-boards but do count cities, and pay all three.
    • (Currently being considered) This would mean that off-boards don’t count against train-length, but also don’t satisfy the definition of a route.
      • I’ll almost certainly have to reduce off-board revenues if I adopt this notion.
  • D-trains count and pay only cities and pay but don’t count off-boards, and then pay double that total.
  • FLOOD-trains pay the sum of every revenue center that could be reached with infinite numbers of infinite trains and infinite track-reuse.
  • At the start of each SR a marker notes the smallest brown-or-larger train currently in a company.
  • If a company still owns one of those trains two SRs later, the game is over.
  • As a result, brown trains may be permanent, but probably won’t be. Red trains will probably be permanent, but also may not be. Gray and black trains are always permanent.

Privates

Privates? Yeah, they’ve gone haywire. Five privates are always in the game.

  1. .
    • Cost: $40
    • Revenue: $5
    • Blocks: H7
    • Power: Owning company can place an additional yellow track tile or upgrade, in addition to their normal build, closing the private.
    • Closed: When power used.
  2. .
    • Cost: $160
    • Revenue: $20
    • Blocks: nothing
    • Power: Owning company may place a tile (can be an upgrade) and station marker (must be both) at K16 or L3 for 80f.
    • Closed: When power used.
  3. .
    • Cost: $160
    • Revenue: $20
    • Blocks: J7
    • Power: Owning company may place a station or exchange marker for free
    • Closed: When power used.
  4. .
    • Cost: $220
    • Revenue: $35
    • Blocks: F13 and G12
    • Power: Comes with the presidency of a random company picked during setup. Company is automatically parred at $94. Flevoland bypass automatically built when closed.
    • Closed: When that company buys a train.
  5. .
    • Cost: $300
    • Revenue: $25
    • Blocks: C10 and D9
    • Power: Comes with a 10% certificate of a (different) company randomly picked during setup. Owning company may place a station or exchange marker for half cost. Afsluitdijk built when sold.
    • Closed: In red phase or when power used.

There are then 10 more privates which are shuffled face down and then drawn randomly until the total face value of the drawn set exceeds $400. The drawn privates are then used in the game and the rest put away:

  1. .
    • Cost: $60
    • Revenue: $10
    • Power: Comes with a $20/$10 token that may be put in any port location, permanently increasing the revenue of that location by $20 for that company and $10 for all other companies.
    • Closed: When the power is used.
  2. .
    • Cost: $120
    • Revenue: $20/$0 (No revenue when owned by a company)
    • Power: Owning company has a 50% discount on all terrain costs.
    • Closed: In red phase.
  3. .
    • Cost: $160
    • Revenue: $20
    • Power: Owning company may mark a train as obsoleting rather than rusting.
    • Closed: In red phase or when the power is used.
  4. .
    • Cost: $180
    • Revenue: $20
    • Power: Owning company has a discount on train purchases: Green $100, Blue $150, Brown or later $200.
    • Closed: In red phase or when the power is used.
  5. .
    • Cost: $200
    • Revenue: $20
    • Power: All towns are +$10 revenue for the owning company.
    • Closed: In red phase.
  6. .
    • Cost: $200
    • Revenue: $20
    • Power: Owning company may buy a train, including as an emergency purchase, at any time in its operations.
    • Closed: In red phase.
  7. .
    • Cost: $200
    • Revenue: $25
    • Power: Owning company may convert a town to a yellow city for a 40f terrain fee as the company’s upgrade tile lay.
    • Closed: When power used.
  8. .
    • Cost: $220
    • Revenue: $15
    • Power: Owning company may add $10 to every revenue center encountered by one of its trains.
    • Closed: In red phase.
  9. .
    • Cost: $250
    • Revenue: $?/$0 (Nothing when owned by a company)
    • Power: Owning player is paid the revenue value of each previously unconnected revenue location connected by track to a station marker for the first time by a company controlled by the player.
    • Closed: In red phase.
  10. .
    • Cost: $300
    • Revenue: $0
    • Power: May be converted by the owning company to any single train prior to brown phase. Auto-converts to a brown train at the start of brown phase.
    • Closed: In brown phase.

Private notes

  • The auction starts with the player with the #1 player card and proceeds in player card order with the #1 player next in rotation after the player with the largest player card number.
  • Each player in turn may pass or do one of:
    • Buy one of the displayed private companies at a purchase price of the face value of the private company minus the total cash currently placed on the private company.
    • Place 10f from the bank on any private company.
  • If the total cash on a private company reaches its face value, the next player in turn order must acquire that private company at no cost.
    • A player that passes may act in a future round of the private auction.
  • The private auction ends when all players pass in sequence, or all private companies have been acquired by the players.
  • At the end of the private auction, the player order for the upcoming stock round is set using the numbered player cards in ascending order of remaining player cash. – Tied players retain their prior relative order.

Foreigners

  • There are 8 foreigners in the game, one each for each off-board.
  • Each is a 10-share incrementally capitalised company.
  • They are grouped in three countries: Germany, Belgium, and Overseas.
  • Each foreign company has a private income slot and they share a common country treasury.
    • A train may not run from an off-board to another off-board of the same country.
  • Foreign companies are parred at the largest legal par available the first time a train is run to them, and operate from then on.
  • When a company runs to an off-board, 20% of that the total run for that company is put from the bank on the income slot for that foreigner.
  • When a foreign company comes to operate, the money on the income slot is put into that country’s treasury, and then all the shares of the off-board pay 10% of the total cash (rounded up) that was in the income slot (paid from the bank).
    • As such, they have crap dividends.
  • The foreign company then buys all of their own shares they can from the Open Market, using the country treasury.
  • And then buys all the trains it can with any remaining monies. Any bought trains are discarded from the game. Any phase related changes happen immediately.
    • Thus investing in the foreigners accelerates the train rush.
  • Foreign company shares do not count against certificate limit.

Stock

  • The stock market is identical to 1843’s except that all the coloured sections have been made white.
  • There are no pars. Everything sells at the current stock price.
  • Shares of a company may not be sold until that company floats.
  • Selling shares does not change stock price.
  • At the end of an SR:
    • Shares in the open market move the stock price down once per share for public companies.
    • Shares in the open market move the stock price down once for foreign companies.
  • Public company stocks move right only if their total dividend equals or exceeds their stock price, otherwise they fall left.
  • Foreign company stock prices move right if they pay any dividend at all, otherwise they fall left.
  • Both move up for being all sold out at the end of SRs.
  • The game ends if a stock reaches a price of $500.