Note: The below was written 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).
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.
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.
I wrote the following on Boardgamegeek and it seemed worth preserving locally:
There are four basic types of 18xx:
- Run Good Companies
- Where’s the Free Money?
- Put Things Together (typically mergers or company pairs or synergies)
- 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.
Variants to consider for the new 1830 cardgame:
Move the hand management to after the turn order auction:
- Players auction for turn-order before discarding their hands down to 3 cards.
Address the turn order auction as well:
- First to pass will go last, second to pass will go second to last, etc with the last remaining bidder going first.
- Winning bidder pays their bid, all other bidders pay half their bid rounded up, except for the player last in turn order who pays nothing.
- After the turn order auction, players reseat in turn-order order.
Remove and reduce the silly trackable information:
- Players keep their initial hands of action cards face-down on the table before them (but may of course inspect them freely).
- Drawn cards which are kept in the hand are put face-up on the table before them.
- All played cards in the discard piles may be freely examined and counted at any time.
Increase the information level of the draft:
- In addition to the three cards for the action draft, also lay out the next three cards, face up, that will be drawn to replace drafted cards.
Stock-trashing in 1830: Is it actually necessary for Good Play or is it merely gratuitously abusive? This came up recently in both our 18C2C game and in an 18FR-RCE game a couple weeks before. I’ve no doubt it will come up future games as well. In both the mentioned games I set about trashing the stock-market (often buying shares and then selling them at a loss and so losing money) and several players complained that I was just being unnecessarily negative and wasting everyone’s time with an overly long and uninteresting Stock Round, when in truth a lot of my later success in those games was due to the fact that I’d stock-trashed so heavily (and taken the loss) earlier. Yep, if I hadn’t stock-trashed, I would have come in dead last rather than competing for the win.
The primary keys to the value of stock-trashing1 mentioned, are return on investment (ROI) and liquidity. It will take a little bit to explain exactly how, so bear with me.
Imagine a game of 1830, perhaps a 5-player game. The game starts, the private auction happens, and you get…nothing, or maybe only a really small private company. Everyone else has nice big private companies and everyone (who can) is going to float a major company. You will float a major company too, but they’ll be getting nice big revenues from their private companies and you’ll be getting what, a few more shares and their piddly revenues and meager stock appreciation to match?
Key point: You’re already losing the game. Yep, you are already losing.
Think about that. You’re already losing the game. The game has just started, and you are losing. If you let this continue, you will in fact lose. That is, or should be, utterly unacceptable and you’d better do something about it right now. You need to win!
Right now you have more money than they do, but they are making money faster than you are, and pretty soon they’ll catch up and pass you as they sell their private companies into their major companies. At that point the game is history and you’ve lost. If you’d like to compete for the win, and I assume you are playing for the win, then you’d better change something and change it fast. Going on wanly hoping isn’t going to do it. The winning players certainly have no interest in changing anything as they’re already winning (or at least contending for the win). You are losing, so it is up to you to change something so that you can win instead, and this is where stock-trashing can come in.
But before we get there, we’d better understand a little more about how and why you are already losing, because you are most certainly already losing, and losing badly.
At core you are losing because your money is not working for you as well as their money is working for them. Sure, you can buy more shares than they can, but their private company revenues have massively better returns than any share you can buy. What they’ve invested in is simply better than what you’ve invested in, and they’ve got more of it than you do. Even better for them and worse for you, in a few more turns they’re going to be able to sell their private companies into their major companies, pulling out gobs of money, and they’ll use that money to buy even more shares than you can! Their money is not only working better than your’s, but they have a great wad of free money just sitting there waiting for them to take it! You don’t have any of those advantages, but they do! Thus, you are losing.
Change something. Now.
In the classic form they’ll sell their private companies in for massive money and then immediately sell down (or even better dump) the company they just looted, adding all that wonderful stock-appreciation they’ve made in the meantime to their dividends and private company money, and then they’ll float a brand new company for a nice high par and never even bother to look back. If someone wants to take their old company, then they’re welcome to it as it has crap trains and no money2 They’re interested in their bright shiny new company that’s full of bright shiny new money!
That classic form is not good for you. Sure, it is good for them, but I really hope your goal in the game is for you to win, not for them to win. So, you’d better change something, and this is where stock-trashing can usefully enter.
The core problem is that their money is working better than your money, and you have to change that. One of the things you can change is stock-appreciation. If after they loot their companies when they then want to sell those (now crappy) shares in order to buy bright shiny new shares in a new company full of money it turns out that you’ve already trashed their stock so they have no stock-appreciation…well gosh, their money isn’t working for them so well any more, is it? You’ve killed their ROI (stock appreciation). And if you also just happen to have left the Bank Pool full of their trashed shares so that they can’t actually sell much into the market, well, you’ve clipped their wings even more as you’ve killed their liquidity (ability to sell shares to raise capital). Oh, and that new company they float? How about you stock-trash that as well, really beat the crap out of it? They bought $600 worth of shares in floating that company. If you can beat it down hard enough, that $600 worth of shares will now only be worth $300 or less (perhaps given a little help from the other players). Again, now their money isn’t working for them so well any more. Sure, they’ve got control of $1,000 in bright shiny new capital — you can’t solve every problem all at once — but it is going to take a long time to get that share-value you destroyed back. But, even better, you’re probably going to be able to buy those shares you trashed back again in the next stock round pretty cheaply as they won’t have appreciated much! You buy the shares, you trash the shares, you wait a set of ORs, then you buy most of them back again on the cheap in the next Stock Round. Now your money is starting to work for you better than their money is working for them!
What makes this a little more interesting is that many good players will buy/sell the last (6th) share of a company they’re floating. They do this in order to dissuade the stock-trashers waiting in the wings (it now costs money to stock-trash as the par is higher than the stock price), but also so that they can then use that money to buy a share that will be paying better than their new company (their new company will miss at least one dividend as it has no train). Someone may also flip a share or two into the market while you’re building up your portfolio to dump, thus costing you even more money as you trash the market. The costs to stock-trash can be high.
How much is stock-trashing worth to you? How much is it worth to your position to beat them down? Is it worth buying 4 shares at $67ea and sell them at $65ea, losing $2 each? What about buying shares at $100ea and selling them at $90ea, losing $10 on each one? Or buying shares at $100 and selling at $82? There’s a judgment call here on how much loss is acceptable. There’s a point at which it is simply too expensive, but how much is too little and how much is too much? Not biting the bullet will lose the game, but losing too much money in stock-trashing will also lose the game. Finding the right middle ground is key3.
You’re going to have to lose money, to deliberately throw money away, in order to slow them down and to rescue your position, but how much money should you throw away and which stocks should you trash and how much? If all goes perfectly (unlikely) you’ll convert an obviously losing position to a competitive position, but doing that is going to cost you some of that money you so desperately need. More likely you’ll convert a losing position to a merely weak position, and then you’ll have to fight again, and again in later stock rounds, beating and thrashing the stock-market, taking losses as you do so, until you’ve caught up and pulled them down to your level. It won’t be cheap, or easy, but if you do win, you’ll have earned it by tooth and claw from the ground up.
But then isn’t the answer then to just make sure you always get some good private companies and thus bid whatever’s needed to get them? No. Pay too much and you’ll never get it back4. The guy without any private companies will stock-trash, you won’t get your money back from your over-large bids, and you’re losing yet again. There’s a balancing point, and it is hard to find and balance correctly5.
Also, won’t everybody just stock-trash, turning stock-trashing into a shared pathology that makes no net difference? Yes and mostly no. Stock trashing sacrifices opportunities. You’re buying bad shares or passing on doing any actions while the other players snap up the good shares. Do that too much of that and you’ll lose as well. Also you’re making good shares cheap, and the other players are going to buy some of them (at their new low price) — so you’re helping as well as hindering them with your stock-trashing. Getting that balance right is not easy. In short stock-trashing is a necessary thing, but also a fairly subtle and highly contextual thing.
Also, remember that stock-trashing is not your only weapon. There’s also track and the train rush to consider among others. 18xx players have many offensive and defensive weapons to choose among. Stock-trashing is just one.
- There is another value of stock-trashing, which I’ll not discuss in this article, of manipulating operating order so that certain companies run before other companies. This can be critical, but is outside the scope of this article. ↩
- That company is now a dog. If nobody takes that liability away from them, they’ll rescue it with their third company or, more likely, just buy its permanent trains out of pocket from the great dividends they’ll make from all their great new shares. ↩
- And that’s a hard spot to find accurately. ↩
- As learned to my cost in a game of 1856 where I bid $5 too much for the port… ↩
- If it were easy, we wouldn’t be playing the game. ↩
Three company dumps in 18xx are frequently discussed but far less often successfully executed. They are hard to pull off well. Additionally, according to my email, there’s also a fair bit of confusion on how to arrange a three company dump.
The minimal form:
- You are the president of CompanyA, CompanyB and CompanyC.
- When CompanyB runs it has no train and has to buy one.
- CompanyB buys a train from CompanyA for face value or less1
- CompanyB doesn’t have enough treasury to buy the train for that much, and neither does the CompanyB president, so the CompanyB president sells shares in CompanyC to fund the train, sufficient to dump CompanyC on another player (who holds at least two shares of the company) in the middle of an Operating Round.
You’ll have to flesh out the details of how to arrive in this minimal state, and what related conditions you want to be true when you do. Presumably one of the pre-conditions is that CompanyC doesn’t (or won’t) have a train.
Getting all the details right is tricky. In several hundred 18xx games, I’ve seen two well-executed three company dumps. A well-executed three company dump can be devastating to the player the company is dumped on, especially if it lands them needing to buy a $1,100 diesel they were unprepared for (as it was for me in one of those two cases).
- The company selling the train (usually) can’t be the one being dumped as the sale/control-transfer happens before the presidential authorisation for the train sale and the new president is unlikely to authorise the train sale.
- Some games explicitly disallow three company dumps. Check the rules for the game you are playing. The games that disallow, usually do so by requiring that forced train purchases must be from the bank and not from other companies.
18EZ is marketed as an easy entry path into the 18xx for players new to the 18xx and without an experienced 18xx player to guide them into the field. The stated hope is that new players should be able to pick up the box and be easily and enjoyably playing an 18xx-like game without great effort or a large time commitment.
A key point here is that I am not in 18EZ’s intended audience and am partially incapable of reviewing the game for that reason. I run a monthly 18xx group and play 18xx often. As an experienced player, I teach 18xx to new players every month1. I have a reasonable idea of what it takes to guide a new player into the 18xx and can support that notion with direct and recent experience on both sides of the student and teacher fence. But, I’m no longer qualified to comment on the new-user never-played-an-18xx-before starting-from-scratch experience, the experience of a brand-new player faced with an empty table and expectant players who want to find out what this 18xx thing is all about. I’m a bit past that now.
I evaluated 18EZ on two grounds:
Does it succeed in providing a system for new players to ease into and learn the 18xx so that they can then reasonably move on and play the other games in the series?
18EZ consists of three games: Level-1, Level-2 and Level-3. Each level builds on the one before, in sum providing a sort of ladder of increasing complexity which in toto introduces most of the 18xx concepts.
Somewhat akin to the basic game included with 1856 and 1870, each player players runs a single company — there’s no distinction between players and companies — laying track, and running and buying trains. This is a rapid, relatively labour intensive exercise which introduces the concepts up track upgrades, train rusting, and running companies for money.
Level-2 introduces the distinction between players as investors and companies as investment targets, the stock-market, company floatation, capitalisation, shares, dividends, placing stations (one extra per company), certificate limits, train rusting, forced train purchases, and having the game end on a bankruptcy or breaking the bank.
Level-3 finally attempts to deliver an 18xx game, adding private companies, an 1830-style private company auction, half-dividends2, minor companies which merge into a major company on the first 5-train purchase, and more station markers.
The Good and the Bad
Technically, Level-1 succeeds at the introduction problem, and fairly well to boot. The Level-1 game is extremely simplistic, but introduces the core notions of track and running trains in a coherent fashion. In game terms, it is also about as interesting and attractive as paste3. For introducing those key early notions, it does well, albeit painfully. I would be surprised if any set of new players played it for more than 10 minutes before throwing up their hands and asking, “Where’s the game?”
The Level-2 game is similar. The map is mostly symmetric and thus entirely lacking in positional texture. With small variation, anything interesting accomplished anywhere on the board can be replicated in each of the other sectors for similar effort and rewards. While this quality is good for learning, it is less interesting as a game-quality. There are a few small shortages in the tile-set, mostly in the simple yellow-tile upgrades. but they should rarely make an appearance or have a significant effect. What is left is a little dance around priority, operating order, and the key question of who gets to buy the first 3-train and the first 4-train (to rust the 2-trains). Game-wise, again, there’s little here4. There’s very little ability for players to differentiate, even less reward for them differentiating, and the handling of stock value and capitalisation is fundamentally broken (more on this later). Due to its greater complexity, there’s more to the Level-2 game, but there’s little if any extra game-value, just more moving pieces. Like Level-1, Level-2 is a game of going through the motions as an exercise in building familiarity. There’s no texture, no differentiation, and no character for the player’s to exploit and build positions around; just a system laid out for the players to become comfortable with. This time however, due to the additional complexity, I can understand new players playing for a while, perhaps even finishing a single game before quitting in exasperation over looking for the game. I’d be surprised if any ungoaded player willingly put them selves through more than one game of Level-2.
Level-3 is the presented as the Real Deal for 18EZ and is also where the main problems come into sharp relief. Most of the new materials added, like the private companies, are pretty ignorable5. There are two problems, one introduced in Level-2 (but not such a problem there due to the general lack of game at that level), and the other brought in newly with Level-3.
Broken company capitalisation
Flat stock market
The resulting exercise teaches almost as many bad lessons as good, while continuing to have few grounds for interest as a game. I would expect new players to struggle through Level-3, thinking they’re learning the ropes, perhaps even for 2 or maybe 3 games at the outside, before giving up in exasperated exhaustion. As written, there’s just not enough game.
Broken Company Capitalisation
In Level-2 and Level-3, companies float as soon as 5 shares have been bought out of the IPO set, with the resulting companies starting fully capitalised6. As with other 18xx, stock prices fall one row for each share sold. Like 1826, 1832, 1846, and 1870 and a few other 18xx, shares in the IPO pool pay into the company treasury. However unlike those games, companies in 18EZ are not allowed to buy back their shares from the Open Market (and can’t issue their shares to the Open market to raise capital — but that’s a lesser point). This is a severe and even crippling problem.
First, some background: The 18xx are games of capital management. They are capitalist wet dreams. Oh there’s the whole business of companies and trains and track and stations and tile upgrades and stock prices and what-not, but that’s all just frilly distracting glamour on the core of the game: management of capital. That’s all the players do really: they manage capital. They invest that capital in shares in order to earn dividends and stock appreciation, thus adding to their capital. They float new companies so as to gain control of yet more capital via capitalisation, and then leverage that larger controlled capital into accelerated growth of their own capital. They manipulate the market and the trains and all that other palaver so as to minimise the risks to their own capital while maximising the risks to other’s capital. They manage capital from the moment the game starts until the moment the game ends, and they measure their success (score) in the game by, yep, measuring their total capital. The 18xx are games of capital management.
The problem is that 18EZ allows capital to be destroyed without any recovery, and that prevents capital management in any useful sense. In a standard 18xx, like say 1830, shares in the Open Market pay into the company treasury. While this may be somewhat counter-intuitive, it provides a reward and recovery path for a company that has had its share price trashed: all those Open Market shares are now paying their dividends into the company, capitalising it, and increasing its viability as a company. Thus the director of a company whose share price is trashed may wince, but they also appreciate the resulting influx of capital as those shares pay into the company treasury. The company is weaker…and yet stronger, and that trade isn’t such a bad one. And, most importantly, company presidents are able to manage their company capitalisation via keeping shares in the Open Market7. In all the games I know of that have IPO shares paying into the company treasury, the game also allows companies to buy back their own shares (at the new low market price) and thus still receive the capitalistion benefits of the shares8. In this way a company director in those games can directly manage his company’s capital and capital income.
In 18EZ Level-3 share shares reduce stock price, just like normal9. Additionally shares out of the IPO market cease paying into the company treasury. The result is that it is in every 18EZ player’s interest to move all their competitor’s shares out of the IPO market and into the Open market as fast as possible, thereby not only destroying their opponent’s share value, but also destroying the ability to further capitalise the company without withholding. There is no risk to a player in destroying another player’s share value in this way. There’s nothing but upside: the other player’s net-worth (ie score) is reduced and their companies are greatly weakened due to lost capitalisation ability. All with no cost or risk to the trashing player! This free supply of You_Lose! activity is not present in other 18xx, and for good reason: it encourages pathological and abusive behaviour.
In short, 18EZ’s pattern, which directly encourages share trashing without any value return for the destroyed capital value, encourages abusive and pathological behaviour. Once past the 3rd Stock Round, the primary incentive of every player is to ensure that all his competitor’s share-prices are pushed down to the floor — and he can do that very easily and with no cost or risk to himself.
18EZ also teaches players to withhold regularly, frequently, as the only way to capitalise their companies once they’ve run through their early train money. This habit is death in a normal 18xx. The base 18xx pattern10 is that players should never withhold dividends unless it is either with their trailing/trash company11 or the company can thereby immediately buy a permanent train after withholding. 18EZ’s effective insistence that further capitalisation is only possible via withholding (combined with the flat stock market) directly encourages players to withhold frequently; a habit that will sink and damn (and befuddle) them in almost every 18xx game they later play.
The big problem is that these traits destroy much of the value of the game as a teaching tool. The game as currently written teaches its players to play badly, and to make the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, thus reducing their ability to play other 18xx games until they un-learn the bad lessons 18EZ taught them. It does this by rewarding them for playing badly. It teaches them that capitalisation control is non-existent, and it isn’t, not in every other 18xx. It teaches them that stock trashing is free, obvious, and carries neither risk or penalties, and that’s simply not true in every other 18xx. It teaches the new players that having your stock trashed is an unmitigated bad with no possible upsides, and that there is nothing you can do about it except suffer, and that too is not true in every other 18xx. It also teaches new players that capitalisation is fixed, that there is no such thing as creative capital destruction12, and that capital under control is actually an almost completely illiquid quantity, and yes, that is just not true in every other 18xx. Finally, it teaches players that there is little to no penalty for withholding dividends, and that managing withheld dividends and capital across companies is mostly unimportant, and yes, that’s also not true with every other 18xx.
I expect an 18xx-teaching game to teach new players good habits and patterns of thought regarding capital management. Or at the very least, not to teach them bad habits and sloppy thinking that will kill them as soon as they step into a real game. 18EZ fails on this score.
Flat Stock Market
18EZ’s stock market is a model of equilibrium. Every stock-appreciation delta is $10. It doesn’t matter where the stock is in the market, right or left, up or down, the deltas are always $10. This seems nice and simple, and it is, but it also loses a key value of the 18xx: the rewards for getting a stock’s price marker to the right.
In a typical 18xx stock market, the stock-appreciation for shares far to the left can be but a few dollars. However, if a stock manages to get to the other side of the stock market, far to the right, then a single price-appreciation step may easily add $50 to a share’s value, rather than the (say) $3 for another share far to the left. The varying rate of stock-appreciation across the stock market is the foundation of several core lessons and principles of 18xx. As roughly 70% of a player’s final net-worth (and thus score) in a typical 18xx game is the value of their portfolio, getting high share values for their companies and thus having their portfolio stuffed with high-appreciation shares is critical to successful 18xx play13 — but 18EZ loses that lesson in its entirety by having a flat stock market, and the result, again, is that 18EZ teaches its players bad habits and poor decision-making processes.
Fixing the problems
Fixing the above problems isn’t hard. While the problems are large, they are also easy to address. There are two obvious approaches to fix the capitalisation problem:
- Instead of IPO shares paying into the company (which is the more rare form), have shares in the Open Market pay into the company (the more common form).
- Stay with only IPO shares paying into the company, but change the capitalisation of companies from full capitalisation (100% on float) to incremental (as each share is bought from the IPO pool its purchase money is added to the company treasury), and also allow companies to buy back their shares from the market during stock rounds (putting them back in the IPO pool) as well as to sell their own shares into the Open Market to raise capital.
Both approaches work, both approaches restore the capital balance of the game, and best of all, both approaches teach new players that they can in fact predict and constructively manage capital into the future. The players learn the right lessons. The first form is simpler and perhaps more obvious for new players. The second address is more complex and allows for a much larger range of creative options, but may be thought too confusing for new players (a fair complaint).
Fixing the stock market is also relatively easy, but requires some number juggling. The current stock market has 6 rows and 14 columns, for a total of 18 unique stock-price ranks. While I’m not fond of the shape, it isn’t terrible for this sort of learning game and could be left unchanged. What needs changing are however the stock prices! Currently they range from $20 – $200 in steps of $10. Something vaguely like the following stock-value sequence, counting in diagonal rows, would be better14:
Happily there is definitely still time available for a rules-errata and all the above fixes can be made easily and even fairly cheaply.
18EZ almost works as a teaching-game. It has most of the right basics together, but a few critical flaws prevent it from succeeding. However even with the flaws fixed, it is difficult to see 18EZ ever being more than a somewhat laborious exercise rather like the Geography games played in High School, which while they were certainly educational, were also abysmal games. With the fixes, as a $45 exercise to be done a few times just to learn the 18xx, 18EZ will probably work fine. At this level it is effectively paid-training that is discarded once it is (rapidly) surpassed. The problem with such paid-training is that it had also better be enjoyable or most of the audience will abandon their good intentions early rather than drudge through15. This is perhaps the main area where 18EZ falls short as a game. It is, pardon my candour, almost inescapably boring at all levels simply because there is no differentiation, no texture, no character, and no significantly unique qualities to player or company positions, and it remains at heart a training exercise that feels more like a training exercise than a game.
Even with fixed capitalisation and a graded stock market, the game remains abstract and texture-less. The very genericy that makes it easy to use as a stationary bicycle to learn how to pedal, also removes the differentiation and character that are the keys to human interest. Most 18xx games are tightly tied against both a specific period of history and the specific terrain of a certain part of the world. That simple aspect of realism, of relation to the player’s world, does a lot to resonate with players, even if they don’t know that period of history or that part of the world well. Some of the names ring bells, they understand mountains and rivers and lakes, they kinda sorta see why there might be cities in some of the locations just by the geography and their faint memories of skipped history lessons, and all the names of companies and locations ring with echoes of the culture and language of that time and part of the world. While a subtle effect, it is surprisingly emotionally powerful, and 18EZ not only loses that, it also aggressively devalues it, and I don’t think that double-whammy can be recovered from.
- For example, this coming Monday I’ll be teaching 3 more new players. ↩
- I had quite a surprise here. I’d not expected half-pays in a teaching game. ↩
- The white starchy edible glue used in pre-schools and kindergartens. ↩
- And the grind just to get through the trains is painfully slow and tortuous. ↩
- The private companies are pretty over-priced and entirely bland and uninteresting. Only the $20 trigger is clearly worth its face value. The rest are arguably over-priced and thoroughly uninteresting. They’re certainly not worth bidding much more than face value for, and in general I’d feel advantaged to start the game without owning a private company just due to the greater capital flexibility. ↩
- 10x par price as the starting capital for the company. ↩
- In fact it is common for company presidents to sell shares of their own companies into the market just to get that extra capitalisation (among other details). ↩
- The stock-price may be hurt, but the company got some free money (the difference between the par-price and the new lower stock-price). ↩
- ie The stock-price moves down one row per share sold. ↩
- This is a very tough one to teach — trust me on this — new players have a notably hard time internalising this lesson. ↩
- And there’s another hard-to-teach distinction. ↩
- It is creative capital destruction, the cyclical creation of vibrant new capital via the destruction of other older capital, that I see as the real heart of 1830-style 18xx. It also happens to be a fairly decent game-model of our rapaciously cannibalistic industrial economy. ↩
- In fact it is easy to predict the winner of most 18xx games: Which player owns the most shares of companies at the top/right of the stock market? Most of the time that simple heuristic will give the right answer. ↩
- Sucked purely from the end of my thumb with no attempt to verify balance across the arc of the game. ↩
- Just ask any trainer at a gym! ↩
Note: David Reed’s Geocities page, frequently linked and quoted below, will be disappearing as Yahoo! shuts down Geocities. Thus, those links will break, and also in part, my rush in getting this page and the related files assembled.
Reading Railroad by Alan Moon
David Reed writes:
Take a Ride on the Reading by Alan Moon, published originally in The General volume 23, number 6 (and due to be republished in the Train Gamer’s Gazette volume 2, number 4), added the Reading Railroad to the game and suggested several other changes to the rules of play.
Coalfields by Alan Moon
David Reed writes:
The Coalfields by Alan Moon, published orginally in Games International number 6 (and recently republished in the Train Gamer’s Gazette volume 2, number 2), added the Norfolk and Western Railroad; an extra portion of the board; two “7″ trains; off-board connections that can be the center of a run, instead of the end; and suggested several other changes to the rules of play. including rules for combining The Coalfields with Take a Ride on the Reading.
I’ve found two supporting archives, fortunately non-contradictory: one and two. The former has the advantage of providing both the new rules and colour images for the new map sections, tiles and shares.
Update: Please note that the colour PDF I’ve assembled above for the Coalfields expansion prints the map extensions slightly too small. It doesn’t accurately match the 1830 map. The resulting map sections, while undersized are certainly playable albeit also ungainly and clumsy. Oddly the track tiles that go onto the board are however just fine. The track tiles placed by players appear to be small by a similar fraction to the map extensions.
I have not yet determined why this is true, or what the correct scaling factor is. I estimate by rough eye that it is not far under 10%.
Perre Marquette Railroad by Federico Vellani
David Reed writes:
The Pere Marquette by Federico Vellani, published in the Train Gamer’s Gazette volume 3, number 1, adds a new western railroad.
I’ve stashed a PDF of a photocopy of the original magazine article documenting the new company and related rules changes.
Bonds/Corporate Debt by John Puddifoot
David Reed writes:
The 1830 Debt Variant by John Puddifoot, published originally in the Train Gamer’s Gazette volume 1, number 3, added the ability for companies to go into debt (similar to, but not exactly like the debt rules in 1856).
I’ve assembled a PDF of the rules for the Bonds/Corporate Debt Variant.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge by Carl Burger
David Reed writes:
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge by Carl Burger has not been published anywhere yet, to my knowledge. It adds on to the Coalfields variant. A bridge between hexes J14 and I17 is the only added terrain. K15 (The N&W base) is now has room for two tokens, and its value changes based on phase from $30 to $50 to $60. Two tiles are also added: one each of tile 145 (from 1870) and 220 (from 1835).
I’ve been unable to find any further details.
“Simple” by John David Galt
David Reed writes:
The “Simple” 1830 variant by John David Galt adds the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific (CMSt.P&P – The “Milwaukee Road”) starting with 3 tokens in hex D2 (Flint MI) and the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) starting with 3 tokens in hex H4 (Dayton OH). Both companies have standard 1830 share set-ups (President: 20% and 8 x 10%). The third “6″ train should be used, but no other trains should be added. These should only be used with 5 or 6 players. The variant also adds a couple of gray tiles, which will be available when the first six train is sold. The first is a tile identical to the Toronto tile in 1856 for New York City; the second is a “B” tile (two hole city with five exits, worth 70). Only one of each of these tiles is added.
In an email exchange with John David Galt about this variant, he commented:
What’s up on that long-dead site is all there is. The variant was nothing more than a one-liner response to someone on the 18xx mailing list who wanted an 1830 variant with more companies.
I’ve been unable to find any further details except for Keieth Thomasson’s mention listed below under the Nickel Plate variant.
Nickel Plate by Wolfram Janich
Mentioned in several places, including in Kieth Thomasson’s issue 138 of For Whom The Die Rolls, December 2006. Quoting from that magazine:
The 1830 Variant Box No.1 is just enough information to intrigue but not enough to give any idea what this actually contains. This is published by Wolfram Janich and contains the Wabash Cannonball Variant by Harry Wu, the ‘Simple’ Variant by John David Galt. The rules to these are in German and English. There are also two alternative maps by Wolfram.
– The Wabash Cannonball variant
This introduces a new company, the Wabash Railroad, which starts in hex H2. The map is extended to the west, moving Chicago a couple of hexes west in the process. There is an overlay for hex D20, which makes the hex north east of the NYC base a value 20 station in a grey hex. There is one additional train of type ’2′, ’3′, ’4′ and ’5′, and eight ’7′ trains, which cost $830 and replace the Diesels. You cannot trade in a train for a ’7′ as you could for a Diesel. There are also a few extra tiles – one extra 57, one extra 15, and two brown tiles that are the same as a 15 tile and valued at 40. These brown tiles are not numbered, but the design has been used in a number of games and is identical to tiles 448 (1854/1889) and 776 (1860).
– The ‘Simple’ variant
This variant introduces two new companies. The CMStP&P starts in D2, while the L&N starts in H4. The optional third ’6′ train should be used, but no other trains added. There are two new tiles – both grey – which come out when the first ’6′ is bought. One is an upgrade to New York, as used in 1856, and one upgrade for the Baltimore/Boston tiles. This variant is recommended for 5 or 6 players only. I presume it is called the ‘Simple’ variant because the changes are simple, not because it makes the game simpler :-)
– Alternative Maps
These maps are based on random maps produced by the 1830 computer program. The maps produced by the program can be very unbalanced, so Wolfram used those as a starting point and then reworked them to get a better balance. I have a number on order from Wolfram, but don’t know quite when to expect them. Half of those are already reserved. If you’re interested I’ll be selling them for £20 plus post and packing, which is about the same price if you buy directly from Wolfram. It’s quite light, so post and packing should be£4 at the most for the UK. Let me know if you want a copy.
I’ve been unable to locate any further details on Wolfram Janich’s Nickel Plate variant.
Wabash by Harry Wu
Described briefly above by Kieth Thomasson, and pictured below by Knurt on BoardgameGeek:
I’ve been unable to find any further details, especially regarding the rules.
Westpark by Warter Sorger
I’ve assembled a PDF of the rules for the Westpark Variant.
Eddie Robbin’s Baltimore & Ohio is the latest member of the Historic Railroads System and is part of the Winsome Games’ 2009 Essen Collection. It is a particularly [[trenchant|trenchant]] perfect and certain information game all about timing, timing, and well, timing. In broader character, Baltimore & Ohio is Rimsky Korsakov‘s Flight of the Bumble Bee: full of little surges and races, layers upon layers of them, never relenting, always rushing, all of the races critical and requiring full attention and an endless delicate dedication to the dance.
Baltimore & Ohio has been described as the Historic Railroads System meets the 18xx, and there’s some truth to the claim. Functionally it is clearly a member of the Historic railroads System with a hex-map, track abstracted to putting a cube in a hex on the map, companies with shares, company dividends a function of company cubes in cities, etc. Architecturally Baltimore & Ohio is a child of 1825 Unit 1 (and 1825 Unit 2 and 1825 Unit 3) with a glaring focus on (1825-style) portfolio management and timing (owning the right shares at the right times) rather than 1830-style market manipulation. Spiritually, and yes the parentage is this complex, Baltimore & Ohio is the direct descendant of Lokomotive Werks1 with all of that game’s extra-ordinary attention to exacting cashflow, turn order, and timing — just carried forward into a larger and less relenting game2. Of the three, Lokomotive Werks has the dominant genes, shortly followed by 1825.
The game itself consists of stock rounds alternating with a pair of operating rounds. Initially 6 companies are available (B&O, B&M, C&O, NYC, NYNH&H & PRR). Later in the game 4 more companies become available (Erie, IC, Nickel Plate & Wabash). During stock rounds players acquire shares and manipulate the stock market. During operating rounds companies operate and may generate dividends for their shareholders. The game ends at the end of a set of operating rounds in which the highest level train is purchased (common), or when a share price reaches $375 (unlikely). The winner is the player with the largest net worth (portfolio value plus cash). There are few surprises here.
The rest of the model model is mostly familiar but does have surprises:
- As has been long-suggested for many 18xx (perhaps most frequently by Robert Jasiek) player turn order is ordered by ascending player cash at the start of stock rounds
- The stock market is linear with par value ranges an increasing function of the largest train purchased by any company
- Sold shares reduce share-value by one slot, no matter how many were sold
- Share values increase only if the company pays a dividend that is larger than its dividend from the last operating round
- Share values go down if the company has shares in the open market, or its dividend (paid or withheld) is less than it was in the last operating round
- In all other cases, whether dividends paid or withheld, share values remain unchanged
- On their turn a player may sell any number of shares from any number of companies, and then buy any number of shares (of one company)
- Companies are incrementally capitalised as shares are bought
- Each company has a different number of track cubes, limiting its potential reach and growth with some like the B&M and NYNH&H being very small (but adjacent to great cities) and others like the C&O having a great many track cubes
- When determining a company’s dividend run, all the trains the company owns are summed (eg two 2-trains, a 3-train3, and two 4-trains gives a total of 15) and then that many cities connected by the company’s track are selected to generate the dividend (without regard for sequencing or locality). Thus there is no route tracing, just a simple connectivity check
- The actual dividend a company pays is equal to the sum of values of the cities hit by the company trains, minus a maintenance fee for each train the company owns, divided across the 10 shares in the company. The fee per train is equal to $10 multiplied by the size of the largest train purchased by any company, making smaller trains increasingly uneconomic over time
The board is rife with layers of short and long (timing) races. The number of companies allowed to connect to a given city is equal to the size of the largest train purchased by any company, thus there are races to get to more desirable cities first, locking other companies out. As city-capacity increases immediately when a new level of train is bought (and track is built after train purchasing), there are also races to be in position to buy the next size train and then immediately fill the newly accessible more-valuable cities. There are also races for special locations on the board with dividend-increasing coal tokens. As companies operate in descending order of stock value, stock rounds easily become positional dances attempting to force advantageous relative operating orders for specific companies so as to get them the good cities, good trains, good coal tokens etc4 before some other company does5.
Similarly, as there is such an advantage to being marginally lower in cash at the start of a stock round (to get first dibs on the best shares), there is often a muscular struggle in the operating rounds to run companies to pay as much as possible while having the controlling player end up with $1 less than the other players so as to secure the better turn order in the upcoming stock round.
This latter turn-order positioning is made more complex by the difficulty of increasing company stock values. There is a strong incentive to run companies for less than their maximum dividends so as to ensure stock-price increases by reserving future dividend increases by counting not-as-good cities for a dividend and then swapping in better cities in future dividends6. Getting the dividend sub-reporting for continued stock-value increases combined with maximising personal cash while also securing good turn order positioning can be difficult.
Those are not the only timing layers. There are yet more at different layers and levels, all open to inspection and manipulation. One trick is to hide cash in increased share value which would otherwise affect the player’s turn order. As companies are incrementally capitalised as their shares are bought, and all shares sell for the current stock value, there is not only a race for good operating order, but for various combinations of good turn order positions, operating order positions, good board positions/access, etc. For instance, the right new company floated at the right time, with the right par and thus the right capitalisation, and thus the right operating order (even after player-market assault), can pay great dividends while preserving the player’s turn order position, and be ripe to be dumped immediately in the next stock round, capitalising either buying all the best shares or floating a new company with the right par and the…etc.
As another example, there are also timing games that can be played with trains. In one of our games the NYNH&H, a very small company that can only reach 5 cities, already owned two 3-trains and had enough money in its treasury to buy an additional 5-train. Of course that gave it a total train capacity of 11 when it only connected 5 cities, but no matter. It then withheld its dividends and in the next operating round sold its 5-train to the bank7 and used that money along with its remaining treasury to buy the last 5-train, thus selling a 5-train to buy a 5-train and accelerating the end of the game while also leaving an opponent’s company unable to afford the larger train it needed and thus forcing it to withhold dividends yet again. Similar little timing games around the trains exist through-out the game.
All the little races and plethora of timing games, with every detail counting, sum to a larger fight to control the pace of the game and thus the length of the game. However rather than game-length being the defining centre of the game as it is in Wabash Cannonball, it is more an emergent and less directly-controlled property formed by the amalgam of all the little races. Due to capital concentration, ability to control the game’s development speed and thus length with lower player counts is greatly reduced. For the same reasons, the importance of game-length control, and the ability to affect it, also tends to increase as player-count increases.
Baltimore & Ohio scales across player counts similarly to the 18xx. As player-count decreases, control increases and the timing games may be played with ever-increasing finesse. As player count increases, capital is diluted across players, and control not only decreases but shared-incentives becomes more important and a whole new layer of emergently collusive timing games become possible. At the higher player counts the patterns start to stylistically resemble 6-player 1830′s, and at the lower player-counts, to likewise resemble 3-player 1830, complete with not only the different pacings, but the different values of different companies at the different player counts. The result is that 3 players plays very differently from 4 players, which in turn plays very differently from 5 players (I’ve not tried 6 players yet).
Expect your first session of Baltimore & Ohio to take between 4 and 5 hours, possibly a little more. With experience that play-time can be shortened down to around 150 minutes, but it will require both skill and discipline as with that increased skill comes greater ability to predict, control and thus play with the many many layers of timing in the game, pushing the game back up toward 4-5 hours. Perhaps surprisingly it is easier to push play-time down with increased player-counts, as with more players timing-control also decreases, making a great many of the more subtle and time-consuming timing games unviable.
- Early experience: Lokomotive Werks ↩
- I’d never expected to describe Lokomotive Werks as more relenting! ↩
- As in most of the 18xx, 3-trains are the best trains in the game. ↩
- Most of our games have spent more time in stock rounds than operating rounds. ↩
- Destroying stock values all the while! ↩
- This is considerably easier with some companies than others. ↩
- Companies may sell their trains to the bank (and out of the game) for a marginal value. ↩
The following python script calculates the probabilities of a given cube on a row being produced by the end of a given round in a game of Age of Steam:
#! /usr/bin/env python # Author: J C Lawrence <email@example.com> # Date: 25 June 2009 # Purpose: Calculate AoS cube production probabilities by row and round def fact (x): if x < 1: return 1 return reduce (lambda x, y: x * y, xrange (1, x + 1)) def xCy (x, y): return fact (x) / (fact (x - y) * fact (y)) def point_p (d, n): c = float (xCy (d, n)) p = (((1.0 / 6) ** n) * ((5.0 / 6) ** (d - n))) return c * p def sum_p (d, n): rc = 0.0 for i in range (n, d + 1): rc = rc + point_p (d, i) return rc def main (): for p in range (3, 7): print "Players: %d" % p for r in range (1, [10, 8, 7, 6][p - 3]): print "\tRound %d: Row 1 - %f\tRow 2 - %f\tRow 3 - %f" \ % (r, sum_p (r * p, 1), sum_p (r * p, 2), sum_p (r * p, 3)) if __name__ == "__main__": main ()
Players: 3 Round 1: Row 1 - 0.421296 Row 2 - 0.074074 Row 3 - 0.004630 Round 2: Row 1 - 0.665102 Row 2 - 0.263224 Row 3 - 0.062286 Round 3: Row 1 - 0.806193 Row 2 - 0.457341 Row 3 - 0.178260 Round 4: Row 1 - 0.887843 Row 2 - 0.618667 Row 3 - 0.322574 Round 5: Row 1 - 0.935095 Row 2 - 0.740378 Row 3 - 0.467775 Round 6: Row 1 - 0.962439 Row 2 - 0.827219 Row 3 - 0.597346 Round 7: Row 1 - 0.978263 Row 2 - 0.886969 Row 3 - 0.704381 Round 8: Row 1 - 0.987421 Row 2 - 0.927041 Row 3 - 0.788168 Round 9: Row 1 - 0.992720 Row 2 - 0.953411 Row 3 - 0.851205 Players: 4 Round 1: Row 1 - 0.517747 Row 2 - 0.131944 Row 3 - 0.016204 Round 2: Row 1 - 0.767432 Row 2 - 0.395323 Row 3 - 0.134847 Round 3: Row 1 - 0.887843 Row 2 - 0.618667 Row 3 - 0.322574 Round 4: Row 1 - 0.945912 Row 2 - 0.772831 Row 3 - 0.513209 Round 5: Row 1 - 0.973916 Row 2 - 0.869580 Row 3 - 0.671341 Round 6: Row 1 - 0.987421 Row 2 - 0.927041 Row 3 - 0.788168 Round 7: Row 1 - 0.993934 Row 2 - 0.959962 Row 3 - 0.868240 Players: 5 Round 1: Row 1 - 0.598122 Row 2 - 0.196245 Row 3 - 0.035494 Round 2: Row 1 - 0.838494 Row 2 - 0.515483 Row 3 - 0.224773 Round 3: Row 1 - 0.935095 Row 2 - 0.740378 Row 3 - 0.467775 Round 4: Row 1 - 0.973916 Row 2 - 0.869580 Row 3 - 0.671341 Round 5: Row 1 - 0.989517 Row 2 - 0.937104 Row 3 - 0.811313 Round 6: Row 1 - 0.995787 Row 2 - 0.970511 Row 3 - 0.897210 Players: 6 Round 1: Row 1 - 0.665102 Row 2 - 0.263224 Row 3 - 0.062286 Round 2: Row 1 - 0.887843 Row 2 - 0.618667 Row 3 - 0.322574 Round 3: Row 1 - 0.962439 Row 2 - 0.827219 Row 3 - 0.597346 Round 4: Row 1 - 0.987421 Row 2 - 0.927041 Row 3 - 0.788168 Round 5: Row 1 - 0.995787 Row 2 - 0.970511 Row 3 - 0.897210
No accommodations have been made for maps with different numbers of rounds per player count, or the insta-production rules used on most of my maps. Enjoy.
Given the following situation in a three player game of Wabash Cannonball after the starting auction:
- Player #1: PRR $20 Cash $20
- Player #2: B&O $20 Cash $20
- Player #3: C&O $20 NYC $20 Cash $0
- Was Player #3 right to force-win that share of the NYC or should he have let it go to another player instead after enforcing a minimum bid level?
- What did Player #3′s choice to force-win the NYC share do to his position?
- What does each player do for their first action? Is this an easy or automatic decision for each player? Why?
- For each player, are they in a good or bad position? What are their primary risks and opportunities? Compare and contrast their positions.
- Have any of the players adopted game-length postures yet?
- Have any decisions been made which will affect how many General Dividend are likely to be paid in this game? If so, what were they?
I’d promised a while ago to post a move-by-move analysis of one of our Wabash Cannonball games but for various reasons that hasn’t happened and is unlikely to happen. But there is hope. I had an interesting discussion with Adam Kao last night regarding Wabash Cannonball tactics (the game has been popular at Eudemonia). During the discussion we worked through a few set pieces in order to illuminate some of the points I was making. The first set piece is below. If this proves popular/effective I’ll see about posting other set pieces.
Assume a 4 player game of Wabash Cannonball and that the initial share auction resulted in the following share distribution:
- Player #1: PRR $15, B&O $15, Cash $0
- Player #2: Cash $30
- Player #3: C&O $15, Cash $15
- Player #4: NYC $16, Cash $14
- Why did Player #4 spend $16 on the NYC? Is this a good or weak position?
- Is Player #2 in a strong or weak position? Does Player #2? control initiative?
- What is each of the four player’s posture as regards game length?
- What is the first action of each of the four players in the first round of the game? Why?
- Do they have any other reasonable choices? Why?
- Might any of the players use a Develop action during the first round? If so, why?
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.
Update: In fact the game is sufficiently difficult to grok that almost all the below is flat out wrong. It is hogwash. Beware. I’ll be writing up a correct summary of the game after it reaches broad release.
- Duck Dealer is a perfect and certain information logistics game very much in the spirit of Roads & Boats and Neuland but with its own unique take
- Don’t be deceived by the light and funny theme
- Duck Dealer is a deceptively direct re-interpretation of Merchant of Venus
- Three players is probably the sweet spot, maybe four with experienced players
- The first phase of the game is ship improvements
- The opportunity cost of ship improvement is usually prohibitive later in the game
- Each pattern of ship investments establishes a natural rhythm for that ship; the rhythm at which it takes energy and then acts
- The balance of colours on the ship likewise establishes a natural activity-type rhythm
- None of the choices of combinations for game-start ship configuration are obviously bad but each one strongly suggests a different ship development tack and thus resulting rhythm
- I suspect that the game’s initial turn order plus the ship configurations of the player’s ahead of you in turn order is a key factor to smart initial ship configuration decisions
- I also suspect this reflects strongly into suggested ship configurations
- It is clear that the random distribution of initial mines and the consumer tile ordering affects this and in fact defines these choices
- It is not at all clear to what extent this is true in practice given human’s struggle with the decision space of the game
- Coarsely (there are exceptions) the larger/more equipped a ship is the longer its rhythm
- The heart of the game is managing your ship’s natural logistical rhythms against the emergent opportunity costs as the game/board develops and new buildings (tiles) are placed
- It is viable to stay with an undeveloped 8-speed ship with two discs and a cargo hold
- The undeveloped ship strategy is the most programmatic (fewest significant decisions), most risky and most subject to interference from other players
- Undeveloped ships are dependent on rapid short-term opportunity exploitation which in turn requires frequent actions and results in a short/fast game
- If the undeveloped ship dawdles the better equipped ships will out-pace them
- If multiple players do run undeveloped ships they will drive a short/fast game that will likely seem to be decided arbitrarily
- I find longer games with more developed ships more interesting
- The more ship improvements the players do, the longer the game will be and the more of the board will be developed
- Just one undeveloped ship moving fast and staying focussed can drive a fast/short game
- The value of Build/yellow decreases during the game, sometimes precipitously.
- Build/yellow can be worth a lot early in the game
- Exception: Heavily built ships with two movement can reliably profit from Build/yellow energy to place Galactic Infrastructure (cubes on routes) to help manage their naturally short (2) movement distance
- The bigger your ship is the more often Galactic Infrastructure (cubes on routes) is more useful than privilege markers on tiles
- Teleports are remarkably hard to place usefully
- Clever teleport placement may invert some of these observations
- I have yet to see a clever teleport placement
- With rare exception there are more VPs for building factories and flipping consumer tiles than doing milk runs stuffing goods into an already flipped consumer
- Establishing and then running a production loop is almost invariably less profitable than focussing on building factories and flipping consumer tiles
- This is directly opposite from Merchant of Venus’ reward patterns
- Exception: Ships with huge hold-spaces (7+ capacity?) can profit enormously from a well-optimised production loop (ie privileges claimed on all steps) on a 25/10 consumer.
- Establishing and then running a production loop is almost invariably less profitable than focussing on building factories and flipping consumer tiles
- The usual reason players act is that they become unable to sustain comprehension of their intended move. Their mental stack overflows, they lose track and so they act instead of continuing to search for the optimal risk/value return for energy accumulation. This is often (almost always) a mistake.
- Usually getting more energy and doing more later is markedly more efficiently profitable
- Unless someone gets there first
- The game is all about acceleration curves against game length
- Each player’s ship investment has a pay-off curve
- A undeveloped ship is faster to build, runs more quickly but makes fewer points per natural action
- A big ship takes longer to build and runs more slowly but makes more points per natural action
- The players emergently determine the game length
- Which player’s ship’s reward-curve/opportunity-exploitation-rate/game-length sums best when the game ends is the core question of the game
[2008-11-07/14:02] <cocadieta> JC, you around? I had a flash of inspiration this afternoon re: Confucius.
[2008-11-07/14:03] <cocadieta> The bonus card drafting variant (unplayed!) sounds good but really pushes the main problem further up the pipe–say two people are in line to run ships out to sea, the second person could either luck out or get hosed by the card draw.
[2008-11-07/14:04] <clearclaw> That’s why the variant shows the pipeline of cards as well as the current draft set.
[2008-11-07/14:05] <cocadieta> Idea: At the beginning of the game, shuffle the bonus cards and deal five to each side of the board. The left side are the bonus cards available to military conquests, the right side to boats.
[2008-11-07/14:05] <clearclaw> Oh cute!
[2008-11-07/14:07] <clearclaw> So there’s the possibility of the 6th fleet getting stuck.
[2008-11-07/14:07] <clearclaw> There are only 3 possible army cards
[2008-11-07/14:07] <cocadieta> Nahh, if the stock of 5 runs out, players can pull from the other side.
[2008-11-07/14:09] <clearclaw> So players pull any of the face up 5?
[2008-11-07/14:09] <cocadieta> Exactly.
[2008-11-07/14:09] * clearclaw ponders.
[2008-11-07/14:09] <clearclaw> That makes ER cards FAR more valuable
[2008-11-07/14:10] <cocadieta> They’re already that valuable, just at random times.
[2008-11-07/14:11] <clearclaw> But now it is perfectly controlled and can be timed to a nicety.
[2008-11-07/14:11] <clearclaw> In particular it makes the bribe cards even stronger
[2008-11-07/14:11] <cocadieta> A game where all of the bribe cards got dealt to the left of the board would be much different than a game where they were all dealt to the right. Definitely.
[2008-11-07/14:12] <clearclaw> Not just that, but the certainty that you could get the bribe card you wanted exactly when you wanted it
[2008-11-07/14:17] <cocadieta> The bribe cards are already the most valuable cards in the game. It seems inappropriate to hide them behind random draws of any kind.
[2008-11-07/14:18] <clearclaw> There’s some truth there.
I like this change.
[2008-10-01/11:30] <clearclaw> I am building a bureaucratic force of extraordinary magnitude — http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/2692463
[2008-10-01/11:31] <cocadieta> Neat, that was the game I played last night.
[2008-10-01/11:32] <cocadieta> For my last action I got to choose whether J R or Dave won.
[2008-10-01/11:33] <clearclaw> Hehn.
[2008-10-01/11:33] <clearclaw> I’d love to talk more but have to run. Back in ~45 probably.
[2008-10-01/11:39] <sedjtroll> So does Confucius often come down to such a kingmaker decision?
[2008-10-01/11:39] <cocadieta> It’s easy for it to.
[2008-10-01/11:40] <cocadieta> This is the first time I’ve seen it quite so clearly, but there was nothing terribly special about this game (other than three new players).
[2008-10-01/11:40] <sedjtroll> Oh. lame
[2008-10-01/11:46] <clearclaw> No, in this case that’s a positive quality
[2008-10-01/11:46] <clearclaw> The entire game is about creating tied situations.
[2008-10-01/11:46] <clearclaw> A kingmaker position is merely an instance of a tied situation.
[2008-10-01/11:47] <cocadieta> That’s how I looked at it. Two players won. That I had to ‘pick’ between them isn’t really important.
[2008-10-01/11:47] <clearclaw> Quite.
[2008-10-01/11:48] <cocadieta> The money isn’t too lucky but the bonus cards are.
[2008-10-01/11:48] <clearclaw> If there had been an incentive created by one of the players for you to go one way or ther other it would have been more interesting. This was just the degenerate case.
[2008-10-01/11:48] <clearclaw> Aye, the Emperor’s reward cards are swingy
[2008-10-01/11:48] <clearclaw> What complaints I have centre there.
[2008-10-01/11:49] <cocadieta> In last night’s game, I had a 30% chance of pulling a card worth 8 points to me (!!!)
[2008-10-01/11:49] <clearclaw> They’re hard to remove cleanly
[2008-10-01/11:49] <clearclaw> Wowzers.
[2008-10-01/11:49] <clearclaw> I’ve not looked hard at the distribution.
[2008-10-01/11:50] <cocadieta> The situation was: Hoju was about to resolve and I saw my position there go from a very safe second to an impossible-to-fix third.
[2008-10-01/11:51] <cocadieta> I ran my boats out to Africa and picked up a bonus card. If it was the Hoju bribery card or one of the two wilds, I could have knocked someone out and gone back to second. The VPs in the region were 8/8; I had two markers and a gift invested in the region.
[2008-10-01/11:51] <cocadieta> Brutal, but then again, them’s the breaks.
[2008-10-01/11:52] <clearclaw> Yow. Those forced minister cards are (overly?) brutal.
[2008-10-01/11:52] <clearclaw> They haven’t determined one of our games yet but they’ve come close.
[2008-10-01/11:52] <clearclaw> They make the navies far more viable than they appear at first glance,.
[2008-10-01/11:53] <cocadieta> I’m happy to accept them as swingy, and also I realize I have to revise my line that the bonus cards are worth about a point or two each.
[2008-10-01/11:53] <clearclaw> I think I’d prefer the game without the Emperor’s Reward cards, I see them as something to be polished out, but they are tightly married to the rest of the system.
[2008-10-01/11:58] <cocadieta> I like them though I know why you aren’t crazy about them. I wonder what it would do to the game to keep them face up and let players pick them.
[2008-10-01/11:58] <clearclaw> Or perhaps a narrow draught pool. THAT would be interesting!
[2008-10-01/11:58] <clearclaw> (and face up when drawn)
[2008-10-01/11:59] <clearclaw> (unless drawn blind?)
[2008-10-01/11:59] <cocadieta> There are always two cards available, that kind of thing?
[2008-10-01/11:59] <clearclaw> Yes.
[2008-10-01/12:00] <clearclaw> Aside: In our last game we had a player do 15 fleets at once.
[2008-10-01/12:00] <cocadieta> I like the sound of that. I don’t mind the chaos and the huge swinginess of the cards–I think that’s perfectly in line with the insane swings that e.g. the students can have on the game–but the blind draws and secret holdings are maybe a little much.
[2008-10-01/12:00] <cocadieta> That’s great!
[2008-10-01/12:01] <clearclaw> Aye. I do like the draught pool idea.
[2008-10-01/12:01] <clearclaw> I’ll try and write that up later as a proposal.
[2008-10-01/12:01] * clearclaw will probably dig lightly at Faidutti.
[2008-10-01/12:01] <cocadieta> Ha, ha
[2008-10-01/12:02] <clearclaw> Undoubtedly he likes the chaos. His style.
[2008-10-01/12:02] <cocadieta> Yeah, absolutely.
[2008-10-01/12:02] <clearclaw> This variant will lead directly away from that quality.
[2008-10-01/12:02] <clearclaw> I expect it will be accused of attempting to turn the game into something that it isn’t.
[2008-10-01/12:25] <cocadieta> J C, will your ego be bruised if I type up that variant as part of a reply to J R’s report?
[2008-10-01/12:26] <sedjtroll> I think JC’s ego is impervious
[2008-10-01/12:51] <clearclaw> I am currently in the process of putting that variant into an OtherWise post which will be cross-posted to BGG as a variant proposal
[2008-10-01/12:53] <clearclaw> Outside of that yes, my ego will not be bruised.
[2008-10-01/12:53] <cocadieta> I mentioned the variant in J R’s report. If you’d like I’d be happy to credit it to you as well, it just didn’t seem worth it.
[2008-10-01/12:53] <clearclaw> I’m not overly worried.
[2008-10-01/12:53] <clearclaw> (or underly)
Ben’s post to BoardGameGeek:
I really love this game, and I think navigating its insane chaos is a very unusual challenge. I agree that the luck of the money draw really just means players need to be prepared to spend only a little or a lot on any given turn, and there are plenty of cheap as well as expensive things to buy. Poor planning will make anyone susceptible to bad card draws, but a versatile board position and gift pool should ensure that you always have something to do.
After last night’s game, my new feeling is that the bonus cards are a little too lucky. Chaos is the order of the day here, but it’s basically ‘fair’ chaos: I have, at every moment, a very good overview of everyone’s position and incentives (to borrow a word–hi, J C). That is, except for bonus cards, which are hugely variable in worth to every player, randomly drawn, and secretly held. I love the swinginess of the cards, I love the chaos they create, but I don’t appreciate their random draw.
Proposed variant: At the beginning of the game, shuffle the cards and keep them face down. Flip over the top two (three?) cards; when a player wins a bonus card, he selects one, keeps it face up in front of him, and flips a new card to replace it. I feel like this would preserve the crazy chaos of the game but continue to allow each player to have a ‘complete’ picture, letting him make more informed decisions. I also don’t think it adds much, if any, complexity to the game.
I followed that with the following post:
The more I think about this proposal the more I like it. There are a few questions:
Does the draught pool refill immediately when a card is taken (this is significant for the cases in which players take more than one card with a single action via the navies)
May a player draw blind?
Size of the draught pool
I hadn’t thought these through when I proposed the variant on #bgdf_chat. My general view is that the Emperor’s reward cards as currently implemented are unnecessary complication to be polished out by development. I’ve spent a few hours looking at doing that but the cards are tied deeply into the rest of the system and can’t be removed easily without grossly affecting other key game relationships.
The more cards are in the draught pool the higher the probability that one or more of the cards will be specifically useful to any given player. Additionally the exposure of the cards in the draught pool increases their value for the players as they know what they are getting/competing for. There’s also an argument that the card values are decreased because they are also revealed to the other players, however this value change seems small.
Fleets are the only way to acquire multiple cards with a single action. We’ve had players send 15 fleets out in a single action in more than one of our games, thereby taking three cards at once. I strenuously doubt that any player will ever send out 20 fleets with a single action and thus take 4 cards at once. I’m willing to discount that contingency or cover it with a special rule that the last card is blind. 15 fleets is rare enough as to provide a reasonable outer bound.
Allowing the draught pool to immediately fill as cards are drawn allows such a fleet player to benefit from luck of the draw without any foresight by other players. If not a step backward, this is not an improvement.
Blind draws effectively recreate the (overly) chaotic system which we’re trying to address. Blind draws would be better if the drawn card were then revealed by the player, but that’s a band aide atop the problem, not an actual improvement. Of course the player drawing immediately after another player’s draw may also profit from the blind flip as the draught pool is restocked. This could be prevented by also revealing the next N cards which will be put into the draught pool as other cards are taken. I like this idea but am unsure if the complexity is justified.
Draught pool is three cards wide
Draught pool is not refilled until after the player’s turn
Emperor’s Reward cards may only be taken from the face up draught pool
Players must keep their Emperor’s Reward cards revealed to all players
- After player turns the draught pool is refilled in order from an additional set of face-up cards
Having thought about it a bit more since that posting, I like the conclusions and extension above. I have yet to play with this variant. I’ll try to get it on the table today.
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 ↩
Isaac Bickerstaff (Verkisto) posted new share images for Wabash Cannonball and the Erie expansion (Wabash.pdf, Erie.pdf) a while back. I’ve dawdled on doing anything with them as I was mostly content with the originals and wasn’t yet sure how I physically wanted to produce them. This afternoon I finally got off my kiester and made them.
A laser printer produced good enough copy. I’d hoped to mount back-to-back copies so as to make double-sided shares (unthematic but simpler to handle), but in testing that proved overly difficult within the desired tolerances. The next stab was at cold laminating and then cutting to shape. The plastic laminate would add thickness and the paper would provide its own colour (on one side at least). I’ve done this before for other games, and it works well enough. But fate had it that the cold laminator was on the other side of town, an Office Max was in the middle, and I needed to stop at the Office Max anyway to get some more wet erase pens for Pampas Railroads since my red pen exploded last week1. Oh, and I’d just bought a few bags of penny sleeves for Tahuantinsuyu’s cards. A quick check revealed that Isaac had thoughtfully sized his share images to fit penny sleeves perfectly!
- Two packs of 3″x5″ index cards from Office Max
- One in five colours (red, blue, yellow, green and purple — available in rainbow and day glo, I chose rainbow as slightly more pastel/muted)
- One in stripes (red, blue, yellow, green or purple against white — again picking rainbow instead of day glo)
- One stick of liquid permanent glue with applicator
- 20 minutes with the glue and a rotary cutter
I put the unlined sides of the cards to the back, leaving the lined sides to be covered by the glued on shares. This lets the shares effectively be double-sided without the effort of having to register both sides. While most of the colour matches are obvious, I used purple for the Wabash and purple/white striped for the Erie. The moisture content of the blue warps them almost immediately — they are now sitting in an ad-hoc vise atop my water heater to dry out into flat form. They look rather nice! It would have been nice to find gray index cards for the Wabash, but that was not to be. It is possible that other stores carry them (I haven’t researched). Isaac’s Erie share is an odd shade of purplish tannish gray rather than the straight tan of the original. A purple/while stripe seemed an acceptable compromise.
Given that we mostly play on Ted Alspach’s redraw of the map (much larger and more colourful), these replacement shares will mean that the wood cubes are the only original component I use in play. Given how much I like and admire Winsome Game’s game art in general (it is the model of functional clarity), and have repeatedly said so publicly, this is rather oddly hypocritical. Huhn.
I’ll try to remember to get some pictures posted. With luck we’ll play with them tomorrow.
- Remember folks, keep your wet erase pens in a sealed plastic bag! ↩
Wabash Cannonball Expansion – Erie Railroad belies its effect on the game with its small size. The Erie RR is nitroglycerin in a cocktail shaker. It makes the already rather delicately knife-edged game of Wabash Cannonball even more [[tetchy|tetchy]] with the penalties for mis-steps ever larger and the path ever narrower and risk-fraught.
The Erie expansion consists of a single new Erie company with a single share, 14 cubes (1 income marker, and 13 track) and a slip of paper containing the few special rules governing when and how the Erie becomes available for play. More specifically it has enough cubes to reach both Detroit and Chicago.
The Erie RR becomes available for Capitalisation when any of four specially nominated cities have track built in them by another company. The Erie’s home station is roughly in the middle of the northern edge of the board. It has no special rules except that:
- It can build into New York City at a cost of $6 for an income boost of $8
- The N-companies-out-of-shares game-end condition is increased from 3 companies to 4 companies
Functionally the Erie RR is simple enough except in the implications:
- The Erie can only be Capitalised by explicit choice. Why a player would Capitalise the Erie is a difficult question:
- Because the acting player can win it and profit
- To tempt another player into a posture that can then be wielded against them (push a short game against a player positioned for a long game and visa versa)
- To drive an early/faster game-end
- To tempt another player into [[sundering|sundering]] their extant alliances
- The player that wins the Erie:
- Is almost certainly no longer a functioning member of any prior alliances as their incentives now orbit the Erie RR due to their high cash investment in the Erie RR
- (Likely) explicitly postured for a long game but with greatly reduced ability to influence game length
- The Erie RR is more valuable to owners of NYC RR and Pennsylvania RR shares
- The Erie is most likely to share cities with the NYC RR and second most likely to share cities with the Pennsylvania RR.
- Once the Erie RR opens the Development actions becomes much more interesting to all players
- Once the Erie RR player runs out of Expansion actions, or runs out of cash, very likely their most attractive action is Development
- If the Erie RR player can benefit multiple of their companies with Development (thus the interest in the NYC RR and the Pennsylvania RR), then so much the better.
- Due to the steady depletion of Development actions by the Erie RR player, the Development action becomes more attractive for the other players. Their shares are less diluted with the removal of the Erie RR player’s maniacal focus on the Erie RR and Development is thus more likely to lead to a direct/tangible cash income increase for them.
- Increased use of Development as versus the standard routine of Capitalise/Expand affords control of additional control game length and control of who is the start player for the next round.
- It becomes easier for low player count games to end due to track cube exhaustion
- It becomes easier (albeit likely still rare) for middle-player count games (ie 4 players) to end due to Development cube exhaustion.
- Exact control of game length is more diffuse while the Erie RR player’s maniacal focus encourages all the players to posture more heavily toward a specific game length
- Detecting when it is no longer viable to invest in the Erie RR versus when it is too soon (not enough cash or game-control) is delicate and fraught with failure
- The Erie RR will likely need somewhere between $20 and $30 (possibly more) in order to fully afford its own expansion opportunities
- Due to the single share all capitalisation must occur from the initial share sale. Forest development is an unviable capitalisation source.
- Whether or not the Erie RR will get those opportunities is uncertain
- As only one player can Expand the Erie RR, company income growth is necessarily slow as compared to collusive Expansion alliances among other players
- However due to lack of dilution, income growth is fast(er)
- With a large caveat for Chicago Dividends
- Those same Chicago-bound alliances encourage the Erie RR player to sabotage the other RRs by running them short of cubes
- The opportunity cost of not spending that Expansion on the Erie RR is high
The Erie RR is highly attractive due to the massive potential profits. Should it get to both Detroit and Chicago it can easily pay $25/share! However as noted above this great profit potential comes with risks for all the players, not just the Erie RR-investing player. That balance of risk and reward forces the players to begin positioning themselves in relation to the Erie RR from the initial auction of a Pennsylvania RR share at the start of the game and every portion of the game after that becomes a question that also needs to be evaluated in relation to the Erie, whether or not it is in the game yet.
I recommend Wabash Cannonball Expansion – Erie Railroad only to experienced Wabash Cannonball players. Unless the players comprehend not only the base game’s arithmetic and alliance system, but also how to posture against game length and how to adroitly wield game-length control against the other players then the Erie will simply walk all over them and render the game results an opaque who-goofed crapshoot. With skillful players however it becomes a delightful game of balancing on razorblades and juggling waterballoons of nitroglycerin. It is quite the designer tour-de-force. Amazingly subtle and pervasive. It is rare that so little turns so much of a game on its ear without also breaking it. Everything is the same and yet different. Bravo!
In a recent comment Ben Keightly argued that ‘Ohana Proa both is and should be a resource management game, and to an extent he’s right. And wrong — well, if not-what-I-want can be accounted as incorrect then he’s wrong. Ultimately all games are resource management games: players have a variety of fungible resources, abilities and opportunities to exercise them during the game and the player that manages the use of their resources, abilities (really just another resource) and opportunities (yet another resource) most effectively will (should) win. Ergo all games are resource management games and it is thus a uselessly global and tautological definition.
At a lower and more useful altitude I define resource management games as games in which the resources in question are (generally) enumerable, limited, and usually highly granular. At heart resource management games are exercises in scarcity. At a crude character level players must mete and dole and shave their pennies while still accomplishing the victory conditions. However, that’s not my interest or goal for ‘Ohana Proa. I’m not interested in ‘Ohana Proa being a game of managing scarcity, rather it is intended to be (and is) a game of [[jocund|jocund]] excess. The resources I’m interested in players managing are not discrete enumerable elements of fish and shells and VPs and kula, but of opportunities and mutual player (dis)incentives and posture. Any reasonable player in ‘Ohana Proa will have more fish and shells and kula etc than they necessarily know what to do with, they are going to be fundamentally rich and they are going to stay rich if they pay even marginal attention.1
Being rich is not the problem. Spending the wealth is not the problem (there’s always the turn order auction for that). The problem is simple: prestige. To get prestige the players must individually create and sustain situations in which the other players consistently give them disproportionately more than they give each other. It really is that simple. You have, more or less, all the wealth of the world, you are rich, but there’s a strict protocol for prestige-generating gifts and you need to manipulate the system so that you get to give more, more efficiently, than the other players. There’s a big machinery behind that prestige-giving protocol. There’s routes and auctions and fish and shells and kula and rot and a whole mess of details, all of which, Ben is quite right here, are almost busywork details.
There’s a common (and false) stereotype of rich people’s visiting gifts being things like a small pot of hand-made jam or the like (recently reiterated in Six Degrees of Separation, a wonderful movie BTW). ‘Ohana Proa perpetuates this sorry model except that now the players have to grow their own berries, pick their own fruit (for themselves or each other), boil their own mixtures and in general go through a whole big and somewhat extraneous ritual just to get the little jar of hand-made jam to give their friends when they visit. But they have lots of friends and managing (there’s that word again) both the production pipeline of jam (kula) and the rate of opportunities to deliver (density of deliveries to islands connected by multiple players) as a set is difficult and the heart of the game.
Ahh, so there are resources to manage: the kula production pipeline and deliveries to multiply connected islands! Too true! Those are the primary resource challenges of the game, which makes it kinda sorta a resource management game except that the primary resources are:
- Opportunities to make deliveries to islands which are connected by multiple other players
- Network meshes that generate sufficient resource flow to afford those opportunities
And those things are not generally enumerable, particularly limited (scarce) or granular. They are more akin to diffusive field effects. Yeah, at a grand-level it is all busywork. All the little fish and shell etc stuff is noise, but it is important noise. It is busywork that builds the stuff that starts the multi-step inferential pipeline that establishes the incentives for the players to emergently create those opportunities and network-properties for your personal victory.
Quoting Ben again:
The way markets and kahunas interacted with the network is so interesting. It reminded me very strongly of the illustrations you sometimes see depicting gravity, with large planets sagging the 2D space-time grid. The way these interactions worked was clear as day. Unfortunately we were watching them happen from behind a pane of glass, and not consciously participating in the process.
Again, he’s right. My challenge is to diffusively but yet tangibly connect the players with that rubber sheet. I think, hope, that the recent rules changes, especially finishing splitting kula and damping the effect of kahuna will help make that diffuse connection more tangible.
- The concept of continual affluence is, in part, a deliberate swimming-upstream against the flood of managing-scarcity games. There are a great many games which manage scarcity in variously interesting ways. I don’t know of any other games which require the players to manage largesse without also drowning them in micro-management. ↩
The original content of this article was posted on here on BoardGameGeek and in the resulting thread.
After 5 plays and observing about a half-dozen more games we’re now mostly convinced that the game in Wealth of Nations is mostly absent. More simply it is grossly under-developed. The thought process runs something as follows.
Players will either take loans or not in the first round. If they don’t and another player does, the loan taking players benefit significantly from the lower market prices and extra operational time for their buildings. Ergo, players should automatically take loans to maximise their building. There’s simply no choice here.
If all players take loans, then the question becomes how many loans? In yesterday’s game but for a small artifact of placement the game could have ended in the fourth round. In that case I would have come second by a few points due to my unpaid loans. As the game ran longer my banks were able to pay for themselves and more. Thus taking quite as many loans as I did had some risk. I took 11 loans. 8 or so loans however would have been completely risk-free (and has been risk-free in prior games). I’m not about to define what that number should be, but clearly a reasonable number could be picked.
Why not then just start all players with 8 loans or their equivalent? Why bother having each player go through the rigamarole of taking loans and calculating prices and sequencing etc? There’s really no actual point to the loan taking process in the first Round in Wealth of Nations. It is automatic — they can’t afford to NOT take loans. Just start every player off with 10 or so loans and their equivalent in cash.
Similarly the cube-buying process in the first round is also almost perfectly scripted. There are only a few cube-based directions to head in and several of them are near identical. Why not simply gut the first trading round, start the players with say 8 loans, no cash and increase the money/cube draught pools correspondingly? That would easily cut almost an hour from the game and lose almost nothing in the way of interesting game decisions.
The markets almost work. Yeah there are efficiencies of scale and there is a modestly interesting under-/over-served-market pattern but it is shallow. Trading is again near automatic. Each player will have cubes they want, cubes they don’t want and a cube set they want to enter the Development phase with. Turning unwanted cubes plus cash plus loans into wanted cubes is purely mechanical and near decision-free. Almost any trade which moves them toward their desired cube-set should be rotely accepted. The only significant decision point is time ordering the trades based on opportunity cost against other desired trades. Very rarely there’s a decision about giving a specific player N-colour cubes at a cheaper trade cost or forcing them to buy at market cost, but those decisions are marginal as the penalty for them buying from the market is also marginal and they’re just going to get those cubes anyway.
In short the economic game seems like it is there, but the more I look at it the less and less there is actually there. Yeah, it seems muscular and aggressive and difficult and so forth and I have no doubt that non-analytical players can have a great time there. However once you catch on to the efficiencies that the game is built on, all the economy questions/decisions fall out to the simple: I want to build XYZ tiles, buy/trade for those cubes efficiently. Worse, the penalties for inefficiency (loans) are minor at worst — the odd dollar here and there really doesn’t matter that much. The value-differential of electively trading with players versus the bank/market is simply too small. Yeah, trading with player is more efficient, but the penalty of not-trading is marginal as versus say Settler of Catan’s or Bohnanza’s much steeper cliff providing both an interesting incentive and safety catch.
What’s left that is actually interesting is the board play: the tesselation patterns of the tiles, the control of area, the fight for space, the control of placement cost, etc. There’s actually a modestly interesting game there. I have a particular fondness for such games and am possibly rather good at them and that skill combined with my aggressive play-style has aided my success. However that interesting geometrical game is surrounded by a huge umbra of economy management which pretty much boils down to busy work.
Another problem, and I’ll discuss this more elsewhere/elsewhen, is the lack of butterfly effect in the game. The only significant source of variance is the draught and the initial tile placement locations. Outside of the geometry I really don’t see much interesting here. Oh, it is certainly possible during the initial tile placement phase to elect a player to lose the game, and I’ve done that and it can be modestly interesting for you if not for them, but that’s about it.
My other suspicion is that the game is mostly decided by the end of the first Development phase, outside of teleporting tile effects. In my last three games I’ve managed to secure the area and resources on the first turn to effectively guarantee my eventual success. 4 player games and teleporting tiles. Both those caveats are large. I see no reason to think that the game is nearly so deterministic with 5 players and see considerable reason to think that the spatial aspects in 5 player games will be much more interesting. The question is then whether that geometry game is sufficiently interesting to support the needless economic burden.
Update: After further thought this game-determination is bound fairly tightly to turn order. There is a severe advantage to placing later in the turn order in a 4 player game with 3rd probably being the sweetspot, as they (largely) get to control where the 4th player places. This, combined with the already present double-tile-set for the 3rd and 4th players in a 4 player game, is an impressive turn-order advantage.
I’m going to give up on 4 player games of Wealth of Nations except as teaching exercises. I’m not sure the game can be rescued with that player count without gross surgery. If I were to house rule the 4 player game I’d probably consider removing the black tile set from the draught and replacing it with another money/cube permutation set. I might also remove the second yellow tile set and sweeten the remaining yellow tileset with cubes/money. The first of or both of those changes should resolve a bit of the gross predictability of the 4 player game.
I will be pursuing 5 player games over the next weeks (we’ve played 4 four player games of WoN in a couple weeks, getting a few more 5 player games in shouldn’t be too hard). I’ll report back on my conclusions with that player count after that.
ObNote: The above comments are mostly specific to the 4 player game. I have yet to play with 5. Many of the points visibly remain with 5 players (loans, money, markets, cubes etc) but the decisions around board/area control and the choice and placement of each player’s second industry are clearly more subtle than they are in 4 player games.
I’ve updated the income/action/etc sheets I posted a while back to version 1.3 to correct the mis-labelling of the action tracks and a few other typoes. Thanks go to James Ludlow (jdludlow) and Mark Hamzy (hamzy) for catching the errors — predictably I’ve yet to be able to play with my own aid! I also posted the files to BoardGameGeek in the Pampas Railroads area as version 1.3, but they are pending approval. Meanwhile the PDF and PNG versions may be found in the normal place.
Minimalist, austere, spartan: dinosaurs in natural history museums have more fat than this little mechanical mousetrap. There is a watchmaker’s delight in the tightly whirring little [[flensing|flense]] blades of the game. Dutch Intercity is a game of iterative predatory auctions of shares with highly unstable values interspersed with quick activities to generate those unstable values. And really, that’s pretty much the game as everything else is just a cog or whirring flywheel thrown in to provide predation, (interesting) auctions or shares with unstable values. If you thought Wabash Cannonball was about as stark as you can get for a share speculation game, Dutch Intercity goes several large steps further towards skeletal.
Dutch Intercity consists of 5 companies, each with 10 shares, and a board showing a simplified map of the Netherlands with a pre-drawn graph of 19 historical railway routes. Players iteratively auction shares of companies1, the directors2 blind bid to claim railway network routes on the pre-drawn graph and dividends are paid for each player’s shares3 until the network is full. As the graph is small only 4-6 full rounds will be played depending on route competition levels.
The hinge point is in the intersection of two patterns: turn order for the auction4 and auction duration5. Those two in combination, a pattern also used in Han’s The Riding Series. are responsible for most of the subtlety and tension in the game. Controlling and predicting how many rounds the auction will last and thus how many shares will be issued (and which shares) is key. One obvious result of this set of intersections is that it is frequently worthwhile to bid well over the estimated value of a share in order to run yourself out of cash and thus stop any further shares from being sold6. Being left with only a few [[gulden|gulden]], unable to compete and also unable to end the auction campaign while the other players rip more shares out is a salutary lesson hopefully learned only once.
I’ve played only once and only with three players. The ideal player count is clearly more. I suspect that 4 or 5 is the sweet spot but the game officially extends up to 6. Playtime should run around 45-60 minutes for groups that don’t get caught up in predicting and explicitly manipulating turn order or 90-105 minutes for those that do.
An alternate ruleset is mentioned in the game rules as available by request from Winsome Games. I’ve requested a copy but have not yet received or played it. I’ll try remember to comment on it when I do get a copy.
- The monies from share auctions will fund the operations of the company and thus its future share value. Buy too cheaply and you’ll likely have a dead-duck company, pay too much and you’ve lost ground on the other players. ↩
- Company directors are the plurality share holders ↩
- Dividends are equal to the longest non-looping path that can be traced for the company’s network. ↩
- Turn order is variable and set at the beginning of the phase in order of descending cash. ↩
- Once all players have had the opportunity to auction a share, the auction continues in turn order rotation until one player has no cash. ↩
- This over-bidding has the side effect of also priming the company with competitive cash for route-claiming, as well offering a small potential (shades of the The Riding Series) for hiding cash in company treasuries for end-game scoring retrieval. ↩
Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters by Han Heidema is a likely design progenitor of Wabash Cannonball and is the latest member of The Riding Series of games from Winsome Games. Hopefully there’s more to come in the Riding Series as it is a neat (if fiddly1) system and there’s definitely room left to play in it. The Riding Series appears an unusually coherent family of games:
Share dilution — Shares are won at auction and pay an N’th of the company income where N is the number of shares issued for that company.
Share-based capitalisation — The operating treasury for a company comes from the auction price for its shares. In general there is no other significant source of treasury funds for the companies.
Activity-based income — The current turns income for a company is a compound of the actual cash income of the company, plus a measurement of the growth-activity of the company this turn. Thus active/growing companies pay much better than moribund companies as they have the extra (potentially HUGE) boost of activity-based income.
Deflating income — Company income is a function of the number of empty exits on the cities their track is connected to. As more track is connected to those cities they become worth less and company incomes fall precipitously. This causes a rather fiddly constant recalculation of company incomes, but there are procedural habits which may be used in play to greatly reduce this.
Grouping shares — Shares that pay out as a function of the interconnectedness of the current track patterns. Thus as multiple companies connect to a city that city contributes significant income toward the grouping shares. There usually seem to be multiple different grouping share companies that reward different and competing aspects of the track development. Grouping shares are acquired by trading in basic shares 2:1.
National shares — (Later in the series only?) Shares that pay X% of all the grouping shares’ dividends, reducing the grouping share dividends by that percentage in the process.
End-game share valuation — Shares trade in for money in the end-game.
Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters sits comfortably in that middle ground of solid not-so-little and not-so-long games and most of the game matches that character: a comfortable game of middling length and fine pedigree that has built a nice home in middle age and knows well enough about the world to occasionally dazzle. Like middle age this isn’t a particularly vicious or aggressive game, but it has its moments and some of them are real doozies. Cunning and guile are rewarded more than blatant aggression, most of the time, and conservative and modestly delicate play is the name of the game, most of the time. Those caveating weasel words are deliberate: that guile and cunning comes with its own share of subtlety and excess and moderation. Again, like middle age, there are occasional splurges, vast sprawls of violent aggression and exploited advantage, and the game frequently turns on these crises, but they are the anticipated exuberant exceptions and not the mature foundations of the game.
Structurally Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters consists of six Basic Companies which are grouped into two sets of three, two Grouping Companies each of which maps to a set of three Basic Companies, and the odd little parasitic top of the pyramid: the NS. Each Basic Company has a number of shares (count varies by company) which pay a diluted fractional dividend ala Wabash Cannonball. The dividend paid by a company is a small function of prior track builds plus a hefty bonus for any track built this turn2. During the course of the game the base dividend from prior track builds grows rapidly and then as rapidly decreases at about the same time that the growth opportunities begin to peter out. However, shares of Basic Companies may be traded for shares of Grouping Companies, and those shares pay out as a function of the connection density of their constituent Basic Companies, that same connection density driving the Basic Company share dividends down. Shares in Basic Companies can also be traded in for shares of the NS, which pays a fraction of the dividends of both Grouping Company dividends and parasitically reduces their dividends by a matching amount.
That pattern of leveraged parasitism, of the Grouping Companies building atop the petering out of the Basic Companies and the NS preying on the Grouping Companies is a core theme and pivot of the game. Higher companies build and prey on the success and growth of their smaller and more active younger generations. Correctly timing the transition of investments from the teenagers to the next generation (and which next generation) is a a key inflexion point in the game.
On the gripping hand Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters is an auction game where what is auctioned is a pairing of a share of a company and the opportunity to increase the dividend of that company, and it is in this auction and the immediately following track build where the subtlety of the system and the opportunity for mature cunning and guile reveals. Players in turn order3 offer a share of a company for auction. The highest bidder takes the share and then immediately builds a single track connection for the company using the money they won the share with. Left over money goes to the company treasury. If the player is also the director of the company4 they may use the treasury money to pay for the track link. Some key elements here are:
companies may only build track when they sell their own shares
selling shares dilutes the dividends of those shares
building track adds a significant (potentially huge) bonus to the dividend paid for those shares
In the balance of those three patterns is where some of the opportunity for cunning and guile comes in. The rest of the cunning and guile comes in with the intersection of the above three patterns, track building, turn order, and the layered/predatory pattern previously discussed. There is ample opportunity for players to manipulate turn order, cash holdings, aggressive and friendly (both) track builds, share dilution and upper-company implications in notably clever ways:
In the early game there’s a very strong incentive for players to dilute and monopolise shares in the companies they already hold. This gives them the largest payout as they get both the base dividend from the track builds in prior turns plus the bonus from this turn’s activity
In the mid-game this inverts suddenly as company opportunities begin to vanish and preying on other company’s shares or building the Grouping Companies becomes more profitable
There’s a strong advantage for directors who win shares early in the turn order to build links that cost considerably less than their bid, which results in excess bid funds going into the company treasury and being available for later builds by the director
- Note: Company treasuries are doled out to their share-holders in end-game scoring, which allows cash to be fractionally “hidden” in companies by shareholders without affecting their turn order in the game. This also allows players to grab cheap shares in order to snag a fraction of such hidden cash
A big track build with a related large dividend bonus early in the turn order is easily preyed on by other players grabbing shares in the same company cheaply and diluting the bonus for minimal expense
Likewise a well-built company with a large base income will be predated-on by other players jumping in for a cheap share of the rich dividends
Because directors can use the company treasury in addition to their bid money for their track builds, directors who win shares late (preferably last) in the turn order can potentially do massive builds using those funds and thus generate huge dividend bonuses for their shares without fear of other players nipping in later for a cheap share of the bonus
In the mid- and late-game, non-director players early in the turn order are incented to win shares in companies which are significantly owned by directors late in the turn order and to then construct a modestly sized link for them (possibly stashing yet more money in the treasury), thus encouraging the late turn-order director to also buy a share in that company so as to construct a massive track segment which pays them even more handsomely
Big track builds can cut off and doom other companies, leaving them nowhere to go. Timed well against the right players this can turn the game on its ear.
I own a copy of Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters, have West Riding and Länderbahnen and Länderbahnen Expansion Set arriving Real Soon Now ™, and am being offered a copy of Riding Through England. I hope to report on the other games soon. So far I’ve played a solo game, two 3 player games and one 4 player game of Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters. It will be played more. I suspect that 4 players is the sweet spot though 5 could also be good. 3 players works but is not ideal. Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters plays in around 120-150 minutes once you have the basics down. With experience it could probably get down to 100 minutes but that might also be pushing it. It is a curious and not so little game, which isn’t to say it is very big or very strange, but that like a muscular and oddly intense older uncle back from the wars is a little different, a little ungainly and with room for surprising elements of flair and brutality. There’s a little softening around the middle, but all the muscles of youth are still there under the jowls and worldly eyes. It also, every so often, pops up to do the lambada or pound out Honky Tonk on the old piano or just takes over Asia in a land war and smugly holds it.
This review was also posted to BoardGameGeek.
- There is constant bookkeeping in the game to track the declining base income of the company plus the this-turn activity bonus. This can be very fiddly to count and constantly recount but can be mostly addressed by a simple protocol: keep track of the current base income and this-turn bonus income on the side of the board (we use wet-erase pens) and update the current numbers each time a link is built. At the end of each round simply wipe the bonus numbers and repeat. ↩
- As a result moribund companies pay poorly, aggressively building companies pay well ↩
- Turn order is determined for each round and is in order of decreasing cash. ↩
- Company directors are the plurality share holders ↩