Posts about Game Design

18GB Chat

This morning Dave Berry and I had a chat on the 18xx Slack #18xxdesign channel. Possibly this was prompted by my posting quick notes on the game (the second point of which is wrong as noted in the chat and back on the original posting):

  • Almost all the privates are overpriced compared to the same cash in shares. Shares are massively better. Play the auction for maximal income/expense ratio (because the rules require you to bid) and otherwise get out as cheaply and with as little as you can.
  • Outside of 2 & 3 player games there are twice as many companies as players. Letting someone get a third presidency is unnecessary & silly.
  • The train rush is brisk, not fast, but brisk & steady. This is a short and small game. There isn’t enough time or enough companies for 1860-style company cycling.
  • The red company is better than all the others by a significant margin.
  • Use your second company as a train-factory until your lead company is train tight, maybe longer.
  • Don’t forget to empty all the IPOs – leaving those shares paying to treasury for lead companies is suicidal in the early/mid-game.
  • Use the bottom of the market and the pool to time getting over 60% of your second company.
  • As the permanents hit/approach, flip and leave your lead company with something modest, single-stepping up the market and run your train stuffed crap company quad-jumping up the market.
  • A token-light game: the final board has a lot of open holes after every token has been placed.
  • Token every XX. Pay attention to the brown upgrades when making the green upgrade. OOs are better revenue than simple cities but lose control late, so only token OOs for early revenue. Avoid tokening simple cities except for control – they’re not worth it.

You can find the original log of our chat on the 18xx Slack #18xxdesign channel (recommended, but at some point it will age off the history), or here follows a lightly cleaned up log of the chat. All errors and misrepresentations are of course mine.

jcl – @DaveB Yo!

DaveB – joined #18xxdesign by invitation from jcl.

jcl – For everyone else: @DaveB is the designer of 18GB. Early in my plays of the game I asked if he’d be interested/willing to have an online chat about some aspects of the game I found curious and he’s graciously appeared!

DaveB – Better late than never (I hope)

jcl – To give a little more context, there was a BGG thread this morning on 18GB:

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2113647/first-time-play

DaveB – @jcl, what would you like to ask?

jcl – So the first thing for me is the small number of companies. In general it is 2N.

Locally this has meant that all the second round companies float at the same time least someone never get a second, and then are never significantly sold down least they never get it back.

Is there a logic/sense here?

Some of his is based on our games ending very comfortably in 6SRs, so there’s just not much time to do the necessary stock actions.

DaveB – I think it’s 2N+c, where c is 1 or 2. The exception is the two player game, where there are six companies, and the six-player game, where there are twelve companies.

jcl – A 4 player game has 8 companies IIRC (I’m a bit away from my copy). 3P is 7, 2P I think is 6. I’ve not yet done 5P.

DaveB – It’s 9 companies for the 4-player game, 12 for the 5-player.

jcl – Then I’m reading something very wrong there for 4P.

totters down the hallway to fetch his copy

DaveB – Unless something got messed up in production, it should be nine companies.

jcl – I just fetched my copy…checking back page of rules.

You are right! Aaaargh!

Okay, that makes a significant difference.

DaveB – Phew! I’m glad we didn’t mess up the production.

jcl – How long have your games generally been in SRs?

DaveB – I found that the “extra” companies often didn’t get floated. This may reflect the people who tested the game.

jcl – By default I tend toward capital heavy strategies, so all the companies will be used in every game. eg last game of 1860 I floated 5 companies and kept 2.

DaveB – 18GB was tested by several groups but to an extent the design reflected the biases and feedback of the testers.

jcl – Of course.

DaveB – In general, I think I’ve seen 6 or 7SRs. How many do you see?

jcl – 6 with 5 threatened. We’ve usually ended in 6.1 or 6.2.

DaveB – Do your games end with the top of the stock market or do you run out of trains>

jcl – Both, slightly more often top-of-market (sample size: 5 so a 3:2 split).

DaveB – That’s what I generally find.

jcl – It is hard to prevent a top of market when someone piles all the trains into a company.

DaveB – One aim of the design was to explore the space around 1825/1860 as investment games, in which you don’t have to worry about companies being dumped on you, but without the strict order of company appearance.

jcl – nods. Two areas I’ve long wanted to design something within: 1) the 1825 model (including Phase IV) and 2) Price Protection.

DaveB – Hence the borrowing of a couple of rule from 1860 to limit the sale of the last train, and sales of train-less companies yielding half price.

jcl – Of course – that rule prevents a boatload of degeneracy. But mostly here it has made for wee timing games of putting about to rust trains into a company so as to ensure it is train-less.

DaveB – A couple of players did suggest price protection, particularly in response to the impact of share sales on company conversion, but I felt the tactics around conversion can be quite interesting (and price protection would have been an extra complication).

jcl – I also think Price Protection marries particularly poorly with the 1825 economic model.

In particular, it isn’t as if stock value means or is worth much for the first 2/3rds of the game. And the hit to capital is…piffle trivial.

DaveB – (Also, I wasn’t particularly familiar with price protection at the time - I’ve only started playing 1870 recently).

jcl – 1870 is a wondrous game – but the skill curve is particularly long and deep.

In particular, I’ve seen none of the capital cycling in 18GB that you see in 1860 (for instance) of float a company, loot it, dump it, let it run insolvent for a while, pick it back up full of money etc as there’s just not time to do all of that....and given the rest of the game, this seemed....odd.

Mostly because there hasn’t been time…say you dump in SR3…by SR4 it is still crap....SR5 the game is about to be over!

DaveB – I did want that to work, and I have made it work sometimes, but you’re right that it does depend on the pace of the game. The X trains can put a fair bit of cash into a company.

jcl – With a 7SR game as you say you sometimes see…yeah, I could imagine it working, but not otherwise. As soon as the X trains hit here there’s a pretty basic pattern of ploughs-to-train-limit then pay-pay-pay.

DaveB – The conversion mechanism interferes with that as a dominant strategy because conversion gives another way to add capital to a company.

jcl – I almost always convert as quickly as I can. The capital is nice but largely irrelevant to my approach. I want the station markers! That said, I’m by no means convinced that this is a dominant strategy. Mostly I drive for paying-trains first, stations-second. Which means the blue trains are pretty close to toxic. (Blue trains are what you buy when you have no other choice)

DaveB – I know people who always convert as late as possible. I haven’t found either approach to be dominant (yet).

jcl – nods. There does seem some flexibility there.

DaveB – I don’t understand - trains first, stations second - but you convert to get station markers rather than trains?

jcl – Yeah. I can always get trains with the odd hold but getting key station markers down requires growing up.

DaveB – Makes sense. Getting the right tokens is important.

jcl – eg The last two games I’ve stitched up the midlands so that I’ve had the only companies that could possibly run N/S.

DaveB – (Slightly less so in the published game than in earlier versions, but still important).

jcl – Quite. I’ve been on your Development mailing list for some years now and worked through some earlier iterations. The current token count seems quite low.

(we had a few chats there over the years about odd bits)

DaveB – (Yes, I appreciated the chats.)

jcl – grins

DaveB – Some station spaces aren’t important, IMO. The competition for the more relevant spaces can be quite intense

jcl – I find it is mostly simple counting. Who gets a tile there first?

DaveB – If you have the tokens to place, yes. If you’re balancing that against converting late, it’s more of an issue.

jcl – Seems like there’s 4-5 control token spots on the board and then it is XX tiles. OOs are mostly a waste except for early and simple cities are stupid.

nods converting late. That’s why I convert immediately.

DaveB – Do you think that extra tokens would benefit the game, given they would be placed in less strategic positions>

jcl – Yes. Help stitch up the board.

One of the things I do with any game is count the total number of station locations if everything is fully developed, and then the total number of markers in the game. Ideally the second number is within a small handful of the first. A gap of say 2-5 is Okay.

DaveB – I worry that it would be a distraction, leading to more recalculation of routes for little overall impact on the game.

jcl – Depends if they fall early or late.

DaveB – Analogous to some games where people chase dits to increase their income by 10 each

jcl – If they fall early it makes for more track tile roster focus/interest in working around barriers and stopping people working around.

(Yeah, dit chasing is silly)

But I’m also of the mind that Frustration-Is-Good in games.

DaveB – Maybe I’ll experiment with adding an extra token per company. (Or do the sums properly).

jcl – Jolly good.

DaveB – I agree about frustration. In my experience, players want it to be easy to lay the right tile, play the right station marker, buy the right stock, keep their company afloat, etc. One of my goals as a designer is to make those choices less straightforward.

jcl – Precisely.

DaveB – On the other hand, if players are tripping over a mechanic that isn’t an essential feature of the game, then that’s a rough edge that needs smoothing.

jcl – Which makes 18GB’s two-upgrades-only-one-city track development seem incredibly excessively rich. Everybody gets…everything they want very quickly modulo tokens and hills.

(One of my general wants as a designer is for companies to be still laying key yellow track in the last ORs)

DaveB – Unless another company gets there first! Many of the track laying rules in 18GB arise from the nature of the board, with a dense area of cities in the middle and empty space to the north, south and west.

jcl – Of course. Mostly the whole board goes brown in a couple ORs and half the companies have no track to build/develop for their own interest for a large chunk of the game.

DaveB – Hence two non-city actions or one city. Also the restrictive upgrades and the unusual OO and XX tiles.

jcl – (My lead company has its tokens down and end-game routes already defined half-way through blue)

DaveB – The last few ORs are basically an evaluation function over the game state to that point.

jcl – Which leaves only the tail-end-charlie track development from blue forwards. (I’d say sets rather than ORs)

DaveB – Halfway through blue is quite impressive. Allied to the early conversions, of course.

jcl – nods. Always push.

DaveB – Do you find you’re making enough income compared to people with non-converted companies?

jcl – I lag for one SR and then blow past them.

(tokens)

Hang on, two hexes OR one city?

DaveB – Neat.

jcl – We’ve been reading that as two hexes of which only one may be a city.

DaveB – You’re right

jcl – Phew.

In 5 games....we’ve never once built a hill. In short the cost is too large a fraction of the price of a train and so is Just-Not-Worth-It as it is effectively punishing an already-loser. You?

DaveB – I’ve just finished an online game in which people crossed at least three hills.

Late conversions can lead to spare capital, which allows people to build round those pesky tokens.

jcl – Were they worth it?

Seems like that late capital is better spent doubling up on trains.

DaveB – In most cases, the hills seemed worth it.

jcl – aims for all of his companies to be train-tight for the second half of the game.

DaveB – I don’t recall which companies had which trains. In some cases, a player had one company build a hill that was used by another, where the second company had two trains.

There’s a risk if all companies aim for two trains, in that the game may end before those trains pay back their cost.

jcl – If you can get multiple trains usefully across the connection then…maybe. My early grow-up & track development tends to preclude such being interesting to me, but that’s clearly not a global constant.

DaveB – (For onlookers, this is because the game ends when all trains have been bought or removed).

jcl – Yeah. Thus our games that ended in 6.1. Mostly for us it has meant that the gap from the 4X->6X is about 1.5 ORs.

(I’ll happily buy trains that never run if it stops even more opponent’s trains from ever running)

DaveB – nods

jcl – It is good to deny people quad-jumps for shares you don’t hold.

You think the privates are worth buying?

DaveB – You mentioned on BGG that the privates are over-valued. That’s an area I struggled to get right and its probably the area I’m least happy with the design as it is.

jcl – I’ll buy the Liverpool.....and maybe the Edinborough thing if I have scrap money and it isn’t an edge on a share… But more generally if I could get out buying no privates I would in every game.

DaveB – Edinburgh? Do you mean the AF with the Perth tile lay?

jcl – Yeah, that one.

DaveB – The Leicester tile lay is quite strong.

jcl – It is for red, but it also requires a token, and that’s a stupid token.

DaveB – And the station markers can be good too.

jcl – But it is the only other one I’d think about

DaveB – The LNWR can build through Leicester too.

jcl – York? So very easy to wall off – and it isn’t even an EXTRA marker, just reserved.

nods LNWR.

Which brings up red (Midlands?) as being significantly stronger than black (LNWR) or light green (NER).

DaveB – If I had another round of tweaks to the design, I’d look at making the privates more powerful, both in ability and possibly also by making the closure payment multiplied by the phase (e.g. 1x for yellow/green, 2x for blue/brown, 3x for gray, or something like that).

jcl – Neat.

DaveB – I’ve never found the Midland (red) to be significantly stronger than other companies. The NER can be a bit weak, I agree.

jcl – NER runs a lot of short trains quickly and easily and has some good control token opportunities…but then suffers badly. LNWR…just desperately needs someone to build track for it. Something…some edge. MR is in the middle of a forest of XX that it can get and token before anyone else, defining both revenue and shape and the mid-board.

Oh, and if they are not XX they’re OOs that also pay more.

Plus…Liverpool.

DaveB – I think the LNWR can reach Manchester before the MR. Also, what about the LYR?

(Which starts in Leeds, one of the XX cities).

jcl – LYR has been second tranche in all our games…but even worse, is short a token.

If it had the token…I’d agree that it is stronger than MR.

DaveB – The reason I introduced the tranche system was because people were forming rigid openings. Varying the range of companies available to open made the game less predictable / less subject to groupthink.

jcl – nods. I’ve no problems with the tranches.

DaveB – I’m guessing you haven’t tried opening two companies in SR1, as you had only N companies in the first tranche instead of N+1?

jcl – I think I did once, worked out Okay.

DaveB – (This might not be possible with all player counts, as you start with less cash)

OK, good.

jcl – Yeah, certainly not at 4P which has been most of our games.

DaveB – I wanted it to be a viable option without being dominant.

jcl – It currently seems weak but not always Bad, but I also haven’t looked at it hard.

(Only time I did a 2-company start was in a 2P game – think? Tough to remember now.)

DaveB – OK

jcl – Gnahh…the games start to drift together and blur.

BtB I do like the add-legs-and-no-revenue pattern.

There’s been a lot of slag thrown at the N/S bonus as irrelevant BtB.

I’ve suspected that it may be the difference in getting multi-jumps for tighter games, but it hasn’t been here.

DaveB – Originally, the income for simple cities was always 20 regardless of phase. But people kept tripping over this, so I changed it to the more familiar pattern (albeit 10/20/30 instead of 20/30/40).

The N/S bonus makes the off-board hexes worthwhile compared to stopping at Glasgow or Edinburgh or Dundee.

I’d prefer it to be +30 instead of +20 but didn’t make that change in time for production.

jcl – Ahh, I jerk that sort of thing around here for my designs, so people are used to having to pay attention.

DaveB – I need to sign off tonight. Thanks for the conversation!

jcl – nods off-board. I’ve certainly wrangled or poisoned track to make getting to the off-board better/worse.

waves. It has been great to chat to you!

Would you mind if I posted a log of this? (With cleaned up typoes etc)

DaveB – On BGG?

jcl – I hadn’t actually thought about it, but uhh, sure?

DaveB – I mean, where do you want to post it?

jcl – I’ve not actually thought that through.

Left by itself this chat will slowly roll off the history. Seems like there’s ~value in making a log more accessible.

So, let’s say BGG.

DaveB – OK.

jcl – Thanks.

DaveB – No problem. Bye for now.

jcl – waves. Thanks.

counting cain

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On holding the bar and setting expectations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, right?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s really not so hard.

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

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

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

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

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

So learn the rules to the game.

Let run the maps of foreign lands

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

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

Age of Steam: Wales

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

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

Age of Steam: SE Australia

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

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

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

Age of Steam: Denmark

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

Evaluating evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Players can fiddle with shares

  • Players can fiddle with technology

  • Players can fiddle with the evaluation function inputs

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

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

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

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

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

– JCL

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

Arsenic, lace and the cost of death

The concept of the poison train is common in 18xx games. Commonly it is the poison 4-train: the last train before the permanent trains, and might never run before it rusts, and almost certainly won’t run for long. From a design-perspective, how bad can that poison train be before it becomes unreasonable?

In the particular case I’m looking at, the poison train is a little worse than the poison 4-train in say 1830 as there isn’t a nice cheap permanent train on the other side. Instead…there’s another poison train right after the first poison train. Oy vey.

Some explanation is in order. I’m looking at a fairly standard extended train roster: 2/3/4/5/6/7/Diesel. The 4-trains rust the 2-trains, the 6-trains rust the 3-trains, the 7-trains rust the 4-trains and Diesels rust the 4-trains and 5-trains (both). Yep, 5-trains aren’t permanent. Also, both the 7-trains and the Diesels become available for purchase immediately after the first 6-train has been purchased. What this usually means is that after the first 6-train is bought, the very next train bought is a Diesel which rusts all the trains in the entire game, outside of that first permanent 6-train. It is fairly dramatic.

The problem with this pattern is that nobody wants to buy the last 5-train, as it will get to run no more than twice and probably only once before it rusts, if that.. So, I copied a page from Lonny Orgler: At the end of each set of ORs the government/foreigners buy a train from the supply. Thus, even if the players pause, the trains keep moving and the game advances. The twist I’ve added is that if the government buys the last train of a rank, thus making a new train-type available, then they also buy one of those (with all game phases changing as appropriate). Thus, for instance, if there’s one 2-train left, then the foreigners buy a 2-train and the first 3-train, thus putting the game into the green-phase. Or, more topically, if there’s one 5-train left, then the foreigners buy it plus the first (permanent) 6-train, thus rusting the 3-trains and starting the rush for the permanent trains. So far the form in our games has been that the foreigners take the first 6-train at the end of a set of ORs, and the first first company to run after the Stock Round buys a diesel, thus causing every other company in the game to lose all their trains. It is, as they say, dramatic.

What this all means is that not only is the last 5-train a poison train, but the penultimate 5-train is also a poison train. If a company buys the penultimate 5-train, then the foreigners will buy the last 5-train and the first 6-train and VOOM! the game is moving fast and that 5-train the player bought is about to rust very soon now. Ditto of course for the last 5-train.

But…if someone doesn’t buy the penultimate 5-train, then there’s another set of Operating Rounds while the foreigners/government whittle away the penultimate 5-train, and then at the end of the next set of ORs the foreigners take the last 5-train and the first 6-train – which means that the first 5-trains probably get to run 5 times, which is pretty good, and maybe too good.

And there lies the rub. Having a company buy the penultimate 5-train is essentially throwing money away, in this case $4001. Who is going to buy it? The only player that has any incentive is the player that’s losing. They are losing, so they have to change something to have any hope of changing their position – except that in this case the only thing they can do also comes with a $400 fee. Ouch.

And yet players buy the poison 4-train in 1830 all the time. It hurts, they know it is poison, but they also know that if they don’t they’re really sunk. So they bite the bullet and buy the 4-train…and usually the first 5-train immediately after it (which softens the blow a little). And that’s fine, except that I don’t have any nice permanent train immediately after the poison train, just another poison train…

There are three basic cases:

  1. The “losing” player buys the 5-train because if they let the non-permanent trains continue to run they will lose, but if they bring out the permanent trains then they’ll win (presumably because of their better diesel routes) Of course in this case they’re not really “losing”.
  2. The losing player buys the poison 5-train because if they let the non-permanent trains continue to run they will loose massively, but if they bring out the permanent trains, then they won’t lose as badly. Thus buying the poison train improves their position.
  3. The losing player buys the poison 5-train, brings out the permanent trains, and thus loses even more badly than if they had let the non-permanent trains continue to run.

The first case is ideal, and not a problem from a design-vantage.

From a design-vantage the second case is also fine and even somewhat ideal. However it requires unusually perceptive players in order to distinguish between the second and third cases a 3-9 Operating Rounds before the end of the game. That’s a pretty high competency threshold.

The second two cases are the more likely to happen in real games, and in those cases it may seem that the game-system is punishing the losing player by $400, and it is punishing them because they’re losing. They’re down, so the game kicks them. Worse, I suspect that many players will see everything but the first case as being the third case, and then they’ll often see that in the worst possible light as punitive punishment of the already destitute.

I don’t think that perception matches reality. The reality I’ve seen in games with players of mixed skill in our local 18xx group is that the first not-really-losing case is far from common (and is absurdly hard to detect), the third going-to-lose-even-worse is also not common and usually only happens after the game has spent an extended period in the already-losing-but-will-lose-by-less middle case, and the already-losing-but-will-lose-by-less middle case is actually the significant majority of all cases.

But, detecting that the middle case is actually the most populous case rather than the third case, requires a skilled and perceptive player. Just how high can, should, I set the bar of required player-skill for an already-losing player to make the Right Decision? It seems a significant question. I don’t want to design a hand-holding game for perpetual novices, but I also don’t want it to only be effectively playable by world-class players. Gah2.

Which, even ignoring that more interesting question, puts me right back to the initial question. How bad can that poison train be before it becomes unreasonable? If the poison train cost $10,000 it is clearly too expensive to ever bite the bullet. If the poison train cost merely $1, then nobody would even blink at buying all of them. Somewhere in the middle is the this-hurts-but-I-have-to-bite-the-bullet point that also provides for the most interesting game decisions, and I have very little idea how to determine where that point is. For now I’ve picked $400. It is as good a number as any and better than most (and perhaps worse than a few?).


  1. Okay, really 400fr, but dollar signs are simpler and more universal. 

  2. Inclusivity sucks. 

Playtest feedback systems

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

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

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

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

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


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

Limits of expression

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

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

Tricky climb

An odd idea, not yet fully enfranchised into a game. Consider a (relatively standard) climbing game, perhaps along the lines of Mu, however rather than players playing cards in sets they would iteratively play them one at a time until everyone passes1. The key element would be that rather than a player’s played cards forming the sets within themselves, they would instead form sets within the space of all cards played for that “trick”. For instance:

  1. PlayerA: Leads an Ace.
  2. PlayerB: Follows with another Ace and is therefore winning with two Aces.
  3. PlayerC: Follows with an 8.
  4. PlayerD: Follows with a pair of 8s and is therefore winning with three 8s. …etc.

Problem:

  • Determining who is winning the current “trick”.
  • Requirements for following.
  • How points are assigned
  • Method required to denote who is currently winning the trick

Initial thoughts:

  • 5 suits (perhaps a Sticheln deck)
  • Do not need to follow suit
  • May play any number of cards so long as the total number of cards played by that player in the trick is no more than one larger than the total number of cards played by the previously card-count leader[^2].
  • Suits are circularly ordered with the lead suit high and the others following in a constant rotational order
  • Standard meld definitions including Tichu’s stairs.
  • Each meld in the taken trick scores the value of the highest card in the meld, with arrangement of melds organised so as to minimise left over cards
  • Left over cards and singletons don’t score

  1. Echoes of Mu’s bidding again.