Mike was hosting this time out, and we had five people showing up, so out came Mike's new copy of Railroad Tycoon, Eagle's latest "dumbing down" of a Martin Wallace title (Struggle of Empires was their first Wallace game to become Conquest of the Empire). This was the first playing for Peter, Laurent, Mike, George, and myself, although everyone but Laurent had played Age of Steam.
The game plays like a cross between AoS and Wallace's earlier title Volldampf, which our group has only played once. Volldampf is a great game and much more forgiving than AoS, but it has the problem of having few resources out on the board early and thus players can get behind and stay there (as opposed to not getting an early bid in AoS, getting behind, and staying there). RT makes up for the lack of early opportunities by putting pretty much all of the trade cubes on the board early, added only through placement of new cities and event cards. Since the board is very large, that means that you can almost always find a place to set up your system with relatively little competition.
The other big change in RT is the addition of event cards that you can collect by spending one of the three actions you get during a turn. The competition for these can be fierce, and is what typically drives the "who goes first" bidding. Neither AoS nor Volldampf has a random element like this (it's all about what cubes get drawn when), but I think this is a good mechanism that ensures that every game will play a little bit differently and supplements the random cube draw well.
In our game, it was the cards that were in fact the difference. I think people were unaware that some of the cards (the ones with green dots) were collected as their conditions were met, not as you chose them through the usual mechanism. I managed to a) get the card that gave me two actions, which should have been the first card taken, and b) get six VP for sending the first cube to Duluth. Duluth is way up in the NW corner of the board, and it's a long way to anything else, but getting an extra $7k/turn right away helped me quite a bit.
The problem, of course, is that I had to spend a lot of money early building long lines in order to get things set up. Also, since there was a bonus card for getting the first four-link load delivered and I had the Special Mutant Power of getting points for getting the first 6 train, I spent a lot of money doing these things and ended up paying $10k in interest for much of the game. Comparatively, Mike had only two or three shares issued, as did Peter, although George had 11 (but also three or four hotels).
The thing that really screwed me up was that the purple cubes and the blue cities are almost exactly the same color. In fact, I spent a lot of money setting up a link that I couldn't use quite early in the game because I hadn't seen this. This is an inexcusable production error, although it is something that you could get used to pretty quickly. I also set up to bring a couple of purple cubes a long distance, then realized that I'd built a new city earlier that effectively cut off that route and a side route around it would be at least $10k to build and thus out of the question.
Those things aside, getting the early lead in VP (I was six points ahead from my closest competitor the entire game, and later on more like 15 or 20 points ahead) set me up for a pretty easy win. By the time I had 10 shares, it was clear that I'd have a lot more money than I'd need on a given turn, and I saw no point in building more track as I had no VP coming in for that. Even losing 8 points to Mike at the game end for the shares I had left me with at least a six point lead at the end, although I was a bit concerned that Mike would get more points for his Western Link. The other trick that I employed was to work very hard to get cities emptied out so that we would work through the 16 "train toys" that act as a game timer, and in fact got a bit of help in that very effort from others in the final turn.
All in all, I was impressed. We took about 2 hours to play, which certainly surprised me, and about 15 minutes to explain and punch out parts. What doesn't impress me is the huge size of the map - I know Eagle's trademarks are huge maps (with relatively little playing area in many cases) and plastic bits, but in this case the map is also defective. Mike left our game up overnight so he could take pictures for his blog, and when he got home the next day the map was warping, even with a sheet of plexiglass over it! I will wait for a while until Eagle gets this issue resolved before buying a copy. The other component issues are enormous train toys that could have been as easily implemented with a simple marker and track on the board, and cards that feel pretty flimsy. Since they get placed on the board, chosen, held in hand, and reshuffled, having robust cards would be a real plus. Still, the game has an incredible cost-per-pound ratio.
George and Peter had long drives, so Laurent, Mike, and I played a few rounds of Geschenkt, which I discussed a couple of months ago. This is a great little game, although I'm finding that once you get behind it becomes very difficult to catch up. That, and you do not want to have other people figure out you are out of chips. We played three hands, and Laurent won handily, with Mike and I quite a ways behind. Despite the wackiness and luck of the draw, I find this to be a great quick game, certainly one of the better short games I've played. Dave keeps trying to get people in our group to buy Diamant, but Mike felt that Geschenkt was a better game at a much lower price. I'll be ordering this one in the short term, along with Carc:Discovery, Caylus, and maybe one or two other things from Funagain.
Thanks for hosting, Mike!