Friday, September 19, 2008

Tuesday Gaming Recap - Trains!

Matt R graciously took over hosting duties for a couple of sessions from Chris while football season is in full swing (he is a coach for one of his son's teams), so four of us made the trek out to the hills between Sherwood and Newburg for a night of train games. Also present were Mike, JD, and Alex. On the table, Winsome Games' Wabash Cannonball (a stand-alone game with a feel between Age of Steam and a bare-bones 18xx title), and the now-classic Union Pacific.

Wabash is an abstracted 18xx-type title - there are stocks, but the value only changes for the individual as more stocks are sold, all at auction, and they are never sold once purchased. The various train companies do have treasuries, and their lines can be expanded only if you own stock, but there's no concept of "ownership" of a line through owning the majority of stock. Also, the tracks have no direction, they are simply cubes placed on the map, which covers the NE part of the US from Chicago in the NW corner down to the Chesapeake Bay area in the SE. Four train lines start the game on the east coast, and income from those lines goes directly to owners of the shares through dividends - the only way to supplement the lines' treasuries is through the sale of stock or through developing areas with timber. 

Each player has one of three choices during their turn, and that may be limited as the game goes on. First, you may extend the track on a line you own a share in by three spaces, with the cost showing on the spaces themselves. You can't run a second line into a timber or mine area, and there's an additional cost if you run into a city containing another line's token. 

Second, you may develop a space (city, timber, or mine) by placing a purple cube in the space. Once this is done, either the end-turn value of the city improves, the line gains $2 to their treasury, or the income for the line improves by $2, respectively. In most cases, the best way to improve the income of a line is not to improve the cities, which are typically $1 per turn, but to improve the mines to generate more iron for the tracks. However, if no one is buying shares, sometimes it's better to improve the timber to add some case to the treasury. Note that buying track always comes out of the line's treasury, so that's often necessary.

Finally, you can choose to auction off one of the remaining shares in a rail line. The number of shares ranges from 2 (the Wabash, which comes in after one line gets to Chicago) to 6, so this isn't a share-heavy game. When you buy a share, you dilute the value of that rail line to everyone else, so often this is a defensive move as much as anything else. For a single person to own all of the shares in one line, and if they are able to expand it sufficiently, is a recipe for disaster for the other players, as four of us found out to our detriment. 

Each of these actions can be executed a set number of times during a turn, and once two of the action sets are exhausted, the turn ends and everyone gets money. That means that early on, there's first a race for expanding the lines, then when no one else can do that, it comes down to either placing resources to generate additional income, or putting shares up for bid. The game ends when either three sets of line shares have all been auctioned off, or there are only three resource cubes remaining in the pool, or if three lines have used all of their track, or if the Detroit timer (8 turns) runs out. 

In our game, I started south with the C&O, mostly because I was cheap and that was the last line auctioned. It had the lowest starting income, so when I ended up paying as much as anyone else did for their shares, I was a bit disappointed. However, I expanded it aggressively early (getting to do so twice), and added resources as well, expanding it's income to 6, where it stayed for me for the remainder of the game through other's buying stock and further expansion. 

Perhaps the key moment in the game came when the New York line made it to Chicago, which starts the Wabash line and pays out to the players who own stock. I did not at the time, and JD and I realized that one of us needed to buy into the line to dilute it some more. I won that bid, as I did getting the initial Wabash line, which I ran into Chicago and Detroit, the two best cities on the map for income. I held Wabash as a sole owner for one turn, which netted me $10, an awesome payout. At game end, I held four stocks, matched only by Mike, who came in second behind me. 

This was a very cute game, and play time was only one hour. I understand that Queen Games plans to reprint it, and I will almost certainly pick up a copy at that time as the components definitely had a DTP feel in the Winsome version. There is also an Erie Line expansion that adds a second "bonus" line that starts much as Wabash does, which would make the game more interesting for 5 or 6 players, I think. With 5, it was a pretty cool game. You have to consider the treasuries of the lines you want to expand, whether or not it is likely to happen in a given turn, how much you bid for the various shares, etc. There's no reason to cause screwage (there is the ability, but unless someone owns two shares of a given line that you want to hurt, it's kind of counter-productive) except to exhaust one type of action or expand a line into a place another line is heading for, so it's a pretty friendly stock-based rail game. Once you're in the game with one line, past that the race is for cash and the ability to generate it as controlling ownership means nothing. 

All in all, a very cool game, and I'm delighted Matt introduced us to it and Mike wanted to play it.

To keep the theme going, we pulled out Union Pacific. We played with the stock rules (UP shares are picked for no cost, a second by burning a share in hand; non-distributed placement of the dividend cards in the stock deck), although the dividend cards came up at a pretty regular interval. 

As always, there were lots of races for lots of stock in lots of rail lines. I did well with the Mexican railway in the south, pulling four cards early to guarantee a first place holding. I also got to first place in the UP stock, shared with Mike in the first round, and held throughout the game. However, I struggled to keep up with most people in the other races, and the last dividend card came up before I was able to get enough of my Green train shares down to take second (I had thought it would be enough for first, but Alex beat me to it). However, in the final analysis, it was not enough to beat Mike with his seven point lead over me at the end, so I came in second. 

UP is a crown jewel in Alan Moon's curriculum vitae. While I prefer to have the dividend cards come up in a semi-regular fashion (the way we played could result in a double payout, although it came out about as regular as you'd want), and I remember that there was some other rule for the UP stocks (or perhaps that was the variant for the US rules - this was a German edition with text only rules). Still, a very close game (we kept tabs on who had what amount of money after each dividend payout), and the scores ranged from 116 (Mike, the winner) down into the high 90's, a pretty tight distribution.

Kind of funny that we played two games that involved stocks during a week when the market was melting down (and we all became stockholders in AIG, like it or not). 

Thanks to Matt for hosting, and for providing such yummy cookies. I ate four oatmeal and raisin, my favorites. 

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