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Great Train Robbery

Discussing my design for yet another train game, with liberal "borrowing" from existing games.
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When John Henry was a little baby

Winston Smith
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All right, it's time for our first discussion of track building.

The 32 cent John Henry stamp, issued by the US Postal Service in 1996.

Track layout/building will be a central activity in the new game; how do I want to go about representing this on the board? Since the theme of this blog is robbery, and just for some train game fun, let's first take a tour of what existing games have implemented. There are basically four approaches in common use: connecting dots, laying tiles, placing cubes, and buying fixed lines. Here are some examples of each, illustrated with BGG images.


Connecting Dots

This, of course, is the domain of crayon rails, especially as implemented by Mayfair in Empire Builder, Eurorails and many other settings (including the planet Mars). The board is laid out with dots (aka "mileposts") on a triangular grid, and the players build track by connecting the dots with erasable colored crayons. The more lightweight Transamerica series does the equivalent by placing wooden rods.

Rails criss-cross the south central US on the basic Empire Builder board.

The crayon rails system is simple, intuitive, and fun, and does perhaps the best job of capturing the feeling of the country as wide-open territory. But as I mentioned in the last post, the wide range of possibilities can easily pull people into taking a long time to consider and optimize their choices, leading to long bouts of down-time for everyone else.

Erasable wooden rods in Transamerica embody effectively the same mechanic.


Laying Tiles

My first encounter with laying tiles to represent track building was seeing Avalon Hill's edition of 1830, an early patriarch in the 18xx family of train games.

The classic tile-laying game 1830, in the original Avalon Hill printing. Nearly half the board space is used for stock market operations.

Track is built by laying hexagonal tiles with specific lines drawn on them, and expanded by over-laying more complicated tiles. I've never played any of the 18xx games since thinking that 1830 looked overly complicated and more concerned with stocks than with railroading; though at the time I felt confident that since Avalon Hill had produced it, it would all have to work out sensibly. If you want a quick look at the flavor of the 18xx series, I highly recommend Paul Springer's entertaining video review of the print-n-play intro set 18AL.

Tiles are smaller and simpler in the more recent Age of Steam and Railways of the World families, both from Martin Wallace, which includes my touchstone example Railroad Tycoon.



The hex grid makes the route-building nearly equivalent to drawing on a coarser version the crayon-rail system, though somewhat less flexible in that your track can't branch in between cities, and in RotW you can't lay sharp turns. This relative lack of options doesn't necessarily speed the track-laying play along, though, compared to the crayon rails system, as players in the RotW system can hunt and peck for quite a while in finding the most efficient route.


Placing Cubes

The "cube rails" approach simplifies building on a hex grid. You don't have to make lines of track meet up at the hex borders, you just put a single marker down to show that your network has connected to that location; adjacent marked hexes then form a network. Cube railing seems to be the new black, appearing recently in the well-received Chicago Express (2008), Baltimore & Ohio (2009), and American Rails (2009). (These particular cube railers all descend from the system originated by Winsome Games and described on BGG as the "Historic Railroads" family.)

A railroad's connection is shown here simply by having a marker in the hex, without any futzy track-matching required; though technically in the cube rails family, Chicago Express gives you little wooden trains to use as markers.


Buying Fixed Routes

My first train game was great-grandfather Rail Baron from Avalon Hill (1977). Here the barons did not deign to lay track themselves, but simply bought up existing systems which corresponded to real historical companies' holdings and which were drawn in realistic geographic detail on the otherwise bland board.

The oldest family photo in this track-building album.

Rail Baron was sometimes referred to as "Monopoly with trains" (it helped connect with the general public in the 1970's if you could refer back to the one boardgame everyone knew), because the players paid cash for ownership of the named systems and then showed this by holding a corresponding deed card. So no player markers appeared on the board, you just looked at the deeds to see who owned what.

Two Moon junctions: both the well-known, pure track-builder Ticket to Ride and its stock-oriented predecessor Union Pacific, both by Alan R. Moon, used a single line connecting two cities as the basic unit.

Later fixed-route designs reduced the basic "quantum" of a route to being a single line connecting two stops, ie cities. The most widely recognized example, with over a million copies sold, is probably Ticket to Ride, which focuses entirely on track-building or "route claiming". But other games with cargo delivery and stock market components also use the line-between-cities as their basic unit of track construction, including Union Pacific, Silverton, and Rolling Freight; I'll have illustrations (aka theft) from the latter two in future posts.


OK, that's the end of the tour! feel free to tip your guide and driver on the way out. So, where does this leave me for the new game? As I see it, the design decision rests mainly on two things: (i) what kind of experience are we trying to focus on? and (ii) at what level will the players be coming into conflict or competition?

In my first post I said I broadly wanted to try and capture the feeling of playing the Sid Meier "Railroad Tycoon" computer game, and a lot of that experience is making minute, detailed -- some might say fiddly -- inch-by-inch track layout decisions; and from our tour it seems like this exercise is reproduced best by the crayon rails system, followed by the Steam/RotW hex tiles. And, I have to say that I really enjoy playing those games, perhaps because I am also the type to enjoy geometric puzzles. I love the open-field feeling of the blank board, which I can conquer better than my opponents because of my geometric cleverness.

But one feature of video games which I don't want to carry over is their relative lack of replayability. Single-player scenarios in video games are typically like puzzles, you play through and solve them once and there's no real reason to ever try again. And one drawback of the open-field building is that it can lose its novelty over many plays: if the delivery contracts lead you to want to connect, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco, then there's really one best way to do that on an open board which everyone will recognize and use -- almost like buying a pre-drawn fixed route!

The optimal layout for connecting Los Angeles to Seattle in Empire Builder, according to the image's caption (which may well be correct).

Where the geometric puzzle-solving fun comes in, then, is when two players are in competition: one has already built the optimal route, and the latecomer needs to find the best alternative. This is a nice game element of competition, to see who can best adapt to a changing board via continuous puzzle-solving.

But I also wonder, along which dimension will players prefer to spend their mental energy? Do they want to take on the roles of surveyors and engineers, who carefully map out the most affordable and efficient route through the mountains? Or do they have people for that, and want instead to play the parts of moguls addressing the higher-level strategic questions? Either could produce a fun game! of course. For the new game I'm imagining, though, I'm actually leaning away from the open-field, ground-level track building that I enjoy and more toward buying fixed routes between cities as the basic quantum of action.

Why? Three reasons, from minor to major. First, with the crayon rails and the hex tiles the surveyor/engineer game of detailed track layout is pretty well covered in existing games, and I'm not sure I can usefully improve on it. Secondly, and relatedly, what's most new about the game I'm thinking of is how supply and demand are handled and represented, so I'd like the players to be able to concentrate on that angle and abstract out the track engineering questions to a larger degree.

Most important, though, is to keep with the goal of streamlining and the use of atomic turns, as described in the last post. A turn of track building with several detailed this-way-or-that-way decisions -- ie if it's more than drawing to a single dot or laying a single tile -- is not really an atomic operation, and it's not an operation that can be written out in detail in advance for simultaneous turns. I don't see any way, really, that a fine-grained, open-field track building mechanism can get around having only one person thinking at a time, and so suffering substantial down-time for everyone else.

My first piece of concept art! for illustrating a fixed route in the new game.

A sensible atomic action, as in the Alan R. Moon games, is to connect two cities along one pre-drawn line between them. This also defines one arena for direct competition: if two players are both connected to New York and both want to extend to Albany then it's a race to see who can get there first; and if they both try it on the same turn then there's a mechanism for resolving the collision, which becomes part of the fun -- I'll discuss this further in a later post, one idea I'm considering is to hold a quickie, closed-bid symmetric auction.

The "concept art" picture above illustrates my current plan for the track-building mechanism. There are cities on the board, including perhaps depots and way-stations, connected by pre-drawn lines that run along the historical routes. If your network currently reaches to one of the endpoints then you can take an action to build the connection by paying the cost listed in the box on the line and filling in the box with a marker (probably a cube?) of your operating color. Aficionados will recognize this as the mechanic from Silverton; see here for a beautiful custom rendering of the Silverton map, including New Mexico.

A slight twist I'm adding over Silverton is, that another player who wants to build the same connection on a later turn has to pay the higher cost in the next box, and so on until all the boxes are full. This abstracts the dot-to-dot or hex-to-hex result, that the player who builds between two cities first can do so most cheaply, while those who come later can usually still do so but at a higher cost. This makes sense metaphorically, as the first company to build in a certain region would get first dibs on buying up the best/cheapest right-of-way. Also, players should be able to sell or trade built routes between them; and if one player really wants to spend the time and money then he/she can try to monopolize a particular connection by paying for it several times over, which allows for historical rail-baron mustache-twisting behavior.

Simple, fast, completely atomic and entirely capitalistic; I hope this makes a good basis for a streamlined and accessible game. What do you think? In later posts I'll get into the nitty-gritties of drawing and pricing the route connections as I envision it, but I'm certainly interested in feedback on the basic idea so far.

[Edited to add linked items.]
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