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German Railways a/k/a Preußische Ostbahn
Publisher(s): Winsome Games and Queen Games
Designer: Harry Wu
"Family": Part of Winsome Games' Historic Railroads System and Game No. 1 of Queen Games Iron Horse Collection
Overview: There are a lot of similarities to Chicago Express, but there is enough that has been changed that the two games play out quite differently. The game is played by 3-5 players. On his or her turn, a player has a choice of three actions: Pass, offer any unsold share for auction, or build up to 3 tracks. Just like CE, the board is a hex grid with different terrain types. Cost to build into a hex varies based on terrain. In the case of urban hexes, the cost increases based on the number of other RRs already in the hex. Only one RR may be built into non-urban hexes. Urban hexes are the only hexes that generate income, which is typically a single thaler, but can be more than that. The number of cities in German Railways is much larger than CE so income can ratchet up pretty quickly in areas where virtually every hex is an urban hex.
Beyond the geography, there are a couple of big changes from CE. Unlike CE, which differentiated railroads largely on the number of shares available, each RR in German Railways has 3 shares available. The first share of each is auctioned off before the start of the game. The remaining shares are auctioned during the game with the caveat that the third share of any RR cannot be auctioned before each RR’s second share has been auctioned. In German Railways, the differentiation comes in the “historical characteristic” each RR has that is unique to it—some are beneficial while others are not. The characteristics are: build 4 locomotives instead of 3, never having to pay the additional cost for building into an urban hex that already has other RRs, only being able to build 2 locomotives on a turn, building costs reduced by 1 thaler per hex, gaining twice the income of the highest income hex, first locomotive build is free if into a non-urban hex, limited to 5 thalers when building track, and not being able to pay dividends until connecting Berlin to Hamburg by its own track.
The biggest change from Chicago Express, and the one that seems to cause the most frustration for new players, is in the manner in which turn order is chosen. Rather than each player taking his or her turn in succession, with each player getting an equal number of turns, turn order for a round of German Railways is determined randomly. The twist is that the probability of getting a turn is weighted based on current income. Each player has 5 turn-order markers. In a 5-player game, the player with the least income places all 5 of his markers in the draw bag, second least places 4 of his markers, etc., with the highest income player only getting a single token. The number of player turns in a round is equal to the number of players. So in a 5-player game, there are 5 turns. The mechanic isn’t just determining play order because a player can have multiple turns in a round. So, although highly unlikely, the player with the lowest income might get every turn in a round. And much more likely, the player with the highest income doesn’t get a single turn.
Stock Market: The same as Chicago Express: Although the game includes the sale of shares in the various RRs, there is no stock market as such. Each time a share is sold it is auctioned off to the highest bidder. After the initial sale, that share remains with the winning bidder the remainder of the game.
Dividends: Unlike Chicago Express, dividends are not paid at semi-regular intervals. Rather, dividends are triggered whenever two RRs are connected for the first time. At the end of the player's turn when this happens all RRs pay out a dividend for each outstanding share. The RR that build the new direct connection gets a "preferred dividend," which is twice its normal dividend. Calculation of the amount paid for each share is also different from Chicago Express. Each share that has been issued to a player receives the full amount of the RRs income rather than a pro rata proportion based on the number of shares that have been issued. In other words, there's no dilution.
Company President: The same as Chicago Express: None. Own a share in a RR? You can build track as you see fit for it . . . as can anyone else who owns a share in the RR.
End of Game: The game ends during Player Order determination if each RR directly connects to at least two other RRs - or when the players agree that this is not possible.
Victory: Again, the same as Chicago Express: The winner is the player with the most cash on hand. Both income and value of shares are irrelevant.
Best Player Count: Generally considered to work well at all player counts.
Thoughts: First, a couple of the bad parts. The Queen Games version does not have a player aid or include the historical characteristics for each RR on the board. (From images on BGG, the original Winsome version did have the information on the board) This is incredibly annoying. With 8 different RRs to keep track of, you have to constantly check the rulebook to see what a RR’s abilities are. I’m sure that this information would be committed to memory after several plays, but so would build costs and those are included on the map.
The second thing is the end condition. Ending the game when each RR has connected to two other RRs is fine. The alternative – when such an ending is impossible – is more problematic. In some instances this is relatively easy to determine because you’re down to one or two RRs that haven’t made the connections and you can easily determine that it’s impossible. It’s when it’s not so obvious that you have to spend time verifying that you can make the necessary connections. It would be nice if the end of the game was easier to discern, but then again, changing the end-game trigger would fundamentally change the game.
There are a lot of similarities between German Railways and Chicago Express, but the turn-order mechanism fundamentally changes the dynamic of the game. Depending on player count, players have a lot more control over the end-game in Chicago Express than in German Railways. This is especially true for the players that are likely to have the highest income and probably in contention for the win. The higher your income, the less likely you are going to be able to control the endgame. Because of the random draw, in the rare instances the high income player does get a turn, it does potentially give the player a lot of power in the later stages of the game to end the game.
On BGG there’s some criticism of the turn-order mechanic, but I think it merely highlights that the building of RRs is not really the heart of these types of games. The game is ultimately about being able to properly value shares in the short- and long-term and bid accordingly. As a corollary to that, it’s also about identifying the players you need to “partner” with in terms of buying shares in a common company. Although a high-income player will get few if any opportunities to actually take a “turn” they’re still heavily involved in the game during the various auctions. Such a player will be a much more passive investor than in other RR games, but this arguably requires greater skill since each auction will become more critical. The high-income player will have little to no control over when an auction will be initiated so not only will he have to value the share up for auction properly, but also evaluate whether its likely a share he’d rather have will come up for auction this round that would be a better investment of limited funds. Because low-income players are more likely to have turns, there’s an incentive for the high-income players to try to pair with the low-income player in the hopes of getting higher returns on an investment by finding the RRs that are more likely to be built up.
Another point worth mentioning is that turn-order mechanic creates a dilemma for a player in determining where they want to be positioned in terms of income. Being the high-income player doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’re in a position to win. Such a player has likely gotten there through buying a lot of shares to get there. Buying a lot of shares depletes a player’s cash. Couple that with severe limitations in controlling the end game, and a high-income, low-cash player can potentially be caught out and lose the game. The high-income player also will not have much, if any control over triggering dividends. As a result, other players with more control can compensate for some income-track deficiencies by triggering preferred dividends for RRs that the high-income player does not own. In the end, players will probably have to strike a balance between buying shares to increase income but not so many that cash reserves are depleted. Such a balance would potentially also keep the player in the hunt to actually receive turns and thus be able to exert some control over triggering the end of the game.
One final concern is worth mentioning. There’s a potential kingmaker problem. Toward the end of the game, it may be obvious that 2 or 3 of the 5 players have the potential to win. Potentially, this may come down to whether a higher income/lower cash player will be able to catch a lower income/higher case player before the end of the game. The player(s) likely out of the game are likely the low income/low cash player(s)—i.e., the player(s) that will be getting the majority of the turns. As a result, a player not in contention may be the one determining when the game will end. For groups where finishing as high as possible when you can no longer win is important, there’s still plenty of incentive to play to your own benefit. For groups of more casual gamers, a player who is out of it may rather just end the game as soon as possible.
Overall, I like the game quite a lot. A lot of the same general concepts and themes that were present in Chicago Express are there in German Railways. The difference is the means at your disposal to accomplish them. It’s probably a little longer game than CE and the extra chrome of unique abilities of each RR means it’s not nearly as elegant a design. Combine those two things along with the potential kingmaker issue, and I’d put it a notch below Chicago Express, but overall still a very good and interesting game.