Why We Play Games With Trains

A research blog for my Ph.D. dissertation on train gaming. Posts will be brainstorms, article and chapter drafts, and whatever relevant ideas are floating around in my head.

Archive for train games

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End of the Line

Jason B
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As of this semester I have withdrawn from my PhD program, and so am shutting-down this blog, which I never used as much as I thought I would.

I had some pretty remarkably terrible experiences at the university, to the extent that people tend not to believe me when I relate the things that happened, and I decided I would rather not have a PhD at all than have one from there.

So I'm moving forward, focusing on my freelance book indexing business (www.jasonbegy.com) and still playing tons of train games. I hope you've enjoyed the few posts I've written over the past few years, and I'm hoping to make Chattanooga in 2019. Maybe I'll see you there!
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Wed Sep 27, 2017 1:00 pm
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Thoughts on Genre

Jason B
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What follows is a few pages I wrote-up on train games and genre, for my dissertation proposal. I eventually dropped this categorization for being unnecessary, but I still think it is interesting.

This short text was never published anywhere. I am posting it because I think the BGG community in general would benefit from thinking about genre in this way.

I have not included a bibliography for the sake of brevity. If enough people request it I will update the post to include it.

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In this project I will be distinguishing between two categories of games: “train games” generally and “Train Games” as a specific generic subcategory of the former. Although both are of interest to answering my research questions, they do different cultural work and so it is necessary to be able to distinguish between them.

The first category, “train games,” generally corresponds to the “trains” category on BoardGameGeek as cited above. The description of this category reads simply: “Train games often involve gameplay and imagery related to railroads and rail vehicles. Many of the most popular Train games are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although some games, like Lunar Rails, are set in the future).” The key defining concepts here are “gameplay” and “imagery,” which are general enough to be widely applicable. Thus in this category one can find everything from complex historical simulations such as 1830: Railways and Robber Barons to simple card games that are loosely framed as being about the railroads, such as Take the Train (Uncredited 2007), to everything in-between.

For the purposes of this project “train game” is any game that has a railroading fiction. However, among the board gaming community “train game” tends to refer to a specific subset of these games that could be considered a genre in the sense put forth by Jason Mittell. I will be referring to this category as “Train Games” to signify their greater (at present) status in the hobbyist board gamer culture. It should be noted here that most board gamers do not make this distinction, but to treat all train games as equal is to overlook the efforts of groups such as the Train Gamer’s Association and the writers behind Rail Gamer Magazine who have directly shaped what “train game” means to the average board gamer. Thus the common term “train game” excludes many more games than it includes. The distinction I make here enables the following genre analysis and distinctions.

Media scholar Jason Mittell argues that what causes a text to be included in a given genre is not a property of the text itself, but rather the result of various cultural processes. With regards to television he writes: “television genre is best understood as a process of categorization that is not found within media texts, but operates across the cultural realms of media industries, audiences, policy, critics, and historical contexts” (2004, xii). What causes a show to be referred to as “science fiction,” for example, depends less on any given properties of that show than on how producers and audiences decide to categorize it, decisions which themselves are historically situated. Although Mittell argues for medium-specific genre theory (2), his theories demonstrate the current meaning of “train game” in the community; other game genres may not be described by Mittell’s approach as well as train games, but that question is beyond the scope of the present work.

“Train game,” as the term is generally used, refers to a variety of games that may, in actuality, have little in common beyond their fictional (Juul 2005) representations. For example, Locomotive Werks (Danziger 2002) and Transamerica (Delonge 2002) would both be called train games (both belong to the “trains” family on BGG), but their rules are very different and were it not for their common fiction it is unlikely they would ever be associated. Cultural practice, however, does link these games (and many others) together, which for Mittell is paramount to understanding genre:

"The members of any given category do not create, define, or constitute the category itself. Categories link a number of discreet elements together under a label for cultural convenience. While the members constituting a category might all possess some inherent trait binding them into the category…there is nothing intrinsic about the category itself" (2004, 7).

In train games it is the fiction that leads to their grouping together generically, but this is about as loose of a common element as possible because there are countless aspects of trains/railroading that games could potentially represent, leading to their inclusion in the genre. There are also certain games that will be labeled a ‘train game’ by players but do not have a railroading fiction, such as Power Grid (Friese 2004). For Mittell, “Genres only exist through the creation, circulation, and consumption of texts within cultural contexts” (11), which means that that they are inherently intertextual. This intertextuality extends beyond the medium in question to all media where the cultural practices of sorting and categorizing play out; Mittell argues that genres are best understood as “discursive practices” (12). In the case of train games and Train Games there are many arenas where this discourse plays out (such as online message boards, conventions, mailing lists, and game clubs) but there are three sites that have been particularly influential.

In the case of train games, the major discursive site is BoardGameGeek. Since the majority of game data is crowd sourced, how games are categorized (for example, as train games) is a concrete example of genre as discursive practice. Users who add games to the database must select a category for the game, and so nearly any game that has a fiction connected to railroading will be added to the “trains” category. The categories that a game already in the database belongs to can be changed as well; such changes are made by moderators, often at the behest of users. Furthermore, that BGG even has a “trains” category, which then prompts users to place games into it, is a discursive practice.
As for Train Games, one discursive site is the Train Gamer’s Association, a group of train game aficionados loosely affiliated with Illinois-based game publisher Mayfair Games. The TGA’s mission is to “facilitate and promote the play of train games” (Train Gamer’s Association 2015), and they primarily do so by organizing Puffing Billy tournaments at the largest American board gaming conventions, including Origins, Gencon, and the train game-specific Railcon. The Puffing Billy tournaments are a concrete example of how discourse defines genre: the TGA has defined nine categories of train games, and during a tournament players will play many different games from many different categories. Their overall tournament score is derived from their best performance in each of the nine categories. The categories themselves are curious in their diversity: categories 1, 2, and 3 all contain a single game and its derivatives (Ticket to Ride (Moon 2004) and variants; Empire Builder (Bromley and Fawcett 1982) and variants; 1830 (Tresham 1986) and variants), thus marking those games as exceptionally interesting and important: one must be good at each of these three specific game series in order to do well in the tournament. The other categories are much more diverse: category 6, for example, includes both Brass (Wallace 2007) and Mexican Train Dominoes, which are extremely different games. These categories implicitly mark some games as more important to the Train Game genre in that a successful player must be good at Ticket to Ride but not necessarily Brass. What is also clear from the Puffing Billy categories is that the TGA is expressly interested in promoting a small subset of train games (not many of which, it should be noted, are published by Mayfair Games), which is hardly surprising given the vast number of train games, but this does illustrate Mittell’s principle of genre as social construction.

The second discursive site that has shaped the Train Game genre was Rail Gamer Magazine, a semi-professional fanzine that saw 17 issues from 1997 through 2002. Rail Gamer Magazine maintained a list of “train games” that was certainly incomplete (by a few hundred titles) but doubtlessly focused on games considered to be of interest to its subscriber base. It is clear that the editor, David Metheny, was aware of the TGA and ran in the same circles: his “Yardmaster’s Report” in the second issue includes an open letter to the then-head of the TGA expressing his apologies regarding a recent tournament scheduling mix-up (1997, 2). This lack of formal connection seems a likely reason for the magazine’s name being “Rail Gamer,” as opposed to the known phrase “Train Gamer.” Although the magazine was short-lived, its nature was such that a game’s inclusion or coverage was a form of validation in that said game was now implicitly a Train Game. Rail Gamer Magazine frequently included small expansions or add-ons for popular games, and its final issue included an entire game, thus further shaping the current conception of Train Games.

The final discursive site is Winsome Games, a small publisher that only prints train games because as the owner, John Bohrer puts it, “Look, I like trains. Most men like trains; I know some women who like trains. Don't you like trains? Of course, you do” (Vasel 2005). Although Winsome only publishes a handful of each of its titles, the more popular games are often licensed by bigger publishers and then receive much larger print runs. Examples of this include Locomotive Werks (Danziger 2002), TransAmerica (Delonge 2002), and Baltimore & Ohio (Robbins 2010). Winsome’s efforts help to keep the genre active by ensuring a steady supply of new train games to the hobbyist market.

The distinction between Train Game and train game is significant for several reasons. The former is the outcome of the concerted efforts of enthusiasts, which has lead to a canon of games that defines the genre. That canon is of course subject to change as new games are released and slide automatically into the TGA’s three “all variants” categories, but there is clearly an interest in what is and is not a Train Game. The latter, “train games,” however, represents the ongoing interest in the railroad as a fictional setting, or reference point, for all manner of games. In this way the broader category connects more directly to my research questions.

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6 Comments
Sat Mar 11, 2017 4:41 am
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Searching for Sources - Know Any?

Jason B
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It has been a busy past couple of months. In August my wife and I moved from Boston to Montreal, and now my first semester at Concordia is hurtling towards a close. The first year is largely about coursework so my train games research has been inching along a bit more slowly than I would like.

However, I did recently acquire a copy of The General, issue 23 #6 which has Bruce Shelly's development notes for 1830, and it was incredibly useful. At this point I am looking for similar sources: designer notes, development and playtest notes, or any other kinds of reflections on the design process of train games. If anyone out there happens to know of any offhand, please post in the comments so I can check them out. In the mean time I will be digging through BGG looking for such materials.

Look here for more updates soon!
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Mon Nov 19, 2012 4:42 pm
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The Research Proposal

Jason B
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This is a modified form of the research proposal I submitted to Concordia University with my application. I've cut out some of the stuff that is unimportant to readers here, to focus on the stuff that will be of the most interest. Do note that this was originally written for a lay, non-train-gamer audience.

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Mon Jul 23, 2012 3:32 pm
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