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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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Beyond "Pick-up and Deliver" -- at least a little bit

Winston Smith
United States
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Yes, it's true: I'm thinking about designing a new train game. Why? Don't we have enough of them already? Of course, it's because, while I like many of the existing train games and am a big fan of the genre, none quite has the right combination of flow, mechanisms and realism that I'm looking for -- though I will be stealing ideas from many places!

My goal, broadly speaking, is to re-create in a board game the same kind of experience I used to enjoy with the old Sid Meier "Railroad Tycoon" computer games: track layout and building, scouting out profitable supply-demand connections, upgrading the machinery, and competing against rival companies doing the same. I won't be going so far as a stockholding or stock market dimension, at least at first, since (i) I want to keep the overall complexity down and minimize the number of systems, and (ii) I was never very good at the stock system in "Railroad Tycoon"! I'm hoping to emerge with a product that can have wide appeal, even for the relatively casual gamer, while still offering depth and replayability. I'll have more to say about other goals as the blog goes on, so stay tuned!

Now, I'm hardly the only person to dream of bringing the "Railroad Tycoon" experience to the board! and one of the most successful recent attempts was of course Railroad Tycoon, now re-christened as part of the "Railways of the World" series. It has all the elements I mentioned above, and it's accessible and fun. So, what more, or different, am I looking for?

It all starts from a very minor, niggling point of terminology: I never liked having Railroad Tycoon classified as a "Pick-up and Deliver" game, even though every description you read of it, including its own rulebook, describes the basic action as picking up a cube and delivering it to a city (of matching demand color). Seems simple enough; why am I causing trouble? Because in RRT, delivering a cube causes your income to go up, and this conflicts with the metaphor of a delivery, as a single event, which should earn you a lump sum of reward (ie cash or VP's), as in grandfather Empire Builder and great-grandfather Rail Baron.

The better metaphor, it always seemed to me, is that what is called "picking up and delivering a cube" in Railroad Tycoon should better be thought of as closing a deal for an ongoing contract to move some commodity regularly between those two cities. This makes perfect intuitive sense, that closing a deal for an ongoing contract should result in a permanent increase in your income, and I had much better success explaining the game to new players using this metaphor, rather than pushing a cube being a single "delivery" event.

It looks like Detroit makes and Chicago takes. Or, is it the other way around?

Once we invite the "ongoing contract" metaphor into the house, though, a whole lot of other, interesting things start to shake loose. For example, it's not obvious which city should be considered the origin and which the destination for the ongoing delivery contract. On the one hand, the "pick-up and delivery" metaphor suggests that the city supplying the cube is the source of cargo and the city with the matching "demand" color is the destination. But, historically the sources of many commodities which are carried by trains -- coal, lumber, ores, etc. -- are fixed to the landscape that produces them, while the businesses that consume the commodities may grow up in many different places; so maybe it makes more sense, metaphorically, that the city colors which are fixed to the landscape should represent supply sites, and the cubes which change game to game should represent demand sites.

So, the "ongoing contract" metaphor can be made to work either way conceptually in RRT, and this opens some interesting options. How about a game in which the supply and demand sites are shown and treated on a more equal footing? Where both are somewhat fixed to their historical locations, and both are also somewhat fluid and at least a little random? Also, we would then need to identify the commodities themselves as something other than just "red" and "blue"; at a minimum this would open new possibilities for beautiful and enjoyable artwork, as seen for instance in Rails of New England

How do you like them apples? I'd frame the card even before playing the game!

More generally I would hope that the increase in realism through familiar cargoes and pleasant artwork, versus the abstract representation using only colors, should make the game more appealing and accessible to relatively casual gamers -- if the added realism doesn't come at the cost of increased complexity (this is always a temptation to be avoided, as we will see).

Once we've started down this road, we see other problems with the metaphor as it's implemented in Railroad Tycoon, particularly: Why should your income go up more if you close a deal over a longer distance between source and destination? Maybe that makes sense for passengers -- remind me, which color in RRT should represent passengers? -- but it makes no sense for commodities: no one cares, really, where the coal or oil came from as long as it gets delivered in the right quantity and quality.

Railroad Tycoon muffles these kinds of questions by using the "universal solvent" of victory points to score the game, instead of the much more obvious choices of cash or income, as would be natural for a business theme and which already exist in the game anyway! VP's are mushy and undefined, so you can assign them to anything you think would be fun for the players to accomplish: buying a high-level train, connecting a major route, etc. But under the same thought, that more realism would make the game more appealing and accessible if the complexity is under control, I would like to see if a new train game can reasonably be scored purely on normal economic measures, without inventing imaginary currencies alongside them.

So, that's my basic setup for the new train game idea:

1. There's a map with cities.

2. The cities have supply and/or demand markers referring to real-world goods.

3. Some of these are fixed historically at locations and some are different each game, and they can and will change during the game.

4. The basic action is establishing connections between cities and then closing the contract between a matching demand and supply, which then grants a permanent increase in income.

In future posts I'll be musing on my best ideas for how to model each of these, including which mechanisms I'm thinking of stealing from existing games, and hope to get some useful and inspiring feedback from the readers. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned! I'll try to update the blog with new posts each Friday and Monday, until the discussion is complete or I run out of material.
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