Great Train Robbery

Discussing my design for yet another train game, with liberal "borrowing" from existing games.
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Streamlining! and atomic-age turn-taking

Winston Smith
United States
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What is the iconic ideal of the great age of railroading? Streamlining!

The S1 steam locomotive, circa 1939, in all its Art Deco glory.

A big goal for my new train game is to have the play flow very smoothly and quickly with absolutely minimal down-time.

One of my absolute favorite train games down through the years has been Empire Builder, flagship of the crayon rails series. I love the open-field track building, the many realistic cargoes, and the strategy of supply-demand matching. But with great flexibility comes great risk of analysis paralysis. Most of my Empire Builder games suffered from extreme down-time when it was not one's turn, as I tended to play with very smart folks who explored and optimized all their possibilities before committing themselves in wax.

The real breakthrough in my gaming experience was playing Ticket to Ride (hereafter TTR, not be be confused with Railroad Tycoon abbreviated as RRT). The essential paradigm I had been used to in any capitalist-themed game, was that each turn is a two-step: first get money, then spend money, with, say, Settlers as a familiar modern example. TTR was an almost-radical departure, to where you could only do one thing on your turn, and then it was over to the next player lickety-split. Even if the same number of "get money", "spend money" actions were taken overall, separating the two of them into different turns greatly decreased the amount of thinking anyone had to do at one time, and so let TTR proceed much faster than would the equivalent two-step game.

In my experience the "do only one thing" protocol has made TTR very easy to explain, and very easy to get into, for non-gamers and casual gamers. I think there are many reasons for this, some subtler than others. Being able to take even two actions, such as "get" and "spend", requires players to process new input -- what did I get? -- immediately, in order to decide what best to do next. This is intrinsically game-delaying, since there is then one stage every turn where only one player can really usefully be thinking. And it's also stressful for beginners and for people who don't think lightning-fast, who don't want to feel they're holding up the game. Separating "get" from "spend" allows people to usefully spend the time of other peoples' turns to do this processing, making the whole process faster and less demanding. More subtly, keeping the down-time between one player's successive turns down to below some magic maximum limit -- maybe 2 minutes? -- lets players stay interested in watching what the other players are doing, just as entertainment, since it's not long enough for their attention to really wander.*

[*I'm indebted to the review blog Shut Up and Sit Down for having coined the term "phone-checkingly boring" to describe the worst kind of down-time experience, and which describes exactly what I most want to avoid having happen in the new game.]

So I'm personally thankful to TTR for re-acquainting me with the "atomic turn", where each player does the absolute logical minimum of action at one time and then passes the play along (as had been the standard before Chess and Go were dethroned by Monopoly). Atomic turns are now pretty typical in train games, where each player picks one from a short menu of actions: build track, deliver goods, financial dealings, etc.

The first-turn markers in the original Railroad Tycoon and the updated Railways of the World.

The clever turn-order/action tracks on the board of American Rails.

When we think of a train game as a business simulation, with players competing for area control and finite resources, the turn order mechanism can loom very large. One approach is to embrace the tension and make manipulations in the turn order into part of the game. In Railroad Tycoon the players bid cash to take the lead in turn order (which means that even where you take your seat can be a matter of strategy), while American Rails uses a clever balancing mechanism where turn order and desirability of actions are traded off; similar mechanics can be found from Agricola to Age of Empires.

So, what am I thinking? On the whole I would lean away from turn-order manipulations as part of any capitalist business game, because even while they may add a new strategic dimension, they also add complexity without directly supporting the buy/sell metaphor for a day-to-day business world. Certainly, Jay Gould was not waiting out while Leland Stanford took his turn, and then vice versa! Yes, you could argue that spending something -- cash, or later priority -- to get a jump in turn order could simulate or model one of the tycoons closing a back-room deal in order to get privileged first access to some buy/sell opportunity. But, wouldn't it be better, if possible, just to model that kind of market manipulation more directly?

A second reason I lean away from turn-order manipulations is just that I was never very good at them! In a game like RRT I always found it difficult to rationally price how much the first turn would be worth -- as did most of my opponents, apparently, since I've been in many games where the first turn marker hardly moved at all. Yes, it may be a strategic avenue, but it's not where I'd like to be applying what limited brain I have to burn in a railroad business game.

"Diplomacy" may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of "streamlining", but read on.

So what's my preferred solution at this point, with the goals of keeping things streamlined and also as on-metaphor as possible? Simultaneous turns! Yes, that's the closest analog of the real business world: companies are operating in parallel with the same publicly available information, and we only need to resolve collisions if there's a competition for exactly the same resource on exactly the same turn. This is the ultimate level playing field, with no one able to complain that they were screwed over by some turn order accident. Plus, it spares us the complexity, time, and brain-power distraction of having to negotiate any kind of turn-order selection mechanic.

I have several hopes -- this is still all theoretical -- for the simultaneous turn mechanic in a train building game:

1) By having everyone do their thinking/planning at the same time, I hope that personal down-time will be minimized and the game will flow along as quickly as possible.

2) Players will now have more reason to pay attention to what their opponents are doing, and to predict what they'll do next, in order to avoid -- or to cause! -- collisions for finite resources. I want to avoid the other unfortunate aspect of my Empire Builder games, which was their tendency to devolve into parallel solitaire.

3) It will improve the business world metaphor, and the tension in the simultaneous decisions should add to the cut-throat capitalist atmosphere.

Is any of this true? I'm open to advice, and more importantly to play-testers! so we can do the experiment and see how it works. On the way to a final design I'm still not settled on the best approach to implementing a simultaneous turn mechanic. Here's the spectrum of possibilities and the advantages/drawbacks that I see:

A. Everyone privately makes their decision for which action to take, and then we go around the table and everyone verbally announces their choice. This is definitely the simplest and doesn't take any additional equipment. But the drawback is that people may not be able to suppress the turn-taking impulse and change their choice, or even forget it, after seeing what the others have chosen.

B. Better would be to have some kind of definite marker that each person chooses privately, which are then revealed.

(Where have we seen this before?
Phase action choice cards from Race for the Galaxy.)

Now I need to make one set of action choice cards for each player, which is not so bad but is a non-zero price to pay in additional complexity; on the bright side, though, it may provide another opportunity for good artwork. An alternative would be a custom die, where each player sets theirs with the marker for their choice facing up and then reveals it.

Both versions of this approach suffer a lesser version of the same drawback as A above, that people might fix their action in advance but have to just state their target verbally, ie you put down the "Build Track" card but then say out loud that you're connecting to Albany.

C. Hearkening back to our most hallowed and revered ancestor Diplomacy, the most complete thing to do is to have everyone write their choice/order for the turn privately on paper. This could be very brief, just "B - Chi" for, say, "Build to Chicago"; and it would generally have the advantage of making each choice absolutely definite before anything is revealed. But I'm not sure how I feel about requiring disposable paper and pens in a board game just for this kind of mechanic; it's very simple and yet my feeling is that it may cross some threshold of fiddly-ness that could alienate a casual gamer. More subtly, I think seeing that someone wrote a few words on a line of paper doesn't create the same feeling, in those observing it, that something is actually happening as compared with seeing an action card with a nice, concrete picture of a pick-axe. Any thoughts out there?

OK, that's my thinking so far on the importance of streamlining, atomic turns, and my daring choice to try simultaneous turn-taking. In the next few posts I'll try to get down into some details of implementation and maybe even exhibit some conceptual artwork (though don't get your hopes up re my artistic skills). Thanks for reading! and stay tuned for updates Mondays and Fridays.
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