Chicago Express/Wabash Cannonball
Publisher(s): Winsome Games and Queen Games
Designer: Harry Wu
"Family": Part of Winsome Games' Historic Railroads System
Overview: The game is played by 3-6 players alternating turns. On each a turn, a player has a choice of three actions: auction off a share of any RR, build track for any RR the player owns a share in, or improve a hex that has a railroad built through it. The game limits the number of each action all players may conduct in a round. Whenever a player selects an action, a "gauge" is incremented up to record the action. When the gauge gets into the "red" no player can undertake that action the rest of the round. When two of the three actions are in the round, the round ends and dividends are paid out for all railroads. Although players must select an action, they don't have to actually do anything with the action. A player can choose to auction a share for his or her action, but then decline to actually auction a share, for example.
The board is a hex grid, with the hexes containing mountains, plains, forests, and cities. The cost to build track through a hex is dependent on the terrain type as well as whether any other RRs have built through the hex. Mountains and cities provide revenue for railroads and players can spend an action to "improve" the hexes to increase revenues. Most cites and all mountains can only be improved once. A handful of cities can be improved multiple times. Detroit is not improved through player action, but increases one step after each general dividend round (essentially a way to track one of the end-game triggers).
At the start of the game, there are four railroads available. Each has a different default starting revenue and each has a different number of shares available. A fifth railroad becomes available later in the game when certain conditions are met. Before the start of play, one share is auctioned off for each of the four starting railroads.
Chicago. As the name "Chicago Express" might imply, Chicago plays an important role in the game. The four starting railroads are all located on the rights side of the board and Chicago is no the far left side. Not only does Chicago provide the largest revenue for a single space in most games (in the unlikely event that the game lasts 7 or 8 rounds, Detroit would equal and then surpass Chicago), but when a RR reaches Chicago, it triggers a special "Chicago Round." This results in a special dividend round that pays out only to the RR that just reached Chicago. This occurs each time a new RR reaches Chicago. The first time any RR reaches Chicago, the fifth RR - the Wabash Cannonball - comes into play. After the Chicago Round dividends are paid, the first share of the Wabash is auctioned off (there are only two shares).
Stock Market: Although the game includes the sale of shares in the various railroads, 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: At the end of each round, dividends are paid. Dividends are mandatory. The value of each dividend is the RRs total revenue divided by the number of shares already issued. As such, by choosing to auction off a share of a company, a player can dilute another player's earnings.
Company President: 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 end of the game is brought on by 3 companies having zero shares left, no "improvement" pieces left available, or after the 8th time general dividends have been paid. Games will typically end through depletion of available shares.
Victory: The winner is the player with the most cash on hand. Both income and value of shares are irrelevant.
Best Player Count: The consensus on BGG seems to be that the game is best in 3 or 4 players, begins to be iffy with 5, and virtually unplayable (without expansions) with 6.
Thoughts: This is the train game that I have the most experience with at this point because there is an app* available to play it. It's quite the interesting game and deceptively difficult. It's also a game that can appear to be completely random and arbitrary in terms of who actually won until players gain some experience with it.
There are a couple of big strategic considerations. Because neither the value of the shares you own nor the income you generate from your shares figures into victory, timing the end of the game is crucial. In most games, the end-game trigger will be 3 RRs issuing all of their shares. There are only 3 auction actions available each round, and they typically are among the first actions chosen. Playing a "long" game is largely dependent on being able select a "null" auction to extend the number of rounds before the end game is triggered. This becomes more difficult in higher player counts due to the limited number of auction actions available. The other players may auction off 3 shares before you get the chance to select the action.
The other big strategic point is the race to Chicago. Timing the entry of the first RR into Chicago can be critical. The Wabash can reach Chicago - thus triggering another special dividend - in a single build. If the player who wins the auction is the next player to act and there is a RR build action left, then that player can get that nice $8 dividend before anyone has a chance to dilute the Wabash and cut the dividend in half. If you are the one to use your turn to build to Chicago, it is virtually impossible for you to win the Wabash share and build it to Chicago before you're diluted. If additional auction actions are available, reaching Chicago may mean that this may be the last round of the game. (Typically the Penn. RR Co (Red) and the B&O (Blue), which have fewer shares will run out first whereas the other two may still have 2 or more shares remaining. The Wabash only has 2 shares, and one is auctioned immediately when it comes into play. Auctioning the 2nd is often the 3rd RR to reach 0 shares available, triggering the end game). Both of these considerations makes the timing of getting to Chicago critical, not to mention adding a lot of factors into determining how to value the initial share of the Wabash (if the end game is imminent, the additional share may be worthless to you and only serve to deplete your cash).
The differences in the number of shares available for each RR also has a big impact on play. The PRR (red) only has 3 shares, which minimizes the degree to which you can be diluted. But if you own two shares, then there's a pretty big incentive for the owner of the third share to build away from Chicago and prevent you from reaching there. (The PRR only has a handful of track available above what is necessary for it to get to Chicago, making sabotaging it relatively easy). At the other end of the spectrum are the Chesapeake and Ohio (Yellow) and New York Central (Green), which have 6 and 5 shares respectively. They typically have a bit more freedom in terms of available track, making them more difficult to sabotage, but if you build up their income too much, then they can easily be greatly diluted. The large number of shares also means that if you're not careful, all (or almost all) of your opponents may end up with shares in the RR, making your relative income difference based on that share $0.
Ultimately, the game is difficult to determine a long-term strategy and stick to it. Players must adapt to a constantly evolving situation. This is not a game of building an income-generating monster. "Null" actions are often just as powerful as actually taking an action. Your best move may be to limit the income potential of one of the railroads you have a share in. Buying additional shares may often be counterproductive because it depletes your cash. You must recognize opportunities to align yourself with another player and work together the benefit of both (both building a particular RR toward Chicago with every action, for example) because it is mutually beneficial and necessary to maximize income. But alliances are fleeting. If one player is benefiting more than the other, then the non-benefiting player may be advised to switch course and quickly sabotage the RR before it's too late.
Another point that is worth mentioning briefly is that the game changes quite a bit at different player counts. In a 3-player game, for example, a player has more control over the end game because you're guaranteed to get at least one auction. In 5- and 6- player games a player will have a lot less control over the end-game because of the lack of a guarantee of auction actions. At higher player counts it is probably more critical to find that temporary alliance in order to build up a single RR to both players' benefit. In a 3-player game it seems much less critical.
Overall the game is quite simple, yet the strategy is deceptively deep. It's biggest drawback is probably the apparent arbitrariness of winning to new players and that it will take several games to start to fully understand what is necessary to win. Personally, these are points in its favor to me.
Caveat #1: I am by no means an expert in train/economic games. I began playing these types of games not long before I wrote this review.
Caveat #2: I am a wargamer first. I play a lot of games solo just playing all sides in an attempt to explore games despite a lack of opponents. A lot of these reviews I wrote focus on distinguishing the types of mechanics present in the games and therefore shouldn't suffer too much from not playing opposed. Take everything about actual gameplay with a big grain of salt.
*The app is generally good, but it keeps crashing on my iPhone. It's not a big deal as the game constantly autosaves, so after a crash you can quickly get back to where you were. It's frustrating and annoying, but the app is still playable imo.
I've soloed this one myself a few times. It's a very satisfying knot to try and untangle.
The game isn't much suited to casual play by the modern gamer. I think that's because, unlike most eurogames, it doesn't have smaller systems inside the game to play around with. Many games will have systems that provide feedback throughout the game, but this one is so steamlined / minimal that the primary feedback is "oh, you won?" Really, it's up to the players to provide the feedback by shifting their priorities and plans.
Ponte Vedra Beach
Like a fine wine, this game gets better with age, and sips. Needs many plays to appreciate its depths but definitely one of my favorite games.
I can't believe I haven't heard of the app before now. Will have to try it out.
Is your score positive? You win! (Some players win more than others.)
A woman needs a man like a fish needs a saxophone.
I can't believe I haven't heard of the app before now. Will have to try it out.
Note that the app is under the game's original name of Wabash Cannonball, at least in the Apple App Store.