Publisher: Winsome Games
Designer: John Bohrer
"Family":: Prairie Railroads
Overview: Pampas Railroads is a game that shares a lot in common with Chicago Express/Wabash Cannonball, which I covered here. (Really, it's the other way around. Pampas was published in '01 and WC in '07, I believe). The game is played by 3-6 players. On a player's turn, he will have the option of taking one of three actions: expanding a RR, auctioning a share, and improving a location. There are a finite number of each action type available. This is the same as CE/WC. Similar to CE/WC - but mechanically different - whenever there is only one type of action available to choose from, a round of dividends is triggered. There are some differences in the execution of actions from CE/WC, however.
First, Pampas is not played on a hex grid. Instead, there is a single link between any two locations. A RR can build a single link in an expand action for $5. If the player wants to build a second link in the same turn, it will cost an additional $10. This presents players with a trade-off - especially early when cash is tight - between expanding quickly to reach prime locations and being more conservative and expanding in the most cost-efficient manner. A RR's income is based on the income created by each link. That value is the income value of the location at each end. For example, if a RR builds the link between 'A' and 'B' and location 'A' is worth $1 and location 'B' is worth $2, then the link is worth $3. If the same RR builds a second link from 'B' to 'C' and 'C' is worth $3, then both links would be worth a combined $8 ($3 for A-B and $5 for B-C). There is also no pre-set limits to the number of links a RR can build. The only limitation is a RRs available funds and having an open link adjacent to its existing links. In addition to building links to income-generating locations, a player can also build a connection to another country. These do not increase a RR's income, but do increase its value. They are quite expensive to build - typically $25+ for a payout of $5 - $10 less than was paid. In essence, this serves as a means for shareholders to cash out of a RR's treasury (a RRs treasury cash does not increase a RRs value).
Second, the available RRs are not as unique as compared to the other RRs in the game as in CE/WC. Just like WC/CE, Pampas begins with an auction of 1 share from each of the RRs except one. But unlike CE/WC, each RR in Pampas has 5 shares available and each RR starts in Buenos Aires (though because each RR gets to immediately build one link for free after the initial auction and the choice of links varies from RR to RR, the RRs are not completely identical.) Auctions for shares are also a bit different. First, there's no null action - you have to auction a share, if you can. Just like WC/CE, there are three available auctions each round. If a player doesn't have enough money to outbid anyone for a share in WC/CE, the choice is often to choose a null auction to prevent other players from being able to buy a share. You can't do that in Pampas. But, you can auction off one of your own shares. After the first round or two, when you've started to amass a little bit of cash, it might be possible to conduct somewhat of a de facto null action in that you can auction off one of your shares in a RR with a very low income and make a very high initial bid for it. Either nobody will bid for it and you in effect get a null action, or you get someone to buy it from you, increasing your available capital to bid on subsequent auctions.
Although conceptually identical, development in Pampas plays a more important role than in CE/WC. Because the value a each 'node' is going to depend on the number of links that connect to it, development plays a bigger role [at least potentially]. Some locations only have one or two connections, therefore limiting their value. But other, 'central' nodes connect to 5 or more locations. If a player can connect a railroad he owns (or possibly multiple RRs he owns) out of the higher-connected nodes/locations, then development can become an especially valuable action. There are also certain cities that can be developed multiple times (there are special rules requiring Buenos Aires to be developed to a higher value than all other cities and a couple of other similar rules). For a city like Cordoba, which potentially has 5 connections, developing can become very lucrative for players that plan ahead and make sure their RRs control all the links. Development itself is free. If a player wants to develop a second location in the same action, the player can pay $3 from his own cash to do so. Early on when 2 or 3 players all own a single share in a RR, this probably doesn't make much sense. But later, when players have bought multiple shares of a single RR (not to mention having more available cash), this extra development action can become quite valuable.
The Cordoba RR is similar to the Wabash in CE/WC; it doesn't start available and only becomes available when a link is built into Cordoba (triggering an immediate auction of the Cordoba's first share). There's no special dividend round triggered or anything similar. The potential value comes from the Cordoba's proximity to gold mines, which increase from $1 to $5 when developed.
The other big difference from CE/WC is that at the start of the game, each player is given one red "special" action card that can be played at any time in the game as a one-time play. When a player plays his card, he can choose any of the three actions. A handful of potential uses immediately spring to mind for the card. In a game at higher player counts, a player could use the card for an auction later in the round when the 3 auction cards have already been chosen and the bigger stacks have depleted their cash, potentially, a player might be able to steal a share they wouldn't have otherwise had the opportunity to get. Obviously, it could be used for a critical expansion or development in later rounds. Another less obvious use is to extend a round. Players of CE/WC are likely familiar with the importance of turn order to start a round. Playing a special card when there are two cards left available can offset the turn order.
Stock Market:There's no stock market as such: shares are sold via auction. But, unlike Chicago Express, a player can sell any of his shares instead of auctioning off one of a RR's treasury shares.
Dividends: Similar to Chicago Express, dividends are paid whenever there is only one action left available in the action deck. Unlike Chicago Express, the dividend paid is the Railroad's income divided 5 (the number of shares available for each RR). In other words, there's no share dilution - kind of. In essence your shares already start diluted in that until all the shares are sold, some of each RR's income is going to stay in the bank. There's all the business of the final dividend. When the final Dividends of the game are paid, each RR's "value" is figured in (this will primarily be based on the number of links the RR has built), the "value" is added to the income, and then divided by the number of shares actually sold - in other words, for the final dividend, share dilution matters. It is also worth noting that unlike Chicago Express, there's no trigger for any type of special dividend round.
Company President: This is another area where Pampas takes somewhat of a hybrid approach. If you own shares in a RR, you can choose to expand it as one of your actions. The catch is that if someone owns more shares than you do, then they get to decide what to do with the expand action for the RR chosen.
End of Game: The game ends after the 9th dividends round. This is a profound difference from Chicago Express. There is no real way to change the length of the game. As such, there are no "long-term" or "short-term" strategies or postures. Everybody is in it for the long haul.
Victory: Ostensibly victory is based on total cash. But because the final dividend includes a payout for the valuation of each RR. So the purchase of shares is not a kind of sunk cost like they are in Chicago Express - you will be able to recoup the value of the RR.
Best Player Count: The game holds up to 6 players, but is probably best in 4 or 5 and would probably play will 3. Much like Chicago Express, 4 may be the sweet spot.
Thoughts: As should be obvious based on my continued comparisons, there is a lot of commonality between Pampas RRs and Chicago Express/Wabash Cannonball. But really, it didn't feel like CE/WC. The biggest difference is probably the fixed game length. Because of that, I think share value is probably more calculable. There's also more incentive to buy up shares of a single RR. Any effect of dilution really isn't going to come into play until later rounds. In all likelihood, all shares of each RR are probably going to be sold anyway, so it might as well be you who owns them. Getting a controlling interest is also a lot more beneficial. In CE/WC, a minority shareholder can run the RR out to the middle of nowhere and use up its cubes to prevent it from reaching Chicago. But in Pampas, if you get a controlling interest, you control all expansion - though it likely still means the end of any cooperation from other owners.
Sufficiently capitalizing a company seems to be more important in Pampas. For the most part, under-capitalization never seems to be an issue in CE/WC (with the possible exception of the Wabash or if you're playing with the Erie expansion). But a RR that is capitalized 2 or 3 times early in the game may get an early bump in income, but ultimately because of early shortages in cash, it may run out of money and tend to stall out. Once the last share is sold, there's no way to get more capital into the RR. Players may also be tempted to use their special action card early on to buy a cheap share of something, but a low share price may ultimately hurt the long-term return on the share.
The ability to sell shares adds an interesting, but I'm not sure how viable it actually is. Selling a share may potentially give you more capital to buy a share you're more interested in, but because of the limited opportunity to auction a share, you may not have an opportunity to put that new-found cash to use until the next round - thus missing out on a round of dividends. But it may give players an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the other players.
Overall, I like the game quite a bit. I'd rate it slightly behind WC/CE. There's enough added to Pampas RRs that it somewhat loses out on the elegant simplicity of Wabash Cannonball/Chicago Express. There's also enough different that anyone interested in these types of games would probably enjoy playing both. Some concepts are going to apply to both, but Pampas presents enough of a different problem that it remains fresh and interesting.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the components. Frankly, I don't really care about component quality, but some people do. Winsome is known for simple components, but Pampas is probably worse than most. The map is a laminated 17 x 11 sheet that requires players to draw in the links with a wet-erase marker or something similar (see below for an image of the map at the end of my game). The money and shares and income track are PNP quality. Although actual component quality is very, very low, the graphic design is very functional. There is a lot of information included on the map and it's done very simply and intuitively. Everything you need to know is included on the map. So despite the quality - it works.
[img width=800 height=600]http://i.imgur.com/mclo5DI.jpg?1[/img]
EDIT: It's also worth mentioning one other distinguishing factor. In WC/CE, during the initial share auction, the winner of the first share auctioned off is also the first player. That's not true in Pampas. It's the winner of the last share auctioned that gets to go first. During the initial bidding in WC/CE, it's critical to know who the first player in the first round for the auctions of the 2nd and later shares. Because of the limited number of auctions available, and the possibility of null auctions, in a 4+ player game, a player that is not in the first 3 of the player order must win a share during the initial auctions or else risk not owning a share during the first round. That knowledge is not as critical in Pampas because there are no null auctions and so a player that fails to win a share initially, can be confident that he'll get one in the first round. The last up to auction/first to play mechanic does potentially make the last RR (the Central) more valuable. There are only 2 open links left coming out of Buenos Aires at the end of the auctions. Because BA must be improved in order to improve other towns, being able to build a second line out of BA can be a boost to the Central's long-term potential. Of course, the winner of the Central would be foregoing the opportunity to put a share up for auction.