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Subject: Early Experience: Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters rss

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J C Lawrence
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Campbell
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Note: This review was originally written for and posted on my blog. It is better formatted and more readable there.

Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters by Han Heidema is a likely design progenitor of Wabash Cannonball and is the latest member of The Riding Series of games from Winsome Games. Hopefully there’s more to come in the Riding Series as it is a neat (if fiddly[1]) system and there’s definitely room left to play in it. The Riding Series appears an unusually coherent family of games:

1.Share dilution — Shares are won at auction and pay an N'th of the company income where N is the number of shares issued for that company.
2. Share-based capitalisation — The operating treasury for a company comes from the auction price for its shares. In general there is no other significant source of treasury funds for the companies.
3. Activity-based income — The current turns income for a company is a compound of the actual cash income of the company, plus a measurement of the growth-activity of the company this turn. Thus active/growing companies pay much better than moribund companies as they have the extra (potentially HUGE) boost of activity-based income.
4. Deflating income — Company income is a function of the number of empty exits on the cities their track is connected to. As more track is connected to those cities they become worth less and company incomes fall precipitously. This causes a rather fiddly constant recalculation of company incomes, but there are procedural habits which may be used in play to greatly reduce this.
5. Grouping shares — Shares that pay out as a function of the interconnectedness of the current track patterns. Thus as multiple companies connect to a city that city contributes significant income toward the grouping shares. There usually seem to be multiple different grouping share companies that reward different and competing aspects of the track development. Grouping shares are acquired by trading in basic shares 2:1.
6. National shares — (Later in the series only?) Shares that pay X% of all the grouping shares’ dividends, reducing the grouping share dividends by that percentage in the process.
7. End-game share valuation — Shares trade in for money in the end-game.

Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters sits comfortably in that middle ground of solid not-so-little and not-so-long games and most of the game matches that character: a comfortable game of middling length and fine pedigree that has built a nice home in middle age and knows well enough about the world to occasionally dazzle. Like middle age this isn’t a particularly vicious or aggressive game, but it has its moments and some of them are real doozies. Cunning and guile are rewarded more than blatant aggression, most of the time, and conservative and modestly delicate play is the name of the game, most of the time. Those caveating weasel words are deliberate: that guile and cunning comes with its own share of subtlety and excess and moderation. Again, like middle age, there are occasional splurges, vast sprawls of violent aggression and exploited advantage, and the game frequently turns on these crises, but they are the anticipated exuberant exceptions and not the mature foundations of the game.

Structurally Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters consists of six Basic Companies which are grouped into two sets of three, two Grouping Companies each of which maps to a set of three Basic Companies, and the odd little parasitic top of the pyramid: the NS. Each Basic Company has a number of shares (count varies by company) which pay a diluted fractional dividend ala Wabash Cannonball. The dividend paid by a company is a small function of prior track builds plus a hefty bonus for any track built this turn[2]. During the course of the game the base dividend from prior track builds grows rapidly and then as rapidly decreases at about the same time that the growth opportunities begin to peter out. However, shares of Basic Companies may be traded for shares of Grouping Companies, and those shares pay out as a function of the connection density of their constituent Basic Companies, that same connection density driving the Basic Company share dividends down. Shares in Basic Companies can also be traded in for shares of the NS, which pays a fraction of the dividends of both Grouping Company dividends and parasitically reduces their dividends by a matching amount.

That pattern of leveraged parasitism, of the Grouping Companies building atop the petering out of the Basic Companies and the NS preying on the Grouping Companies is a core theme and pivot of the game. Higher companies build and prey on the success and growth of their smaller and more active younger generations. Correctly timing the transition of investments from the teenagers to the next generation (and which next generation) is a a key inflexion point in the game.

On the gripping hand Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters is an auction game where what is auctioned is a pairing of a share of a company and the opportunity to increase the dividend of that company, and it is in this auction and the immediately following track build where the subtlety of the system and the opportunity for mature cunning and guile reveals. Players in turn order[3] offer a share of a company for auction. The highest bidder takes the share and then immediately builds a single track connection for the company using the money they won the share with. Left over money goes to the company treasury. If the player is also the director of the company[4] they may use the treasury money to pay for the track link. Some key elements here are:

* companies may only build track when they sell their own shares
* selling shares dilutes the dividends of those shares
* building track adds a significant (potentially huge) bonus to the dividend paid for those shares

In the balance of those three patterns is where some of the opportunity for cunning and guile comes in. The rest of the cunning and guile comes in with the intersection of the above three patterns, track building, turn order, and the layered/predatory pattern previously discussed. There is ample opportunity for players to manipulate turn order, cash holdings, aggressive and friendly (both) track builds, share dilution and upper-company implications in notably clever ways:

* In the early game there’s a very strong incentive for players to dilute and monopolise shares in the companies they already hold. This gives them the largest payout as they get both the base dividend from the track builds in prior turns plus the bonus from this turn’s activity
* In the mid-game this inverts suddenly as company opportunities begin to vanish and preying on other company’s shares or building the Grouping Companies becomes more profitable
* There’s a strong advantage for directors who win shares early in the turn order to build links that cost considerably less than their bid, which results in excess bid funds going into the company treasury and being available for later builds by the director
-- Note: Company treasuries are doled out to their share-holders in end-game scoring, which allows cash to be fractionally “hidden” in companies by shareholders without affecting their turn order in the game. This also allows players to grab cheap shares in order to snag a fraction of such hidden cash
* A big track build with a related large dividend bonus early in the turn order is easily preyed on by other players grabbing shares in the same company cheaply and diluting the bonus for minimal expense
* Likewise a well-built company with a large base income will be predated-on by other players jumping in for a cheap share of the rich dividends
* Because directors can use the company treasury in addition to their bid money for their track builds, directors who win shares late (preferably last) in the turn order can potentially do massive builds using those funds and thus generate huge dividend bonuses for their shares without fear of other players nipping in later for a cheap share of the bonus
* In the mid- and late-game, non-director players early in the turn order are incented to win shares in companies which are significantly owned by directors late in the turn order and to then construct a modestly sized link for them (possibly stashing yet more money in the treasury), thus encouraging the late turn-order director to also buy a share in that company so as to construct a massive track segment which pays them even more handsomely
* Big track builds can cut off and doom other companies, leaving them nowhere to go. Timed well against the right players this can turn the game on its ear.
* etc.

I own a copy of Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters, have West Riding and Länderbahnen and Länderbahnen Expansion Set arriving Real Soon Now™, and am being offered a copy of Riding Through England. I hope to report on the other games soon. So far I’ve played a solo game, two 3 player games and one 4 player game of Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters. It will be played more. I suspect that 4 players is the sweet spot though 5 could also be good. 3 players works but is not ideal. Wooden Shoes & Iron Monsters plays in around 120-150 minutes once you have the basics down. With experience it could probably get down to 100 minutes but that might also be pushing it. It is a curious and not so little game, which isn’t to say it is very big or very strange, but that like a muscular and oddly intense older uncle back from the wars is a little different, a little ungainly and with room for surprising elements of flair and brutality. There’s a little softening around the middle, but all the muscles of youth are still there under the jowls and worldly eyes. It also, every so often, pops up to do the lambada or pound out Honky Tonk on the old piano or just takes over Asia in a land war and smugly holds it.

1. There is constant bookkeeping in the game to track the declining base income of the company plus the this-turn activity bonus. This can be very fiddly to count and constantly recount but can be mostly addressed by a simple protocol: keep track of the current base income and this-turn bonus income on the side of the board (we use wet-erase pens) and update the current numbers each time a link is built. At the end of each round simply wipe the bonus numbers and repeat.
2. As a result moribund companies pay poorly, aggressively building companies pay well
3. Turn order is determined for each round and is in order of decreasing cash.
4. Company directors are the plurality share holders
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