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I've got 4 plays under my belt now, and while I'm pretty sure I've got the rules down, I'm wondering if I'm missing strategy options.
First, in a 5 player game, starting with only 25K seems too low. Here's what happened in the 5-player games I saw: (1) out of 12 companies and 36 shares, only 11 shares (2 shares per player and 3 for the smelter owner) were purchased on turn 1. And (2) 6 non-stock-buying actions were taken, generally involving railroads going into debt, but also driving up the share price of the railroads. Also (3) each player buys the charter of 1 railroad and one mine, which results in very little cash infusion in turn 2, meaning that there is very little stock buying in turn 2 either.
I tried playing a solo game (where I played all 5 seats) with starting cash of $40K, and this seemed to work much better. There was one round of stock buying, and then a round of mixed stock buying and development, and from that point the game progressed much faster.
One of the things that drives this, I feel, is that 'Haul Ore' feels pretty useless. 2K isn't that much money, and a 2K bump in a mine stock (that very possibly you only one a single share of) doesn't help much either. I also considered changing 'Haul Ore' to get 10K cash, and bump a mine stock up by 5K. This then led me to speculate changing the 'Smelter Owner' role to "Take a free 'Haul Ore' action immediately before one or your regular actions." I may try this in the future.
Is there much benefit to owning the charter for a mine stock? You can decide whether or not to pay dividends, and you can potentially buy a building on the mine with the mine profits. These decisions are generally driven by a desire to benefit the mine stock, which benefits all stockholders. There's very little ability to drive your own economic benefit at the expense of others like there is with the rail stocks.
The better, more productive games have generally involved 2 or 3 of the mines not being purchased in the first turn or two, thus guaranteeing a longer operating life. It's not something that was done deliberately, it just seemed to work out that way.
Finally, every single game played so far was won by the player who controlled the black (Bullfrog Goldfield?) railroad. The only thing I can see to balance this is for the other players to gang up on him from the beginning; first by not letting him buy shares in nearby mines, and then later by building into the mines he's connected to in order to dilute is connection bonus. But this then means that the other players are not buying mining stock near their own railroads, putting the Bullfrog Goldfield owner in the position of playing king-maker by choosing which of the mines he does not own to connect to. At the same time, he's bought mining stock on the other side of the board, and so he's depending on others to connect to his mine. Time for a little deal-making I suppose? Obviously, we haven't tried this in any of the games we've played, but it seems a little forced that you have to pursue this strategy.
Has anybody else seen these patterns? Is there some obvious strategy I'm missing?
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
4 plays is nice to hear!
Quick answer- The name of the game is Bullfrog Goldfield. One obvious solution to the trend you are seeing is not to let anyone get all that stock in the BG RR. You have answered yourself that the other players need to gang up on him if someone gets all the Bullfrog stock. No player should be allowed to obtain 2 BG RR stocks and a deep holding in nearby mines. That is just handing the victory to that player. On the other hand, the same is true for any railhead and local mines if there is no interference. Defensive play is expected in most strategy games. In a multi-sided game it is just that much trickier who does it. Thus, a diverse portfolio being the safest investment, means that you should be buying into these areas even when they are not your main interest.
Your observations on the money are good for variants. We tried a constant $40,000 in playtesting, but discarded it because w/ 5 players the stocks were often depleted quickly. That might not be a bad thing, but I didn't want anyone left out that quickly in a market run.
There is not nearly the advantage of mine Charter holing as w/ the RR's as you observed. Occasionally a withheld dividend at a crucial time can limit another shareholder's buying options.
The later purchasing of mines is especially important if you can connect a RR since you are prolonging it's potentials besides the profit from the mines. So you seem to have that figured as well.
The way I figure, you should be the one telling us the strategy!