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Subject: Playing Close at the Open rss

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Cole Wehrle
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This article is a little experiment. I am deeply intrigued by this little game and have set about recording some thoughts on strategy after several plays so that I can order my thinking on the problems that this game presents. Take it for what you will.

Playing Close at the Open

The board for Northern Pacific (Winsome 2013) contains a little riddle disguised as superfluity. Adjacent to the game’s starting location at Minneapolis/St. Paul (here colored red), four possible connections extend to Duluth, Fargo, Aberdeen, and Sioux Falls. Any of these four paths would make fine opening moves in any ordinary train game. But Northern Pacific is not an ordinary train game. Here, rather than taking control of a railway racing towards the Pacific ala the complementary Continental Divide (Winsome 2013), players instead occupy the position of opportunistic investors, looking to score a quick buck if the main line happens to pass by their investments. When it does, they stand to double their money, but if the railway opts for a different path they could find themselves utterly ruined. The Northern Pacific is a myopic line, fixated utterly on Seattle and disinterested in bending backwards to help a wayward player recoup losses. All of this makes investing in these little stepping stones near Minneapolis incredibly risky. Why would a player ever think about places one of their few initial investments on them?



Indeed, it is likely that you first several games of Northern Pacific will not produce a single investment so risky, but there are reasons, some very good, why a player might place a cube there. NB: In this game there are only two actions: Invest (“Cube”) and Build (“Train”). Through these actions players may position their investments or else influence the progress of the Northern Pacific. Though distinct in execution, these actions are inexorably bound together. Every cube is effectively a promise of a future train move.

Consider this situation:

The turn order is Blue, Green, then Yellow. Blue opens with an investment directly North. It seems like a terrible move. After all Green or Yellow could push the track away from that city and rob Blue of its cube (potentially ¼ of Blue’s wealth!). That’s a pretty harsh blow to be taken only a few seconds into the game. But Green also has much to gain. Blue’s move is a commitment, a tacit (or not-so-tacit) offer of alliance. Green could feel almost free to place another cube right alongside that first cube as in a three player game a city can support two cubes. Of course, there is still one more player, Yellow, who will get an action before Blue so Green’s investment is hardly a sure thing. Let’s take a look at yellow’s position.



Green and Blue have more or less committed to that first build. It’s too bad that the city limit prevents Yellow from joining in the fun. Regardless, the other players’ investment has more or less mapped out their move and the possible course of the track following the build. Now, either of those two branches is a pretty risky maneuver because it would require that the invest action is not followed by two consecutive track builds: to realize their investment and the other to rob Yellow of his. However those locations have an important distinction. If yellow built on the top location, Blue could invest along side or further down the line, and would no longer have to worry about Yellow sabotaging the opening connection. If Yellow placed his investment in the southern branch following the invested city, it could still be reached directly from Minneapolis. This would force first Blue (then Green) to build that first track north. Because Green is on the hook (being the player before Yellow), this effectively grants Blue some free leverage. Or, in other words, this is likely not a good move. By playing on the north branch Yellow can, in good faith, join in Blue and Green’s enterprise and effectively tighten the match.

But this brings me back to my earlier question: why not just build the track away from the Blue/Green city. Yellow is in a position to severely damage two player positions at virtually no cost. It seems to me that this is a pretty obvious move. But let’s see what happens when we change Green’s move a little bit.



Okay, so Green seems to have taken Blue’s gambit and gone even farther out. Because Green is following Blue in turn order, she should know that she can draft Blue’s position a little bit. If there is a delaying action, with play elsewhere on the board, such drafting may even allow feasible double cube city plays. Now, the same option with first scenario is still present to Yellow, namely, Yellow can burn both Green and Blue with a play on the south of the board. But there are some additional options available. Green’s play has opened up a viable northeastern position as well as a central position. If the pattern resolves itself quickly next round this kind of chaining, sensitive to turn order, gives players further back in the turn order a great deal of control over the direction the track will go. It can also adjust tempo. By playing in the central location (just south of the Green cube), Yellow can force Blue to spend a turn building track which kicks the initiative to Green. If green chooses to invest (a very reasonable move) Yellow can be in a position to make some surefire investment by either doubling down on its position or by aligning its plays with Green.

Now, this gets us to an obvious question. Why play this close to the start point at all, especially given the risks? In the games I’ve played (about 8-10 so far), most early play is far from the start location. However, in the expert game players start with fewer cubes, which means, in practice, only one or two cubes get put far away (read safe), and the rest are placed closer, forcing the players to push their positions to just about the breaking point. In the first hypothetical, I would suggest that Yellow is far better served by ensuring everyone gets one successful investment rather than hurting the other player positions. While the extra cubes provide flexibility to every player position, playing at the end of the line can help guide its progress and, by forcing other players to build track, you retain investment initiative.

Managing this initiative is critical to good play in Northern Pacific. Unlike most games, one positional mistake will sink you in this seemingly light filler, but that shouldn’t shy away interested players. It’s refreshing to encounter a game which gives such clear feedback so quickly on lessons well worth learning.

Errata:
1. Though the lines are done in a different visual style in both examples no difference is intended.
2. No Winsome graphics were used in this post.
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Tiamat
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Thanks for posting this! I was concerned I might have to buy this game totally blind.
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Cole Wehrle
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Tiamat wrote:
Thanks for posting this! I was concerned I might have to buy this game totally blind.


Ah such is Winsome. Fortunately even the less good (and sometimes bad) games are still devilishly interesting. Rest assured that this years set appears to be all winners. I'm still a little on the fence about Erie Railroad, but I've only played a half game and didn't really get a sense of what I was doing.
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Tiamat
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Hmm, well I am interested in that one also. That seems to have almost no info. I gather from the component shots that there isn't a map, which is nice. I like to see what can be done without a spatial component.

Biggest fear was if Northern Pacific were very similar to SNCF.
 
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Cole Wehrle
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Tiamat wrote:


Biggest fear was if Northern Pacific were very similar to SNCF.


I hope that's been assuaged. It is quite its own animal.
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Cole Wehrle
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Tiamat wrote:
Hmm, well I am interested in that one also. That seems to have almost no info. I gather from the component shots that there isn't a map, which is nice. I like to see what can be done without a spatial component.


It is a strange game. It's almost like 1830:The Card Game: The Card Game. It seems to attempt to boil down the essentials (and vagaries) of the portfolio timing game into their most compact form. Both it and NP make early Winsome offerings (like Dutch Intercity) look positively opulent.

I haven't really fully grappled with Erie's deduction element yet (perhaps it is SNCF: The Auction Game: The Card Game). With any luck it will get a bunch of play shortly and I'll have more to say. We almost got to it last night but Continental Divide went long (3.5 hours or so).

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Christopher
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Thanks for bringing this tonight. I really enjoyed it and am very interested in seeing how strategy develops.
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