Great Train Robbery

Discussing my design for yet another train game, with liberal "borrowing" from existing games.

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Is this on sale today?

Winston Smith
United States
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Having illustrated a panoply of trains and train cards in the last post, we now pick up again the question of what the mechanic should be for when the train cards can be purchased by the players. I won't actually resolve this with a firm decision in this post, but rather illustrate a few possibilities and introduce the larger subject of timing mechanisms in the game in general.

Operationally -- and metaphorically -- what effects are we trying to achieve with the train card purchase mechanism? Here are a few possible outcomes one might aim to see, which are not all inter-compatible:

1. Players should start the game using low-performance trains and upgrade as the game goes on, to mirror historical development.

2. In later stages of the game the balance should be such, that it will be to the players' competitive advantage to choose the later trains over the earlier ones.

3. As the game goes on the earlier trains should be forcibly be made obsolete, either by becoming unavailable for purchase or somehow more and more costly to operate. Commenter jmucchiello has mentioned the aging out of old trains as a desirable bit of realism, see here and here for example.

4. At any point in the game, corresponding to an historical era -- say, a particular decade -- it should be more expensive, or impossible, to buy trains from farther in the future; and this penalty will reduce as the game era catches up with the real-life train's era.

There are a number of approaches one could take, and mechanisms to match, to achieve these effects. But what one always needs to keep in the back of one's mind, is whether the enhanced realism and possible added strategic depth is worth the added "cost" in bother and complexity. And with this in mind, here are three possible schemes I've imagined:

A Simple Plan: Open Market

The simplest possible arrangement is just to have all the train card types available for purchase at all times, right from the beginning. This is certainly the least fiddly and doesn't require any additional detailed secondary boards, just one big space on the table:

The simple Open Market plan, where any player can buy any of the train cards at any time.

This is reminiscent of the train level mechanism in Railroad Tycoon:

The train level cards in Railroad Tycoon come in a strict order.

but with important differences. In RRT/RotW/Steam each player simply has a "train level" at any point during the game, and then increments it with later actions. In the new game, players have to keep buying new train cards to close more delivery contracts, and may find it advantageous to buy older, cheaper stock for some of these routes. Plus, players will be able to re-use train cards and switch them around between routes -- just like in Sid Meier's world -- which gives an added dimension of trade-offs in deciding what to buy when.

Under the single open market scheme, the basic regulating mechanism is the purchase price. If the numbers are all chosen and balanced correctly, then the players will naturally progress from using the earlier models in the beginning, when they don't have much money, to using the longer-range and more efficient later models when they do have the money.

But, if the numbers are not well-chosen and balanced, then we may find the players skipping straight to some later-era trains early on and skipping some that never get used, which would be both disappointing and counter-historically-metaphorical. RRT enforces gradual progress through the train levels bluntly, though simply. But we cannot employ exactly that same mechanism in the new game, because the different models are explicitly not supposed to be simply "successors" -- we don't want someone to be forced to buy the Shay just to get to the Mastodon! -- but offer more dimensions of utility, ie price vs operating range vs operating cost vs mountain penalty.

So, if the single open market is risky because it would be too hard to balance, what more detailed mechanism can we deploy to better assure a historical/realistic development?

Present and Futures Markets

One slightly more complicated mechanism, which had been mentioned briefly in the comments earlier, is to have both a "current" and "future" market, as illustrated here:

The general notion was inspired by the power plant markets in Power Grid, but with some adaptation. Here are the basics, for one incarnation of this idea:

1. At any point in the game there are a collection of train card types in the "Current" market, and players can take an action to buy a train card of one of these types at the printed price.

2. There are also some train card types in the "Future" market, with premium price increases listed. Players can buy trains of these types by paying the normal price plus the "future" premium, to model carrying out some kind of design/R&D work. At some point after this, not necessarily immediately, that type will move down from the "Future" to the "Current" market and be available at the regular price.

3. When a train card type moves from Future to Current, the remaining cards in the Future line move to the left; and then a new type is picked, in historical order, from face-down storage and put into the highest spot in the Future line.

This mechanism is not fundamentally different from the single open market above; basically it adjusts the prices and availability of the different types dynamically to enforce something more like an historical progression.

Now, what should happen to the Current market when a new type enters? Does it just expand to contain all the types that have been used? Or, along the lines jmucchiello suggested, should the oldest model become somehow obsolete and unavailable when the Current market gets over-filled? Or maybe they should go into an "Antique" market and suffer a purchase or operating cost penalty after that point? harder to get parts, you know.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. It would be metaphorical to have older train types go out of business eventually -- in the Sid Meier computer game the older types eventually do become unavailable to purchase, and older individual working locomotives accrue higher maintenance costs and higher risk of breakdowns. On the other hand, is also true historically that some of these locomotive types, if not individual machines, stayed in service for a very long time, as long as 50 years for the 2-8-0 Consolidation for example.

My hope is that no extra obsolescence mechanism would be required, but rather it would happen naturally that players would largely abandon the older types as a matter of self-interest. How about a "cash for clunkers" trade-in mechanism, where an older train card can be credited for half its face value when buying a new type? It's not strictly metaphorical, but it would have the desired effect of development without an explicit obsolescence penalty.

Marking Time Explicitly

So far I haven't mentioned any concept for keeping track of time during the game; presumably the passage of time in the game should correspond to passing through historical eras/decades. Should this be marked out explicitly? Commenter supafrieke made this interesting suggestion of tying the appearance of new train cards to specific events or achievements in the game, some of which could be chosen as specifically historical.

A simpler track, so to speak, would be to mark time in the game explicitly, ie to say "now we're in 1880-1890" and then have some timing mechanism to advance to the next decade at some point. The train game Chicago Express uses a regular step-forward mechanism like this, which allows the game to be brought to a close in fairly predictable amount of time. Without identifying exactly what the step-forward mechanism might be in the new game, its incarnation would allow a train market that corresponds purely historically:

The "carousel of progress" shows the various train card types appearing in the decade of their historical deployment.

In this illustration I've plopped down a blue marker to indicate that "now" the game is running circa 1920, while an orange marker trails it in 1870 to (possibly) demark the line 50 years in the past, with locomotives older than this point being somehow deprecated. With these markers plainly visible we can say, for instance, that (i) any train type between the markers can be bought at list price, while (ii) any train ahead of the blue or behind the orange will cost more, on some kind of sliding scale. It's a nice idea, but the "sliding scale" rule will have to be either very simple or printed on the board, which makes this mechanism not all that different from the "Future/Current" approach above.

The "Timeline" approach does have the advantage that it would tie into some overall historical arc of the game, with the clock of history visibly turning as the game went on. By that same token, though, it might also have the effect of making all plays of the game too similar, whereas you can strategically choose to "re-write history", for a price, in the other two mechanisms described above.

So I have no firm decision yet. My preference design-wise would be if the simple, non-fiddly single open market mechanism wound up providing the right historical flavor just based on the purchase prices alone. But I fear that this would take a lot of play-testing to get the balances right, and it doesn't tie in naturally with any other timing mechanism in the game.

My strategy for now is to leave the train market timing question open until I at least have some working on ideas on the other timing mechanisms in the game, particularly these two: (1) When and how do new supplies and demands come onto the board, or older ones get taken off? and (2) When and how does the game end? I'll try to take these up in the next post, and in the meantime will be glad to hear the opinions of the commenters! who have been providing such useful and thoughtful feedback so far.
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Sat Dec 15, 2012 5:20 am
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A fistful of locomotives

Winston Smith
United States
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OK, this post is up a little late because I've been doing a lot of artwork! Today we have mostly pretty pictures, and will get back to design and implementation details in the next post.

Coming out of the last post and the subsequent exchange of comments -- thanks to everyone for their thoughtful input -- I've converged for the moment on a system for route operating costs and train technological advancement. Here are the essentials:

1. A train card of a specific locomotive class is assigned to each connected delivery route. Everyone starts the game with one train card of the lowest class; buying a new train card takes an action and the purchase price is printed in the lower right hand corner.

2. The base operating cost for the route is determined by the length of the route in track segments, and the row of operating cost boxes on the train card: if the route is three segments long, for example, then the base operating cost is the number in the third box. Locomotives cannot serve on a route which is longer than the number of boxes in their row (this part is similar to the Steam/RotW system).

3. Some of the track segments are denoted as "mountainous" and will be drawn with dark brown lines on the board; and each train card has a "mountain segment cost" shown in a brown box in the upper right corner. If a delivery route includes any mountainous segments, then the operating cost is increased by this amount for each mountain segment in the route.

4. The train classes are ordered by the year in which that engine was first used historically. The years are shown on the card next to the class name, and will be used -- not yet figured out, see below -- in determining when the different classes will be available to buy.

With this system in mind I've drawn up a "starter set" of possible prototype train cards, showing roughly the range of historical time and train capability that the game should cover. Unlike the train cards illustrated in Railroad Tycoon, which are all steam engines, I've included steam, electric, diesel and diesel-electric, and tried to give them all some individual personality within the system described above.

Here is my pre-prototype artwork for the first-pass set of train cards, spanning roughly the era 1860 -- 1940 and listed in order of the dates of their appearance.

The famous 4-4-0 American, dated 1855. This is the basic starter engine in the game; it doesn't have much range and suffers a big hill-climbing penalty, but will let you get started with short routes to get some initial income.

The 2-8-0 Consolidation, dated 1865. This is the first upgrade to the American, with one space longer range but still not a hill climber.

The 2-Truck Shay, dated 1877. The Shay series used gears in the drive, and so this is the first real hill-climber in the game; but it is restricted to short range since it would have been too slow for long distance travel.

The 4-8-0 Mastodon, dated 1882, is representative of increasing size and power of steam locomotives through the end of the 19th century. It has better range than the Consolidation and suffers less of a penalty in the mountains.

The EP-2 Bipolar, dated 1919, is an early all-electric locomotive. The high purchase price reflects the one-time cost of electrifying a given line, after which the operating costs are much lower than for any other type of locomotive.

The 4-8-4 Northern, dated 1926, represents the culmination of steam freight locomotives in the early part of the 20th century. It has a range of 6 segments and no hill-climbing penalty for all-around solid freight performance. (Sorry the picture isn't better, I couldn't find a good high-res version in time to finish the post.)

The J3 Hudson, dated 1927, is one of the most iconic streamlined steam locomotives and was famously used to pull the "20th Century Limited" train on the old New York Central line. How canonical is the image? You can get it on a mouse pad:

In the game the Hudson is not as good a freight hauler as the Northern, but it will provide a bonus when used for passenger travel (yes, the passenger system still needs to be explained, look for it in a future post).

The Pioneer Zephyr, dated 1934, was the early peak of streamlined passenger travel with its stainless steel shell; and, using diesel engines, it set speed records for long-distance passenger runs. It's the first locomotive in the game with a range of 7 segments; to reflect its specialization it suffers a mountain penalty but also get the largest passenger travel bonus.

The FT Diesel-Electric, dated 1939, was the first of the long and very recognizable F-series line. It's the ultimate engine in the game, with range of 7 segments and no hill-climbing penalty. This is not to imply that all diesels or diesel-electrics are better than all steam locos -- see this note by commenter clearclaw for example. In the game it generally represents the change-over from "big steam" to dominance by diesel-electric for hauling freight through the rest of the 20th century, and nominally marks the end of the game's historical era.

OK, I hope you find this range and variety of engines inspiring, and I hope that something like this set will work well in the game to present the players with interesting decisions over time. In the next post I'll pick up on the topic of how the availability of the different train cards will evolve over the course of the game, and timing mechanism in the game in general. Meanwhile you can read this interesting suggestion from commenter supafrieke for tying the unlocking of train card types to specific events/achievements by the players in the game.
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Sun Dec 9, 2012 3:19 am
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Technology on the march!

Winston Smith
United States
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Well, since no one seemed very impressed with the last post's extended metaphor-mongering -- including quotes from famous literature! -- let's get back to implementation details. Our topic for today has two intertwined threads: how to account for costs in running a delivery route, and how to model the advance of technology over the game's simulated historical era, one effect of which may be to lower those same operating costs.

Before getting into any details let me state another of my general principles in game design, which is that ideally no one should ever have to pause to look up rules or numbers in a reference document. All rules and numbers should either be intuitive enough to remember easily, or they should be immediately visible on something that sits in plain sight during the game, e.g. printed on the board itself, or on cards; or on subsidiary boards, player mats, etc. Player reference cards can be a friendly addition, but ideally shouldn't be needed after one or two plays.

With this in mind let's talk about how to determine the cost of operating routes, costs which the players will have to balance against the profits that can be earned. The simplest idea, as has been mentioned a few times in the comments (see here and here), is just to have the player incur a cost proportional to the length of the route, at the time the route is established. If the game is denominated in single dollars, then add $1 per inter-city link to your operating costs. Simple. This is an example of a very intuitive rule that's very easy to remember, and so certainly satisfies the design goal above.

Commenter jmucchiello went further, suggesting that each individual inter-city track segment could be assigned its own operating cost which would be printed on the board next to the track building costs. His example using the mini-board shown in post #4 might look something like this:

The same Tennessee-Alabama example board as shown earlier, but now as we might imagine it if customized per-segment operating costs were printed on the board.

The Knoxville-Chattanooga segment costs $2 to operate, presumably due to wear and tear going through the mountains, while Nashville-Chattanooga segment only costs $1; and this serves to partially offset the higher profitability of the low-cost coal supply available in Knoxville in the example. He further floats the possibility of customizing the operating costs separately for each of the different-cost build options, ie each of the "three boxes", reasoning that, for example, the route with a higher cost for land might use land that provides a straighter or flatter geography. This potentially opens up a new strategic dimension, in which one-time building costs have to be weighed against on-going maintenance costs in choosing among the "three boxes" of build options. These kind of customizations, while a lot of work for the designer , could potentially give the board a lot of personality and geographic texture. And, they're a good example of encoding needed numbers into the board itself in a logical location, in keeping with the design principle mentioned above.

The main drawback I see with these arrangements, though, is that they make it awkward to accommodate another feature I want to see in the new game, which is the march of technological progress. I want there to be a timing mechanism in the game that will allow the players to run longer routes more profitably as the game goes on, to reflect the very significant and rapid advances in railroad technology that were seen during the game's nominal historical period, say 1860-1940.

Now, if the player acquires some technological advance, how will that be reflected in the operating costs? In the case where there's a hard-wired cost per link at the start, it's hard to have a simple blanket rule for progress, such as saying that each link's cost is $1 less than before, since this can't be repeated if the costs are themselves starting out as small integers. And, it detracts somewhat from the graphic immediacy if the operating cost numbers printed on the board are not completely valid as seen, but have to be modified by a different number printed and found elsewhere.

Railroad Tycoon has a very blunt mechanism for technological advancement: you can only deliver a cube along a number of links less than or equal to your current "train level". Each player has a "train level" that starts at 1 and can spend actions and cash to purchase upgrades through the game; each player's current level is indicated by showing one of these cards:

Train cards in Railroad Tycoon show loving historical detail. I recognized nearly all of these locomotives from playing the Sid Meier computer game.

I have to say that these cards were always one of my favorite parts of playing RRT, with their lovely artwork and high quality stock. The mechanism is a simplified form of what's found in the Sid Meier computer game, where you upgraded your technology by buying better, historically correct engines as they became available at the proper historical moments.

This is not the only technology mechanism you can find in train games, though. In the new pick-up-and-deliver game Rolling Freight both track-building and goods delivery actions are paid for in the game's currency of custom dice, and the player can invest in improvements such as buying "switching stations" or gaining the "Steady Builder" ability which will lower those costs.

Custom dice in Rolling Freight are the currency for every kind of acquisition; no complaints about flimsy paper money here.

The compromise I'm currently leaning toward is to encode both the operating costs for delivery routes and the march of technological progress together in the form of train cards. Here's an example of what one might look like, featuring the historic 4-4-0 American locomotive:

Train Card pre-prototype artwork.

Here's the deal as I currently imagine it. The players buy train cards for cash as per the indicated price. Then, in order to close a delivery contract you have to assign a specific train card to the route. The numbers across the top of the train card then tell you what the operating cost is for the route of a specific length in inter-city links.

Each different train card can have a different profile of cost vs distance, and the better engines will have higher purchase prices but enable you to complete longer routes and run shorter routes more efficiently. The 4-4-0 American card has a practical range of about two or three links; here's a later diesel electric engine with a range of more like five:

Individual train cards would be associated with particular connected delivery routes. This would be demonstrated simply by placing the train card next to the corresponding supply/demand card pair in the player's area; and, for added symbolism the train card can overlap or "bridge" the supply and demand cards as shown here:

Alice has a train! and her tableau now shows explicitly that the Knoxville-Birmingham route is being served by a mid-level 4-4-0 American engine.

In this example player Alice has closed the contract for the Knoxville-Birmingham coal delivery route, as was shown in post #4. Now we say that she has to assign an available train card at the time the delivery contract is closed. Since she's using the 4-4-0 American on a 2-link route her operating costs are $2 per cycle, leaving her with a net profit of $8 per cycle for the contract. If she'd had to use the American for the same deal on a 4-link route the net profit would be only $3 per cycle, so she'd be strongly motivated to upgrade to a better train for the longer route.

Moving the detail of operating costs from the board to the train cards does lose the opportunity to give the board more personality; though maybe that can be somewhat recovered (see below). But I think there's also a lot to like in this compromise, not least that it parallels the protocol of the Sid Meier computer game quite nicely and so may capture a bit of that same operating feeling. I like having the opportunity for evocative train artwork in a train game! which can also encode a bit of realistic historical detail within the same mechanism. It adds a new set of interesting strategic but very intuitive decisions, and I like the tactile "feel" of seeing more of these train cards pile up in your stable as your empire grows during the game.

OK, what do you think? I'm interested in feedback, as always, and here are a few loose ends of possibility to chew over as well:

* Some geographic personality could still be added to the board, by saying distinguishing "mountain" segments from "flat land" segments using just the color of the line on the board. Then, different engines might suffer more or less operating penalty for one type or the other.

* Should there be a maintenance cost associated with owning a train, independent of whether the train is being used for a delivery? What about a maintenance cost of built track, independent of whether the track is being used? This might "tighten" the game by discouraging speculators, though at some added cost in complexity.

* What should the mechanism be for being able to upgrade and buy better classes of trains? Should they come onto a market at some regular count of turns, or semi-randomly? Should players be able to take an "R&D action" to make new types available?

Thanks for reading!
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Tue Dec 4, 2012 4:58 am
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The long and the short of it -- are you a common carrier?

Winston Smith
United States
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With the basic mechanism for how players will profit from completing delivery contracts now explained in the last post, I can now take up more directly the question of how distance/route length should come into play. (And here I'm grateful for some of the thoughtful comments that people have been posting on this issue, which helped me think about it; thanks, folks!)

The basic mechanism used in Railroad Tycoon is simple; in three rules:

1) When you connect/deliver a colored cube to a matching color city, you score a number of victory points equal the number of inter-city links that you trace along a connected route from the cube to the city. More VP's are better, so a longer route pays you more.

2) The route can't re-use any track segments along the way, ie you can't reverse course or go in a loop to make the route artificially longer.

3) You can't make the delivery if there's another city at an intermediate point along the route that also accepts cubes of that color. The RRT example I used in the first post, is that a blue cube can't be shipped from New York to Pittsburgh by way of Philly:

If you try to ship blue cargo from New York to Pittsburgh, the blue-hungry citizens of Philly will grab it on the way by if they can.

Back in the first post I said that the existence of rules (2) and (3) indicated that there was something goofy about the mechanism of having players earn VP directly for deliveries strictly in proportion to the length of the route. I think it's always a bit of a fail when your basic mechanism winds up incentivizing the player to sometimes do silly, anti-thematic things, that you then have to invent special, awkward, anti-thematic rules to prevent them from doing. The basic question for the new game is, can we write the basic rules in such a way that metaphorically appropriate behavior emerges naturally, without the need for extra corrector rules?

My orientation, in the capitalist metaphor, is that if New York is supplying Blue (whatever commodity that is) and Pittsburgh and Philly are both willing to pay the same price for it, then the rail company should profit more by shipping to Philly than to Pitt because the shorter route will cost less in fuel, labor time, track maintenance, etc. Railroad Tycoon forces the player to deliver to Philly rather than Pittsburgh, which sort of models this result; but it feels punitive, since the player is otherwise 100% motivated to deliver to Pitt instead. And it leads to the completely counter-metaphorical situation, that if Blue is available in New York then the player may actually deliberately avoid even building a connection to Philadelphia! but to swerve right around it while building across the mountains to Pittsburgh.

Clearly something about the basic earn-more-for-longer-route mechanic is not optimal in that it leads players directly into counter-thematic behavior. But, what is the root of the problem? As people noted in the comments, it is not at all unrealistic for shippers to charge more and also to profit more for making a longer delivery versus a short one.

Commenter Klode made a sophisticated point, that because of the cost of transshipment, ie getting stuff to and from train depots, the relative efficiency from scale, and so presumably the profitability, of trains over trucks should grow with longer routes. I'm simply dodging this point for now, by noting that era of the game (roughly 1860-1940) and the lengths of the routes fairly well insure that the only competition for train companies would be other train companies.

Even without that point, though, it seems quite basic that if you are selling your shipping service as a commodity, charging by the ton-mile moved, then you'll naturally expect to make more profit from longer deliveries. If your engineering is such that every mile traveled is profitable, then more miles are more profits: one 600-mile run would be, roughly, just as money-making as two 300-mile runs.

The question is, though, is this the experience you want to inhabit as a player? Do you want to be running a stable, predicable, commodity-selling business? In railroad parlance this kind of company is referred to as a common carrier. Quoting from the FreeDictionary, a "common carrier" is defined as:

An individual or business that advertises to the public that it is available for hire to transport people or property in exchange for a fee.

A common carrier is legally bound to carry all passengers or freight as long as there is enough space, the fee is paid, and no reasonable grounds to refuse to do so exist. A common carrier that unjustifiably refuses to carry a particular person or cargo may be sued for damages.

What I want to ask the players is the same question as was put to Dagny Taggart by Owen Kellogg in the famous novel Atlas Shrugged: "Miss Taggart," he asked, "how long will you remain willing to be a common carrier?"

Train-themed cover of the first edition of "Atlas Shrugged", published in 1957. I'm not sure if that's supposed to be the headlamp of an oncoming locomotive that we're seeing. (Source: Wikipedia)

My idea is that in the new game the players are not going to be simply delivery boys and girls placidly selling a commodity service at commodity prices. I want them to be rogues! pirates! adventurers! titans of industry and tribunes of capitalism. (Are you excited yet?) Fundamentally, I see this as choosing between two basic metaphors:

i) The non-player buyers and sellers in the cities are the ones making the deals and they're hiring the players to provide rail service, at fixed commodity pricing per mile on a first-come/first-hired basis.

ii) The buyers and sellers are like resources in the landscape, and the players are in the commanding position to identify potential deals and close them with track. It's the buyers and sellers who simplistically advertise fixed prices, and it's up to the players to negotiate how to capture as much profit as possible from what is on offer.

The pure get-paid-by-distance mechanism, as in the Railways of the World series (and also in Rolling Freight, though there it's a bit more sophisticated as we'll see in the next post), seems to me to live securely within the first metaphor. Selling commodities is not a bad life, and many fun games are based on that. But what I really want to offer in a game is the second setting, and I want the mechanisms to support that as well as possible. So my declining to use the pure get-paid-by-the-mile approach is not because it's generally anti-metaphorical, but because it doesn't best support the metaphor that I want the game to embody.

So, the effect in game terms will be different from what's in RRT and related; the short summary of my evolving design now includes:

1) As described in the last post, players will profit and add to their income based on the supply-demand cost difference between sellers and buyers that they can connect.

2) Under the heading of expenses, separate from profits, players will have to pay more, ie sacrifice some income, to connect over longer routes. Thus players will be naturally motivated toward historically correct behaviors: to try and arrange short-distance deliveries whenever possible at first, and then profit from longer runs when either the supply-demand cost spread is large or they can improve their technology to lower their per-distance operating costs.

OK, enough philosophy! Next post we'll go back to some nitty-gritties of design including how to model operating costs and technological advancement; thanks for reading.
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Fri Nov 30, 2012 12:00 pm
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Delivery mechanics: merchants and pirates

Winston Smith
United States
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Now we get a first look at my proposed basic mechanic for how players will get income through connecting supply with demand. No BGG images of existing games here, this post is illustrated purely with my pre-pre-prototype conceptual artwork. Also, a number of thoughtful points have been raised in the comments -- thanks! to the readers -- and before responding to them (and I will!) it will be useful to have this detailed description of the mechanic available for discussion.

Off to the races; let's take a look at a sample board in progress. Alice is playing purple and she has connected Knoxville to Birmingham via Chattanooga. (For the mechanic of track-building see the previous post, but I hope it's pretty self-explanatory just from the diagram.)

Everyone can see that there's a black coal supply marker on Knoxville on the board; in real life it's probably a little wooden cone and is drawn here as a triangle. And there's a black coal demand marker sitting on Birmingham, in real life probably a small wooden disk. Alice wants to see how profitable it would be to close the contract to connect the Knoxville supply to the Birmingham demand.

Each and every supply and demand marker currently on the board has a corresponding supply or demand card "in play" and visible to all players. My idea is that these would be graphically pretty simple, just a silhouetted symbol, and the matching pair is easy to recognize just by color and positive/negative layout:

Since Knoxville is coal country up in the mountains the supply is relatively cheap, just $5 per delivery cycle for one unit of supply. Meanwhile Birmingham has its steel industry going strong and is willing to pay the high price of $15 to get that unit of supply. So once Alice uses an action to close the deal she can then add the supply-demand cost difference, here a nice fat $10, to her income per cycle. She then takes both cards out of the "In Play" area and puts them down together in front of her, so everyone can see the ongoing contract easily. The corresponding supply and demand markers then come off the board. (She'll also probably have to pay something related to the cost of the route itself, eg fuel and track maintenance; but that's a separate "expenses" account, here we're only looking at the profits side.)

So far it's not too different from the basic Railroad Tycoon mechanic: connect supply to demand across your network and get a boost to your income. Here the cargoes have more personality, supply and demand are treated symmetrically, and the profit calculation is more fine-grained through the use of cards. But why am I taking on the baggage (no pun intended) of deploying these cards at all, instead of just fixing common prices and letting the markers on the board do the accounting?

The reason is, that in the new game the players have to keep track of their current contracts because those contracts -- and the income derived from them -- are not necessarily permanent. Suppliers and demanders can go out of business, or a player might want to switch between sources if a new supply appears that offers a better deal. Most interestingly, though, the players can potentially pirate each others' routes by poaching away buyers or suppliers! and this is where the fun should really come in.

To see this in action let's re-join the game somewhat later, after two things have happened: (1) Bob, playing green, has connected Nashville to Chattanooga and then to Birmingham; and (2) A supply of coal has appeared in Nashville (how and when new supplies and demands come onto the board will be discussed in future posts).

The sample card tableau shows the state of all the cards at this point: there is a Nashville coal supply card in the "In Play" area, corresponding to the supply marker on the board; and Alice's supply-demand pair of cards for the Knoxville-Birmingham delivery contract are in her private area.

Now it's Bob's turn to sense opportunity. Nashville is not in the heart of the mountains and so the coal supply is somewhat more expensive there, with the supplier asking $9 instead of the $5 being asked in Knoxville. But if Bob could connect with the big demand in Birmingham he could still turn a profit.

So, what does he do? He can't take the "Close a Contract" action since there's no unfilled demand on the board. But he can take an "Undercut Existing Bid" action and poach Alice's route by wooing away the coal buyers in Birmingham. He agrees to charge Birmingham $1 less than the nominal list price of $15 per cycle that Alice had been charging them; and, being heartless capitalists out to save a buck wherever they can, the Birmingham buyers now cancel their arrangement with Alice and take up with Bob instead.

This now shows the situation after the coal delivery route has been poached. Bob now has the supply-demand pair of cards in his area, with an added token on the Birmingham card to show that he's cut a deal with the buyer to give them a lower price. This means that his income from this route is the difference between the $14 being paid by the Birmingham buyer and the $9 being asked by the Nashville supplier, or $5 per cycle. It's not as sweet as the $10 per cycle that Alice was getting, but for Bob it's a big improvement in their relative portfolios. And, since the coal from Knoxville now has no place to go, the Knoxville supply card goes back into the "In Play" area. Lastly, the supply marker comes off of Nashville on the board and a new one goes onto Knoxville, as shown.

[Note, that the "-1" token now on the Birmingham card is specific to the current deal with Bob (hence the color) and not intrinsic to the buyer. If the Birmingham demand card were to return to being "In Play" -- say, because Bob's Nashville supplier were poached away elsewhere -- then the token comes off and the card would go back to its original state of offering to pay $15 per cycle for a delivery.]

Ruthless capitalism! The two players can keep trading blows, bidding the cost to the Birmingham buyer down lower and lower until one of them decides that it's not worth the cost of using an action to poach the route back. In this case Alice will probably win since she has access to the cheaper supplier; and if she wants to end the bidding war quickly she can undercut Bob by a larger margin and go right to what she thinks the final price would be. This undercutting action should, I hope, provide a real PvP tension where everyone has to be aware of everyone else's situation. And, it also provides something of a balancing mechanism since the leader with the biggest network will also be the most vulnerable to poaching by the other players, concerted or otherwise.

So, what do you think? On the plus side, the mechanic is consistent with atomic turns [see post #2], fairly intuitive, supports the supply & demand metaphor well, provides for the board to develop with time, and should generate ongoing player interaction very naturally. On the minus side, it is a bit math-y (though less so than Monopoly); it is something of an added burden to be moving these cards around and constantly looking through them; and the "In Play" area may wind up needing quite a bit of space, depending on how many commodities and how many cities I wind up deploying [current guesses are 4 and 20-25, respectively; more on this in future posts]. But on the other plus side, I think it is thematically nice to see your transport empire growing right in front of you as you collect delivery route pairs, and the color and artwork on the cards can (I hope) add some realism -- yay Ameritrash! -- to the cargoes and the business.
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Mon Nov 26, 2012 12:00 pm
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When John Henry was a little baby

Winston Smith
United States
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All right, it's time for our first discussion of track building.

The 32 cent John Henry stamp, issued by the US Postal Service in 1996.

Track layout/building will be a central activity in the new game; how do I want to go about representing this on the board? Since the theme of this blog is robbery, and just for some train game fun, let's first take a tour of what existing games have implemented. There are basically four approaches in common use: connecting dots, laying tiles, placing cubes, and buying fixed lines. Here are some examples of each, illustrated with BGG images.

Connecting Dots

This, of course, is the domain of crayon rails, especially as implemented by Mayfair in Empire Builder, Eurorails and many other settings (including the planet Mars). The board is laid out with dots (aka "mileposts") on a triangular grid, and the players build track by connecting the dots with erasable colored crayons. The more lightweight Transamerica series does the equivalent by placing wooden rods.

Rails criss-cross the south central US on the basic Empire Builder board.

The crayon rails system is simple, intuitive, and fun, and does perhaps the best job of capturing the feeling of the country as wide-open territory. But as I mentioned in the last post, the wide range of possibilities can easily pull people into taking a long time to consider and optimize their choices, leading to long bouts of down-time for everyone else.

Erasable wooden rods in Transamerica embody effectively the same mechanic.

Laying Tiles

My first encounter with laying tiles to represent track building was seeing Avalon Hill's edition of 1830, an early patriarch in the 18xx family of train games.

The classic tile-laying game 1830, in the original Avalon Hill printing. Nearly half the board space is used for stock market operations.

Track is built by laying hexagonal tiles with specific lines drawn on them, and expanded by over-laying more complicated tiles. I've never played any of the 18xx games since thinking that 1830 looked overly complicated and more concerned with stocks than with railroading; though at the time I felt confident that since Avalon Hill had produced it, it would all have to work out sensibly. If you want a quick look at the flavor of the 18xx series, I highly recommend Paul Springer's entertaining video review of the print-n-play intro set 18AL.

Tiles are smaller and simpler in the more recent Age of Steam and Railways of the World families, both from Martin Wallace, which includes my touchstone example Railroad Tycoon.

The hex grid makes the route-building nearly equivalent to drawing on a coarser version the crayon-rail system, though somewhat less flexible in that your track can't branch in between cities, and in RotW you can't lay sharp turns. This relative lack of options doesn't necessarily speed the track-laying play along, though, compared to the crayon rails system, as players in the RotW system can hunt and peck for quite a while in finding the most efficient route.

Placing Cubes

The "cube rails" approach simplifies building on a hex grid. You don't have to make lines of track meet up at the hex borders, you just put a single marker down to show that your network has connected to that location; adjacent marked hexes then form a network. Cube railing seems to be the new black, appearing recently in the well-received Chicago Express (2008), Baltimore & Ohio (2009), and American Rails (2009). (These particular cube railers all descend from the system originated by Winsome Games and described on BGG as the "Historic Railroads" family.)

A railroad's connection is shown here simply by having a marker in the hex, without any futzy track-matching required; though technically in the cube rails family, Chicago Express gives you little wooden trains to use as markers.

Buying Fixed Routes

My first train game was great-grandfather Rail Baron from Avalon Hill (1977). Here the barons did not deign to lay track themselves, but simply bought up existing systems which corresponded to real historical companies' holdings and which were drawn in realistic geographic detail on the otherwise bland board.

The oldest family photo in this track-building album.

Rail Baron was sometimes referred to as "Monopoly with trains" (it helped connect with the general public in the 1970's if you could refer back to the one boardgame everyone knew), because the players paid cash for ownership of the named systems and then showed this by holding a corresponding deed card. So no player markers appeared on the board, you just looked at the deeds to see who owned what.

Two Moon junctions: both the well-known, pure track-builder Ticket to Ride and its stock-oriented predecessor Union Pacific, both by Alan R. Moon, used a single line connecting two cities as the basic unit.

Later fixed-route designs reduced the basic "quantum" of a route to being a single line connecting two stops, ie cities. The most widely recognized example, with over a million copies sold, is probably Ticket to Ride, which focuses entirely on track-building or "route claiming". But other games with cargo delivery and stock market components also use the line-between-cities as their basic unit of track construction, including Union Pacific, Silverton, and Rolling Freight; I'll have illustrations (aka theft) from the latter two in future posts.

OK, that's the end of the tour! feel free to tip your guide and driver on the way out. So, where does this leave me for the new game? As I see it, the design decision rests mainly on two things: (i) what kind of experience are we trying to focus on? and (ii) at what level will the players be coming into conflict or competition?

In my first post I said I broadly wanted to try and capture the feeling of playing the Sid Meier "Railroad Tycoon" computer game, and a lot of that experience is making minute, detailed -- some might say fiddly -- inch-by-inch track layout decisions; and from our tour it seems like this exercise is reproduced best by the crayon rails system, followed by the Steam/RotW hex tiles. And, I have to say that I really enjoy playing those games, perhaps because I am also the type to enjoy geometric puzzles. I love the open-field feeling of the blank board, which I can conquer better than my opponents because of my geometric cleverness.

But one feature of video games which I don't want to carry over is their relative lack of replayability. Single-player scenarios in video games are typically like puzzles, you play through and solve them once and there's no real reason to ever try again. And one drawback of the open-field building is that it can lose its novelty over many plays: if the delivery contracts lead you to want to connect, say, Los Angeles to San Francisco, then there's really one best way to do that on an open board which everyone will recognize and use -- almost like buying a pre-drawn fixed route!

The optimal layout for connecting Los Angeles to Seattle in Empire Builder, according to the image's caption (which may well be correct).

Where the geometric puzzle-solving fun comes in, then, is when two players are in competition: one has already built the optimal route, and the latecomer needs to find the best alternative. This is a nice game element of competition, to see who can best adapt to a changing board via continuous puzzle-solving.

But I also wonder, along which dimension will players prefer to spend their mental energy? Do they want to take on the roles of surveyors and engineers, who carefully map out the most affordable and efficient route through the mountains? Or do they have people for that, and want instead to play the parts of moguls addressing the higher-level strategic questions? Either could produce a fun game! of course. For the new game I'm imagining, though, I'm actually leaning away from the open-field, ground-level track building that I enjoy and more toward buying fixed routes between cities as the basic quantum of action.

Why? Three reasons, from minor to major. First, with the crayon rails and the hex tiles the surveyor/engineer game of detailed track layout is pretty well covered in existing games, and I'm not sure I can usefully improve on it. Secondly, and relatedly, what's most new about the game I'm thinking of is how supply and demand are handled and represented, so I'd like the players to be able to concentrate on that angle and abstract out the track engineering questions to a larger degree.

Most important, though, is to keep with the goal of streamlining and the use of atomic turns, as described in the last post. A turn of track building with several detailed this-way-or-that-way decisions -- ie if it's more than drawing to a single dot or laying a single tile -- is not really an atomic operation, and it's not an operation that can be written out in detail in advance for simultaneous turns. I don't see any way, really, that a fine-grained, open-field track building mechanism can get around having only one person thinking at a time, and so suffering substantial down-time for everyone else.

My first piece of concept art! for illustrating a fixed route in the new game.

A sensible atomic action, as in the Alan R. Moon games, is to connect two cities along one pre-drawn line between them. This also defines one arena for direct competition: if two players are both connected to New York and both want to extend to Albany then it's a race to see who can get there first; and if they both try it on the same turn then there's a mechanism for resolving the collision, which becomes part of the fun -- I'll discuss this further in a later post, one idea I'm considering is to hold a quickie, closed-bid symmetric auction.

The "concept art" picture above illustrates my current plan for the track-building mechanism. There are cities on the board, including perhaps depots and way-stations, connected by pre-drawn lines that run along the historical routes. If your network currently reaches to one of the endpoints then you can take an action to build the connection by paying the cost listed in the box on the line and filling in the box with a marker (probably a cube?) of your operating color. Aficionados will recognize this as the mechanic from Silverton; see here for a beautiful custom rendering of the Silverton map, including New Mexico.

A slight twist I'm adding over Silverton is, that another player who wants to build the same connection on a later turn has to pay the higher cost in the next box, and so on until all the boxes are full. This abstracts the dot-to-dot or hex-to-hex result, that the player who builds between two cities first can do so most cheaply, while those who come later can usually still do so but at a higher cost. This makes sense metaphorically, as the first company to build in a certain region would get first dibs on buying up the best/cheapest right-of-way. Also, players should be able to sell or trade built routes between them; and if one player really wants to spend the time and money then he/she can try to monopolize a particular connection by paying for it several times over, which allows for historical rail-baron mustache-twisting behavior.

Simple, fast, completely atomic and entirely capitalistic; I hope this makes a good basis for a streamlined and accessible game. What do you think? In later posts I'll get into the nitty-gritties of drawing and pricing the route connections as I envision it, but I'm certainly interested in feedback on the basic idea so far.

[Edited to add linked items.]
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Fri Nov 23, 2012 12:00 pm
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Streamlining! and atomic-age turn-taking

Winston Smith
United States
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What is the iconic ideal of the great age of railroading? Streamlining!

The S1 steam locomotive, circa 1939, in all its Art Deco glory.

A big goal for my new train game is to have the play flow very smoothly and quickly with absolutely minimal down-time.

One of my absolute favorite train games down through the years has been Empire Builder, flagship of the crayon rails series. I love the open-field track building, the many realistic cargoes, and the strategy of supply-demand matching. But with great flexibility comes great risk of analysis paralysis. Most of my Empire Builder games suffered from extreme down-time when it was not one's turn, as I tended to play with very smart folks who explored and optimized all their possibilities before committing themselves in wax.

The real breakthrough in my gaming experience was playing Ticket to Ride (hereafter TTR, not be be confused with Railroad Tycoon abbreviated as RRT). The essential paradigm I had been used to in any capitalist-themed game, was that each turn is a two-step: first get money, then spend money, with, say, Settlers as a familiar modern example. TTR was an almost-radical departure, to where you could only do one thing on your turn, and then it was over to the next player lickety-split. Even if the same number of "get money", "spend money" actions were taken overall, separating the two of them into different turns greatly decreased the amount of thinking anyone had to do at one time, and so let TTR proceed much faster than would the equivalent two-step game.

In my experience the "do only one thing" protocol has made TTR very easy to explain, and very easy to get into, for non-gamers and casual gamers. I think there are many reasons for this, some subtler than others. Being able to take even two actions, such as "get" and "spend", requires players to process new input -- what did I get? -- immediately, in order to decide what best to do next. This is intrinsically game-delaying, since there is then one stage every turn where only one player can really usefully be thinking. And it's also stressful for beginners and for people who don't think lightning-fast, who don't want to feel they're holding up the game. Separating "get" from "spend" allows people to usefully spend the time of other peoples' turns to do this processing, making the whole process faster and less demanding. More subtly, keeping the down-time between one player's successive turns down to below some magic maximum limit -- maybe 2 minutes? -- lets players stay interested in watching what the other players are doing, just as entertainment, since it's not long enough for their attention to really wander.*

[*I'm indebted to the review blog Shut Up and Sit Down for having coined the term "phone-checkingly boring" to describe the worst kind of down-time experience, and which describes exactly what I most want to avoid having happen in the new game.]

So I'm personally thankful to TTR for re-acquainting me with the "atomic turn", where each player does the absolute logical minimum of action at one time and then passes the play along (as had been the standard before Chess and Go were dethroned by Monopoly). Atomic turns are now pretty typical in train games, where each player picks one from a short menu of actions: build track, deliver goods, financial dealings, etc.

The first-turn markers in the original Railroad Tycoon and the updated Railways of the World.

The clever turn-order/action tracks on the board of American Rails.

When we think of a train game as a business simulation, with players competing for area control and finite resources, the turn order mechanism can loom very large. One approach is to embrace the tension and make manipulations in the turn order into part of the game. In Railroad Tycoon the players bid cash to take the lead in turn order (which means that even where you take your seat can be a matter of strategy), while American Rails uses a clever balancing mechanism where turn order and desirability of actions are traded off; similar mechanics can be found from Agricola to Age of Empires.

So, what am I thinking? On the whole I would lean away from turn-order manipulations as part of any capitalist business game, because even while they may add a new strategic dimension, they also add complexity without directly supporting the buy/sell metaphor for a day-to-day business world. Certainly, Jay Gould was not waiting out while Leland Stanford took his turn, and then vice versa! Yes, you could argue that spending something -- cash, or later priority -- to get a jump in turn order could simulate or model one of the tycoons closing a back-room deal in order to get privileged first access to some buy/sell opportunity. But, wouldn't it be better, if possible, just to model that kind of market manipulation more directly?

A second reason I lean away from turn-order manipulations is just that I was never very good at them! In a game like RRT I always found it difficult to rationally price how much the first turn would be worth -- as did most of my opponents, apparently, since I've been in many games where the first turn marker hardly moved at all. Yes, it may be a strategic avenue, but it's not where I'd like to be applying what limited brain I have to burn in a railroad business game.

"Diplomacy" may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of "streamlining", but read on.

So what's my preferred solution at this point, with the goals of keeping things streamlined and also as on-metaphor as possible? Simultaneous turns! Yes, that's the closest analog of the real business world: companies are operating in parallel with the same publicly available information, and we only need to resolve collisions if there's a competition for exactly the same resource on exactly the same turn. This is the ultimate level playing field, with no one able to complain that they were screwed over by some turn order accident. Plus, it spares us the complexity, time, and brain-power distraction of having to negotiate any kind of turn-order selection mechanic.

I have several hopes -- this is still all theoretical -- for the simultaneous turn mechanic in a train building game:

1) By having everyone do their thinking/planning at the same time, I hope that personal down-time will be minimized and the game will flow along as quickly as possible.

2) Players will now have more reason to pay attention to what their opponents are doing, and to predict what they'll do next, in order to avoid -- or to cause! -- collisions for finite resources. I want to avoid the other unfortunate aspect of my Empire Builder games, which was their tendency to devolve into parallel solitaire.

3) It will improve the business world metaphor, and the tension in the simultaneous decisions should add to the cut-throat capitalist atmosphere.

Is any of this true? I'm open to advice, and more importantly to play-testers! so we can do the experiment and see how it works. On the way to a final design I'm still not settled on the best approach to implementing a simultaneous turn mechanic. Here's the spectrum of possibilities and the advantages/drawbacks that I see:

A. Everyone privately makes their decision for which action to take, and then we go around the table and everyone verbally announces their choice. This is definitely the simplest and doesn't take any additional equipment. But the drawback is that people may not be able to suppress the turn-taking impulse and change their choice, or even forget it, after seeing what the others have chosen.

B. Better would be to have some kind of definite marker that each person chooses privately, which are then revealed.

(Where have we seen this before?
Phase action choice cards from Race for the Galaxy.)

Now I need to make one set of action choice cards for each player, which is not so bad but is a non-zero price to pay in additional complexity; on the bright side, though, it may provide another opportunity for good artwork. An alternative would be a custom die, where each player sets theirs with the marker for their choice facing up and then reveals it.

Both versions of this approach suffer a lesser version of the same drawback as A above, that people might fix their action in advance but have to just state their target verbally, ie you put down the "Build Track" card but then say out loud that you're connecting to Albany.

C. Hearkening back to our most hallowed and revered ancestor Diplomacy, the most complete thing to do is to have everyone write their choice/order for the turn privately on paper. This could be very brief, just "B - Chi" for, say, "Build to Chicago"; and it would generally have the advantage of making each choice absolutely definite before anything is revealed. But I'm not sure how I feel about requiring disposable paper and pens in a board game just for this kind of mechanic; it's very simple and yet my feeling is that it may cross some threshold of fiddly-ness that could alienate a casual gamer. More subtly, I think seeing that someone wrote a few words on a line of paper doesn't create the same feeling, in those observing it, that something is actually happening as compared with seeing an action card with a nice, concrete picture of a pick-axe. Any thoughts out there?

OK, that's my thinking so far on the importance of streamlining, atomic turns, and my daring choice to try simultaneous turn-taking. In the next few posts I'll try to get down into some details of implementation and maybe even exhibit some conceptual artwork (though don't get your hopes up re my artistic skills). Thanks for reading! and stay tuned for updates Mondays and Fridays.
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Mon Nov 19, 2012 1:12 pm
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Beyond "Pick-up and Deliver" -- at least a little bit

Winston Smith
United States
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Yes, it's true: I'm thinking about designing a new train game. Why? Don't we have enough of them already? Of course, it's because, while I like many of the existing train games and am a big fan of the genre, none quite has the right combination of flow, mechanisms and realism that I'm looking for -- though I will be stealing ideas from many places!

My goal, broadly speaking, is to re-create in a board game the same kind of experience I used to enjoy with the old Sid Meier "Railroad Tycoon" computer games: track layout and building, scouting out profitable supply-demand connections, upgrading the machinery, and competing against rival companies doing the same. I won't be going so far as a stockholding or stock market dimension, at least at first, since (i) I want to keep the overall complexity down and minimize the number of systems, and (ii) I was never very good at the stock system in "Railroad Tycoon"! I'm hoping to emerge with a product that can have wide appeal, even for the relatively casual gamer, while still offering depth and replayability. I'll have more to say about other goals as the blog goes on, so stay tuned!

Now, I'm hardly the only person to dream of bringing the "Railroad Tycoon" experience to the board! and one of the most successful recent attempts was of course Railroad Tycoon, now re-christened as part of the "Railways of the World" series. It has all the elements I mentioned above, and it's accessible and fun. So, what more, or different, am I looking for?

It all starts from a very minor, niggling point of terminology: I never liked having Railroad Tycoon classified as a "Pick-up and Deliver" game, even though every description you read of it, including its own rulebook, describes the basic action as picking up a cube and delivering it to a city (of matching demand color). Seems simple enough; why am I causing trouble? Because in RRT, delivering a cube causes your income to go up, and this conflicts with the metaphor of a delivery, as a single event, which should earn you a lump sum of reward (ie cash or VP's), as in grandfather Empire Builder and great-grandfather Rail Baron.

The better metaphor, it always seemed to me, is that what is called "picking up and delivering a cube" in Railroad Tycoon should better be thought of as closing a deal for an ongoing contract to move some commodity regularly between those two cities. This makes perfect intuitive sense, that closing a deal for an ongoing contract should result in a permanent increase in your income, and I had much better success explaining the game to new players using this metaphor, rather than pushing a cube being a single "delivery" event.

It looks like Detroit makes and Chicago takes. Or, is it the other way around?

Once we invite the "ongoing contract" metaphor into the house, though, a whole lot of other, interesting things start to shake loose. For example, it's not obvious which city should be considered the origin and which the destination for the ongoing delivery contract. On the one hand, the "pick-up and delivery" metaphor suggests that the city supplying the cube is the source of cargo and the city with the matching "demand" color is the destination. But, historically the sources of many commodities which are carried by trains -- coal, lumber, ores, etc. -- are fixed to the landscape that produces them, while the businesses that consume the commodities may grow up in many different places; so maybe it makes more sense, metaphorically, that the city colors which are fixed to the landscape should represent supply sites, and the cubes which change game to game should represent demand sites.

So, the "ongoing contract" metaphor can be made to work either way conceptually in RRT, and this opens some interesting options. How about a game in which the supply and demand sites are shown and treated on a more equal footing? Where both are somewhat fixed to their historical locations, and both are also somewhat fluid and at least a little random? Also, we would then need to identify the commodities themselves as something other than just "red" and "blue"; at a minimum this would open new possibilities for beautiful and enjoyable artwork, as seen for instance in Rails of New England

How do you like them apples? I'd frame the card even before playing the game!

More generally I would hope that the increase in realism through familiar cargoes and pleasant artwork, versus the abstract representation using only colors, should make the game more appealing and accessible to relatively casual gamers -- if the added realism doesn't come at the cost of increased complexity (this is always a temptation to be avoided, as we will see).

Once we've started down this road, we see other problems with the metaphor as it's implemented in Railroad Tycoon, particularly: Why should your income go up more if you close a deal over a longer distance between source and destination? Maybe that makes sense for passengers -- remind me, which color in RRT should represent passengers? -- but it makes no sense for commodities: no one cares, really, where the coal or oil came from as long as it gets delivered in the right quantity and quality.

Railroad Tycoon muffles these kinds of questions by using the "universal solvent" of victory points to score the game, instead of the much more obvious choices of cash or income, as would be natural for a business theme and which already exist in the game anyway! VP's are mushy and undefined, so you can assign them to anything you think would be fun for the players to accomplish: buying a high-level train, connecting a major route, etc. But under the same thought, that more realism would make the game more appealing and accessible if the complexity is under control, I would like to see if a new train game can reasonably be scored purely on normal economic measures, without inventing imaginary currencies alongside them.

So, that's my basic setup for the new train game idea:

1. There's a map with cities.

2. The cities have supply and/or demand markers referring to real-world goods.

3. Some of these are fixed historically at locations and some are different each game, and they can and will change during the game.

4. The basic action is establishing connections between cities and then closing the contract between a matching demand and supply, which then grants a permanent increase in income.

In future posts I'll be musing on my best ideas for how to model each of these, including which mechanisms I'm thinking of stealing from existing games, and hope to get some useful and inspiring feedback from the readers. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned! I'll try to update the blog with new posts each Friday and Monday, until the discussion is complete or I run out of material.
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Fri Nov 16, 2012 12:00 pm
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