A Look at Turn Order, Part Two: Train Games
Benjamin Keightley
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In Part One of my prestigious Turn Order series, I looked at three economic development games. Here, I'll discuss three train games, again with three very different design goals. This installment is a bit different from the last, its focus more diffuse. My economic development list served both as a defense of the systems chosen and an argument for the 'type' of games they were at heart. This list has more focus on the latter, using turn order as a prism to set them apart, and as an excuse to talk about a few games I think have a lot of richness to explore.
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1. Board Game: 1856: Railroading in Upper Canada from 1856 [Average Rating:7.52 Overall Rank:1026]
Benjamin Keightley
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The 18xx family is made of fairly complex, lengthy games with numerous subsystems. The core subsystems standard to most 18xx titles are share price movement on the stock market, train management (including obsolescence rules, whereby newer, faster trains cause older ones to be removed from the game), and track development. What distinguishes one 18xx from another is not just their geographies (maps), but more importantly their specific rulesets. Taken as a whole, these rule differences will direct the players to the game's most important pivot points.

1856 features loans. Companies may take loans from the bank, helping fund their various activities. At about 2/3 of the way through the game, the Canadian government steps in, and any company that cannot repay its loans will be absorbed into a new government entity (the CGR), with the delinquent company's owner receiving reasonable compensation for the loss of his rail. This system shifts the primary pivot point of the game to the formation of the CGR, and players who don't take full advantage of this moment will get torn apart by those who do.

'Taking advantage of this moment' typically means running one good company and bleeding another dry by having it take lots of loans, buy nice trains and sell them to the good company for cheap, buy terrible, soon-to-rust trains from the good company for lots of money, and buy 'private companies' from the controlling player for lots of money. Then, you dump that company into the CGR and get decent compensation from the naive Canadian government for all your rotten behavior.

The private companies are one thing, but the bulk of your dummy corp's bad behavior is subject to very inflexible regulations about the timing of train purchases. Further, despite the game's perceived length, you don't actually have a lot of time to get things done. The basic structure of 1856 is: Position...scramble! Position...scramble! Endgame. Those two periods of positioning are when turn order comes into play.

During an operating round, companies take turns in share price order. The most highly-values companies act first, down to the lowest-valued ones. So simple! However, players have a massive degree of control over the share price of companies. Between operating rounds, share dealing (or 'stock') rounds occur where players buy and sell shares in the operating companies and start up new ones. Sale of a company's stock will lower its price on the market, and if at the end of one of these rounds, a stock is fully subscribed, its price will rise.

In a game where when companies operate is so important, it is appropriate to have a turn order system so easily manipulated by the players. This system conspires with the loan and CGR laws to put strong pressure on the stock manipulation and train management subsystems of the genre, at the deliberate expense of focus on track development. Although there is plenty of interesting work to be done on the board, 1856 exists primarily in an abstract number-space. Players are directly manipulating the stock market in order to ensure the turn order they want and deny opponents their preference, so that they are able to control the flow of trains out of the bank and between companies, in turn manipulating when the CGR forms and what state their rails are in when it does.

Would another process to determine turn order work? Sure, but at the expense of focus. 1856's turn order gives players the tools they need to effectively compete in a game that's all about the trains.
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2. Board Game: 1825 Unit 1 [Average Rating:6.85 Overall Rank:3997] [Average Rating:6.85 Unranked]
Benjamin Keightley
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1825, on the other hand, is a fantastic game that doesn't care one bit about stock manipulation or train obsolescence. 1825 doesn't have the loans or the CGR. It has a much simpler stock market, where a company's stock price is entirely under its owner's control! Further (and perhaps most dramatically), only one type of train becomes obsolete in the whole game, and its 'rusting' is generally cause for relief rather than frantic scrambling, as companies welcome the extra room to buy new, better trains.

What 1825 does have is track shortages. The situation on the board is incredibly tight, so much that an 'optional' kit with a handful of extra tiles is considered mandatory by many. 1825 is a game about developing routes and getting the right trains in the right companies. More than any other 18xx I've come across, it's important to know almost from the very beginning of the game what your companies will spend their money on and where they intend to get that money. 1825's structure can be summarized as: Position...position...endgame! Just as 1856's CGR is a meat grinder into which unprepared players will be stuffed, 1825's endgame will in a few short turns determine the winner by ruthlessly sorting the good planners from the bad.

1825's turn order is a shock to players familiar with the larger (particularly the American) 18xx: companies operate in a fixed order for the entire game, no ifs ands or buts. This order reinforces the game's focus, which is about precise long-term planning and competition for space and tiles on the physical board. One of the most common tactics in 1825, which again comes as a shock to American 18xx fans, is to have a company withhold its income almost constantly in order to afford the trains he wants at the right time. When he starts paying out, the market is structured such that the stock price will correct itself very quickly.

If turn order was based on stock price, players would be less willing to withhold as much of the endgame is a rush for the best trains (which are in surprisingly short supply). As a consequence, long-term planning would get thrown out the window as it would be far too difficult to predict which trains were going where. The stability of 1825's turn order, combined with its self-correcting market, work to suggest to players that this is a game about planning, withholding, and fierce competition on the board, not the market.
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3. Board Game: Chicago Express [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:403]
Benjamin Keightley
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And now for something completely different: Wabash Cannonball takes Puerto Rico's turn order dependency, sits it front and center, and dresses it up in train garb. It is a short, vicious game that is about turn order more than anything else, and as players begin to understand this, those who think this is a game about running good railroads will get eaten alive.

In Wabash Cannonball, players are investors in rails. A player's turn consists of selecting one of three types of actions, and then either performing that action or not. Play proceeds clockwise. There is a limited number of each action available, and once two of the three have run out, the round ends. At this time, a dividend is paid to each player based on his investments, the actions are reset, and play continues, as always, clockwise. WC ends after a dividend is paid and one of several game-end conditions is met. The player with the most cash is the winner.

Like an 18xx, players are making decisions on behalf of companies they have a controlling interest in. A player is not 'the Penn' or 'the B&O.' He is a player, and his goal is to become personally rich. The rail in the game are tools to that end. This is the only concept WC shares with the 18xx series. A 'controlling interest' in WC means 'any amount of stock' (!!) and turn order cycles through players, not companies. This means that on a player's turn, he may make a decision on behalf of any company in which he has even just one piece of stock.

The consistent turn order has one fundamental effect, and it's fascinating in that it's the reverse of Puerto Rico's pattern. In Puerto Rico, you want most to have a monopoly on a crop. In second place, you want to produce the crop that your left-hand neighbor makes. This is so that you can sell it first, ship it first...block him out. In WC, you are about equally interested in having sole ownership of a company and of having a minority interest in your right-hand opponent's stock. To explain...

Wabash Cannonball is sort of a potato sack race to Chicago. All four major companies start in the east and are generally building west. If a company makes it to Chicago it will dramatically increase the value of the company and thus its dividends, as well as paying out a special dividend just for its shareholders. This has the potential to be a game-deciding moment, and once players get bit of experience, they learn that there are relatively specific and fragile conditions under which a run to Chicago is acceptable for any more than one player. I describe the game as a potato sack race because anybody can come in and start giving orders, throwing the company completely off track if they so choose, frequently dashing any hopes of it ever making it to Chicago. Anecdotally, when our group first began to discover this, our games became laugh riots--it was as if the stars of The Producers had decided to go into the railroad business instead of the theater.

Eventually, we discovered that there are conditions when a run to Chicago is acceptable for more than one person, and the game became about engineering those conditions and attempting to maintain them long enough for the connection. These conditions are evolving, and every time we play someone has a different idea of the best portfolio to own, but one thing is constant: the importance of where your stock sits relative to other players is the most important element of the game. Specifically, a minority interest in your right-hand opponent's majority interest gives you an advantage. You will be able to see how he treats his company first, will be able to react to his decisions, and can easily run his company away from Chicago after he's invested a turn in the hopes that you'll run it there. Here, turn order doesn't support the game; it is the game. Wabash Cannonball is about creating a portfolio that allows you to leech off the strong companies while denying all but your chosen ones access to Chicago.
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