Saturday, January 24, 2009

Concerning Rail Games

I've made more progress on "The-Rail-Game-Formerly-Known-As-Rails-Across-America". The biggest problem I've had with it lately is just that it seems uninspired overall, and perhaps doesn't offer enough interesting or difficult choices to the players. Recently a friend made an encouraging comment, and that gave me some new ideas, and the latest iteration is looking better. It's still a live design.

But it set me to thinking. How interesting, and how difficult, do the choices have to be in order to have a fun and playable game? I tried a wargame design once; it was judged by the KublaCon playtesters to be boring because the decisions were obvious and easy to make. I don't want to repeat that mistake. On the other hand, while it's good to have ambitious goals, as a fledgling designer I can't expect to design the next #1 game at BoardGameGeek. So how good is "good enough"?

For an answer I am looking at my own favorites among the published rail games. These are:

* Ticket to Ride
* The crayon rail games (Empire Builder and its sequels)
* Railroad Tycoon
* Age of Steam
* The 18XX games
* Silverton

What kind of game experience do these successful games offer?

Ticket to Ride has simple rules and simple play, and is over in an hour. At times you spend move after move simply drafting cards into your hand. Your decisions are mostly of the push-your-luck variety: should you grab that route now, before someone else does? Or wait until you can grab several connected routes in quick succession, so as not to tip your hand too soon? The fun comes mainly from the tension of that basic decision. And it is fun, without a doubt. The Ticket to Ride series is far and away the most commercially-successful rail game ever. So we learn this: Tension lends interest and excitement.

Empire Builder and its sequels are straight-forward games of building track and making deliveries. These are flawed games, in my opinion. They take too long to play, especially if you make the mistake of playing with more than four players. There is little player interaction: you don't have to worry very much about what your opponents are doing. And the decisions are simple: which of my nine potential deliveries is the best to do next? Where should I built my next track? Is it time to upgrade my locomotive? The answers are usually fairly obvious, once you've done the gruntwork of figuring out sources and destinations for your potential deliveries (which usually is a lot of work: another flaw). And yet the crayon rail games are fun anyway, popular enough to have spawned a dozen or so sequels, and due to be re-issued this year by Mayfair. Lesson learned: A game can be fun even if its choices are not difficult. Sometimes the activity itself is entertainment enough.

Age of Steam is an amazingly good game, at least if you enjoy high levels of competition. Often described as "a knife fight in a phone booth", AoS crowds players together and forces them to compete viciously for routes and deliveries. A tight economic system makes budgeting a challenging and crucial exercise, and an auction system that controls both player order and access to important actions adds tremendous tension. Lesson learned: Holzgrafe, you will never design a rail game this good! More seriously: budgeting and pacing issues add interest to a game, and player interaction is important.

Railroad Tycoon is my favorite. This game has the same basic notion as Empire Builder (build rail, then make deliveries) but avoids the flaws in the crayon rail system. Spotting viable deliveries is easy and quick; the choices are interesting and difficult; and the game does not outlast its fun factor, even with six players. It has excellent player interaction, because players must compete for track routes, deliveries, and bonuses. It's really more appropriate to compare RRT with Age of Steam because it is directly derived from AoS. RRT is less competitive than AoS. But if Age of Steam is "a knife fight in a phone booth", Railroad Tycoon is still at least a barroom brawl: more spacious and forgiving of errors, but still highly contentious and with plenty of chairs and tables to swing. Lesson learned, from both AoS and RRT: Competition for scarce resources makes for tough, interesting choices.

The 18XX series adds a new element: a stock market. In an 18XX game players build rail and make deliveries. Players compete mainly to acquire stock, drive up the value of companies in which they are heavily invested, and sell high-valued stock to reap the gains and ruin the stock's value for others who still own shares. 18XX games are complex, long, and deeply strategic. I have played only once and I'm not competent to discuss them in detail, but there is a lesson learned: A volatile, interactive market adds a whole new level of interest to a game.

Silverton is the rail game that has most recently grabbed my attention, although it's now over 15 years old. Silverton features a volatile market, but it is a goods market rather than a stock market. Players compete not only to lay track, but to claim mines. Mines are worked to produce goods, which you then convert to money by delivering to market cities. Market prices vary, partly at random and partly influenced by recent sales. Taking a big load to market can drop market prices ruinously for anyone who shows up late. Silverton combines a fairly standard build-and-deliver mechanism with features such as the market, the high-risk nature of mining, and the difficulties of winter operations in the Rockies, resulting in a fascinating game with good levels of player interaction. Lesson learned: Volatility forces pacing, making players choose between urgent actions and important actions.

So what does this all imply for my own design? I'm still evaluating that, but I'm encouraged. My latest rules revision (with the compelling sobriquet of "Straw Man 6") adds complexity in a way that improves player interaction and gives players more to worry about. I think the game is now at least as interesting as a crayon rail game, because it has more interaction, more complex decisions to make, and more tension. But maybe not—maybe the decisions, for all their complexity, still have obvious solutions. I need to work with it some more to find out whether that's true.

And then there's this whole business about volatility. There isn't much, in the current design. I need to think about adding some, and I have a few ideas to play with. I'll keep y'all posted, and I may even post the latest rules sometime soon.

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