This weekend I put in some more hours on the rail game (now code-named "Iron Horse With No Name" until I settle on a new title). I'm pretty pleased with the results.
It continues to surprise me how much difference a small rule tweak can make sometimes. I recently introduced the notion that deliveries can only go so far without "refueling." You refuel at Stations, which hold Fuel cubes. Each time you refuel, you consume a Fuel cube and your delivery is able to continue for up to another three towns. With multiple refuelings, very long (and very profitable) deliveries can be made. Refueling from your own Station is free; to use someone else's Station, you pay them $2 (equal to a little less than half a Victory Point). When a Station is emptied of Fuel cubes you can pay to refill it.
But a solo playtest with this mechanism produced a game that moved too slowly, and that bogged down at the end. There was not enough incentive to build Stations—every player wanted to wait for the other players to build them—so the long, high-paying deliveries could not be made.
I reworked the costs and benefits to make Stations more attractive, but then I started to worry: maybe the Fuel cubes were unnecessary mechanism. Why not get rid of them and simply always allow refueling at every Station? So I tried that next, and it almost worked. I got the wide networks and long deliveries I wanted. But the players' decisions were not challenging enough. Stations with exhaustible fuel added complexity and interest to those decisions.
So I tried again, putting Fuel back in the game but with the new costs and benefits I'd worked out. And that, thankfully, seems to work. The latest solo playtest had interesting and challenging decisions, players were able to build the big networks and reap the big profits I was after, and the game never bogged down.
Well... I think the decisions were interesting and challenging. I find that very hard to gauge when all the players are me. But I believe it's finally time for some live playtests. (Huzzah!) So I'm going to spend the next week or so re-drawing the board and creating some good player aids, and then I'll start bringing it to local game days and nights and see what other folks think of it.