Monday, February 8, 2010

Coast-to-coast again

This weekend we tried another coast-to-coast session of Rottweiler. This was only the second such session. Because of the holidays and nearly two months (and counting) of major home renovation, I haven't had the time or the table space to lay out so large and long a game.

But on Saturday we managed it. And it was a pretty good session, in two senses. First, lessons learned from the first session led to noticeable improvements. And second, we learned a lot about what still needs work.

The first session had two major problems. One was that it didn't last long enough; the far coast was barely reached and wasn't developed, which didn't feel right. We solved that this time with a tweak to the end-game trigger rule. The other was the issue of the "income trough", as follows.

We have been using the score/income track from the base game. In Railways of the World, your income is tied to your current score. It rises for most of the game, then begins to fall again at a point somewhere after midgame. Typically it never rises again, but if you score above 100 points you wrap the scoreboard and you begin to repeat the cycle.

For the base game, this works just fine. The income curve is calibrated to keep money tight throughout the game, so that players must always think about their budgets. For much of the game you need money for expansion and development, but in the end game you are usually busy milking what you have already built rather than spending on new track, so you don't need as much money.

For the coast-to-coast game, this falls apart. The high score in this weekend's session was a whopping 240 points: that player wrapped the scoreboard twice. This means that his income started at zero, rose to a high point, then fell to zero again, and then did it all over a second time, finishing with a rise to a third high point. The trouble with this is simple: the coast-to-coast game requires players to continue to expand for at least twice as many rounds as the base game. Unless you have managed to become rich, you're going to be starving for money when you are in the "income trough". You can even get into a horrible debt spiral if you have issued very many bonds, because you must pay dividends on them and this can exceed your income by quite a bit.

In the first session, I saw this as a problem that might be acceptable as part of the strategy of the coast-to-coast game: you need to build up a fund of cash during times of high income, so that it will see you through the low-income periods. But in both sessions, at least one player failed in this; and the consequences are severe. Such a player falls badly behind and cannot catch up, and has to play for another three hours not only unable to win, but even unable to make any progress. The fact that the second session lasted through two income troughs makes it even worse.

So I'm going to have to think about the income curve for the coast-to-coast game. A number of solutions have been proposed, but I haven't had time to think them all through yet. The ideal solution will be one in which most players must budget carefully throughout the game, but without quite such severe penalties for failure; and it will allow players to issue plenty of bonds if they need to. (If you think I'm being too soft-hearted toward my players, think again. It's one thing to lose; it's quite another to be so wedged that you can hardly even play, especially in so long a game.)

When I've got a good-sounding solution for the income problem, I may be ready to try a "live" game with a full table of real players. So far it's just been Helen and me, each pretending to be two different people in order to make up four simulated players. Helen is tolerant, but I don't want to burden my other playtesters with a six-hour unplayable horror of a game, so I want to get this smoothed out at home before taking it out in public.