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.


Seth Jaffee said...

The idea of an income trough is interesting. It's pretty clear you need to revamp the core track for your coast-to-coast version of the game. It might be neat to include a (shallower) income trough in it though...

You probably want money to ramp up similarly at the beginning, lest people be bogged down not feeling like they're making any progress. When the normal curve goes back down, maybe that's interesting, maybe it simulates a recession and, knowing it's coming, you need to save up some cash. But maybe it doesn't drop as fast or as much before increasing again. After another peak, as the game reaches its denouement, the income could peter down to zero like it does in the base game.

Another, altogether different option is this: Rejigger the income track to climb to a high point, then fall back to zero, scaled up so that zero occurs at the end of the bigger game (like it does for the base game) - but then add something that eats up player money, so when you get over $25/turn income it doesn't feel like you're too rich. This could help the story arc of the game - like the discussions we used to have about what it meant for a game to be Epic. In the midgame maybe you're early game tracks are so insignificant compared to what you're doing now that you wonder how you ever got by with those measly things. Meanwhile, your midgame actions are so expensive that in the early turns you wonder how you'd ever be able to afford them.

I don't know what it would be that would have such a large scope in the game, and would cost so much in the midgame, I guess I can't help you there. The crux of the idea though is a money sink to soak up extra cash, so that you can scale up the income curve without ruining the tight nature of the game.

The final idea is simply to flatten the curve altogether. Maybe ramp up a tiny bit more slowly (again, you don't want to stifle players in the early game), then when income levels off, stretch it out for a while before dropping back down.

Oooh! Another idea just popped to mind - imagine if you use the regular track, but each player had 2 Income markers, and you got the income based on the lesser of the 2 markers (i.e. the smaller amount of income). For each VP you get, you advance one of the markers. Thus, you have to get 2vps to increase 1 income slot. You could start everyone with a player at like 5 points and at 0, so that you don't impact the early game until someone's gotten 5 points already and therefore has established that much income.

I'm interested to see what you decide!

Rick Holzgrafe said...

Thanks for the discussion, Seth! Helen had an idea that may be the best yet. There is a sort of "pause and reset" moment in the continental game, which we call the "opening of the West". Only when this happens are players allowed to start building on the Western board. Helen's notion is to allow players, at that time only, to get rid of shares at an immediate penalty of 2 VPs per share.

This solves the problem of not being able to take out as many shares as you normally might in the base game. Taking out 20 shares before the West is opened is nearly suicidal if you have to carry that much dividend debt through another 15 turns. Getting rid of it lets you regain a reasonable income, and issue more shares as you see fit, during the "western" half of the continental game. The extra VP penalty for shedding shares is an incentive to issue shares wisely, even when you know you'll be able to get rid of them quickly. (I should call them "bonds" as the RotW rules do. I still think in RRT terminology!)

I think we'll try this idea at the next session (whenever that is). If it seems inadequate, we can expand on it: perhaps allow shares to be shed at any time, at a cost of 2 or 3 immediate VPs per share (and even, perhaps, at the cost of an action). Or just let players get $5,000 cash by giving up 2 or 3 VPs if they choose, instead of by taking a share.

This scheme has the nice side benefit of keeping the manufacturing cost down: no new score/income track, no new bits such as the "debt markers" I was considering before Helen talked me out of it.

Seth Jaffee said...

Interesting idea! My first reaction was "why 2vp? Why not just force everyone to discard all of their shares and lose 1vp per?" It's still a penalty - very similar to the penalty in the base game. And if everyone must do it then it's fair across the board - just reset everything so the scoreboard doesn't get out of whack for the second half of the game. 2vp is interesting though, especially if you're not compelled to do it!

I also like the idea of ridding yourself of shares altogether and go the Brass route - just dump a vp for $5k when you want to. Making it an action like in Brass might make sense, but that could also be problematic with how the auctions work. I'm not sure if that would work out. I suppose you could offer it as an action AND allow people to take shares as necessary when paying a bid (but not extra shares).

Good thoughts!

Rick Holzgrafe said...

I'm trying to do minimum violence to the basic nature of the game. To that end, I want a solution that preserves the cost/reward structure of taking a share. I also want to avoid the situation of not caring much about taking shares when you know the mid-point of the game is near. Having the option of shedding shares mid-game at a 2 VP cost gives the players something to think about, and makes them cautious about taking too many shares even when they know they can soon get rid of them.

I tried this rule yesterday in the third playtest session, and it seemed to work quite nicely. Combined with an income floor of $10 (so the income trough isn't absurdly deep at its lowest point), it seems to give a game where budgeting matters from end to end, which is what I want.