The game lasted about six hours, and was contentious from beginning to end. I had been hoping for a fifth player, but the game worked quite well with four. The fact that everyone wanted to cross the "border" between the east and west tended to crowd players together; on the Western board, the Rockies were another barrier that focused nearly everyone's efforts. I think there's room for a fifth player, but surprisingly, six may turn out to be too many.
The new rules for handling the "income trough" seemed to work well. We used a rule that Helen had proposed: at mid-game, players may give back any number of the bonds they've taken out at a penalty of 2 VPs per bond. This rule is intended to walk a careful tightrope. I want players to be able to take out lots of shares without worrying about surviving the income troughs later on. On the other hand, it should cost something to get rid of a bond at mid-game; otherwise, it is too easy to take out bonds just before mid-game, knowing that you will soon be rid of them. In addition, it gives players another interesting decision to make: keep the bonds and avoid the extra VP penalty, or dump them and avoid the income penalty?
I have one reservation about giving back the bonds: in this session nearly everyone gave back all their bonds, and the one player who didn't regretted it. It may be that 2 VP is too cheap, and at that price you should nearly always give back all your bonds. But I'm going to let a few more games go by before I try increasing the penalty. That will tell me whether the cost is really too low, or whether it was just the way this one game played out.
My other concern is the Rail Baron cards. I put together a set specific to the Continental game, having found in previous playtests that the ones from the Eastern and Western games don't work as well on the combined boards. For the most part the new barons were good, but there were a couple of false notes. One is that the VP bonuses in the base game and its other expansions are about 10% of a typical final score. But final scores in the Continental game are much higher; if the Rail Baron bonuses aren't increased to match, players will not have much incentive to try to achieve their Baron goals. I think therefore that the Continental Baron bonuses need to be significantly larger than those for the base game. The other issue is ensuring that those bonuses are balanced. There were indications that some of the goals are much harder to achieve than others. A little of that is okay, but the differences shouldn't be huge.
All along I've been worried that the Continental game would take too long, and outlast its welcome. But the players stayed after the game for well over an hour, vigorously discussing their strategies and the reasons for their decisions. Nobody got bored, and they all want to play it again. Whew! Obviously, not everyone will want to play a six-hour game no matter how good it is, but I think we've got something that at least a real RotW enthusiast will enjoy.
More playtests will follow, as soon as I can get them together!