Helen and I were at Kublacon this Memorial Day weekend, as we have been every year for the past several. It wasn't as good a trip for me this year; I was too tired and sleep-deprived before the con even started. But there were a few high points anyway.
Continental Railways of the World
The highest point for me was certainly the four-and-a-half-hour, five-player Continental Railways of the World session that I hosted on Sunday morning. This playtest was very successful in several ways. First off, everybody seemed to have a good time! The game didn't bog down, and was competitive for its entire duration.
The Income Trough
I've been worried about a phenomenon we've been calling the "income trough". As RotW players will know, your income in the game is tied to your score. For most of a normal, one-board game, income rises as your score rises; but then income first tops out, then actually declines as your score continues to rise. In normal games this isn't much of an issue because by the time it happens, you've usually built most of the track you intend to build, and you don't need much money any more. But in the Continental game, you can find your net income dropping to near, or even below, zero just when the West opens up and you suddenly need to build a lot of track as everyone races west! A player who "bottoms out" at this moment can be seriously handicapped, and as a result will have no fun for the next two hours while he sits hopelessly in last place, cash-strapped and in debt, waiting for the game to end.
It would be easy to shrug this off and say "well, Player Red, you should have planned ahead." But I'd rather find a solution that allows such a player to take a less fatal hit, while still rewarding the players that did plan their income curve more successfully. I've had a couple of mechanisms in place for this, but they needed tuning. In this session, I think we finally had it tuned about right. Every player has a financial choice to make at the moment the West opens up; in the past, that "choice" has been a no-brainer. In this session, every player had to think it over, and they didn't all choose the same way. Furthermore, I was the player who was mired in the income trough, and sure enough I didn't win; but I was at least able to survive and progress. I think it worked out pretty well.
Paths to Victory
The winning player built a nearly coast-to-coast network, and one of the largest on the board. This was gratifying to me, simply because I love to see that kind of layout. But the same player won an earlier session by staying close to the Eastern board, with only a small extension across to the Western board. I'm pleased to see that there's no single approach to winning the Continental game.
Rail Baron Cards
Another measure of success for playtests is whether you learned anything new. I think I did. I was a bit shocked at the huge effect that the Rail Baron cards had for the more successful players. They were real game-changers.
I had "scaled up" the bonuses that these cards grant. In a normal game, they're worth (very roughly) 10% of your final score. Because final scores in the Continental game tend to be at least double a typical normal score, I made the Continental Baron bonuses much larger to match. But having seen them in action, I'm inclined to think that this was a mistake. Although the final scores were much larger than in a normal game, the differences between the winning player's score and his nearest competitors were not so much larger. The Baron Cards were overwhelming those differences, more than I think they should.
I plan to sit down soon and re-think those bonuses. I will likely tone them down to something in between their current values and those in a normal game. In addition, I'm tempted to look into making them incremental: instead of getting a single big all-or-nothing bonus, you'd be able to claim a partial bonus for achieving a portion of the goal. This sort of bonus already exists, for example in the Eastern U.S. Rail Baron card that awards 2 points for every connection you own into Chicago. Your bonus from that card can be 0, 2, 4, 6, or 8 points. I may not be able to come up with a full set of such incremental bonuses, but I'll see what I can do.