Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 4 October 2013

Track or Share II

If you like train games, then the name Winsome Games might be familiar to you. If you are a true devotee then you may have picked up some of the publisher’s games, either direct or at the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, also known as Essen. Alternatively, you may have purchased one or more of its designs in the international editions published by Queen Games. For example, Winsome Games’ 2007 Wabash Cannonball became Queen Games’ 2008 Chicago Express and Winsome Games’ SNCF from 2010 was republished by Queen Games as Paris Connection in 2011. More recently in a follow up to Chicago Express, in 2011 Queen Games republished the Winsome Games’ 2008 Preußische Ostbahn as German Railways, the first entry in its Iron Horse collection.

Designed for three to five players, aged twelve plus, as its title suggests, German Railways is all about German railways. More specifically, it focuses upon the period between 1832 and 1872 when some two hundred or so railroad companies were founded and helped connect the then innumerable Germanic states, forging economic and cultural ties that would further foster the drive towards unification. Even more specifically, German Railways is about eight railways and their share values. In most games about railways, the game’s focus is on building tracks between one city and another and then transporting either passengers and/or goods between them. In German Railways, the players do not transport either goods or passengers, but rather they invest capital in each railway and then expend that capital to increase both its network and its share value. Whomever makes the most from these shares by game’s end wins the game.

The game consists of three sets of Railroad Shares, a matching Railroad Income marker, and a set of rolling stock for each of the game’s eight railways. The rolling stock consists of ‘Iron Horses’ or Locomotives, similar to those found in Paris Connection. There is also a set of Player Turn Order markers and a Player Income marker for each player; ‘Talers’ or coins in various denominations; plus the board. The latter depicts a map of Germany – its towns and cities, rural, hill, and mountainous regions – overlaid with a hex grid, plus three tracks; the first for the Player Turn Order, the second for the Railroad Income, and the third for the Player Incomes. Each railroad also has a space on the edge of the board to hold its current capital. The game comes with rules in Dutch, English, French, and German.

At game’s start, the share value markers and the player income markers are placed on the appropriate tracks. Then a locomotive of the matching colour is placed on each railway company’s starting city. Each player also receives a certain amount of Talers, the amount depending upon the number of players – more players have less money. Lastly the shares are auctioned off in order – 'Preußische Ostbahn', 'Niederschlesische-Märkische Eisenbahn', 'Königlich-Sächsische Staatseisenbahnen', 'Königlich-Bayerische Staatseisenbahnen', 'Main-Weser-Bahn', 'Großherzoglich Badische Staatseisenbahnen', 'Cöln-Mindener Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft', and 'Berlin-Hamburger Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft'. The shares are also auctioned off in three waves, each wave consisting of one share from each Railroad, and all of the shares in a wave have to be auctioned off before the shares in another wave can be put up for auction. 

Once all of the eight shares in the first wave have been auctioned off, the players determine their current income. This is done by adding up the value of their shares and adjusting their marker on the Player Income track accordingly. Then player order is determined. This is done by drawing five Player Turn Order markers from a provided cloth bag. These five are placed as drawn on the Player Turn Order track. To seed the bag, the player with the highest current Player Income puts a single Player Turn Order marker of his colour into the bag; the player with the second highest current Player Income puts two of his Player Turn Order markers into the bag; the player with the third highest current Player Income puts in three; and so on. What this means is that the player with the highest Player Income has a high chance of not even getting a turn this round because he only has one Player Turn Order marker in the bag, where players with lower Player Incomes will greater chances because their Player Incomes are lower and they will have more markers in the bag. This is a balancing mechanism. 

On his turn a player can do one of three things. He can choose to pass, he can put up a Railroad Share up for auction, or he can build track. To do the latter, a player selects a Railroad in which he owns one or more Shares in and spends the capital invested in it to add Locomotives to that Railroad’s existing network. Usually this is three Locomotives, but may be more or less depending upon the Railroad. Each Railroad has a special feature. For example, the Preußische Ostbahn was efficient and so can build four Locomotives rather than three, whilst the Cöln-Mindener Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft focused on Share Dividends rather than expansion, so can only spend a maximum of five Talers on building track.

Every time track is built into urban and city hexes, it increases the value of the Railroad Share by one and thus the Player Income of any player who owns shares in the Railroad, though some cities increase the value by more than one. If track of one Railroad is built into an urban or city hex where there is the track of another Railroad, then a connection is made and Dividends are paid out on all Shares currently owned. Anyone who own Shares in the railroad that made the connection receives a double Dividend because it made the connection. Only a limited number of connections – one condition for ending the game is if all Railroads have made two connections to two other Railroads.

Initially, because the players are each investing with a set amount, each Railroad will receive a limited amount of investment capital with which to Build Track and increase its value. Thus Dividends will be low, but as the game progresses Railroads expand, the value of their Railroad Shares increase and more connections are made, so leading to greater Dividends. Thus the players gain greater money with which to purchase more shares. Towards the end of the game, the Dividends are even greater, but because the winner of the game is determined by whomever has the most Talers, a player must choose carefully between purchasing shares or keeping his money towards game end. Also during auctions in the later part of the game, there also comes a point where it no longer becomes worthwhile purchasing shares because the potential Dividend of a share is less than the price it can be purchased for. 

Whilst German Railways is for the most part well designed and presented, it is unfortunately beset by some poor colour matches. The problem is that the colours of the shares and their corresponding trains do not always quite match. Plus the colours of some of the share certificates look very similar. In particular, the colour of the brown, orange, and yellow shares are all so washed out that they are difficult to tell apart. This is a real problem in the game and it is even worse if any player has colour issues with his sight.

Another issue concerns the means of determining turn order. The mechanism is clever and innovative and designed as means for the player who is trailing those in the lead to have more turns and thus have a chance to catch up. As I said, it is clever and innovative. Some players though, dislike the fact that they can spend a whole round without taking a turn. That though, is their problem, not that of the game’s as they can still participate in share auctions and they will still benefit from Dividend payouts. Lastly play time is listed as sixty minutes – it is more like ninety minutes.

Ultimately, whether you like German Railways or not depends upon whether you like this Turn Order mechanism. It is the game’s divisive design feature. Some gamers may also have an issue with the fact that the game is a share manipulation game rather than a railway game. That said, so is Paris Connection with which German Railways shares the same publishers. German Railways is more complex than Paris Connection, but not by much and the complexity comes in determining share values. Get that right and you will be the master of the German Railways.