South African Railroads

South African RailroadsI bought this game – I was actually the first person to buy the game from Winsome Games when it was first announced.

The gameSouth African Railroads by John Bohrer, published by Winsome Games in 2011.

Elevator pitch: A game of shares, railroads, and auctions set in South Africa, streamlined from the earlier Pampas Railroads and Veld Railroads.

What’s in the box? The typical Winsome clamshell contains typical Winsome components: plain paper board in two pieces, bunch of wooden cubes, share certificates made from coloured paper and small plastic locomotives for player pieces. Everything is spartan, yet functional. My only gripe is the borders on the board: they are pointless, but too prominent, and just confuse players.

What do you do in the game? The goal of the game is simple: get more money than everybody else. Money is made by holding shares and getting dividend payments from the railroad companies.

After the initial auction where the first shares of the companies are auctioned off, players start taking turns. On your turn, you can choose from four different actions: construct track, develop settlements, offer stock and pay dividends.

The actions are limited: the stock action can be chosen by one player, and the action remains blocked until the next turn of that player, who must then choose a different action. Offer stock is available for two players and develop for three. Construct track is an unlimited action, and you can repeat it turn after turn.

When you build track, you choose a company where you are the majority shareholder (a shared majority is enough) and either pay $5 for one link or $15 for a double link. The track network is already present on the map, players just place cubes to build the track. The track network is fairly sparse: it’s easy to get slightly blocked.

Develop action makes stations more valuable. When railroads build links, their income goes up, based on the value of stations on the ends of the link. The focal point of the map is the city of Johannesburg, which slowly develops to be worth up to 10, which is huge. That’ll draw the attention of the railroad companies.

When offering stock, player chooses one share, which is then auctioned. The auction system is very basic, and the money is paid to the company coffers, funding future track construction. Pay dividends action triggers a round of dividends: each company pays their income, divided by five (each company has five shares) to each share.

The dividend payments also control the game length: the game is over after the sixth dividend. The dividends are also triggered by the action track: there’s a track that goes from 1 to 35, and each action chosen advances a cube on the track: track-building by 3, development by 4, and a share auction by 5. Once the cube moves off the track, it’s dividend time. The pay dividends action resets the track.

The sixth, final dividend is paid in a different fashion. It also takes into calculation the company value, which is $5 per link cube on the board. There are also two special areas, which are very expensive, but increase the company value a lot. Also, this final dividend is not divided by five, but by the actual number of outlying shares. A small company with just one or two shares out may pay a lot more than a large company with all five shares out.

There’s plenty to think about on your turns: controlling your money, the company money in the companies you’re interested in, timing issues, game length control – plenty of meat in this game, but it’s all packed into 40 minutes of play.

Lucky or skillful? There’s chaos, but no luck. The winner is the player with the best plans and the best calculations. Sometimes other players do unexpected things which can catch you off guard and there’s definitely some psychological factors in play to devalue pure calculation, but the better value calculation usually wins.

Abstract or thematic? As solid as share-holding cube-pushing railroad games go. The earlier version of this game, Veld Railroads, includes more historical flavour, like the Boer war, but South African Railroads is very streamlined and has no historical flavour outside the names of the cities. It can feel a bit abstract, but the streamlining is worth it.

Solitaire or interactive? Very interactive. Often someone wants to turtle in a corner with a single-share company, but good players won’t let anybody do that, and will attack aggressively. The board offers lots of chances for blocking, too. The game is brutal.

Players: 3–6. I’ve yet to try the game with the full six players; I have a feeling that might be interesting. The game does work well with the range from three to five players.

Who can play? Age recommendation is 42+. That’s John Bohrer’s wry sense of humour, but then again, this is a somewhat demanding game. I’m sure my 11-year-old son would grasp the rules without issues, but I’m fairly sure he’d be pretty far from actually playing well.

What’s to like: Condenses what used to be a two+ hour game into 40 minutes of pleasantly nasty railroading; very interactive: lots of blocking, co-operation, hostile takeovers.

What’s not to like: Very hard – borderline impossible – to actually acquire; the Winsome look will turn off the uninitiated; updating the action track is fiddly.

My verdict: I forgot this game for couple of years, but now that I got back into it, I realized it’s actually one of Winsome Games’ best titles: it’s very short and effective, but also offers lots of depth, variability and plenty of delightful interaction between players.

Too bad Queen Games (or somebody else) never licensed the game: this one would deserve wider distribution. If you’re a game publisher looking for a meaty game to publish, I urge you to contact John Bohrer to get a license for this gem.

On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, South African Railroads gets Suggest from me.

South African Railroads

Cole Wehrle interview

Cole Wehrle is one of the more interesting game designers at the moment. After his debut design Pax Pamir (Sierra Madre Games) in 2015, he has published just few designs – he has a total of three published titles at the moment – but those are all very interesting.

While all his other games are based on historical themes, his latest work is Root, a fantastical and purely fictional game that takes the asymmetrical guerrilla warfare of the COIN games and distills it all into a more accessible package. This game is currently on Kickstarter collecting funding.

This interview has also been published in Finnish at Lautapeliopas.

Long-winded design process

I was interested in hearing about Cole’s design process. It seems to be a long process. There’s some proof on BGG: Heaven’s Mandate has been listed on BGG for six years, but it’s still a work in progress, and may remain so indefinitely. Getting John Company, his 2017 game for Sierra Madre Games, right also took many years.

So how does it all work out, Cole?

– When I was a young student, I often used games as a way to trick myself into learning about a specific topic, Cole tells me. – If I needed to learn about the American Civil War, I would start by digging up some old Avalon Hill game on the subject and trying to teach myself through the game. This often was not a great way to learn history or literature or science, but it worked for me, Cole says.

– As I got older, I didn’t have time to learn a whole game for each and every subject in school, so I found myself jotting down little games in the margins of my notebooks. Game design was a way that I tried to make sense of the world, Cole explains.

– Of course, none of these games were good in the traditional sense. I rarely bothered to write down rules. Mostly they were just tables and charts and maps and diagrams. I suppose I was making little models, though it would have never occurred to me at the time to describe them that way, Cole says.

As Cole got older, lessons at school got more complicated and so did the games. Once he started playing more games, he realized some of those ideas might make for interesting games to actually play, and might offer something already published games don’t:

– Mostly, as a player, I was just trying to build the games that explored the ideas that I wasn’t seeing out there, Cole says. – Years ago, when my dissertation advisor asked me why I decided to spend my extra month of fellowship time working on Pax Pamir rather than taking a vacation or (preferably!) publishing an academic article, I replied that I had the feeling that if I didn’t make a game on 1820’s Afghanistan, no one would, Cole tells.

But even if the pre-process can take a long time, his actual design process is pretty regular in length and effort.

An Infamous Traffic

A rich variety of themes

Cole’s games have interesting themes: 1820’s Afghanistan, Chinese Opium trade, the ups and downs of the East Indian Company. Is it easy to find interesting themes?

– My goodness, there is no shortage of interesting subjects for games, Cole exclaims. – I have more topics than I know what to do with at the moment. A lot of these themes I borrow from my own reading. If a topic is intriguing enough to deserve a good book, there’s probably some ideas worth considering.

However, not all theme ideas lend themselves to interesting games.

– My own process seems to contain two separate conversations. One is a big wheel of ideas, topics, and dissatisfactions with the kinds of stories folks tell. The second wheel contains formal dissatisfactions in how games are designed. When those two wheels line up I know I’ve got a game worth exploring, Cole says.

Sometimes it takes playing another game to get the spark for creating something new.

– So, for instance, with Pax Pamir, I was thinking a lot about the theme and sorting through mountains of good material. But, it wasn’t until I was seriously playing Splotter’s The Great Zimbabwe and having a lot of arguments in person and online about engine builder games that I had the mechanical frame that I could use to think about Afghanistan at that time, Cole explains.

For a designer focused on historical themes, jumping into a fictional theme may be a big leap. Is it liberating, not having to worry about historical details, or difficult?

– It allows me to be more philosophical. Without the messiness of history, I can cut off a lot of the complexity of the moment and focus on what I see as the abstract core of a particular problem, Cole says. – At the same time, that cleanness can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes I wished I had a straight historical allegory so I could go back to it for guidance.

As for the games he plays, Cole prefers historical themes.

– Looking at my shelf now, I’d guess that about 70% of what I own is historical in some way or another. If a game is interesting and obtuse, I’m liable to want to explore it, regardless of theme. Both historical and fictional themes can suffer from the constraints of their theme: history games can become reenactments; fictional games get stuck in clichés, Cole explains.

Why Root?

Who should be interested in Root? What makes the game stand out from the flood of miniatures and mediocrities in Kickstarter?

Root is the kind of game that I wish I would have had growing up, Cole says. – And it’s the kind of game I wish I could have taken to college with me. It’s my attempt to offer something compelling to folks stuck with time constraints or with a group that don’t often explore interactive games. Make no mistake, it’s a tricky game with some sharp edges, but it’s also by far the most accessible game I’ve built.

– In short, if you want to explore interactive, asymmetric strategy games, Root is a great place to start, Cole summarizes.

Pax Pamir

Different approaches for different publishers

For his short career, Cole has worked with several publishers. He has published two games with Sierra Madre Games, one with Hollandspiele and now he’s employed at Leder Games. What kind of thinking goes into choosing a suitable publisher?

– So far the decisions have been quite easy. Usually I have a publisher in mind the moment I start a design. I suppose that’s an academic habit, Cole explains.

– While you don’t want to wholly become subject to a particular conversation or a particular publication, there comes a time when you need to communicate what you’ve done, and part of that “communication” means thinking about the different forms it could take and the venues where it might live. So, for Pamir, I had the argument and a lot of the ideas of the game pretty well set. Then I played Pax Porfiriana and instantly knew exactly where I should publish it, Cole explains.

– The story is a little different with Hollandspiele but that was only because they weren’t yet a company when Tom and Mary asked me to design An Infamous Traffic. Right now I’m working on a design for them (slowly), that I’m sure will be a good fit, Cole says.

There are many sides to having a game fit a publisher.

– First, I’m talking about the ethos and audience of the company. Phil has a unique customer base that will like certain games and hate others. That’s true of any publisher, Cole says.

– Second, I’m talking about production constraints or expectations. Every publisher from little Sierra Madre Games to Fantasy Flight Games has different production capabilities. Those limits are critical factors for a game design and I take them seriously when I think about pitching a game, Cole says.

– My work at Leder is similar in this way. Vast: the Crystal Caverns is the foundational title for Leder Games. It’s why the company exists. They’ve built a lovely audience around that title. For this reason, with Root, I am attempting to do a design in that style that I think advances their particular style of asymmetric games. I’m grateful that I happened to have ideas that fit well within that form, Cole says.

I’m pretty sure Phil Eklund is high on your list of designers you admire. But who else?

– I love Phil for his willingness to use games as a platform for thinking through complicated subjects, Cole explains. –He makes games you can argue with (and I often do argue with them!).

– I adore Tom Russell for his ability to create incredibly expressive games with very few rules. I love how Reiner Knizia explores the friction between different player positions (Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art, and Stephenson’s Rocket are favorites). Lastly, I should also mention Nate Hayden who I admire for his deeply personal, uncompromising design ethos.

John Company box cover

A great eye for graphic design

Cole is not just a talented game designer, but he also has great eye for graphic design. His work on John Company got me attracted to the game in the first place: the cover is splendid and the first page of the rulebook pretty much sealed the deal for me. How important is the graphic design for game design?

– I spend a lot of time on the graphic design for my own games. In fact, I more-or-less learned graphic design by doing redraws for games. So, I owe a lot of my skills directly to this hobby, Cole says.

– During the design process, I tend to think through my problems with geometry, so I make a lot of shapes. Now, that isn’t to say things are “pretty” at the start. All of that comes later. But, I work through my design problems visually which means that by the time I get to the final game, I am pretty certain of how a particular game should look. I think An Infamous Traffic was uniquely successful in this regard. I’m very happy with the rules of John Company as well, Cole agrees.

– I think graphic design is very important, but it should always serve gameplay. Some of my favorite visual designs for games are things like Food Chain Magnate, Winsome Games, and GMT’s The US Civil War.

– I wish more companies had aesthetics half as bold or as thought through as Splotter, Cole says. – I think my favorite visual design of theirs is probably The Great Zimbabwe, but Cannes is a close second. I just love how that game looks like a film zine from the 1980’s. It’s perfect.

Side interests in Victorian literature

According to your BGG profile, your PhD was about “how the experience of empire altered the way British writers imagined distances of time and space during the early and mid 19th century.” Care to elaborate a bit? What did you find out?

– By training I’m a scholar specializing in Victorian literature. I look at books and the context that shaped them. Over the past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about time and space and the Empire, Cole explains.

– The short answer to your question is that a lot of the “space-collapsing” anxiety you seen in narrative in the early nineteenth century that is often associated with technologies like the railroad and the telegraph has a lot more to do with the British Empire’s imperial growth. Empires need to make the argument that they can project power across their domains and to do that they need to tell little lies about how closely things are connected, Cole says.

– Literature of the period provides a record of those lies. Long before the submarine cables stretched across the oceans, people were finding ways through storytelling to make the world seem smaller than it actually was, Cole says.

Your designer diaries suggest that you read a lot: all your games seem to be influenced by lots of literature. Any book suggestions?

– After I get home from work and after the kids go to bed, I get to reading. I don’t consider myself a particularly fast reader, but I do make time to read and am protective of that time, Cole says.

– For the past few years I always recommend two books: Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. The first is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. It’s a multi-generational yarn about the history of Texas that isn’t afraid to tackle some tough subjects. The second is an utterly compelling science fiction novel that reminded me how much I could love the genre after about a decade of not touching the stuff.

– Right now, I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, a new biography of US Grant. It’s wonderful. I also just finished Dexter Palmer’s mind-bending Version Control, which is a very different kind of time travel narrative. On my shelf I’ve got Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which I’ve been meaning to give a second read so that I can properly finish the sequence.

– I’m also about half way through a couple books on Minnesota state history (half the fun of moving to a new place is digging into local history!). And, each night I’ve been reading a few entries out of TH White’s England Have My Bones and then a poem or two from a collection of poems called the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. Okay, okay, I’ll stop there.

Kickstarting Root

Root is on Kickstarter now until 22.11.2017, and has already reached more than $170,000 of funding, surpassing the $24,000 goal many times. I’m a backer; I’ve found the game idea very intriguing.

Root – Woodland Might and Right

Dawn of Peacemakers preview

Dawn of PeacemakersSami Laakso was kind enough to loan me a preview copy of Dawn of Peacemakers to try out. I had the game for a week or so, and was able to play it for a while. The game had near-final art, prototype components, and lots of flavour text missing.

The game is coming to Kickstarter in November 2017.

The gameDawn of Peacemakers by Sami Laakso, published by Snowdale Design in 2018 after what is hopefully a successful Kickstarter campaign in November 2017.

Elevator pitch: A co-op campaign game, where players are peacemakers trying to stop a war between two nations.

What’s in the box? Dawn of Peacemakers is a big box with a double-sided board, terrain tiles to generate the scenario maps on the board, miniatures for player pieces and the warring factions, and lots of cards. Everything is illustrated by Sami Laakso and full of cute animals. If you like the art style in Dale of Merchants, you’ll love this.

The campaign game borrows a leaf from Mechs vs Minions: it introduces new content and rules in every scenario. Things start simple, but get more complicated as the game goes on. There’s no legacy elements here, but if you want to and are able to keep yourself from reading the campaign book, there will be interesting surprises in store for your first run-through of the campaign.

What do you do in the game? There are 12 scenarios in the campaign. In each scenario, your goal is to get the opposing forces to withdraw. That depends on their motivation: in the first scenario, the attacking macaws start with seven motivation and the defending ocelots start with three. Both need to end up at one or two at the same time, so that both want to stop fighting. Dropping to zero motivation causes a side to immediately surrender, which is not good.

The most common way to lose motivation is to lose a unit. So, in the first scenario, players want the macaws to lose most of their units – but not their leader, because that’s an immediate surrender condition – while the ocelots should lose just one, or perhaps just have their archers desert their defensive towers which grant one motivation when held.

The players move between the armies, doing actions by playing cards. Each card can have movement, influence and fortify symbols, and a card effect. You can pick one of those for each card you play, so you can play one card to move around, another to fortify a hex and third one to get a card effect – but your cards are severely limited, so you can’t do many turns like that.

Influence is a basic action in changing the course of the battle. It lets you peek at the army order cards and to reorder them. That way you can affect what the armies do.

When players are done with their turns, the armies act. Each army has two decks of cards: one is for tasks and another is for ploys. The ploy deck used depends on the animalfolk the army represents. These give flavour to the different armies: ocelots are shifty and surprising, just like in Dale of Merchants, while the macaws are quick to move. The task decks are built for each scenario and represents the tactics. For example in the first scenario, ocelots have archers who will not move from their towers, but will shoot at enemies, and warriors that will move around and fight.

For each army, draw one card from each deck and do what it says. Fast actions happen before regular or slow actions, move happens before cover and cover before strike. There are no decisions to be made in this phase: it’s fully automatic.

In the campaign mode, you move on to the next scenario whether you win or lose. Winning will give you small rewards. Losing will give you a small penalty. The leaders of the armies can be defeated, in which case they will be permanently removed from the campaign. If a macaw leader dies, macaws will be slightly disadvantaged in the future scenarios. There’s thus some permanence to the campaign.

There’s also a two-player skirmish mode, where players command their armies using the same order cards, but instead of a blind draw, players get to choose their orders.

Lucky or skillful? Seems like a good mix of luck and skill. Players need to have a strategy, but sometimes the armies can do surprising things.

Abstract or thematic? The theme is strong. The different animalfolk behave in different ways, and the players must influence the armies in a subtle way. The illustrations are really charming.

Solitaire or interactive? Fairly usual co-op in this regard: players must co-operate to do well, but there’s nothing to stop one player from dominating the game. The game also works as a solitaire game, there’s no hidden information between players.

Players: 1–4. There’s a good balance: players get a total of four cards per turn. In solo game, you get four cards and can do more, but have to spend more cards moving around. With more players, you can split the responsibilities, but have less means per player to actually achieve something.

Who can play? Age recommendation is 14+. There’s no particular reason why younger players couldn’t participate, but for smooth gameplay, having an experienced adult controlling the armies is a good idea.

What’s to like: The peaceful premise is something I haven’t seen before; the campaign mode keeps the game interesting; the art is lovely.

What’s not to like: It’s a co-op campaign, so if you don’t like that, this may not change your mind.

My verdict: I generally don’t like co-op games or campaign games. Pandemic Legacy was really thrilling at first, but we never finished the campaign. Mechs vs Minions was more successful: I played the whole campaign. Dawn of Peacemakers is more Mechs vs Minions than Pandemic Legacy to me.

Having players put in between two opposing forces, trying to keep them in check, is a brilliant idea. The peacemakers can be quite cynical and even violent, but the goal is interesting and unique in my collection. As the gameplay goes, it’s an interesting puzzle to figure out the way to reduce the motivation for the armies enough, but not too much.

On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Dawn of Peacemakers gets Suggest from me right now, with potential for Enthusiastic. I will definitely back this game.

Dawn of Peacemakers components

 

My top 100 list 2017

I’ve finished my annual project and compiled the 2017 top 100 list. It was a very good season, there are plenty of new games on the list. There are also several new games in the top 10, and the top 3 is all new games. Crazy! You can find the list on BoardGameGeek.

Deja-vu

I played Deja-vu at the local board game cafe. How very convenient! The game: Deja-vu by Heinz Meister, published by Amigo (and several other publishers) in 2017. Elevator pitch: A combination of a memory game and a reaction test: pick up the items you’ve seen twice in the cards, but make no mistakes! What’s in the box? A huge … Continue reading Deja-vu

Twenty One

I bought a copy of Twenty One from a trip to Amsterdam as a souvenir. The game: Twenty One by Steffen Benndorf and Reinhard Staupe, published by NSV in Germany and White Goblin in Netherlands in 2017. Elevator pitch: Another quick die-rolling, coupon-filling game that keeps everybody active on everyone’s turn. What’s in the box? A pad of … Continue reading Twenty One

Gnomi

I backed this game on Kickstarter. The game: Gnomi by Brian Fouts, published by Poppy Jasper Games in 2017 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Elevator pitch: 10-minute filler card game that doesn’t require a table to play – just keep your cards in your hand and put the decks in your pocket! What’s in the box? Small, sturdy box … Continue reading Gnomi

Gaming Year 2016

2016 was a good year. Lots of games. I made a new record for the number of new games tried. My previous record was 93 new games in 2011, but this year I reached 133 new games. This is a record that’s unlikely to be broken any time soon. I don’t really want to. I’ve decided … Continue reading Gaming Year 2016

Träxx

I bought a new copy of this game myself. The game: Träxx by Steffen Benndorf and Reinhard Staupe, published by Nürnberger-Spiele-Verlag in 2015. Elevator pitch: A quick simultaneous play route-building filler. May the best route win! What’s in the box? Four boards, four dry-erase pens, fifteen cards and rules. The components are minimalistic, but perfectly functional. Colours are bright … Continue reading Träxx