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