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

Train games aplenty

JunaCon (“TrainCon”) in Turku was an efficient little con. I had booked a group of players willing to try anything, and we blazed through a pile of Winsome clamshells.

Robber Barons is a family game with serious user interface issues, but if you can live with them, it’s actually pretty neat. I quite liked it. There’s a tension between building to high-scoring locations to score points with route cards and developing your network. Five players is probably too much for this, I’d love to try this with just three or four. Suggest

Texas & Pacific I had played before. It’s a clean little version of the Wabash Cannonball hex-cubes-and-shares railroad game. It plays fast, but offers relatively little extra, I think. Nice, but… Suggest

New York Central is a quick but confusing card game. After the first game it’ll click. I’ll have to play this one more, as it was quite interesting. Players collect shares to gain majorities in railroads in order to score passenger runs. Accepting a passenger run to score points means a loss of shares, though, and there’s an end game scoring based on share majorities. It’s pleasantly complicated. Suggest

Australian Railways is one of the Age of Steam predecessors I hadn’t yet tried. It was fun. I like these relatives of Volldampf, as the need to use rails owned by your opponents spices up the game. The Australian variant has an interesting government railroad and nice organic track growth, which means the tracks will be usable from the get go. I liked this enough to print out the Peter Mumford redraw of the map. Suggest

South African Railroads is an old, familiar game, but one I always like to play. It’s definitely one of the better Winsome train games. It plays reasonably fast, yet offers lots of drama and punch. The end game scoring is interesting. Suggest

Rolling Freight was not a Winsome. It’s a train game from APE Games. I considered Kickstarting it, but didn’t, because it was too expensive and too long. Now that I tried it, I’m glad I didn’t, because it is too long for what it is. It has some good ideas, but somehow the whole thing didn’t quite click for me. The game also doesn’t look particularly good (which is kind of funny thing to say after playing a bunch of Winsome titles, but anyway). Indifferent

The Thursday before JunaCon we played Kings of Air and Steam, a Kickstarter project that finally arrived. It’s a pickup-and-delivery game, where you program your airship to pickup goods from factories to unload them to railroad depots, then you deliver from depots to cities with demand. There’s plenty of timing involved, and with the programming element it gets deliciously tricky, especially if you wish to have a plan B in case plan A falls through. Squeezing in a plan C is probably impossible… Not bad, not bad at all. The game scales from 2–7, which is interesting. Suggest

Ansi is playing Australian Railways

Card display in New York Central

Thin blue line

Ruhr region

Railroads to build in Rolling Freight #boardgames

Tracks around Johannesburg in South African Railroads #boardgames

Tracks around Sydney in Australian Railways #boardgames

Gaming Year 2011

2010 was a good year. Well, 2011 was even better. I played more games than on any year on my records. Quality matters, too, but I can control quality more than I can control quantity and if quantity is good, quality tends to be good as well.

I played lots of games with my son. My daughter, who is soon three, has started to become interested in games. We’ve played our first real games, and spent lots of time playing with games. Her favourites are Blokus, Kids from Catan and Kayanak.

I had to miss couple of cons early in the year, but managed to visit Ropecon and stay overnight at Helcon (or Lautapelaamaan, as it is called now).

I played lots of PBEM 18xx earlier this year. It was fun, but takes a bit too much time. It’s still nice to have that option. All in all I’d say my interest in 18xx has waned a bit. The games just take too much time. There’s a game or two running in every con, yet I had no interest in playing at Helcon, for example. I did play a game of 1865 in Ropecon, and kind of wish I hadn’t.

I’ve added some of my best board game photos taken in 2010.

Exploring Africa

Good new games (2010-2011)

South African Railroads. A new Winsome game, or actually a remake of an older Veld Railroads, which had the same game under more chrome. I had Veld Railroads, too, but sold it unplayed after SAR was published. This leaner remake has everything I need, I can’t see how adding more stuff would improve the game. It’s rather good as it is, a quite delightful game of small dividends and player-triggered dividend payouts that shorten the game. Players are given plenty of tools to work wonders in this game.

Dobble. Probably better known as Spot It! Lovely pattern-recognition game. May be difficult to get on table, as these kinds of games are polarizing, but I like it a lot.

Puzzle Strike. I’m intrigued by this game. It’s supposed to be the Better Dominion, but I’m not seeing that yet. Then again, I did play nine games and I’m still not sure what to think about this game. Looks like I need to play more. This may end up a keeper or in the trade pile, I’ll try to make up my mind until Ropecon next summer, but it sure is an interesting game and worth trying if you’re interested in deck-builders.

Rattus. Maybe a bit of a flash in a pan? We quickly played five games of this in May, then afterwards I only played this once. Still, it’s a fun game of bashing the other players. The Pied Piper expansion is fairly important, I think, as it gives the game a lot more variety, which is good.

Pantheon. Bernd Brunnhofer is a very reliable designer, who has done three very good games. Pantheon is the most recent, and a very good game. Good dose of luck, but also timing, strategy and opportunity. Mechanically the game is very solid and well-executed. This is something I’d like to explore further in 2012.

1865: Sardinia. The one face-to-face 18xx game I played this year. I also played a PBEM game. Not bad, not at all, lots of good ideas in this one. Might be interesting to try with just two players.

Ascending Empires. The idea here seemed crazy enough to be interesting: a 4X flicking game. First, though, the game didn’t fit on the tables of our regular meeting place (that has been fixed now by a change of venue) and then the first game took two hours… Well, the second game took just 60 minutes or so, which is much better. This game offers lots of promise, too bad the rules are a bit too vague for my tastes.

Eclipse. It’s been great fun to watch how successful Eclipse has been. It’s come a long way in a year or so, from November 2010 when I first played the prototype to now when the game is in BGG Top 100 and I have my own copy. It’s a very good game and overall one of the highlights in 2011.

Jishaku. I’m not sure what to think of this one. Not much of a game, but plays in couple of minutes and I did play it more than ten times, so it can’t be garbage. Not a keeper, but a fun filler with a nice gimmick.

Rats in Italy

Good older games I haven’t played before

Lamarckian poker. I finally took the effort to learn the rules to this classic. It was well worth it, as this is a great little filler. Very simple, uses standard playing cards, easy to teach if people know the Poker hands, and plays fast. It rarely takes more than five minutes to go through a pack. This is something everybody should know, just in case.

Stone Age. Another Brunnhofer game. This is my favourite worker placement game now. The dice work well here, you can take risks or play it safe. There’s several valid approaches to the game and the starvation strategy is an interesting twist to try. All in all very well done. I’ve left my copy at my mom’s place, because they love the game and I mostly play it with them, so I’ve been mostly playing this with experienced players — always a good idea.

Lords of Vegas. An interesting game with a theme of gambling and property development and game mechanics to match. In the long run this may be too luck-heavy, but as it is, I’m rather interested in the game right now.

Oregon. I had completely dismissed Oregon as a boring family game when it was published. I played it, and it turns out it’s a pretty good game! Family game, yes, but the game plays fast, 30-45 minutes, and has quite enough strategy and tactics in a simple, easy-to-teach package. All in all rather lovely game.

Cavum. Just one play, but it was very promising.

Mr. Ship, meet mr. Wrecking Ball - Version 2

Children’s games

These are the children’s games we played most, in the order from most popular to least popular. All games mentioned here were played at least five times. There were over 30 games that didn’t reach five games and didn’t make it to the list.

Kids of Carcassonne. Nooa doesn’t fancy this, I said last year. This year we got over 50 plays out of this! Based on first half of the year, I was expecting reaching hundred plays, but the enthusiasm waned a bit. I remember a day when we played ten games in a row, at approximately three minutes per game. Fun. Nooa also likes the adult Carcassonne and I think we might be moving on from Kids of Carcassonne, but it has been a good ride and I definitely recommend this game.

Geistertreppe. Didn’t make the list last year, now 30 plays. Roll-and-move doesn’t get much better than this. Very entertaining little game, and plays fast. A bit poor with just two players, but we still enjoyed it a lot. This is a classic game for kids (the sequel, Geisterwäldchen, less so).

Villa Paletti. A hit last year, a bigger hit this year. The tower-building game is a classic, and this is more interesting than basic Jenga (which we also played).

Gulo Gulo. Last year’s number one hit game took a bit of a dive. Iain says this isn’t as good as people say… I still think it’s a very good game, but yeah. My daughter has shown some interest for this, though.

Click Clack. This is starting to feel a bit childish, then again I just played this for the first time with my daughter. So, there’s life for this game still.

Kraken-Alarm. Rather entertaining little memory game, with a really cool swinging wrecking ball that is used to capsize a boat. It’s a gimmick, but it’s a fun gimmick and the game works. Well, it can be a bit stale at times, but we still played more than ten games.

Forbidden Island. My son liked this one enough so we played about ten games. Well, I played and he gave some suggestions. Co-ops can be good with kids. I’m rather bored of the game myself, though.

Maskenball der Käfer. Simple co-op game. Pretty good for three-year-olds. My son (five) has asked for this occasionally, haven’t yet tried this with my daughter.

Settlers of Catan Junior. This continues to be popular.

Mouse Carousel. When did we play eleven games of this? Probably didn’t take many sessions. Not a bad memory game, actually.

Kayanak. Popular, though tends to encourage creative play as the rules are not pleasant to the kids. My son doesn’t like the dictatorship of the dice. My daughter loves to play with this game, too. Punching holes in paper and fishing for metal balls is just great fun…

Das magische Labyrinth. Still reasonably popular, and I enjoyed the game even more once we forgot the dice and just moved three steps each turn.

Kids from Catan. There’s hardly any game in the box, but the components are cool and my three-year-old daughter likes the game. What’s more to ask? I also paid the princely sum of four euros for the game. I’ll probably get rid of the game once the kids grow out of it, but so far I’m going to enjoy it with my daughter.

Das kleine Gespenst. Fun little memory game.

Mysteries of Peking. This is actually a fairly awful game, but I have fond memories of it from my childhood and my son loves it. We play it almost every time we’re at the inlaws (it’s my wife’s old copy).

Dawn Under. I’ve sold mine long time ago, but I borrowed my mother’s copy. We’ve played couple of games, not a bad game at all.

Schildkrötenrennen. I’d like to play more, but this is still a bit demanding for my son. Keeping his colour a secret, for example, is still a bit of a challenge.

Animal upon Animal – Balancing Bridge. The original didn’t make it to the list and this new version only barely. Not my son’s favourite games at the moment. I keep suggesting the original every now and then, but with little success.

Arvaa kumpi voitti

Games I’ve kept on enjoying

String Railway. Still an excellent filler. Fortunately I’ve been able to avoid the most analytical players, as those sort of ruin the game. It’s just not precise enough for very exact play. You have to relax a bit. I also have the Transport sequel, which I’ve only played once, but it seems very promising too.

Nile DeLuxor. Nile was good, one of the hits in 2010, and the new DeLuxor version improves it. There’s a decent box, actually usable cards and more cards to improve the game with larger player counts. Nile is very good with two or three players and decent with four and six. Rather entertaining little filler.

Carcassonne. This old classic made a bit of a comeback, thanks to the excellent iPad Carcassonne. I’ve played it quite a bit, both against AIs and humans, and I’ve found that Carcassonne is actually a rather excellent game. It’s really well done and fun to play.

Innovation. Playing Innovation is tricky, but I still managed eight games, mostly two-player games with Hannu (who is just about the only person in my game group who likes the game).

SNCF. This got eight plays, not bad, but could be better, as it is a rather excellent little game. Now better known as Paris Connection, this is a rather elegant game of railroads and shares, but unfortunately nobody else seems to be as thrilled by it as I am. I need to push it a bit more as a filler; it stands a good chance, because the game is very player count flexible.

Samarkand. I still like it a lot. No sight of the expansion so far, but to be honest, I think I’m better off without it.

Bunte Runde. I finally got myself a copy of this charming little game. This could go under children’s games, but I also played this with adults. I think this is a lovely little abstract.

Casino boss

The not-so-good, the disappointing and the plain bad

The Enigma of Leonardo. This was pretty dreadful.

Excape. Knizia game, but very frustrating.

Roope-setä Liikemiespeli. The worst business game of the year.

Days of Steam. This was one of the worst disappointments. Well, I knew this might not be the hottest game, but still… it fell incredibly flat. The game has some real problems and it is pretty much unplayable until fixed. Too bad, I liked parts of it quite a bit.

Chunky Fighters. Kind of interesting, but eventually very tedious.

Portobello Market

Fives and dimes

Longest list ever? Maybe. Dimes:

  • Kids of Carcassonne (57)
  • Geistertreppe (32)
  • Villa Paletti (18)
  • Dominion (17)
  • Lamarckian Poker (16)
  • String Railway (14)
  • Gulo Gulo (13)
  • Haselnussbande (13)
  • Jishaku (13)
  • Forbidden Island (12)
  • 7 Wonders (12)
  • Mouse Carousel (11)
  • Nile DeLuxor (11)
  • Kraken-Alarm (11)
  • Dobble (10)
  • Carneval (10)

Fives:

  • Settlers of Catan Junior (9)
  • Stone Age (9)
  • Puzzle Strike (9)
  • Carcassonne (9)
  • Innovation (8)
  • SNCF (8)
  • Bunte Runde (8)
  • Kayanak (8)
  • Kids from Catan (7)
  • Samarkand (7)
  • Dawn Under (7)
  • Das kleine Gespenst (7)
  • Das magische Labyrinth (7)
  • Battle Line (6)
  • Schildkrötenrennen (6)
  • Terra Evolution (6)
  • The Mysteries of Peking (6)
  • Rattus (6)
  • Repello (5)
  • Principato (5)
  • Jälkipeli (5)
  • The Resistance (5)
  • Geschenkt (5)
  • Animal upon Animal – Balancing Bridge (5)

Lining up

Year metric

  • Battle Line (10/11)
  • Attika (9/9)
  • Age of Steam (9/9
  • San Juan (8/8)
  • Ta Yü (8/9)
  • Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (8/10)
  • Ingenious * (7/8)
  • Gang of Four (7/9)
  • Tarock (5/5)

First number is the years I’ve played the game, second is the number of years since the first time I played. So, I first played Age of Steam eight years ago and have played it every year since that. With Battle Line I’ve missed a year. I didn’t play games marked with an asterisk this year.

Oops!

H-index

My H-index for this year is 11. All-time H-index is 26, two up from last year.

Ropecon 2011

I’ve been avoiding Ropecon for the last ten years or so, but since I missed both JunaCon and JyCon — both more interesting cons for various reasons — I decided to go for Ropecon this year. It’d be a day trip to Espoo, meaning two hours or so of driving both ways and about eight … Continue reading Ropecon 2011

South African Railroads, Skat

I’ve missed two previous Wednesdays (the whole days, simply gone, no sight of them), so I was very glad to be able to attend this week. Vacation hit this week, and lots of people were already playing by noon and we had eight people playing at the same time, which is unusually good. When I … Continue reading South African Railroads, Skat