By Peer Sylvester
Welcome to North American Railways!
Once upon a time I read something about some game. OK, I guess, that’s not very helpful in understanding why I created North American Railways. I am actually a bit fuzzy on the details, but I remember the description of that game said something about it being a kind of “18xx card game for two players”. I don’t play many two player games, so I was not really interested in this particular one (whatever it was), but I found the idea of a 18xx card game intriguing. I am a fan of the larger 18xx games, but lack the time and players to bring them to the table more than once a year. So I started thinking: Would it be possible to translate the feeling from 18xx’s to the card game format?
The biggest issue when not utilizing a board is the lack of topology and track building that comes with the larger board games. That is something vital for every railroad game and how would it be possible to simulate this with cards? I decided that cards with costs and revenues which could be taken from a pool of cards would best simulate this mechanic. Then, to add to that, you only can take cards from the lowest row, rather than choose from the larger pool. This way there are different cities to consider not only every turn, but the order in which they come out will differ in every game. This adds an element of tension because you can “steal” cities from your opponent (like blocking someone off using a track in a more classic railroad game). Of course the geography is messed up because of this randomness, but card games are more abstract than board game; you have to pick your battles in game design.
Because I like simple rules I used the same mechanism to acquire the stocks: Each player will get one each round from the pool and you can take only one from the lowest row. This way people do have information which stocks will potentially come later, but also have a way of influencing which they will get or which ones they want their opponents to get.
One of the hallmarks of 18xx games is the separation of player money and company money. So I kept that. I also kept that companies are connecting the cities and players are buying stock in each of the companies. However since this should be a shorter game all players can act for their companies, not just the president. This has the added effect that a company with many owners can potentially connect more cities because more players “work” for them – if they want to.
Of course there has to be a mechanism for the companies to gain money (so they can spend it to connect cities). The logical (and thematic) way is to do this via shares. Shares were invented to finance train building after all. Now, I really like “free price systems” where players can pick whatever price they want. This has the big advantage that games can vary hugely between different plays and there is no clear winning path. It leaves a lot of room for experimentation. So the first idea was for the players to pay whatever they want for the first share in a company; if they don’t pay much, the company won’t be able to pay for many cities and cannot generate much revenue. However, other players are discouraged to buy into the company because the original buyer is able to keep more cash. This is important, because if someone wants to buy into your company, s/he makes you an offer and you have the option of purchasing the share yourself if you have enough cash, effectively keeping the other person from buying more shares of your stock and taking control of your company. This is a mechanism I first encountered in Big Deal (but there you have to buy all the stock from the other player) and I really liked it because it offers a poker element – How much can I ask from him? How low can I go? Will he have enough cash left to pay for the stock? This makes the game really about investing – and you cannot calculate anything 100%. It also means you should not keep fully invested – which is a big difference to other train games.
Players gain income from their stocks, that pay dividends according to the cities. I used a mechanism I enjoyed from Chicago Express: The revenue is divided by the number of stocks. That means every sold stock directly influences how much money is paid to whom.
Most of the game worked from the start. I was mainly worried about extreme strategies that would break the game so I added some push-back-mechanisms to prevent that from happening. For example, apart from the first share sold, the company only ever receives half of the price paid. The biggest stumbling block was that the game seemed to end too late. With the original ending condition, players couldn’t buy shares any longer, but companies could still connect cities, which led to a lot of calculating in the end with little else to do. So I added alternative ending conditions. Three, to be exact. This allowed for a more fluid end to the game that didn’t create analysis paralysis as players calculated the most lucrative way to end the game. I also removed terrain cards, that made city cards more expensive to build, but didn’t really add enough to the game to justify the added rules that came with them. The rest was a bit of balancing, setting “good” prices that were neither to low nor to high, and adjusting the final share values you can receive without having to have the most number of shares.
A funny thing that did change was the name. The original prototype was called North American Railroads. I really don’t know when it changed to Railways and why. It just suddenly became the working title. I guess it was unintentional. I still have to check that I wrote down the right name, when talking about Railways…
All in all, I am very happy with my game and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
You can follow Peer on Twitter: @Koenigvonsiam