Monday, May 21, 2007

1889 - Too Close to Call!

We got in another 18xx game this past week - 1889, set in Shikoku, Japan (see mine and Eric's notes from our earlier playing for more detail). The rule-set is essentially 1830, with a few minor tweaks, and as we found last time it worked very well as a 2-player game of 18xx. While the game wasn't about horse-racing, it might as well have been, as the finish was every bit as close as the Preakness hose racing event this past weekend.

I started the game out with the thought of trying to get decent privates, and going from there - I managed this by getting the two largest privates, as well as the first private (the "speed-bump" in the initial stock auction). The downside to this is it meant I was not able to start a public company initially - so when Eric started the Kotoden Railroad (KO), based in Takamatsu in the northeastern part of the island (near Kotohira, which we both learned last time is the city that grows the largest), I bought in as much as I could with my limited funds. The upside of this was that I was able to dump the KO when I started my first railroad, the Iyo Railroad starting in Matsuyama. I had a private that I could exchange for a share of this company, which I ended up never using as Eric bought into the company as I floated it - in the mid-game, I thought it was a mistake to not have utilized the power of this particular private, but on the whole I believe the turn-by-turn revenue from the company that I held until the 5-trains arrived more than made up for this. Fairly early, I used my only token to put a station in Nuhama to ensure access to Kotohira when it grew later in the game.

At this point, counting privates, I was only a share or so behind Eric in number of shares - so from this point onward, I was working under the impression that I was under the gun and needed to do some shenanigans to catch up. This resulted in my moving in and out of several of Eric's companies - including, at one point, two that I thought were ripe targets of a strip-and-dump (and Eric had the priority at that point as well). I turned out to be overly paranoid (I think), as Eric was pretty focused on bringing the railways back to working order - but it worked out well, as I was able to move my holdings to the companies that he had started that had a better capital situation. This resulted in my holding my three companies, all of which had 5-trains or better (permanents), and two of Eric's companies, both of which also had permanents, whereas the companies I had dumped had 4-trains - not quite permanents, as if either of us were able to get the diesels out the 4's would rust.

The major late-game decision for me was to decide whether to go ahead and purchase a 6-train I knew I could afford, right then, or withhold a couple of turns in the hopes of being able to get a diesel. Getting a diesel would have seriously dinged Eric, as he had two companies that would have been left without trains, but my calculation was that withholding would hurt me more than getting the diesel would help me, so I chose to go with the 6-train (I believe it was in the Iyo, which at the end was running a 6-train AND a 4-train, for very nice dividends).

We entered what we thought would be the final set of ORs (Operating Rounds) - I was getting quite a bit better dividends than Eric, as my companies had larger trains, and the companies he had that were running for good amounts I held strong minority stakes in (including a 50% stake in the Sanuki Railroad, which was Eric's strongest railway, if my memory is correct). By this point, we had both gotten to the certificate limit (which is quite generous in this game), and had shuffled our holdings to what we thought would be the most valuable - either in stock value, dividend payouts, or both.

I new I was making a strong showing at the end, but I also thought I was a bit behind at that point, so I didn't expect to be able to pull out the win . . . but after the final 3 operating rounds, when we calculated our final net worths, mine was greater than Eric's by $14. Both of our total worths were in the $7000 (ok, probably Yen, but I'm not sure how to make a Yen symbol here), so the difference was very small in the scale we were talking about. Just to be certain, Eric re-calculated the scores using Excel - he'd done it by had initially - but with the same result! $14 separating 1st and 2nd in a two player game, with s cores in the $7000 range, is definitely too close to call - it's essentially a tie, or a rounding error.

I suspect that the major factor in allowing me to catch up was my decisions as to which of Eric's railroads to hold, and also my decision to go with purchasing the 6-train early, rather than trying to save enough to be able to buy a diesel (although it would definitely be interesting to see what would have happened had I made that decision instead). I do think Eric could have done a few things to slow me down - I pointed out after our game that he had a couple of tokens that could have put a serious damper on the Iyo Railroads payouts - but on the whole, I think we both played very solid games, with the result being that end result was, really, too close to call.

I'm not yet certain I'll be able to play this week - we're in the midst of packing up our house prior to a move back to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas . . . obviously, this may put a damper in the near term on our opportunities to play games, although we may investigate PBEM, Vassal and other things of that sort. If we manage to get a game in this week, I may be a bit late on getting my post up, as my computer will be packed and in transit most of next week . . .

No matter what, though, I just want to say that I've really enjoyed these evening games with Eric, and the opportunity to spout off about the games here.

So, as usual, happy gaming!

Revisiting Shikoku Railways

Last week, Tim and I got together for another game of 1889. It's the second time we've played, and knowing the map and game flow makes for a big difference in 18xx games.

I'll provide a bit of overview here, and I'll eventually write about the experience in much more detail on my personal blog. I took notes of the result of every turn (except for tile lays) so I think I can recreate the game in pretty good shape.

The game started off in my favor as I ended up with two privates (the 2nd and 3rd most expensive ones out of five. This gave me the ability to lay a port tile (which ended up not helping me all THAT much) and a free city upgrade. Tim had privates A, D, and E. This left him with insufficient cash to open his own company. So, he piggybacked on me for a bit. I opened the Kotohira (which starts in the NE corner of the board near two of the three highest valued cities) at 65. It wasn't until the 4th Stock Round that Tim had enough cash to sell off three of the four shares he'd purchased and opened up the Iyo. (Private E can be exchanged for a share of this.) After Operating Round 4 was over, Tim had six shares and $53, I had 7 shares and $89. I had the lead at this point.

It wasn't until our 7th turn when the 3 trains came out. During this turn, I had opened the Uwajima (financed by selling off my Iyo.)

Tim was doing a good job in keeping up, but I was always running one more company than him. I didn't keep track of exactly when the privates were sold, but I believe they all were before the 5 trains came out obsoleting them.

The critical part of the game came late. The first operating round of turn 10 saw the 6th and 7th companies opened. It also saw all the 5 trains AND the first 6 train purchased. We had successfully dodged being stuck without a train when the 3s disappeared (when the 6 was bought) but we were both figuring out if we were going to try to buy a Diesel. This would rust the 4s, and whomever could control when it happened was probably in the best position to win. After the 2nd 6 was bought (middle of the 2nd OR in turn 10) we both sat there really thinking it over. Tim had five trains strewn among his three companies and very little cash in their combined treasuries. He'd have to work to get enough to buy a diesel. (even with the 300 discount for trading in a train.) I only had four trains among my four companies. Two of these were 4 trains. I'd have to have enough on hand to buy two diesels, and I simply didn't see that happening. So we sort of reached a detente where neither of us wanted to go through the necessary pain to get a diesel onto the table.

The game only lasted one more turn. (we went from the first 4 being bought to the last 6 being bought in the span of 3 operating rounds.) I miscalculated a bit in the last stock round. In the end, I should have sold one of my Tosa and bought an Iyo. It had two trains and ended up paying the highest dividend. It would have ended up being $91 more in my pocket.

When we tallied up the final scores, neither of us really knew where we stood. First, we counted cash on hand. That was 2362 for Tim, and 2317 for me. Very close. Dividends in the final turn was 993 for Tim and 914 for me. I thought I had him for stock though. Turns out I did. My final stock value was 4715 to Tim's 4605. Net result?

Tim won 7960 to 7946. Fourteen dollars (okay, Yen) difference. That's a 0.18% win. Chris Brooks has referred to this as smaller than a rounding error. But the score's the score and Tim squeaked one out.

While in any game that close, you can point to a number of things you did wrong that changed the outcome, my non-purchase of the final Iyo share was probably the difference. I probably could have done some more optimal track lays, but it takes a few plays of a particular game to iron out those paths.

This game was great fun. We didn't take THAT long (just over 2.5 hours, IIRC) and we definitely had times where we really had to think about our decisions. This is a great 2-player 18xx game, and there really aren't very many of those. The system lends itself better to more players (4-5 seems best for most games) but there's always exceptions.

As usual, the company makes a huge difference, but I really enjoy 1889. I'm glad to have it in my collection and highly recommend it to any budding (or experienced) 18xx fan that's looking for a smaller game for their collection. It would likely make a good learning game, as well, as there really aren't any tricky bits. The rules are essentially exactly like 1830. It plays quick, but the map can be a bit unforgiving. There are a lot of expensive building paths, and the order in which companies come out can make a huge difference.


It's my pick this week, and I'm leaning towards either 1860 or a DIY scenario from Combat Commander. Still haven't chosen.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Railroads, Wiener Style

Eric's pick last week was a bit of a surprise for me - a pleasant one, but certainly not a game I anticipated him selecting. We played a 2-player Age of Steam expansion map set in Austria, and specifically designed as a 2-player game (with associated rules tweaks). Given my interest in 18xx games, this was right up my alley, for the most part.

The most important rules-tweak from my perspective was the total removal of the ability to issue shares - in the Austria game, each player started with 15 marks, and had to build from there.

My major gripe with the AoS system is the shares decision being so huge - and potentially ruinous to make a mistake on - that it frequently leads to a massive case of analysis paralysis. One can't really blame people for spending time on a decision that may well have such a massive impact on their success for the rest of the game, but I don't have to like it! Railroad Tycoon's allowing of share issue at any time during a turn largely solved this particular issue, but seemed to simplify the game just a bit too much. I'm hopeful the next release for this game hits the sweet spot of elegance that I think both AoS itself and Railroad Tycoon just miss.

That being said, I really enjoyed the Austria map - it worked quite well as a 2-player game, and we managed to get in two playings in the course of about 2-2.5 hours or so. The Austria map is interesting - lots of impassable terrain (as one might expect for a country in mountains). Building is constrained - links must be completed on the single build - unfinished track is not allowed - and the fact that urbanization is only allowable on the edges of the map makes this interesting.

The actions most chosen in our game were Urbanize (in order to select an appropriate new city where it will do you the most good), Locomotive (bumping your train distance) and probably the Move First action. I've not played enough regular AoS to have a good feel for how this compares to the main game.

In our first game, our rail networks developed quite differently - Eric was able to get the main east-west corridor going (from Wien to Salzburg, mainly, but including the spur to Innsbruck). My network was primarily north-south, from Klagenfurt to Wien, but including a connection to either Linz or Salzburg (I don't recall which). This first game turned out to be a pretty close fought affair, with the final scores being just a few Marks apart.

Our second game we probably should have aborted and reset, as very early Eric got himself in cash flow trouble - and the lack of shares limited his options to dig out of this hole. By the time he had a decent amount of cash, I had been able to lock up most of the major routes, including the east-west run from Wien-Salzburg-Innsbruck, but also including connections down to Klagenfurt and the foreign market beyond. I don't recall the exact scores here, but the end result was not really in doubt from early in the game. So - we really should have hit the reset button and started over.

So, with all that, what did I think of the game? Given that I'm not super familiar with Age of Steam, I found it quite fun. The first game especially was enjoyable - I actually thought I was running a bit behind, as it seemed Eric's routes were more flexible - but somehow I managed to squeak by in the end. The second game was . . . well, it's fun to win, but it's not so much fun to win by such a margin that toward the end, it seems like there aren't really any big decisions to be made.

I guess what this all boils down to is this warning - make sure you spend your initial 15 marks wisely, and in such a way that you are able to generate immediate income (otherwise, don't spend would be my advice). Getting into a spiral of . . . debt isn't the right word, since you can't issue any, but lack of revenue . . . puts you behind the eight-ball from the start, and you'll be hard pressed to get out of the spot unless your opponent stumbles enough for you to take advantage of it, and the Austria game is so quick that you may not have enough time to take advantage of any such mistakes.

Age of Steam can be an enjoyable game, and I found the Austria map to be quite good as a 2-player game. Especially given the company, and the fact that we were able to get in two games in three hours!

It's my choice this week, but I've not yet made my choice. I hope to be able to post a comment tomorrow with it . . .

Until next week - happy gaming!

Moving Goods in Austria

This week, I decided to break off the wargamey path we'd been trodding for a while and chose the Austria expansion for Age of Steam as our game of the week. This is a 2-player only expansion, and as such tweaks the basic Age of Steam rules a bit to make it work for only two players.

Age of Steam is a game I don't get to play nearly enough. It's not popular in our gaming group as it's a bit too much of a thinker for most people to suggest on a weeknight, and it's not long enough to pull out on a weekend. It's right in the middle. Perfect for Tim and I.

We both needed a refresher as it had been a while since either of us had played Age of Steam. The Austria changes made the refresher a tad more complex. Here's what Austria does to the basic game:
  1. There's no auction for player order. Instead, over the eight turns you to what I call a “long switchback.” First player in each turn goes ABABBABA.
  2. There's no shares. You start with $15, and cannot raise more capital. All income is purely from operations.
  3. You pay $4/tile. In every case, unless we got the rule wrong.
  4. Towns cannot be urbanized. Instead, there's 10 or so spaces external to the map where you can urbanize. These can be built to as normal.
  5. You cannot build incomplete links.
  6. Production is slightly tweaked in that Vienna always gets two more cubes every turn, and each of the other cities is both a black and white city. Graz, in fact, produces on both 5s and 6s.
  7. Cash at the end of the game is worth 1 VP for each $20.
The results of these changes tend to restrict building early as you're short on cash, and restrict building late as you're pretty much out of places to build. This is probably good, as it's a very small map.

We stumbled through our first couple turns as things started clicking. Tim had a little bit of a lead on me in income, but I was building more track. It was pretty tough to determine who was going to come out ahead, though. I was building mostly across the north edge of the map, and Tim was building from the south into the middle. I eventually caught Tim in income, and it was even more unclear who was going to win. The final score was 153-152. Tim pulled it out by a single point. If I remember correctly, it was due to final cash on hand.

One pattern emerged – in almost every case, the player going first chose Urbanization and built to the new city.

The game took just over an hour to play, so we gave it another go.

This time, however, I completely botched my read of the opening board. I ended up making my first build in such a way that I had nothing to deliver on the 2nd turn. This put me in a huge hole and I never really recovered. The drawback to this in the 2-player game is that Tim was able to build pretty much wherever he wanted and receive all the benefits of my slow start. In a multi-player game, this likely would have been split among the other players, reducing my deficit. In the end, Tim nearly doubled my score. Every now and then, you lay a clunker, and that's certainly what I did here.

So, in the end, what did I think?

I love Age of Steam – it's an unforgiving game that rewards planning. I may not play it often, but I've greatly enjoyed it nearly every time. The Austria expansion, though, left me a little underwhelmed. The two-player rules are a good change, but I think the map led to some automatic decisions. In particular, it seemed nearly automatic to choose Urbanization if you were the first player. Other than the first turn of each game and once when my financial distress in the second game caused me to make another choice, Urbanization was chosen (I think) every time by the first player. On the first turns, Locomotive was chosen instead. The only angst in action selection was when you were the second player and was deciding whether you felt you needed to move or build first.

Perhaps it would get better with more plays, and some subtleties would reveal themselves, but I don't see that happening any time soon. As it is, I'll probably have to rank Austria at the bottom of the expansions I've played. Disappointing, as I was looking forward to this two-player version. Perhaps another two-player expansion will appear in the future.


It's Tim's choice this week, and he was completely undecided when he left my place. So I have no idea what I'm in for this week.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Prickly Pachyderms

Last week was Tim's choice, and he wanted a Command and Colors: Ancients scenario with Oliphants.

I'd recently been listening to a great audio course from the Teaching Company called “Great Battles of the Ancient World.” During the time when I was looking through scenarios, I was in the middle of the two lectures on the Macedonian army of Philip II (Alexander's father), Alexander's conquests, and the Successor states. (Granted, the Successors aren't covered much – not all that much innovation happened after Alexander's death until the rise of Rome.)

A good battle jumped out from the scenarios included in Expansion #1Raphia. This was fought near the present-day town of Rafah in Gaza in 217 BC between the armies of Ptolemy IV of Egypt (an ancestor of Cleopatra, I believe) and Antiochus III the Great of the Seleucid Kingdom (the easternmost of Alexander's Successor States).

The battle features no terrain, and two elephant units per side - one on each wing. The armies were both deployed in a similar fashion, but the Egyptians had fewer light troops. As is typical with C&C:A, we played the battle twice, swapping sides. As is also typical, both battles played out very differently.

The first battle saw me as the Seleucids involved both of us advancing on the flanks. I focused on the right, Tim on my left. There was a surprising amount of give and take until my elephants finally gave way. A handful of casualties were caused by rampaging, but nothing too major. The battle was going back and forth, however, as I was winning on my attack, but in danger of letting Tim through on my left. I had a severe drought of command cards capable of protecting my left flank, so I started to advance in the center. Events brought my attention back to my dominant right flank, however, and the final blow was struck at the end of Tim's center line. In a close battle, I ended up winning 8-6.

We swapped sides and gave it another go.

This time played out completely differently as we both pushed the center. The main battle lines clashed right about the same time things started to come to a head with the elephants. This session saw a LOT of elephant-on-elephant clashes. Mine eventually took the worst of it, again. I also took quite a few casualties from elephant rampages, weakening my left flank, in particular. If I remember correctly, I even lost my heavy cavalry unit to elephant rampage.

The final blow came on an attack up the center from Tim's main battle line. He managed to get two units attacking my heavy infantry unit with a leader attached, and took both out for the final two flags he needed for victory. The final score in this battle was 8-2, but at the end Tim had six different units down to a single block, one with an attached leader. The score here wasn't really indicative of the battle, but Tim definitely had the initiative most of the game, giving him the advantage. Interestingly enough, the historical winner of this battle lost both games.

Absolute top-notch gaming entertainment.

I'm particularly impressed in the very simple modeling of elephant combat strength to handle their increasing effectiveness against denser opponents. Elephants simply roll a number of dice equal to what their opponent would roll. Pack a legion up against them, and the elephant will go to town stomping away. Put them up against skirmishers (their historical nemesis) and they roll a usually ineffective two dice. Having only two blocks makes them more brittle than cavalry – also historically accurate. Very elegant design.

An interesting comparison struck me after Tim and I were done between C&C:A and Clash for a Continent discussed here a few weeks ago. In particular, the Camden scenario in CfaC. That battle also features two similar armies lined up across from each other with no terrain of consequence involved. Yet, Raphia proved so much more interesting, challenging, and entertaining than our Camden session. In fact, it was several orders of magnitude better. Tim's feeling is that the command cards in the C&C system make all the difference as you can't fully control where the action is at. CfaC at least gives some randomness in the varying action points, but you can still spend them wherever you choose, producing an increased level of control. While that may likely be better in terrain heavy situations, I think it breaks down in the type of battles frequently seen in ancient warfare: large armies arrayed in battle lines across a featureless plain. The command cards in the C&C system lead to asymmetries during play that make for more interesting tactical decisions as the game goes on. The increased number of troop types certainly help this situation as well.


It's my turn to choose this week, and I still have no clue what I want to play. I'm thinking of straying outside our typically covered ground, but I'll need to give Tim as much notice as possible if I do that. I'll post a comment here, likely Tuesday morning, when I've made my decision.


We pulled out Command & Colors: Ancients Thursday, this time using a scenario and units from the expansion which adds the Greeks and Eastern Kingdoms. The scenario chosen by Eric - I chose the game, and asked for a scenario involving Elephants - was the Battle of Raphia, a battle between two successor kingdoms of Alexander the Greats empire - Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire. Again, we're in an area of history I have a sketchy knowledge of at best, so check out the links for more info on the history of the battle.

We played the scenario twice - switching sides in between - but both battles proceeded quite differently. In the first battle, the focus of the battle was the flanks - we both opened up with ranged weapons initially (archers and slingers), but the expected clash of the main lines of the opposing armies never happened, as the flanks were always too pressing for either of us to spend much effort on moving the heavy units in the center forward.

The elephants were, as expected, devastating, especially when sent against heavy units - an interesting element of using elephants is they roll dice according to what the unit they are attacking would roll. This leads you to send them up against heavy units when possible. I believe the logic of this is that light units are more maneuverable and would simply avoid contact with the elephants units, while tight formations of heavily armored troops were much more subject to disruption by a charging elephant. Elephants also re-roll sword hits, which can result in very strong attacks if the dice go well.

Elephants are also quite fragile, however - they only have two blocks per unit, so don't require many hits to eliminate. Perhaps more importantly, elephants rampage whenever forced to retreat - this means that they attack with two dice ALL adjacent units. This is great if they're right up against your enemies lines . . . not so good if they elephants are in the midst of your own lines!

IIRC, Eric won the first match with a score of 8-6 or so - it was close, whatever the exact values were.

So we flipped sides, and proceeded to go at it again - the second match being more "traditional", in that the bulk of the battle was the clash of the main lines in the center, with some fighting on the flanks. This was also a close game - the final score of 8-2 may not seem all that close, but at the time I managed to win, I had a total of six (6) units with a single block remaining. So had the dice gone slightly differently, the result could easily have been different in the second battle.

I am finding myself enjoying this game more and more with each play - a sure sign of a game with some staying power, at least for me. The addition of newer units (this was the first scenario I've played with elephants, for instance) didn't add too much to the complexity level. They did, however, increase the number of tactical decisions - elephants are definitely an interesting unit type to use, with devastating attacks but fragile units with the potential to rampage and damage your own side (or anyone in the way, really)!

I'm not sure what's on tap for this week - it's Eric's choice this time, and he hadn't yet decided as we were wrapping up - but I'm sure it will be something interesting, and I look forward to playing.

Until next week, then - happy gaming!