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Veld Spoorweg, the second in the Prairie Railroads series, is Dutch-Afrikaans for "Prairie Railroads." Designed by Martin Wallace and researched by John Bohrer, Veld Spoorweg takes place in the fertile prairies of Southern Africa, 1885-1918. Players expand the railroads into the veld after the discovery of Gold in Johannesburg and Diamonds in Kimberley. The game map covers the Orange Free State in its entirety and includes sections of the Cape Colony, Natal, Mozambique and the Transvaal Republic. Railroads are created, stock is issued, track is built, dividends are paid and hidden commercial interests are revealed.
Veld Spoorweg includes these Prairie Railroads:
A games designer looking to lengthen his CV could do a lot worse than design a train game, because as soon as you have one that works, you can relabel it as a "system" and start doing further maps and different scenarios. Try this with most other topics and there will be dark mutterings, but train garners, like wargamers before them, not only won't complain, they'll applaud. Soon, almost before you know it, your list of credits is halfway down the page. We have seen it (and enjoyed it) with [page scan/se=0428/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]18xx, [page scan/se=0197/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]xxRails, [page scan/se=0490/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Tracks to XX, [page scan/se=0491/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Trainsport: XX and umpteen [page scan/se=0529/sf=category/fi=stockall.asc/ml=20]Railway Rivals maps (though I feel that David Watts missed a trick in forgetting about colons). Now Martin Wallace is off down the same path, for Veld Spoorweg is a follow-up to Ferrocarriles Pampas, the railways in Argentina game that he and Winsome gave us last year. This time the setting is South Africa and there is some added colour provided by the British-Afrikaner rivalry and the Boer War. (That is the one where, as Sellars and Yeatman observed in '1066 and all that', the Boers tried to cheat by wearing veldt hats and using Pom-Pom bullets.)
Mike Siggins reviewed the earlier game last Summer in Sumo 39/40. Most of you will have read what he had to say and so I shall be brief about the mechanics. The game is driven by a set of 72 chits, each player draws one on their turn and it dictates the sort of thing they can do. The chits come in three sorts: 40 "construct track", 24 "offer stock" and 8 "pay dividends". A "construct track" (always in the earlier game; usually in this one) entitles a player to propose a track extension for one of the railroads in which they have an interest. The other players then have the opportunity to make a counter proposal and there follows a negotiation and bidding procedure to determine which of the resulting consortiums gets its way. As Mike observed, this is a clever idea and leads to some interesting game play. An "offer stock" entitles the player to propose the sale by auction of an unsold share in one of the companies. There are six conipanies, five shares in each, and it is ownership of these shares that provides the players with their income and ultimately with the wealth that will determine victory. In these auctions there is a reserve price of one fifth of the company's current value, a figure that is equal to the basic cost of the track they have built so far. The track built and the cities connected also determine a company's current income and with it the dividends they will pay out to shareholders when a "pay dividend" chit is drawn. Again, both of these ideas--for company value and current income--are neat and logical.
Mike's verdict on Ferrocarriles Pampas was that the game had a very clever core which was slightly ill-served by the secondary mechanisms and I agree. The best bits first: If you have been thinking about the actions Construct Track and Offer Stock rather more than I did before our first game, you will will have realised that they present the players with a difficult problem that calls for delicate handling. To do well you must own shares and you want those shares to be in the most valuable companies. However, a company won't become valuable unless people spend money building track for it and that money is the same money that they'd like to have to hand when shares come on offer. If you get too enthusiastic about constructing track for the company whose share you bought at the start, you are likely to find yourself strapped for cash when an OS chit comes up and will be forced to watch helplessly while some freeloader buys into "your" company and benefits from the investment you have just made. On the other hand, the consortium mechanism means that it is important that other players want the companies you have shares in to prosper. So you have to make the company look attractive and that means building track. It is a difficult balancing act calling for sophisticated thinking by both individual players and the group as a whole. It is also the sort of thing that gives a game replay value.
One of the things Mike was less happy about was the way the chits operated and here I disagree with him slightly. He wasn't sure that they quite worked. I am sure: they don't, or at least they won't always. The idea of them is, I presume, to avoid an artificial, pre-determined order of events. This is a laudable aim, but if it is to succeed in its object, the distribution of the various types of chits in the overall order still needs to be fairly even. In particular, the pay dividends chits need to come out roughly on time. If they don't, you can all sit around for a long time waiting for a "pay dividends" to appear, getting increasingly frustrated, and unable to act on any of the other chits because you have all run out of money. On many occasions it won't happen, but sometimes it will and unless you are hooked on the idea of the game as a means of testing fortitude and moral fibre, it is not the way to have fun. Intuition says that on average they will appear roughly on time, but as anyone who has ever studied probability theory will tell you, one of the things you learn very quickly is that this is an area where intuition is unreliable and that what happens on average is a long way from what happens normally. Eight PD chits out of 72 is a very thin scattering and long runs without a payout are things that you can expect to happen, rather than things that are crimes against nature. If you want evenness, and unless you are either a very experienced player or addicted to hair shirts I suggest you do, you are going to have to impose it; you can't rely on probability to do it for you. One approach, that doesn't do too much violence to Martin's idea, would be to split the chits into eight piles, each containing 8 CT, 3 OS and 1 PD. Then when making the draws, you exhaust pile l before moving on to pile 2, and so on. If you think that 8 piles is too many, then use 4.
Everything I have dealt with so far is a feature of both games. What about the stuff that is different about this one? There is more map: it is the same physical size (American equivalent of A3), but more of the surface is taken up with the playing area and there are a lot more towns than there are in Ferrocarriles Pampas. Then come the features designed to give some flavour of the border problems caused by Anglo-Boer feuding and of the consequences on company profitability and the health of your track of the war itself. The start has also been changed: in the earlier game, companies came in as players saw fit to introduce them and the first share in each company was at a fixed price; in Veld Spoorweg five of the six appear right at the beginning, with the first share in each being auctioned off. And finally, Martin has made a major change to the way that the city interest cards are handled.
The city interest cards are one of these "at the start you are assigned home towns by means or cards and you get a pay-off when they are connected into the network" jobs. In FP the pay-off came at the end; here it happens when the connection is made. The method of calculating it is also different. Mike thought that it was the weakest part of the package and, although Martin has made changes, I still have reservations. It works and it provides each player with an extra set of objectives, which will influence their attitude to the various construction proposals. It is also less open to the "too much luck" charge that Mike made against the FP version. However, I am still not convinced that the extra game play is worth the extra hassle, at least, not for the first game or two. The problem is that this is a smallish map containing a lot of towns and probably sitting in the middle of a fairly large table. Unless you have either a detailed knowledge of the geography of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State or the eyes of a kestrel, you are going to be spending a lot of time bouncing up and down in order to remind yourself where these damn places are. The designer was clearly aware of the problem and he has thought to mark the positions of the towns on the cards, but at this size and scale, although that is a help, it is not help enough. Until you are familiar with the geography, I suggest you play without the cards. You won't be sacrificing a lot of the game and you will save a lot of time. After you have played a few times, put them back in and take your own decision about which version you prefer.
The Boer War runs to a clock that is governed by the pay dividends chits: it starts with the appearance of the third chit and ends with that of the fourth. While it is on, no track can be constructed and players drawing CT chits have to pay to repair existing track. The war also affects the payouts themselves: before the war they are high (triple dividends for PDI and double for PD2); during the war (PD3 and PD4) they are halved; thereafter they are standard. The game ends with the drawing of PD8. The low dividends during the war make sense, as does the halt to track building, but I can't see a historical reason for the multipliers at the start. I guess that it is just that the testers found that the game needed an extra injection of capital at this point and this was one way to bring it about. As a solution to a such a problem, it will work provided the chits appear at about the expected times, but see my earlier comments on probability. In our first game the first dividends chit took about three times as long to appear as it should have and when it did come the effect was rather as though two of the players had come up on the lottery, leaving the other three as spectators. This was partly the result of our own errors of judgement, but not entirely.
In summary, my verdict is much the same as Mike's on Ferrocarriles Pampas. This is an interesting game, but for my taste it is one that needs a bit of easily administered extra tweaking. I also think that it is a game with a high replay value but that if you are going to benefit from that, you need to be part of a group which likes to play the same game repeatedly within a fairly short period of time. Skilful play, and the enjoyment that comes from it, requires that you all have a good idea of how much to bid for things and how to deal with that central problem of balancing purely personal expenditure (shares) with group expenditure (track). Such knowledge can only come from experience. Groups who prefer a lot of variety in their games playing, and aren't willing to put a lot of time into getting under the skin of just one, will probably find that there are other railway games more to their liking. So it is a case of know thyself and decide accordingly.