Prairie Railroads: Kansas 1870 - 1880
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Prairie Railroads is set in Kansas from 1870-1880 and includes these railroads:
This game has a similarity to the Agentine Ferrocarriles Pampas and the South African Veld Spoorweg, but not many. Building flatland railroads was a different experience in each of these countries. Some elements of this latest game:
This game is a gem -- a railroad building game that bears some similarity to the various other games on the market, but has enough original twists that it's fun to play.
And, it can be completed in a very reasonable amount of time -- 2 - 2.5 hours, in my experience.
You have the opportunity to invest in six different railroads as they attempt to build their tracks across Kansas. As a majority shareholder in these railroads, you need to make decisions about which tracks to build -- whether to build tracks through well-developed cities, or to forge westward in search of the lucrative Westward Expansion tracks. Semi-random Dividend Rounds supplement your operating capital, and the money you spend on stock is then used by the various railroads to construct track...
We really enjoyed playing this one -- it was well-balanced and enjoyable, and the final outcome wasn't clear until the money was counted up. Nevertheless, there's considerably less randomness in the game than you might think.
I didn't give it five stars because, in spite of the game's great points, the system for calculating railroad income is a little cumbersome. Some of my compatriots felt the amount of (admittedly simple) arithmetic involved was a detriment.
Still, though -- a great game.
This is number three in the series that began with Ferrocarriles Pampas (reviewed by Mike Siggins in Sumo 39/40) and continued with Veld Spoorweg (reviewed by me in Counter 1). The basic game system is the same as in the two earlier games, but with two significant modifications, both beneficial. The first speeds up the play slightly and the second deals very cleverly with a problem that both Mike and I identified, a problem that wouldn't arise in every game but which would in some and which damaged one's enjoyment when it did. The result is a game where players have much more control over events and aren't left trying to cope with wind and weather as well as the opposition in the way that tended to happen with the first two games.
This time the setting is Kansas in the 1870s, when the railroads were spreading west across the state and the start sees six of them lined up on the eastern edge of the map ready to go. There are five shares in each company and the idea is to develop the networks of those companies in which you have an interest, so as to increase their value and profitability. Richest player at the end wins.
Shares are always sold by auction and the first thing that happens in the game is that one share in each company is sold off. The person who buys this initial share becomes the controller of the company and puts in its first stretch of line -- a matter of joining up its start town to one of that town's neighbours.
The driving mechanism for all three games in the series is a set of 72 action chips -- 40 `construct track', 24 `offer stock' and 8 `pay dividends'. In the first two, these chips were all put into a cup and each player turn began with the draw of a chip. This then determined what happened next: a share would be put up for auction, a stretch of line would be built or all players would receive income from their shareholdings. It worked fine provided the `pay dividends' chips came out at a reasonably even rate, but they won't always and when they didn't, the game suffered. What happens in the new game is that about three quarters of them are given out to the players before the game starts, with each player having the same initial holding; the remainder are placed in the cup. At the start of your turn you now either play a chip from your store or draw one from the cup and play that. It means that you have much more control and that if there is a long stretch of the game without any money coming in, it is because it suits the players' strategies to have it so, rather than because the gods of chance are feeling whimsical.
When an `offer stock' chip is played, a share is put up for auction (with a reserve price on it that reflects the company's current value). If the chip was played from a player's own stock, he can choose which company; if it was one from the cup, it has to be the company with the most unsold stock. The money from the sale goes to the company treasury and this is the only way that companies get money. Since companies need money to build their network and raise their worth, the basic rule of capitalism -- that the rich get richer -- applies. Shares in good companies go for high prices and these companies then use the money to make themselves even better and thereby benefit their shareholders. And in a business game with any pretence to realism that is how it should be.
With a `construct track' chip, the player does just that, with the norm being to build a single link for one of the companies that the player `controls' (where `controls' means that nobody has more shares in the company than you do). This costs the company $5 and increases the total dividend that the company will pay out by the sum of the values of the two cities at either end of the link. As with `offer stock', if the chip came from a player's own stock, he has slightly more freedom of action, with the extra this time being to build a double link at a total cost of $15. This might not sound like a good deal, but remember what I said earlier about the shares in attractive companies selling for more money and reflect on the fact that what makes a company attractive is a valuable network. Remember also that you only have a limited number of `construct track' chips and want to make the most of them.
`Pay dividends' is straightforward: each share in a company pays out one fifth of the company's total dividend.
This continues until either all the `pay dividend' chips have been played or the player on turn is unable to play a chip because both he and the cup have run out. The shares are then valued and portfolio value plus cash determines each player's final score.
That is the game mechanism, but there are also a couple of bits of flavour to represent the fact that this is Kansas in the 1870s rather than somewhere and sometime else. These come in the form of towns increasing in size and value as the decade progresses and bonuses for companies driving out of the western edge of the state on the way to the Pacific.
The game plays well and will be enjoyed by those who like Darwinian business games -- games where the law about the survival of the fittest is writ large. In athletics terms, some games are like a 400 metres race, where the first three quarters is about getting yourself into position and where it is the finishing straight that will decide victory. This one is like a 10K and once you get dropped by the leaders you do not get back. This is because there is no `share limit' of the sort you get in 18xx and so the people who get into the good companies early will have more money to play with and will be able to use it to outbid their poorer rivals when shares are up for auction, thereby widening the income gaps even further. You must decide for yourself whether or not you like games of this type, but as I said in the paragraph about the companies, it is the way economic life works and so it is a very proper way for a serious business game to be. The players who find themselves playing most of the game knowing that they have lost just have to spend the time working out where they went wrong and drawing lessons for next time. And at least in games there is a next time.
One small strategy tip to finish. (Fear of making a fool of myself means that I don't normally offer these, but this is a game where you can make a mistake in the initial auction that you will then spend two hours regretting. Believe me, I've done it!). I wrote in the last paragraph about the importance of getting into the good companies early. In this game good companies/bad companies is not a pre-ordained thing. What counts is having money to spend and being able to build away from the eastern edge of the board into an area where you have room to expand. You don't want your company to get boxed in at the start. Bearing that in mind, remember that companies spend in multiples of $5, that the only money they have to spend is the money they get from selling shares and that at the start they will only have sold one share. A company whose first share went for $15 is much better placed than one which only took in $14, because it can build three sections of track, whereas its rival can only build two. This is something that is easy to forget when you are bidding and just thinking about your personal cash supply.
Footnote: The new way of dealing with the action chips is available as
a variant for the other two games. For those of you who'd like to try it,
here are the numbers:
3 players: each has 2 PD, 6 OS and 10CT.
4 players: each has 1 PD, 5 OS and 8CT.
5 players: each has 1 PD, 4 OS and 6CT.
In all cases the remainder of the chips go into the cup.