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This is another railway game, but with a setting not previously covered in the railway games that I have encountered - design and production of the engines. As such, the game is more a business game with a theme that could see the trains being substituted by aeroplanes, cars or many other manufactured items. Nonetheless, the train engines work well.
The designer has already produced Transsib, another game where trains are the vehicle rather than the theme, and Union vs Central where trains were at the centre of activity, but both of these games share a common thread of being business games, just like Locomotive Werks.
This game has some excellent systems. You know when you encounter one, because it is always associated with the game that introduced it. For example, in Crude/McMulti, the outstanding system is how the markets for oil and capital assets work. In Lokomotive, the best system is the way the orders for new and existing engines are created.
The game features components that you have grown to expect from Winsome. Function over form is probably a motto, but they do produce good games. I am reminded of the computer games industry, which seems to produce (and comment on) games that have excellent graphics, as if this will make up for a weaker game. Give me the game play every time! The components include a set of engine cards, a laminated paper board that displays the potential available orders for the different type of engine, sets of cut markers to indicate how many engines are produced for each design and loads of six sided dice that will be used to determine how many orders are currently available.
The map board shows the different types of locomotive. It is very clear and quite up to the task of displaying all relevant information. At one end are the cheapest designs, costing only $4, and at the far end the most expensive designs at $56. Engine production (factories) for the cheapest design can be purchased for $2 and each such train sold brings income of $1 This ratio applies across all the designs. As a newly designed locomotive also includes the price of the first factory, the equation is quite simple - you get your money back for 4 sales and make profits beyond that.
The next layer of complication is that there are four different types of design. You begin the game with a General Purpose design (and factory) and may progress to buy Fast Freight, Heavy Power and Special Purpose engines. These are all colour coded, so the options are easy to see. The final aspect of the designs is that there are up to 5 different generations of locomotive. This is important, as it introduces the concept of engine designs becoming redundant (through age). This also happens in 18xx, but here the timing is easier to predict and the repercussions are less adverse when you are left with older engines.
To begin with, each player receives a general purpose, 1st generation engine design. They place a 1 marker on their card, which indicates that every turn they produce one locomotive engine for sale. At the start of the game this type of engine has three dice worth of orders and the three dice have been rolled and placed in the "existing orders" boxes on its row. There is also always one die rolled for the next level of engine to be developed. At the beginning of the game this will be for the 1st generation Fast Freight engine, and represents the anticipated demand which later turns into the actual demand once the first design is made of that engine.
Having outlined the game, the actual phases follow a pattern that is easy to pick up. All phases are played in turn order, but since most decisions are pretty quick to make, there isn't too much downtime. Firstly, players develop new designs. This is a quick process early on, as your starting capital does not allow you to get very far. However, as soon as the next design is created (with attached factory), the design beyond that becomes available and it is not uncommon for several designs to be purchased on one turn in the mid game. Each player receives the card relating to the design just created but you have to watch out for the number of designs for each engine type and generation as this varies for each combination.
Next, players can purchase more production capacity for designs that they have developed. Markers are added to the existing ones and you can then produce as many engines as you have markers. Additionally, you can upgrade from a lower valued engine to a higher one, by paying the difference in price between the two engine production costs. When we first played this, we were not sure that this was right. A factory producing General Purpose engines switches production to Heavy Power? In one turn? And then this "new" factory can switch into something else? However, the rules are quite clear on this point and I can only conclude that this is a mechanism to allow increased playability. We did toy with upgrades only being allowed to the same type - General Purpose to General Purpose, or Fast Freight to Fast Freight, but we have not yet experimented with this variant, which is a testament to the simplicity of the rules as designed.
Then players satisfy orders. This begins with the first player (least money from end of last round); who produces and immediately sells all production that is possible. Remember the orders? These are shown as dice quantities, so a die roll of 5 allows 5 engines to be sold. If a second die shows a 2, then a total of seven engines can be sold of that type. If a player can satisfy exactly the number showing on one of the dice, then that die is sold and the die is moved to the other side of the board called the Customer Pool. If a player can sell more than the highest die, then this die is moved to the Customer Pool and the player's surplus trains of this type remain unsold for the moment. He may get a chance to sell the extra later in the round, when his turn comes round again. If it is less than the highest die, then the highest die is moved down by the number sold. Continuing my example, a player produces 4 of a type of engine with the order dice showing 5 and 2. The 5 die is reduced to a 1. This simple but clever mechanism gradually depletes the orders, letting players who produce later in the round sell fewer engines.
When a player is considering an upgrade and/or increase in production of existing engines, the current state of the order book for each engine, the position that you are playing this round and the production that your opponents are creating all need to be taken into account. This is all simple enough in principle, but difficult enough in practice to make the decision making process enjoyable. The balance of difficulty and straightforwardness seems about right.
Finally, players pay tax using a device similar to the one in Lancashire Rails. A straight 10% of cash is lost as tax, so players are encouraged through the game system to invest in production and new designs. Eventually, the cash builds up as there are fewer investments to make in new designs and production and the $300 target is achievable.
The new market demands are now set and here there is another good mechanic. The number of dice added to the new orders varies with the number of existing generations of the same type of engine. For example, if there are three generations of General Purpose design, the lowest one immediately becomes obsolete, the middle one permanently loses a die and the newest one adds a die until it has reached its maximum number of dice. This is easy to plan for, so players should not get caught out by obsolescence, but the decision as to when to upgrade and when to cash in the existing sales on a design that will become obsolete in the current round is one players have to consider carefully.
The game follows this pattern until one or more players get beyond the $300 after taxes and this will take about 90 to 120 minutes, depending on whether your group takes their time or is fast on their decision making.
On my first game there was a feeling that the leader could not be caught and that it was not necessary to finish the game. Although this turned out to be the case, it was a lot closer than we thought earlier in the game. Subsequent games have felt the same, but the outcomes have been incredibly close and dispelled the thought that the leader cannot be caught. The reason for this is that the leader usually gets to invest first in new designs and this perpetuates itself as the game proceeds through the mid-game. As the leader runs out of investments to make, but has the most money, that person will go last in the round. This provides an opportunity for other players to take the orders that are available first and limit the leader's income. Even here, the game system works well as the number of dice for orders means that no player can sell more than one die worth of sales for each engine type before the last player has had a chance to sell. However, this leads to some interesting positions.
Supposing the dice are 6,6,5 in a three player game. The leader can sell 5 units, as the most that the other players can sell is 6 units (the first two dice). If the worst position (for the leader) arises, such as the dice showing 6,1,1, then player 1 can sell 6 units while player 3 only sells 1 unit. At the most expensive end of the locomotive designs, this difference of 5 units is worth $13 per unit or $65 ($59 after tax). All my games have been closer than $30 between first and second place, so the dice position at the end do have an important bearing on the game. However, it is worth pointing out that the design of the most expensive locomotive engine is $56, and there will probably not be many rounds of the game left when this design is available. So the decision of when to cash in and when to invest is not simple to make, but reminds me of the dilemma you face in Trade/McMulti, when players decide to cash in their assets to get cash, and limit income opportunities.
With more players, the initial game can become either cut-throat or challenging! The dice for orders can be unkind to a player who goes last in a round, as the earliest number of orders is limited to three dice. This means, with low dice rolls for these orders, the fourth or fifth player can end up getting no income, although with five players, each starts with more capital to allow the chance to upgrade to the next two levels of train if required. Linked to the fact that players who go earlier in the round will probably use their cash to invest in more factories and new designs, they will have less cash than the person who has not had a chance to receive any money. It seems the only option here is to reduce your cash on hand to nil by investing in additional engines, in order to ensure that you go first on the next round. While this may work as a tactic, it somehow does not feel quite right. Perhaps a different starting position can be established, with $20 of designs/factories per player which each person can spend in order to establish a variable position and at least the last player will have more options than the random way the game currently plays.
My main criticism is that there may be some element of timing as to who wins at the end of the game, but this is a way many games end and if you are aware of the options, you can at least decide what to do. I have a smaller criticism over the rules. While they are generally clear to read, and no-one will ever claim Winsome rules are verbose, I felt it would have been useful to add an introduction to the game to allow players to know what to expect. But this is nit picking really, as the rules are only four sides of A4 paper.
While this game is not as good as Trade/McMulti for me, the smooth way engines are made obsolete, and the integrated order system works does feel good and I cannot remember this system being used before in an economic game. I really like economic games and, having played so many, it is really surprising and welcome to find something new.