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South Africa is a large country with a rich history. the Northeastern section has a large prairie, or veld, settled by Dutch immigrants in the 1800's. They formed their own nation states, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, where farming and ranching were the basis of an agrarian society. Later, diamonds were discovered in nearby Kimberly. This discovery hastened the progress of railways from the British Cape Colony to the interior. In 1886, gold was discovered in the Transvaal, a huge rich field surrounding Johannesburg, and railroads from Portuguese Mocambique and British controlled Natal also drove toward the riches. Johannesburg businessmen started their own railroad in Johannesburg, transporting railway equipment in by cart at great expense.
Relations between the Dutch settlers, Boers, and the British Empire were not good and the region experienced a brutal war from 1899-1902. While this game is an economic gamer's game, the history of the region is embedded in the economics of the game. Closed borders, military facility construction and expansion, wartime boom and later bust, are all factors in this game affecting railroad building, development of settlements and dividends.
- 1 game board
- 1 die
- 6 crayons
- 6 locomotives
- 30 railroad stocks
- 2 ledger sheets
This is number 5 in Martin's trilogy of games about railways in large, flat places, a fact which creates problems for the person doing the review. Some readers will not know the earlier games in the series and so will want a fairly full description of how things work; others will already be familiar with them and will just want to know about the changes. Fairness demands that I treat both groups equally and the only way to do that is to please neither. Given two stools, aim for the gap.
The series began with Ferrocarriles Pampas and Veld Spoorweg, games set in Argentina and South Africa respectively. The game system was refreshingly original and most of it worked well. However, there were a few problems in that one of the subsystems appeared better on paper than in practice and there was a significant reliance on a 'draw a chip and take the corresponding action' mechanism that could produce long, dull stretches if the law of averages turned out to be on holiday. Verdict on both games: 6/10 but with much more potential than normally attaches to that rating.
The problems were sorted out in game 3, Prairie Railroads, where the setting shifted to Kansas. In this game the subsystem that was a nice idea but didn't quite work was abandoned and the random element was brought under control. The chips remained but most of them were now dished out to the players before the game started, and this meant that when there was an action that you particularly wanted to take, you could play from hand rather than drawing from the cup. These two changes resulted in a much superior game, one that fulfilled the system's promise. The review is to be found in Counter 6.
Having got things working to everyone's satisfaction, the next step was to take the lessons learned and apply them to the two historical scenarios that had started things off and that is how this particular trilogy came to have five parts. Parts 4 and 5 are the stories from 1 and 2 but told much better.
The basic idea in all the games is that there are half a dozen railway companies, each of which can issue five shares. The money raised from the sale of these shares is used to build track, and the more track a company has the higher the dividends it will pay to its shareholders. A player on turn does one of what in the earlier games were three things: construct track, put an unsold share up for auction and cause the payment of dividends. In the first three games it was the draw or play of a chip that determined which you did and the problem in Ferrocarriles Pampas and Veld Spoorweg arose from the scarcity of the pay dividends ones. If these all lurked at the bottom of the bag, you could reach a point where neither the companies nor the players had any money for a long stretch of the game and so were unable to do anything other than hope for better times. This is why the extra control over events that you got in game 3 made such a difference. The other thing that was introduced in this one was the idea that the towns that a railway visited could increase in value and thereby boost the company's income. This was done by means of a system based on die rolls.
Game 4 was called Pampas Railroads and I reviewed it in Counter 13. With it all the randomness disappeared and 'develop towns' became a fourth action that players could do. The chips went, to be replaced by a neat card selection system which combined freedom of choice with the occasional opportunity to restrict the options open to your opponents. The choices offered by the cards were construct track, auction a share and develop a settlement. Payment of dividends became something that happened whenever two of the three small decks of cards were exhausted, a mechanic that cleverly managed to ensure both that it happened regularly enough to keep the game moving and that players had tactical opportunities to advance or defer things to their advantage.
In the new game the principals established in its predecessor remain the same, but there have been some changes to the way certain objectives are achieved, and the particular history of the region makes for a different story line and a different set of strategic problems for the companies. The result is a sister game for Pampas Railroads, rather than one of 'same system; different map'.
The change to the system is that the cards are no longer there. Instead everyone has a small plastic train and you make your choice of action by moving it to one of four boxes at the edge of the map. Note, 'four boxes': payment of dividends is now a choice that you can make. However, this does not give players complete freedom, as that could destroy the balance between the frequencies of the various types of action that the game needs if it is to work. So what Martin has done is introduce restrictions on the number of trains that can be in the various boxes at any one time - 1 in the case of 'pay dividends' - and a rule which says that 'construct track' is the only choice that you can make two turns running. The 'Pampas' and 'Veld' methods both work well and produce interesting play and I wouldn't rate either as superior. The main difference between them is that the one in 'Veld' makes it easier for a player to force the pace and bring about an early payment of dividends, a feature which works well in this scenario because political events which affected the railways have been tied to a 'clock' that is regulated by the number of times payment has been made and players might well want to drive them along.
The political history is the other big difference between the two games. In Argentina the country was united and most of the railways set out from Buenos Aires, the most valuable city, in a drive towards the provincial cities and the mines of the interior. In South Africa the country is split into British and Boer provinces at the start, which means that initially there are political boundaries that the railways can't cross. As the game progresses these open up. There is then a race for the honeypot that is Johannesburg. Historically the railways began in the coastal provinces and then tried to get into the Transvaal when the goldfields were discovered there. The game is structured round this commercial rivalry plus a short interlude for the Boer War and the result is a game that feels significantly different from the earlier ones.
If you liked either Prairie or Pampas Railroads, this is definitely one for you to consider, and if you haven't tried any of the series so far but enjoy serious economic games, this latest one is a good place to start.