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West Riding is a cousin of sorts to Winsome and Heidema's earlier Dutch Intercity. This rail game is more complex and subtle, however, and because it is positioned almost 150 years earlier the emphasis is on building new networks rather than privatizing existing ones. Stuart Dagger's helpful historical notes, included with the game, give a useful background of the companies involved and clarify that "West Riding" refers to an area of the UK that was heavily developed during the Industrial Revolution.
The game consists of six basic railroad companies, and players will vie for ownership and control of each during the game. Like Dutch Intercity, each company raises capital by issuing shares and the uses that capital to build a new rail segments that continually adds new towns and cities to the network. On a turn, each player selects a share to be offered from any of the six Basic lines and then it is auctioned. When purchased, the buyer must immediately build a rail segment that connects a new city or town with the money they paid. This always requires at least $6 and often more. If this can't be done, the share is not issued. Any excess money goes into the railroad's treasury, and the Director of the railroad (the player with the most shares in that line) can spend the treasury as well. The cost to build segments is a function of both distance and terrain.
This is interesting and begins to build the networks across the West Riding, but what makes the game work is the fact that there are two "grouping" railroads that each align with 3 of the Basic railroads. This is determined in advance either with a random assignment or a proposed historical alignment. After everyone has offered a share for issuance, each player can trade any two basic shares aligned with one Grouping railroad for one Grouping share. The timing of this move is a key to the game, as initially the Basic shares grow in value and then begin to decline as the ownership is diluted, while the Grouping shares pay low at first but grow over time.
The value of each company, Basic or Grouping, is calculated at the end of each round and then paid out to each shareholder in proportion. Basic railroads score for the length of the track built in that round, and for each city they reach. But, the cities are valued Medieval Merchant style in that a city shrinks in value as more rails connect to it. The Grouping companies score a simple $8 for each town they control, with control defined as being the first to have at least two of their aligned Basic railroads reach the city. The games begins with the public owning two shares of each Grouping railroad, thus making the Basic line more valuable until too many shares of each are issued making the dividend payments minimal.
The resulting play is an intriguing network building and equity building exercise, with some natural coalitions formed along the way as owners of Basics aligned to the same Group will work to add value to the Group. The share distribution rules keep this in nice balance, though, and you don't win this game in teams. The development evolves over time, making this a longer game than it looks initially and typically taking over three hours.
Once a Grouping railroads control all the cities, the game ends and each company is liquidated. Like the opening share offerings, this concept mirrors Dutch Intercity while everything in between is quite different. Basics simply pay out their treasuries to shareholders with any excess going to that line's Director. Shares are then combined into the group at the two-for-one exchange rate, and the Group is paid again for each city they control with the totals paid out to each shareholder. The player with the most money wins, of course.
While the concept works well and thematically aligns nicely, the time will turn many off from the game. This is not due to the length itself but rather due to the fact that a good deal of it is spent in "bookkeeping" type activity to continually revalue each of eight railroads at the end of every turn. Because the share divisor balances payments so nicely, more often than not the dividend paid per share changes little yet each round the cities must be recalculated and the new track considered. Nothing is difficult about this, but it gets a little tedious. The second play of the game is better than the first since there is a clearer understanding of how the lines are valued and how the relationships between the Basics and the Grouping railroads affect the value.
I've mentioned the word "balanced" a few times so far and will do so again, because it is difficult to get a big lead in the game. With an uneven number of players, it might be assumed that one Grouping will do better than another. This is not true, though, since the number of shares will increase for the higher value railroad making the per-share distribution closer. Also, the basic railroads are worth the most with few shares outstanding, ensuring that each line will be built and expanded to some extent. When Basic shares are traded for Grouping shares, the Basic shares do not go away but instead are assumed to be owned in the public market. Thus, trading up to the group level is not a way to increase the value of the basic lines by reducing the outstanding shares. You must accept that the Basics degrade in value over time while the Grouping railroads grow, and it is making the right decisions around this thematically consistent idea that determines success or failure.
West Riding is the better of the two Essen releases for Winsome, although it is a completely different game than Gold Train, the other. Those who enjoyed Dutch Intercity may at first feel comfortable with West Riding, but this is not the same game despite some mechanic similarities. Overall it compares favorable with Dutch Intercity in terms of its decisions and process, but the time to play balances this. There's that word again, so likely West Riding has a small audience as a result.