The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Rolling Stock Initial Thoughts

I just played my (PnP) copy of Rolling Stock a few hours ago. The short description is “An 18xx inspired game that ditches the board to focus on stock manipulation and company management.”

It’s an odd game. We played the (short) game relatively quickly (2.5 hours). There are a ton of moving parts, but fairly simple decisions. Each turn you can:

  • Auction off private companies and buy and sell stock
  • Use Private companies to form Corporations (essentially, an IPO to raise capital)
  • Corporations buy private companies (from players or other public companies)
  • Corporations can issue stock
  • Players and corporations earn income based on their privates base income; but corporations can also get bonus income from having synergistic assets.

Like 18xx, there are different phases of the deck and as you progress, the early cards go away. In 18xx, this is the ‘trains rusting.’ In Rolling Stock, companies have a cost of operation that rises, which will eventually make older companies unprofitable.

So, apart from getting rid of the board, what does rolling stock do?

  1. The accounting and stock movement makes basic sense. In 1830, if you pay out dividends your stock value rises. So a company that has depreciating capital assets (rusting trains) and dwindling capital  grows. Rolling Stock uses a ‘book value’ approach. If a company has $40 cash on hand, and two companies totaling $40 and four shares outstanding, it will naturally gravitate towards $2o ($80/4).  If you use it’s $40 cash to buy another company at face value, it’s book value is unchanged (although now it will presumably be generating more cash).
  2. Paying out dividends reduces your book value. It could go to the players or bank, but never back into the company. (This is true for some 18xx games and not others).
  3. You have transaction costs. If a stock is at $20, when you buy it, you have to pay $22 (the price moves up first). When you sell it, you only get $18 (the price moves down first). When a company issues a new share, they basically sell it. You can buy and sell the some corporation over and over in one stock round, but you get eaten alive in fees.

From a game play point of view, there’s a large change because private companies are not just assets that can be bought, in essence they are the ‘trains’ of the game. Also, you can’t just form a public company with money. You need an asset (and usually some money, although there are some potential price points where you can get around that).

The game is one of managing liquidity. If you form a company and don’t have a private to sell it (or have a poor private and cash situation) you could easily fall out of the pack, and end up with a fraction of the winner’s score. The sequence of play also means that you can’t (in most situations) convert cash quickly. For example,

On turn one, you can buy privates and get their income (usually no more than 1/3rd or 1/4 of their cost, assuming you got them for the minimum bid).

On turn two, you could have a private IPO into a corporation. Then the auction. Then your corporation could buy your other private companies. Finally on turn three you could use your (now unlocked) wealth to buy a better private company. Of course, now your corporation is short of cash, so perhaps it will issue a share on T3, T4, T5 to raise more money so that you can continue “washing.” (One of the key restrictions is that corporations do not bid at auction… they only buy opened companies).

It’s fascinating, because you can make money by:

  • Starting a company, having it buy your private companies (maybe after you get a turn of income, maybe not, but turning a personal profit) and constantly issuing stock to cover. This may stall, but it can work. (The standard 18xx loot).
  • Starting a company, driving it’s price down via dividends (which lower book value and give you money) then snapping up a cheap share or two, and have your company buy a few assets and just gain your value via stock growth.
  • Start a company, spam stock, have it buy assets, then start a second company (where you own 50%, instead of the %20 of your original) and transfer as many cheap assets to your preferred company.
  • Never own a company, just buy privates, collect the income, then sell for a profit to a company. (There is a ‘foreign investor’ who basically buys up cheap private companies, and will sell to anyone at max price … he’s basically a ‘timer’ to prevent a complete stall).

In my (one) game, 1st through 3rd (at $180-$155) each tried a different strategy. 3rd place didn’t run a company until the final turn.

To say that the strategy is opaque understates it. I find this fascinating, but we’re definitely talking about a limited audience. There are a few points I think may be a bit rough:

  1. Each price point can only have one company. So if you should drop two spaces and that space is occupied, you drop an extra space. This sometimes means that when you want to buy/sell/issue a share, you have to take a two space spot. So if your stock is at $16 ($18 is the next spot) you could pay out dividends to get to $18. But then the $20 company issues a share, so it’s price falls to $18. Now your stock costs $20. This isn’t chaos (it’s all driven by players), but it’s hard to calculate and these are ‘butterfly wing’ sort of events.
  2. Once you know the companies, a lot of the decisions will be “Well, this will be a great buy IF the following company is in the deck.” Which is random. I suspect experienced players will play with the deck (which is built randomly each game) face up. But to each their own.
  3. Share prices never stay the same, so sometimes you get a situation where being $1 short in a company means down 1 instead of up 1. And if one of those spaces is block … more butterfly wings.
  4. Some of the strategies that are viable don’t really give you many decision points.

Finally, unlike 18xx, a lot of the realism (companies having an increasing operating cost, instead of just disappearing) makes a compelling “Yes, that’s correct” at the cost of removing a ‘bomb’ from the game. Missing a critical point by a $1 is terrible in either game, but a lot harder to plan for in Rolling Stock. In 18xx you can plan a stock’s price point (if you are the president) but the interdepence of prices in Rolling Stock makes planning chaotic.

Anyway, I think people who love economic games should head on down to kinkos and print out a copy, but this definitely an esoteric taste.

Update — Session report (and some strategy analysis) at BGG.

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Written by taogaming

January 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Posted in Reviews

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  1. I’ve been patiently waiting for 1817 to get finalized and this Rolling Stock sounds like it will fill my economic niche for a time. The recently beautifully reprinted 1830 has gotten 18XX games back on our table again in force – even a couple games of good ol’ 1870. (The sad thing is I’ve had 1860 for almost a year now and I haven’t actually played it yet!)

    Charles Feduke

    January 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm

  2. I haven’t heard of 1817. Glancing at the BGG page I see the big feature is short selling. OK, I’d like to try that, but at 6 hours I’m not holding my breath.

    I’ve been wanting to try Tom’s version (1846?).

    taogaming

    January 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm


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