More Rolling Stock Thoughts
I haven’t played 18xx in a decade; but I’ve spent more time with it than almost any other published boardgame. I’d play again, especially if I could get 1846. So when I heard about Rolling Stock I dived in. Complex financials, but abstracting away the operations? Great idea!
Now that I’ve played (and PBEMed) a game, I’m lukewarm. It’s not bad, just missing something, and I spent a while trying to figure out what.
The stock operations work. Rolling Stock’s market acts logically — stocks move towards (or bounce around) the ‘book’ price. Trading incurs transaction costs. It’s not perfect, and there are a few gamey bits, but it’s fine.
Rising operating costs create a train rust mechanism. The first (red) companies produce $1-3 dollars a turn, plus synergy bonuses; but as maintenance costs rise from nothing to $1 to $3 to $6 the reds disappear. Some may be kept a turn or two for accounting shenanigans, but they’ll inevitably fade away.
All of these natural, elegant systems have a downside.
Part of 18xx’s charm is that the stock market isn’t something you can strictly calculate. A $100/share company may only pay out $5/turn but appreciating and in no danger of witholding (costing you vital income AND stock price) while that $50/share company is paying out $10/turn … but if it pays out, it may collapse.
Plus you have uncertainty based on the board position … will the NYNH get place a station to cut the NYCs run in half? How much is a potential extra token worth? How much is starting on the east coast instead of the west coast worth?
Many aspects of Rolling Stock are hard to calculate, but future earnings are simple. A corporation adds up its incomes, adds synergy bonuses, and subtracts cost of ownership. Done. No intangibles. And, apart from rising operation expenses and new items bought and sold, mainly static from turn to turn.
The cost of operations work and are more realistic than a fast rusting; but the slower, more forgiving option defused a “bomb.” Bombs create tension, as people stare at the fuse. 1830 games are won and lost based on that one last run before some trains rust, or not. A train purchase bankrupts someone. Game over (effectively or actually). Here a profitable company degrades into an unprofitable one and slowly spirals away over a few turns. It’s a slow motion train wreck, and that’s not as exciting.
My two main feelings — Rolling Stock needs heart and bombs. How would I go about that? Well, let’s turn back to 18xx. Note that these are just the thoughts that crossed my mind.
- Removing (or reducing) the transaction costs could allow for more transactions. Also, the game has a much larger issue with liquidity than most 18xx games. Starting a company ties up 30% of your starting capital indefinitely. However, in 1830 (for example) starting a company ties up 60% of your capital for one turn, but lets you free up 2/3rds of that quickly (at a cost).
- What if each company had everything it has now, and a special ability/penalty/cost? This company can be sold by a corporation to the bank (out of the game) for half face value during the close operations step. That company automatically closes when the first blue company is purchased. If company X is used to start a corporation, it counts as more (or less!) than face value for accounting purposes. These two companies have an synergy penalty! You get the idea. Not every company would need a special rule, but those add a lot of flavor to the system. (You could also give some flavor to the major corporations, if you wanted. That might make the first auction even more important, because whoever spent the least but ended up with something would get first choice of corporations).
- Adding an operational system to the game is another idea, but I recognize that part of the appeal is that this is 18xx without the board. But “Without the board” doesn’t have to mean “totally static.” What if companies could also spend money on routes (which improve income?) Here this all happens bloodlessly and seamlessly. Buy a company, get its income. But the income is static. The Union Pacific didn’t start out at its maximum income. The synergy bonus can be handwaved as a route building an integration, but companies often improve without mergers and acquisitions.
I’m not good at the game right now, so there may be a lot of depth I’m missing, but right now I’m not instantly hooked like I am by the best economic games. Rolling Stock (in its current form) is about getting synergies. Some bombs are there, but apart from the “just don’t have quite enough money” I’m not sure how the bombs work. I guess if you have a lot of negotiation that makes a great game. But I’m less fond of negotiation and prefer complex evaluation games, so this isn’t really aimed at me (despite the veneer).
I’m not sold on my proposed variant/change, but it needs something.
There’s one more problem. The game needs more decisions. You have:
- Issue stock (binary decision, one per presidency per turn).
- Open corporations (one per privately held company each turn)
- Stock round
- Purchasing Round
Like 18xx, if you don’t have run a company you do nothing outside the stock round (counting ‘purchasing’ as more stock stuff). But let’s examine the stock round … there are the auctions. A lot of them, particularly in the first few turns, but then several people are cash poor and out of those. You also have stock buying and selling, but many fewer shares (companies typically start at 2 or 4 shares, and at least one share may be kept by a player at all times). Additionally, the transaction costs mean that wild purchases and swings aren’t likely to happen. It’s a pretty tame affair.
Realistic, yes. Fun? Some players sit out many stock rounds without purchases, and maybe make a bid in an auction. Let’s look at my PBEM turns so far.
- Turn 1 — 5 Auctions (only 14 bids)
- Turn 2 — 5 Auctions (8 bids)
- Turn 3 — 2 Auctions, both with only 1 bid. One share bought and one share sold.
- Turn 4 — 3 Auctions, 2 of which had a single bid. 2 shares bought & 2 sold
- Turn 5 — 1 Auction (single bid), 3 shares purchased
- Turn 6 — 1 Auction (single bid), 3 shares bought, 3 sold (an a company takeover in the process)
- Turn 7 — 2 Auctions (3 bids), 2 shares bought and sold.
- Turn 8 — 3 Auctions (1 had 3 bids, the others 1) and one share sold.
And it’s not just auctions. After T8, I had two privates … and the best play (IMO) is to … sit on them and collect the income. Forming a corporation dilutes my value in the end game (or let someone else profit from it). Now sure, that’s the end game. But still. “Buy and hold” makes good investment advice, but its boring.
Similarly, many “decisions” for corporate purchases are “The president has the company buy X from the owner, who happens to be the President, for as much as the rules allow.” There are decisions on timing, how to best arrange them is interesting; but, you can do well (or poorly) with almost no decision. We go from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first and my stock portfolio barely changes during the course of a game? So far, in the above PBEM, I’ve gone from owning nothing on T1, to 50% of the Horse, to 33% of the Horse (caused when it issued a share, not when I traded it), to not owning any (when someone bought another share, I dumped it) to owning two private companies and getting their income. The game is ongoing, but I’m optimistic.
So, overall, Rolling Stock is a fascinating system that should remove some streamlining and toss a few grenades around to turn it into a great game.
I’ve no idea how.