Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chicago Express

When it comes to train games, it seems like there isn't a lot new under the sun. You've got the classic train games, Empire Builder, 1829, 1830, and Silverton, maybe Rail Baron. You've got the more modern (and far more abstract) Age of Steam, Ticket to Ride, and Union Pacific. Most things seem to start from one of these places.

Chicago Express borrows from both sides of the fence. You've got the realistic-ish stock certificates from 1825 merged with a variation of the abstract route management (without the silliness) from Railroad Tycoon or Age of Steam, and – in perhaps its most compelling selling point – a one-hour-ish playtime.

The core of the game is the stock evaluation (it's not really a market since stocks, once acquired, cannot be sold). Each of the 5 companies, the Pennsylvania, New York Central, B&O, C&O, and Wabash, have between 2 and 6 stock certificates available. One of the actions you can take on your turn, and the one that the game will turn on, is auctioning a share in a company (the other two involve improving the revenues of one of the companies you have stock in). The players then bid, trying to figure out what that share will be worth, with the winner taking the share and the company taking the cash, to use in future expansion.

The thing that makes Chicago Express different is that each share really is a share, and unsold shares don't exist yet. When the PRR earns $25, it is split evenly amongst the shareholders, with unsold shares simply not counting. So when you auction a share, you are not only acquiring a piece of a company, you are diluting other players' existing shares. This means that the number of shares available for a company to issue (3 for the PRR, 6 for the C&O) is a big deal. The first share of the PRR can't be diluted that much, while the first share of the C&O is a bit of a crap shoot.

Chicago Express is the sort of game I should like: fairly short, wide open, with an interesting auction, and decent theme. And I do, sort of. But I think it founders in a couple way.

Firstly, the valuations on the stock certificates are very hard to work out because everything is so wide open. It's impossible for a new player to make a reasonable guess as to what the first PRR share auctioned in the game is worth, and some of the valuation criteria are a little anti-intuitive (the weak companies with fewer shares available offer by far the best long-term per-share return on investment). At some level, I have a feeling that the difficulty of fairly valuing the shares is not supported by the entertainment value or repeat draw of the game as a whole, which means players are unlikely to play the game enough to get the experience required to do the valuations competently.

Secondly, the game has a cooperation dynamic that may trump all this anyway. If you and I split the B&O, and both work hard to develop it, and the other players lack similar coordinated action, one of us will win with the difference being decided around the edges by minority shareholdings. In a 4-player game, if 3 players have PRR and everyone spends a little time developing it, the fourth player is screwed. Furthermore, it seems like it is in the best interests of players to cooperate when the opportunity presents itself.

I dunno. When thinking about the game, I'm ultimately left wrestling with slippery inter-player dynamics more than with the theoretically much more interesting valuations in the stock auctions. I think in the end, who ends up owning what certificates ends up mattering more than what they paid for them, if opportunities for player cooperation develop – especially with the extremely valuable PRR. The C&O by contrast, with 6 available shares, is so easily diluted by friends and foes alike that it's an unattractive investment for either capital or expansion energy unless it can be had more cheaply than players seem to instinctively allow.

Which sort of brings me back to the valuations thing. Having played a couple times now, I sort of have a handle on what a PRR share is worth in the initial offering, probably north of $25. On the other hand, I still really don't have a good idea of what a C&O share is worth beyond not a lot.

I'm still not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. The first time I played the game I thought it was cool, I found the auctions and the wide-open nature of the play very appealing. The second time, with 4 players, the player who didn't get one of the three PRR shares was doomed basically from the get-go (and that was even with PRR shares being apparently fairly pricey, raising far more capital than the PRR could ever spend).

So while I do like the game, I'm skeptical as to whether the balance is really there. The opportunity cost of auctioning shares may be too high; the real value of shares may actually be significantly more than the cash available to players, making artificial cash management decisions a little too important; and some companies – notably the PRR, C&O, and Wabash – may be out of whack; and expanding cheap companies, like the C&O, may simply be much too expensive compared to the opportunity costs. But the redeeming virtue of the game is its relative brevity, at a little over 60 minutes. Any longer, and I think some of the suspect balance issues (whether real or perceived) would hit harder, as they do for me in Age of Steam. Even though the game itself actually seems like it might want to go a little longer, develop a little more, I think ending where it does allows Chicago Express to be a game of exploring the interesting decision space and game dynamics without overstaying its welcome.


  1. Is the share auction simply round and round till everyone but one passes? I'm wondering if a different auction mechanism might make some of the weaker companies more valuable by allowing players to set a price? Thinking maybe one of the Modern Art type of auctions?

  2. I don't think it would change much. Chicago Express's auctions are around-and-around, drop and you're out, which is the easiest kind in my opinion. Adding a blind-bid, once around, or fixed price auction would just make a difficult situation even harder. The issue is the raw difficulty of pricing the asset at all. A goal would be to sell the certificate at a fair price, but give the player who chose to auction it a small advantage (since he or she spent the action to do so instead of improving the value his or her own investments). Anything that tended to reduce prices (like the fixed price, maybe) would favor the PRR, while anything that tended to increase prices (like in-the-fist bidding) would hurt the C&O a lot.

    My sense - and this may be wrong - is that the cost of investing and expanding the smaller companies is a bit too high. If I push PRR, I get to put out three trains, and at worst I end up with a third of the value I've added. If I push the C&O, I add three trains, and can end up with a sixth of the value. If I choose to auction, I can auction one share of the B&O which is a quarter of the company, or one share of C&O which, again, is a sixth. In the short-term the C&O can look comparable to the better companies, but the risks are very large as anyone can issue more shares at almost any time.

    I'm not sure if all this is actually true, but it is what it looks like to me - that the economics of the situation might favor the companies with fewer shares a little too much. But I'm not sure. I do know that putting fair valuations on these certificates is very hard.

  3. The small-share count companies have the highest potential profits, but are also the most fragile companies in the game. The PRR for instance has only three shares and only two more cubes than is necessary to reach Chicago. One build off into the woodlands and the PRR is, comparatively, toast. The B&O has 4 shares and more excess cubes, but also has a bit further to go and is more easily interfered with by other players and companies. The other companies are similar.

    None of the shares in the initial auction are worth particularly more than the shares of the other companies. They're all easily worth around half your starting capital and not a lot more or less. None of the shares have any inherent value other than their initial incomes, which isn't very impotant. The real value of the shares is a function of the incentive balances their ownership pattern creates among the other players, which is nothing inherent to the shares themselves. The C&O can be and often is just as good if not better than the PRR or B&O, and ditto for the other companies. I've played many a game in which the PRR never built a single cube in the whole game while the C&O or NYC happily ran off to Chicago and Detroit.

    The emergent alliances you mention, players working together for mutual profit as well as players working to specifically sabotage the companies they hold shares in (in order to prevent other larger shareholders from making excessive profits), is the heart of the game. An effective partnership will leave the other players in the dust. However the other players have multiple tools to reduce the effectiveness and value of such an emergent alliance. It is up to them to recognise the approaching problems and their tools in time to use them effectively. This can be hard, especially for new players. Most novice games are won by a novice throwing the game to another player unknowingly. It can take a while before the players understand enough to really see how to control the game to their advantage.

    Those incidental incomes that produce the winners? Only if the players aren't paying attention. Money is open and player incomes are easily calculable and fairly easily predictable. That's why control of the Capitalise action is so extremely important (and thus the first three actions of almost every round should all be Capitalise). It is up to the players to keep an eye on those cash and income rates and respond accordingly.

    I find the real interest in the game isn't in the direct share valuations, but rather in the share valuations as a product of the player incentives and timings that a specific share distribution across the players creates. Share X is worth so much if Bill gets it, rather less if Jim gets it, far more if Sally wins it etc. Oh, and actually if Bill gets it he'll kill it by running it off into the woods so it can't get to Chicago, this incenting Sally to instead focus on building that other company with him and thus increasing the value of their mutual shares. Hurm, how much am I willing to spend over actual value of the share to prevent Bill from getting it? How much is Bill willing to spend over the direct value of the share in order to nuke the company and reap the larger profits for his other company? How large are those concomitant profits? Perhaps if Bill does win the share I can do something else to distract Sally from her alliance with Bill...

    In some ways an even larger part of the game is length control, determining how long the game will last, how many General Dividends will be paid. Most games are 3-5 General Dividends -- and that is directly controlled by player choices. With skill games can and will last as long as 7 General Dividends -- if the players want them to. The ability to choose actions and do nothing, especially to choose the Capitalise action and auction nothing, is central to this. The typical pattern is that if the game on this round PlayerX will win but it if ends on an early round PlayerY will win and later PlayerZ will win, as each of their cash bases plus repeated incomes max at different points. Additionally the valuation of any share is a function of how long the game will last, and thus of the extent that player can control game length. End-game forks where a specific player gets to control how many dividends there are left in the game and thus how much the share currently under auction is worth are common. Bid too much or the wrong player gets the share and they'll cut the game short. However if a different player gets the share, then they're incented to let the game last an additional General Dividend and thus the share value is much higher.

    ObAdmission: I adore Chicago Express and have played it nearly 70 times.

  4. One of the things I find intriguing about Chicago Express is that - even though I'm not generally a believer in group-think - it clearly supports a lot of different playing styles, and a group's playing style clearly matters because the game is so wide-open in terms of choices.

    So, for example, I haven't seen anybody sabotage a line. The math for when it would be worthwhile to do so is just too involved for us to worry about. For the PRR, for example, you're not likely to see a 2/1 split, it's probably 1/1/1. In such a case, when would an owner of a single share sabotage the line, even if he's trailing one of the other two players by a lot? I can't think of a scenario in which it makes sense, you just grow a different line that the leader you're worried about doesn't have a share in. Likewise, there is some incentive to cooperate because you're leaving the third player in the dust very cheaply since every $1 your add is (at that point) a guaranteed .33c in your pocket vs. .25c or .15c.

    On the other hand, sabotaging earnings is easily achieved by issuing new shares. You should always be issuing shares in companies you don't own that make money, and likewise should never issue a share in a company you own, at least, if you're just talking about the raw value of the shares. The worst-case scenario is that you've significantly depressed everyone else's ROI. A single extra share pushing down returns is actually more significant than hitting Chicago or not.

    I just don't buy that a share of C&O is worth as much as a share of PRR. At some point you have to make money. Even if C&O ends up generating twice as much cash as PRR, the PRR was likely a better buy just because of the problems of diluting the stakes.

  5. The rules are silent on open vs. closed money, BTW, which I always find a little annoying since it is often contentious for this sort of game and playing it one way or the other can make for a rather different game. I've played closed, which would account for a significant difference in play style.

  6. How many players are you playing with Chris? I consider Chicago Express a 3 or 4 player game. 3 is good but very positional/delta centric. 4 is best and much more about alliances.

    A 1/1/1 split of the PRR is weak and almost uninteresting for all concerned players. It pretty much kills the company for all involved. The level of effort involved to increase income is too large and helps too many other players. Better to move something where you either have a higher percentage or a narrower range of benefactors whose game-length postures you can better influence.

    No, issuing shares in things you don't own is not the default recipe and is a great way to lose the game. It is a near certain recipe for disaster. That route readily builds effective alliances of which you're not a part. Why allow that? Use share sales for four things:

    0) Control of game length
    1) Get other players to commit to a game length that you're in a position to break
    2) Recruit allies for the companies you hold shares of (yep, dilute your own shares)
    3) Sunder other player's alliances by imbalancing their share distribution

    Chicago is +7 and an extra dividend. It readily represents a cash influx of $20+ to the shareholders. That's a big deal, especially as it pays out for every General Dividend after that too (can be several).

    The problem with the PRR is that it is fragile as it is so tight on cubes. The power of the PRR is that it if gets a strong partner early it can head south through the mines and cut off both the B&O and C&O from Chicago.

    You are over-focusing on dilution. Don't. It really isn't very important except as a way of establishing incentives. In many ways, because of the PRR's fragility the C&O is the stronger company. It takes a couple more Expands to reach Chicago but is near impossible to block by anything other than a PRR building through the mines and typically arrives with a far higher income.

    I suspect a few things:

    - You haven't grokked the power or use of selecting Capitalise and auctioning nothing.
    - The first actions selected each round are usually Expands or Develops rather than Capitalises
    - You are playing with more than 4 players
    - Close money (reads head). Yep, the game does not do well with closed money.
    - You are still tending to play the game as a solo-optimisation game rather than a game of effective temporary emergent alliances. That doesn't work. The most effective way to Win Chicago Express is ride the backs of other players, not to run your own stuff most effectively.

    FWLIW all Winsome Games are open money and Chicago Express is no exception. I don't think Chicago Express works well at all with closed money. Accurate control of game length, player incentives and share distribution requires exact knowledge of player cash and their income rates.

  7. My copy is on its way so if I can get a good ten plays out of I'm a happy man. All I'm looking for from reviewers like yourself is affirmation the game is fun . . . and then I read your last line (70 times?) which trumps any concerns you mentioned. Can't wait.

  8. Jacob: I've written considerably on Chicago Express on, usually as comments and followups to other's posts, and am told my comments there are illuminating of the game. (I'm a little too close to see much but the warts and gaps, but hey).

  9. I am way late to this party but just scored the game and wonder if this thread is still being monitored. Oh well, here goes...

    From the early playings (about three games in now), I can see some of what both Chris and JC are saying. I think the game needs to be played a fair bit to come to any firm conclusions being as sensitive as it is to group think. Tactics are bound to evolve and may reveal some of what JC has been telling us here and on the Geek. We just haven't seen it yet - but I'm impressed enough to want to try and explore further. The short playing time is a real bonus here.

    The thing I don't understand concerns the "most money wins" scoring where you don't get to cash in your stock certificates at the end. It is terribly counter-intuitive, detracts from the theme and frankly leaves me mystified. Otherwise, what I've seen so far is a tightly designed game and I'm impressed enough to want to keep playing.