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.


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