Monday, 21 March 2011

iPhone Chicago Express and Ra Ra Ra

I recently bought Chicago Express on the iPhone. Well, it's called Wabash Cannonball there, which is the name when the boardgame was first published. Before this, I've played Chicago Express in boardgame form twice (Sep 2009 and Mar 2010) . My biggest impression was that it was a very condensed game. There aren't many actions that you do, but every action is important and has many implications. You need to think very carefully. There are two perspectives that you need to have a clear grasp of - the players and the railroad companies.

Playing on the iPhone allowed me to understand the game much better. In a way, it de-mystified the game for me. I felt the game wasn't really as deep as I had originally thought it was. The key is the players' ownership of the railroad companies. I think this is the most important aspect to manage. It determines how much cash the players will be earning, and also determines the incentive for them to develop or to wreck a company. There were a few things that the AI's taught me. One of them is when to wreck your own company. In one game when I still had the naive notion that all shareholders want their company to do well, a fellow shareholder AI shattered my innocence by doing something bad to the company. I held majority shares to the Red company, and there was only one other AI minority shareholder. We were close to reaching Chicago, which would mean a one-time bonus dividend for all shareholders, and also a boost to profitability of the company. Instead of building the required tracks to reach Chicago, the AI wasted the remaining tracks of company on some completely not profitable locations, making it impossible to ever reach Chicago. It was, of course, the right move for the AI, because reaching Chicago would have benefited me, the majority shareholder, most. So I learned to beware of these rogue shareholders, and also to be careful of how to manipulate company ownership to not encourage such situations.

Wabash Cannonball (a.k.a. Chicago Express). The Red company could have reached Chicago, the pink city on the left, being only 3 tracks away.

It never reached Chicago because of these wasted tracks near the coast.

Playing against AI's gave me the luxury of spending all the time I want to study the board position and all other game status details. AI's don't mind my analysis paralysis (AP). Chicago Express is a perfect information game. So as long as you spend the effort to study all the possibilities, you will do quite well. Naturally, when playing with humans, AP is not encouraged. You should respect everyone's time, so you should go with a mix of quick evaluation and gut feel. That's the excitement of playing against humans. Also human interaction sways our judgement. E.g. taunt an opponent to outbid you for a share, thus getting him to overpay. Or plead for mercy and pretend to be in a losing position. I came to realise one thing - boardgames are fun because of our human weaknesses and limitations. Or maybe I should say, boardgames are fun because we are human. We are children. We play.

My opinion of Chicago Express as an iPhone human-vs-AI's game is lower than that of the game as a physical human-vs-humans game. It's because this is a perfect information game. Everything can more or less be analysed and calculated. Because of this I think I probably won't buy Through the Desert on the iPhone. It's also a perfect information game.

Summary of players money, income during the next dividend round, and shares ownership.

Summary of the five companies.

Tracking the three possible game end conditions: 8 times of dividend payouts, or 3 companies having sold all shares, or 3 companies having placed all tracks.

Overall my opinion of Chicago Express (as a boardgame) has dropped a bit too. Just a few games on the iPhone made me feel like I have exhausted all there is to explore in the game. Overdose.

I've recently bought and played Ra on the iPhone too. It turned out to be a rather pleasant experience. Ra was one of the heavily-played boardgames when I first got into the hobby. It was a favourite with my game group in Taiwan. I must admit there is some nostalgia in there. My iPhone Ra experience was better also because there is some randomness - the tile draws. When my two young children watched me play, they didn't understand the game much (other than collecting stuff is good, and disasters are bad), but they enjoyed chanting "Ra Ra Ra!" with me after I have used up all my suns and the AI's with unused suns were still drawing tiles. (when a certain number of Ra tiles are drawn, an epoch ends and players cannot collect any more tiles, unused suns wasted)

The main interface of Ra. The three tiles on the board are a drought tile, a pyramid tile, and a god tile.

You can check the tiles that you have collected. Here I have collected 3 pharaoh tiles, 2 civilisation tiles, and 1 monument tile.

Scoring summary at game end, the categories are pharaohs, Nile, money, gods, civilisation, monuments and suns.

One thing that I never really bothered with in Ra is that players start with 20pts. This is because during the game you may lose points. When I played with my Taiwanese friends, we just used pen and paper to record the scores after each epoch. I'm not even sure we allowed negative points. In 2004, Ra was out of print and I self-made a copy (yeah... hard to imagine... so many tiles...),. So I didn't have proper rules.

Ra on the iPhone is quite well implemented. Nice graphics, sounds and animations. The animations quickly become annoying, but you can change settings to speed it up, so it's no problem. The AI's seem decent so far, but I get a feeling they put a bit too much emphasis on collecting suns with high value. Or is it me not appreciating the importance of getting suns with high values?


Paul D. Owen said...

I've had a similar experience playing Settlers of Catan. I very much enjoy playing the board game with friends or in tournaments. We downloaded Catan: The Computer Game from, and I've played it a lot on the computer. Like you, I learned a couple of techniques, and after a lot of plays, feel as though I've explored all the technical possibilities of the game. But it's still more fun to play with people, in part because of the companionship, but also because different people have different styles and approaches to trading resources.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Indeed the AI's can feel rather samey after a few games. With computerised versions of boardgames / cardgames, the only AI's that impressed me were those by Keldon (Blue Moon and Race for the Galaxy). Those were developed using neural networks (or something like that). The AI's are programmed to play the game very many times and they learn by comparing what they do under certain situations and the results of their actions, as opposed to techniques or formula being directly programmed into them.

Dan said...


even though I never leave comment, I'm one of ur loyal reader. I always enjoy reading ur blog ^^

I have a question, does those boardgames on iphone provide rules explanation? I wanna try playing Ra but I've never played it before. I could find it in my local boardgame store, and buy it overseas seems too expensive

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

hi dan, so far from what i've seen, iphone versions of boardgames usually have both a tutorial to teach you how to use the interface as well as the game rules for you to refer. usually they make you go through the tutorial so that you can start playing. but you will need to refer to the rules if you want to know all details of the game.

wankongyew said...

"rouge shareholders"

Rogue, not rouge. Rouge means red. Sorry for being a stickler for correct spelling, but ever since World of Warcraft was released, this word is misspelled so often that the wrong spelling is in danger of becoming the de facto spelling.

Ultimately I think that all boardgames are still simple enough that playing them against AI will get stale very quickly. Playing with other people, complete with quirks and irrationalities, is much more fun.

wankongyew said...

Also I'm curious if you've tried other iPhone games that aren't boardgame-based. I don't have the iPhone myself, but I'm considering the iPod Touch (don't really need a phone) just so that I can play stuff like this:

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

thanks wan for spotting the typo. i don't use this word often enough. :-P since i don't play fantasy games much.

yes, i have played some non-boardgame-based games on the iphone. in fact i've played more of these than those based on boardgames. they are quite fun and some are very innovative. e.g. angry birds, harbor master, tiny wings. i mostly play them as time-wasters though. sometimes just to take a short break.

Dan said...

Bought Ra on itunes yesterday and I really, really enjoy it! thanks for ur information about it. ^^

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

dan, glad you like it. :-)

themcfadden said...


I'm glad you reviewed Wabash. I was on the brink of buying it (since I really enjoy train games, such as Railways of the World) but kept shying away from it due to some gut feeling. I always trust your reviews and I totally get your point - any game App that can't keep it fresh over mulitple plays is not something I want to buy, since I primarily play my iPhone games by myself to kill time.

Thanks for your thoughts!