Saturday, 14 May 2011

Tinners' Trail

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Tinners' Trail is a game about tin and copper mining in Cornwall, south western England. Players build mines to mine tin and copper, sell them for money, and then invest the money to gain victory points.

The game lasts 4 rounds. Everyone starts with a measly $5. You need money to bid for mines in auctions and also to mine ore. The other currency in the game is time. A similar system as Thebes is used. When you take an action, time required depends on the action. If you've just spent a lot of time on an action it will take longer for your turn to come around again.

Most actions are related to making developments to your mining business, e.g. digging adits (horizontal tunnels), building harbours, building train stations, installing steam pumps. They do various things like improving the number of ores you can mine with one mining action, and removing water from your mines. Water determines how costly it is to mine ores. For example 2 water cubes at a mine means every ore mined costs $2. Also once you take a mining action, you add 1 water to that mine. So mining gets expensive quickly. Also as the ores get depleted, mines gradually get abandoned because they are not economically feasible anymore.

The early game. White cubes are tin ore, orange cubes are copper ore, blue cubes are water.

In the top right corner you can see the developments that are available for each round. White discs are steam pumps, black man figures are miners, black sticks are adits, brown trains are train stations, and white ships are harbours.

One funny action is to sell pastry. You spend 1 time to earn $1. At first we thought this was rather silly, and only dumb miners would need to resort to this. It turned out we weren't very smart miners...

At the start of every round the tin and copper prices are semi-randomly determined. You must sell all that you mine within the same round. At the end of the round you invest your money to earn points (put bluntly, you buy points). Points are cheaper to buy in the early game, but you need to be careful to set aside enough money for the next rounds, else you may need to resort to selling a lot of pastry.

Tin and copper prices, which are determined at the start of every round by rolling dice. In the first round the die roll is modified by +1, and in the last round the die roll is modified by -1, which means it is more likely that prices will be higher in the early game, and lower in the late game.

This is the investment table. The numbers in the table are victory points, and the two axes are cost and round number. With the same amount of money, the number of victory points that can be bought reduces from round to round. Each spot in the table can only be occupied by two player markers, so there is some competition here too, where turn order is important.

The house-with-chimney pieces are players' mines, indicating ownership of mines.

The Play

Allen, Han and I did a three player game. In the first round, tin and copper prices were at their highest. Unfortunately I made a big mistake of digging an adit as my first action. I had thought it was a good idea because there was only one adit available, and it was a powerful action. What killed me was the time cost of 3. That meant after my turn, both Allen and Han took many turns claiming many other developments before it was my turn again. They managed to remove much water and even reduced mining cost to zero (no water at the time of the mining action). This was important because everyone was poor at the start.

Since prices were very good in the first round, I fell behind by a wide gap, because I could only afford to mine very little ore. I never managed to catch up. The ore prices fluctuated greatly during the game. When prices were low, we mined less hoping the next round would be better.

Each round usually started with everyone grabbing developments. The number of each type is limited, so competition is fierce. Board play is only moderately important. Some mines are more lucrative than others, and this affects how much players are willing to pay for them. Some developments impact neighbouring mines, so you tend to want to have your mines close to one another.

Money was always tight in our game, because we kept little from round to round, having spent most income on investments. We sold pastry rather frequently.

I never recovered from my early mistake. Han won, with Allen not far behind.

Bird's eye view of the whole game board. This was early in Round 4. If you look at the investment table on the lower right, you can see that noone did any investment in Round 2. It was because the ore prices were at rock bottom.

Towards end game, many mines have little to no ore, and lots of water.

The Thoughts

Tinners' Trail is a low granularity game. Information is all open and all things are easy to calculate. There is randomness in ore prices and the abundance of ore, but both are open information. It is unforgiving (says the guy who did a game-losing move as the 1st action of the 1st round), but it's not hard to learn, so there shouldn't be any more silly mistakes after the first game. It becomes an interesting and tight game where everyone can quickly grasp the board situation and decide how to compete.

Your actions are very much affected by the fluctuating ore prices. Sometimes you don't want to mine because prices will likely be better next round. Watching your opponents' remaining time and money is important. Sometimes you can get good bargains if they run out of either one to be able to compete with you. Similarly you don't want to present such opportunities to them.

I admire how this mostly simplistic system tells the history of mining in Cornwall. However this succinct system means this mid-weight game is not something you want to play heavily. It's a game you'd enjoy playing once in a while. Just make sure you remember digging an adit as the first action in the game is a baaad idea.

Close-up of some of the components.


Dave said...

It sounds like an interesting game, and the components are gorgeous. I'll have to look into it further -- thanks for the review!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

indeed the production quality is excellent, both components and artwork. the only complaint i have is i much prefer the box cover of the 1st edition. the box cover of the currently available 2nd edition is rather boring.