Thursday 24 September 2009

Chicago Express

Date: Sat 19 Sep 2009
Venue: Carcasean boardgame cafe

Chicago Express is a game I have been looking forward to try for some time. In fact I almost wanted to buy before trying. It is called a streamlined version or introductory version to the 18XX games, which are train games with an investment element. You buy shares in railroad companies, you develop the companies, but in the end the most important thing is you are making money out of all this.

We played a 3P game - Han, Chong Sean and I. I have heard some people warn of 4P games, because the players may end up each owning one company, and the game becomes less interesting. I'm not sure whether this is a valid concern though.

In this game, players are investors investing in railroad companies. When you buy a share of a company (which is done by auction), you gain the share and the money is paid to the company. Then the company uses this money to expand. Expansion is an action taken by a player, and that player must be one of the shareholders of the company (but not necessarily the majority shareholder). As a company expands, it increases its earning power, which will affect how much dividend it can pay to its investors the next time dividends are to be paid.

Another action that players can take is to develop hexes on the game board. This usually increases the earning power of the railroad companies that have expanded into that particular hex. Sometimes it gives a one-time income to these companies.

There is a long-term goal for the four starting railroad companies - to reach Chicago. This is an important goal, because it gives a big increase in earning power, and railroad companies that reach Chicago will pay a special one-time dividend. So it is in the best interest of the shareholders to have their companies reach Chicago. The first time that one of the four companies reaches Chicago, a special event also takes place - the Wabash Cannonball company is started, a 5th company that the players can invest in, expand and earn money from.

On a player's turn, there are only 3 choices (well, 4 if you count passing) - to put a share up for auction, to expand a company or to develop a hex. It seems very straight-forward, but it actually isn't. Players do not equal companies, so you have think of them separately. When you take an action you have to think about whether you are benefiting another player, and if so by how much. Do you want to win a share in one company so that you can control it and intentionally mess it up? Do you want to put a share up for offer just to dilute the earnings of a company? Do you take an action for the sake of speeding up the game end or triggering the next dividend payout? Do you want to delay them instead? The rules are straight-forward, but the strategies are not so simple. This is quite interesting. Another consideration is each company only has a limited number of shares that it can issue. Once they are all out, the company won't be able to raise more money, and no one else can get an additional share in that company.

The very very well produced Chicago Express, from Queen Games. Four companies (red, green, blue, yellow) start on the eastern edge fo the board and expand towards Chicago. The dials on the left record the actions taken by players, and when two dials reach the red section, a dividend round is triggered.

One share from the yellow railroad company, and two from the green railroad company.

Our game started with Han obtaining shares in two companies, and Chong Sean and I one each. From quite early in the game, I had a nagging feeling that I was rather screwed. This was because of share ownership of the companies. I had no majority share in any good company, which meant if I expanded these companies, I'm benefiting either Han or Chong Sean more, or at least equally. I was majority shareholder in one company, but it was the furthest from Chicago, and no one was interested in expanding it due to poor potential.

At game end, indeed I came last. During the game, two companies reached Chicago, Han being the majority shareholder in one, and Chong Sean the other. Han also had some shares in "Chong Sean's" company, and I had some in "Han's". There was a race between these two companies (red and blue) to reach Chicago.

We didn't do a lot of development during our game. The contribution of development to company profits seemed small. We did auction many shares and we did much expansion. The game end condition was triggered by three companies running out of shares. The other possible game end conditions are (a) 3 companies running out of train tokens used for expansion, (b) 3 houses / development markers left, (c) dividend payouts have been made 7 times.

Han won the game with Chong Sean not far behind. I was far behind. In hindsight, I probably should have been more aggressive in buying shares early. Han was cash poor in the early game, but his shares allowed him to earn much money throughout the game. It the early game, when the shares were not very diluted yet, he earned a lot of money from his share holdings.

I tried to manipulate the share holdings, but didn't seem to go anywhere with my attempt. The game developed very quickly, and before I knew it I was already stuck in a rut. I didn't even have time to think about what exactly I did wrong. I think I probably should have bid more aggressively for shares.

Chicago Express is a quick game. It is also a very subtle game. Despite the simple rules, there are many things you need to consider. There is quite a bit of thinking required. I definitely have not fully explored the game yet, and would like to try again, and hopefully do better. We did not do much development during the game. I had been focusing a lot on trying to manipulate share ownership, and I wonder whether that was the right thing to do in the first place. We did not do much about the Wabash Cannonball company, the 5th company that popped up when one of the other four companies reached Chicago. There is probably more thought I need to give to what shares to auction, and how much to bid.

Another thing that just occurred to me is there can also be some diplomacy in the game, e.g. players making unofficial pacts to stop the leader. The rules do not allow players to trade shares among themselves, but there's nothing stopping players from collaborating. Another things to note is this is a completely open information game, so it rewards skillful play. But of course this may also encourage analysis paralysis.

For the moment Chicago Express doesn't yell out to me "Buy me! Buy me!". But it's definitely an interesting puzzle that I'd like to study further.


Chris Norwood said...

It's a little weird, but Eric Martin just mentioned Chicago Express in his blog as well...

Anyway, good overview of the game. I am facinated and often overwhelmed (as in, I suck at it) by the subtle and obtuse strategy of Chicago Express. I've played 5 times now, and have never won. At times, I thought that I was doing well and had a good strategy going, but would be undone by one thing or another as the endgame came. I have a lot of fun with it, but still have some work to do in really understanding how to do well.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

At first I thought you were referring to THAT Eric Martin. Then I read one of his more recent blog posts clarifying. :-)

Indeed Chicago Express, despite the straight-forward rules and quick gameplay, is quite subtle and all the moving parts are interlinked. It's definitely an interesting puzzle to tinker with and to figure out.

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Chicago express is a very good game , I use to play it with some of my friends and family , so I am going to buy it next week in the store in front of the park.

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