Thursday, January 03, 2019

Deck Learning Rails - revisited

About 3 years ago I started working on a game that used the deck learning ideas from Eminent Domain, but in a different game. I based that design on one of my favorite games, Railroad Tycoon (AKA Railways of the World).

I built a prototype and took it to BGGcon with me back in 2014, and I got a chance to try it out there. To be honest, I didn't like how it felt. However, I do think the structure is fine -- using deck learning to drive a game about building and operating rail networks, and possibly replacing player interaction via role selection with interaction on the board. It might be the case that role selection is the best fit for deck learning, because it has the inherent possibility of wanting cards in your deck to take advantage of the things your opponent is doing, but I'd like to think the engine could work alright without role selection, so long as the interaction is there somewhere. I keep waffling back and forth on this.

Recently I've been revisiting this game idea, because I feel like it should work. I took a step back (easy to do after 3 years), and looked at the parts I didn't care for the last time around, and brought some fresh ideas into the mix. Here's what I would like to try:

Brand new Research (R&D) scheme

In Eminent Domain, one of the complaints some players have is that there are so many technology cards, it's hard to get into the game. For other players (like myself) this is more of a feature than a bug, but the point is well taken, especially in today's "cult-of-the-new," 1,000+ new games a year climate.

An idea I had which may address that concern is to remove the tech cards from the game altogether, and replace them. I'll see if I can describe this well:

Imagine a rondel, or ring of spaces with various techs printed on them. Each player would have a pawn on that ring. When you do a Research action, you'd move your pawn 1 space clockwise on the tech ring, changing what special ability you have access to. Maybe some of them have an immediate effect as well, but mostly they'd be like permanent techs from EmDo (in play), but temporary because they'd only apply while your pawn was on them.

When you do a research ROLE (boosted), you'd move your pawn farther around the tech ring (1 space per icon played). When you get to the starting space again, you'd get to add a 2nd pawn to the ring, so you could start having 2 abilities at once.

So if you don't concentrate on Research, you could slowly advance your pawn to the tech you want using research actions, or following research roles. And if you DO concentrate on it, then you can lap the tech ring once or twice, and end up with multiple abilities

New City/Board format

I also thought about modifying the city/board system like this:
This version of the game is train themed, so instead of planets like in EmDo, we have cities on cards. I could see a few different ways to do this:

  1. Personal tableau, which is a horizontal line of city cards. When you get a new one, you have to add it to one end or the other. Like RftG windfall worlds, cities come populated with a cube (the card probably tells you what color the city produces, and what color the city demands). Delivery actions allow you to move cubes from one city to the next, eventually getting to the right color city that demands that cube (and scoring it). delivery ROLES of course let you move multiple steps at once.
  2. Personal tableau, which is an implied grid of city cards. The supply that you draft cards from has cards at N/S/E/W, and if you take the N one, it has to go N of one of your existing cards. Otherwise similar to above.
  3. Shared tableau, each player has a train piece on a shared grid of city cards. You get rewarded for adding cities to the tableau, and you can deliver cubes to other cities in the tableau by moving your train piece (delivery action). Of course a delivery ROLE (boosted) would let you move farther. you can take cubes with you as you move, and if you deliver them to a city that wants them, then you score. I guess this could also work without train pieces on the board, just moving cubes from wherever to wherever -- I thought a train piece might add a geographical component (you could tell if a cube was "safe" if nobody else's train was near it).

I like the idea of the N/S/E/W city card supply, but removing Survey, Warfare, and Colonize reduces the roles in the game from 6 in EmDo (S/W/C/P/T/R) to just 3 (Produce, Deliver, R&D).
What else could be done in this format?

What about stocks..?

Stocks are a natural fit for train games, and to be honest, I don't like that aspect most of the time. I'm not a fan of the 18XX style games, which are primarily stock manipulation games, where the board play (building rail lines and making deliveries) is merely the manner in which you manipulate stock values. However, Railroad Tycoon represents stocks in a way I don't mind at all -- you simply take them when you need money, and they serve as a penalty (round by round reducing your income, and at the end of the game reducing your score). So maybe there's some way I can include it in a way I don't mind so much. Get ready for some ideas, stream of consciousness style:

Action: Buy or sell 1 share at the current price
ROLE: Buy 1 share of stock for current price, less $1 for each Invest icon played

Stocks could go up in value as they're taken, and be worth points at the end of the game (more points if more are out? Or maybe points based on some other measure of how that color is doing - like how many of that color city is in play at game end)

Stocks could come in maybe 5 colors, and relate to the colors of the city cards. Adding a city card to the board could increase the value of the stock. Making a delivery to a particular city could increase the value of the stock (maybe by simply rewarding you with shares).

Idea: When making a delivery, you get $X (where X is the 'length' of the delivery -- number of icons spent), and with that money, you're allowed to buy stock in that company (1 at a time) if you want (you probably want). So making a big delivery gets you more stock/money.

Idea: When a City is built, you get to choose 1 of 2 different colors of good to put on it (and maybe when you produce as well). Or maybe you choose any color (not the same as the color of the city itself)?
So building a city should help stock value, and creates demand for a certain color good, and creates supply for another type of good. Delivering goods should increase stock value.

Investing in stocks could be useful for game end scoring, and could maybe be useful as a way to get money (get stock from doing a delivery, then sell it to get money to buy a new station (city card) or technology).

Delivering should probably be worth some straight points in addition, so that it's not idiotic to sell your stock (which could be VP at game end). Maybe the stock should start at NEGATIVE vp, so if you're stuck with shares of a color that didn't get used much, then at game end you LOSE points -- so selling that stock would be welcome, or else boosting that color would be welcome.

It would be nice and clean to have a small, limited number of shares of each color, but I worry that they'd run out and there would be weirdness. But like what if they cost 1/3/5/6/7 or something? Maybe when they're out, you can't buy one? And if they're out and you are supposed to get one as a reward, it triggers an event ("dividend"?) where everyone gets 1vp token per share of that color, then puts one share back?

Like maybe you get a share when you add a city to the board, which means you may get VP for it, or sell it for $, and you add a cube to the board that someone can deliver.

Maybe cities should only be able to take 1 delivery (leave the cube there), so that you can't deliver over and over to make the stock skyrocket.

To sum up:

City cards in multiple (5? 8?) colors, coordinating with "rail line" colors.

Stock exists in each color. The more shares of a color are out (owned by players), the higher the value of that color stock (both money-wise in-game, and vp-wise at game end).

2 ways to get City cards into play:
BUILD: add track tokens until there are "enough" (maybe like 4 all the time?)
BUY: pay a $ cost depending on how many shares of that color are out (maybe 2-6) -- early game buying is cheaper, but by late game, building would be cheaper, so starting out building means late game you can maybe be adding enough track to build multiple city cards with 1 big role.

Maybe city cards have a standard build cost, and then have a "kicker" cost for an immediate bonus effect. So you could build a city without too much trouble, but if you concentrate on it and get big Build roles, then you can get either multiple cities worth of builds from a single role, or you can get a city and an immediate benefit. Buying the city wouldn't give that bonus.

Strategic Paths

Here's a summary of the strategic paths I could see being available in this game:
  1. Build a lot: like connecting major lines in RRT, score for some specific configurations of city cards in play -- maybe like the cards from Takenoko
  2. Build+Deliver: take advantage of the free cubes when building a city by placing them near their demand (and/or near your train) and delivering them with Deliver actions or follows
  3. Produce+Deliver: build a little to get a network going, then stop (or let others build, in the shared tableau scheme) and concentrate on producing and delivering. Look for long routes (for more points, and to avoid snipers?) and maybe chains (pick up a black good from a yellow city, deliver to a black city where there's a yellow good to return)
  4. R&D: primarily to support one of the above strategies, but heavy R&D could mean multiple active techs, and potentially points somehow. Maybe you get points for how far along the tech ring your pawn is at the end (so lapping the board and keeping going means giving up points in exchange for more power? Maybe you collect VP tokens if you do that). Maybe the tech ring would have L1 tech first, then L2, then L3, in random order each game (within appropriate tiers)?

Maybe I was on the right track the first time with having 2 ways to add a city, "build" one by piling up track tokens until there's enough, and "Buy" one right out.
And maybe Survey could be like in EmDice, where you see what you're getting -- instead of the N/S/E/W thing? I kinda like the N/S/E/W thing though.

A simpler personal tableau might be good. There's something nice about a single line of city cards.
The more cards you have, the longer your deliveries can be.

For Major Line type of strategies, maybe you should be rewarded for having certain sets of cubes undelivered on your cards. Or maybe that's a tech you can get?

That's about all I have for now. Maybe soon all of these ideas will coalesce into a rule set, then I can update my old prototype and give it a try.

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