I remember a game of Francis Tresham's 1830 that I played several years ago. More specifically, I remember one moment from that game. I don't remember how I got there, and I have only a dim recollection of what happened next. I don't even remember what company it was, I only remember that its share value was deep in the brown - ten, twenty, thirty dollars a share, something like that. I had all ten shares - brown means not only doesn't it count toward my cert limit, but I can have more than 60% and I could buy multiple shares in a single go. All the other companies had much higher stock values, and looked much more promising.
What my company in the brown had, though, were good long routes and permanent trains to run them. My company might only be worth $20 a share, but it was worth $210 or whatever per OR, and I was getting one hundred percent of it. With three ORs in a set, I just made $630. Whereas if I had six shares of a company with a $126 stock value and a $100 run, I'd have made $180.
Obviously, I'm pulling these numbers out of my hat - like I said, I don't remember the details, only that my "worthless" company made me loads more money per dividend than the ones with the high stock values. (Also obviously, I was invested in those other companies as well!) I found this lack of correlation between valuation and profit fascinating, as well as resonant. Someone at the table said that it didn't feel very thematic, but they were wrong; we live in a time where tech start-ups with no path to profitability are "worth" millions of dollars. Like money itself, the stocks only have value because we agree that they do. It's all a lie we tell; none of it is real.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder if that moment in that game of 1830 is when For-Ex was born. It certainly was on my mind when I designed The Soo Line. In that game, stock values decrease if you don't pay dividends, but the size of the decrease is equal to the number of shares in player hands. Let's suppose blue has sold eight shares and yellow two. Both have an income of $6 per share - so yellow is paying out $12 total each dividend, and blue is paying out $48 total. Both have a share value of $36, and both withhold. Yellow drops two spaces on the stock value track: now its share value is $24. But blue drops eight spaces, from $36 to $3. Not because it's making less money than yellow - when it does pay out, it's actually paying out four times as much - but because of smoke and mirrors, mounting confidence and commiserate disappointment.
In my new choo-choo game, the forthcoming Dual Gauge, I apply this logic in both directions: not only does a company lose value equal to shares sold when you withhold, it also gains an equal amount of value when you payout. And so a company with five shares out and a $7 income is going to leap up the track much more rapidly than a company with two shares and $40.
This is complicated by the fact that while you pay for track lays out of a company's treasury, you pay for trains and stations in share value. The costs of trains escalate as the game presses on, and a rusting mechanism that should be familiar to 18xx players means you'll need to buy increasingly expensive trains to run decent routes. Trains are bought before you run your trains, so there's potential to immediately reclaim lost share value. If for example, your red company has four shares out, buying a 4 cost train isn't a bother: you go down four steps when you buy the train, then you go up four steps when you pay dividends. But if your yellow company has only two shares out, it'll be another round before you're back to where you started - and with only six or seven rounds in a game, that can put you in a bad spot.
Stations are worse: they require you lose an entire row on the stock market. On the introductory Portugal map - did I mention this is a game system with multiple maps?, well, it is - each row is eight spaces, and though it varies, it's usually going to be a $32 drop in share value. You'll need four or five shares out to get back to where you started, and even then it'll take two rounds to do it. Which leads more than one player to ask, why would you ever place a station?
There are a couple of reasons. One, if all the station spaces for a hex are spoken for, other companies can't run through them. It can cut another company's earning potential in half: it's destructive play. Secondly, a company runs its route from a station, not through it, and it's limited to one route per station. A well-placed station with the right trains can give you a $40 run instead of a $25 one.
How often you're going to pay out that massive dividend is complicated by the train rush; if your trains are rusted out from underneath you, you're not going to be in a position to really take advantage of it. And probably by the time you've positioned yourself to place a station and recover value quickly, the train rush is well and truly underway: a conundrum.
The viability of stationing is going to vary from map to map. Austria's stock market and train pacing make it easier to recover value than on the Portugal map, and might allow you to pay out those big dividends longer. At the same time, there's a nasty ol' national railroad that will gobble up the worst-performing company every time a new type of train is first bought, so dropping an entire row might put a target on its back if you botch the timing.
I've been testing the game on Tabletop Simulator a lot lately, and I've seen games where placing a station essentially sinks a player's position, and I've also seen games where it secured their victory. Just like that game of 1830 all those years ago, it's going to hinge on a player's entire portfolio, and on the sometimes wide gulfs between a company's imaginary share value and its actual earnings.