Mary Russell

The Soo Line is my sixth train game design. In some ways, it's similar to the others - for example, it's the fourth in a row to use some variation of the "track leasing" mechanism I introduced in Trans-Siberian. But it's also the most aggressively weird of my choo-choo games, which is the primary reason why I didn't offer it  to Winsome and we decided to go the Hollandspiele route instead. 

The core bit of weirdness is that there are only three railroads to invest in, and the majority shareholder makes all decisions for the railroad. The game seats three to five, which means that not everyone will always be able to control a railroad - they will in fact make no decisions during the Operating Rounds at all. This will almost certainly turn off some players; there's a reason, after all, that almost all train-and-stock games have at least as many companies as there are players.

But for others, myself included, there is the clarion call of the pure investment strategy, of someone who does well in, and even wins, a train game solely by buying the right stocks at the right time, and in a way, the game is built to allow that. At the same time, there needs to be a way for those players to remain engaged in the Operating Rounds even as they're not taking actions there. While there are only three railroads in the game, there are five private companies - mines, mostly - that are auctioned off to get the party started, and like the privates in an 18xx, they pay out a fixed income each turn. Additionally, they pay this income again whenever a railroad delivers one of its goods cubes - it's sorta-kinda a pick-up-and-deliver game. When it runs out of cubes, it closes, possibly paying its owner a bonus depending on the timing of it. The delivery of a certain number of cubes also brings the game to a close.

On the railroad end of things, railroads pay dividends or withhold each turn, and if they can't or don't build new track in a round, they're forced to withhold. This isn't great for the shareholders, as the stock value decreases by one box per share in player hands. Let's say all nine shares of the Soo itself has sold, and its current value is $42. If it withholds, it's going to get knocked down to $3, which is pretty catastrophic. Since track cubes are limited and builds expensive, if the game goes on long enough, all companies will be forced to withhold, the players suffering ruinous losses.

In this way it's intended to be a timing game. Players with decent privates want the game to go on longer, because they're making money every round. Players with decent railroads want the game to be shorter, so that it ends before the inevitable decline. And both the desire to speed up or slow down the game is tempered by the fact that each player of course wants to be winning when that happens. Both sets of players also have factors that work against these tendencies. The players with privates don't want the game to go long if their privates are closed early; the players with railroads don't want the game to be so short that they haven't built up the company. All of this is complicated by the fact that many players will straddle the two groups, owning privates and running railroads both, and the degree to which one impulse overrides the other depends on their exact holdings, the holdings of their rivals, and the state of the board.

Interesting stuff, or so I think, but I know not everyone will agree. Players who don't get to run railroads not only will make far fewer decisions than the others, and have less control over how the game plays out, but some of the most crucial decisions they do make will often be front-loaded: this is absolutely the sort of game that you can lose in the initial auction.

  If all of this sounds rather appealing - great! Welcome aboard! And if all the stuff I'm describing makes your teeth go on edge - then this one probably isn't for you, and you should stay away from it.

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