Last week I wrote about the Honshu half of the first Dual Gauge expansion: a nasty, sharp, cutthroat little map where money is very tight. As a contrast, I wanted the second map, Wisconsin, to sprawl a little bit: the map is a bit bigger, the game runs a turn or two longer, and money is more plentiful, especially in the endgame.
The end is actually where I began. I knew I wanted the last couple ORs to be about running these big routes, ideally from one side of the map to another, ending in a route-doubling destination hex. These kinds of big routes are possible on other maps but they require a bit of work and a decent number of trains. For example, on the Detroit map I've seen a Windsor to Chicago run for $72, hurray, but also requires a minimum of three trains to hit its seven stops. That's if it's all running on standard track – on a map which heavily incentivizes the less-efficient narrow track. So, it's more likely to involve four or five trains. But by the time track has been built to the other side of the map, there's at most ten trains in play, divided by four or five companies.
It's possible, and it feels great when you pull it off, but it's not going to happen with any regularity on that map. For Wisconsin, I didn't want something that was anywhere near that difficult. I wanted to go full Oprah – you get a big end game run and you get a big end game run and you get a big end game run, everybody gets a big end game run. I also wanted to twist the knife a bit – "I would have gotten a big end game run if I hadn't done this thing a few turns earlier, why did I do that aaaargh."
The solution was the map's principal gimmick: diesels. Like the diesels in 1830, these end-game trains can hit as many stops as they can. The seven stops in that Windsor to Chicago run, the one that needed three or more trains? You can do it in one with a diesel. The trick of course is that the diesel is either going to run on standard or narrow track. It runs as far as it can along that kind of track, but once you switch gauge, its part of your run is finished.
This gives the track-building decisions in the early game an increased importance. It's a special punch in the gut when you realize that your big run in the last OR was cut off at the knees because you built the wrong gauge accidentally (or because your opponent built it on purpose!). Ditto if your run comes to a halt due to a nasty bit of tokening.
The presence of diesels also pushes the train rush. One of the key questions in any Dual Gauge map is, will the 3Ts rust? The answer is usually going to vary depending on player decisions and postures, but on the Wisconsin map, the answer is yes, of course the 3Ts will rust, because the 5Ts that rust them are the diesels. And before you say to yourself, "hey, wait a minute, there's only three 5Ts in the counter-mix, isn't that gonna leave at least a couple companies in the lurch?", you will no doubt be pleased to hear that the rusted 2T counters return as "extra" diesels.
So, I had my big gimmick, but I really wanted to reinforce that – really wanted to encourage players to chase after those big runs. And this led to the creation of the Big Route Bonuses. These are benchmarks that award a Big Route Bonus Marker (unpainted disc) to the President of the first company that meets or surpasses it. First company to hit a $35 route? Boom, here's your Bonus Marker. At the end of the game, these markers are worth a share of the least valuable company. Rack up two or three of these and you'll put yourself well ahead in the share count, and that might be enough to win you the game.
Unless of course those Bonus Markers are worthless. Remember, they're worth a share of the least valuable company, and the shares of a company whose stock value has fallen into the Junk Stock zone are worth $0. Which brings us naturally to the map's garbage company, our old friend the Soo Line.
The Soo's board position is pretty dire. For one thing, it's fairly isolated compared to the other companies on the map. For another, the surrounding environs is filled with costly rough terrain and lousy with dits. Now, the Soo's special power is that it doubles the values of these dits - $4 instead of $2, which isn't far-off from the $5 provided by small one-token cities. It's the worst company in the game, but that doesn't mean it's a bad company, and once it gets plugged in to the wider shared network and gets itself a diesel, it can net some impressive runs.
It used to be worse. Originally, both hexes adjacent to it – including the dit to its southwest – were rough hexes. This hobbled it right from the start, and on the advice of a playtester, I fudged the geography a bit to give the Soo a slightly easier time of it. Wassau also got bumped up from a one-token city to two, ensuring it wouldn't be as easy to cut the Soo off at the knees.
But it's still a slow starter, and it either needs to be handled with care, or helped along by its nearest neighbor, the orange company (which, not coincidentally, is the second-worst company on the map; these two actually pair really well together under the same president at 3P and 4P). Otherwise, this slow starter will never really get going, and can easily find itself with its trains rusted out from underneath it at exactly the wrong time. Turns out when the 5Ts can run any number of stops, people buy the earlier trains a lot faster!
The Soo can get caught in a trainless death spiral, rendering its shares worthless, as well as those Big Route Bonus Markers. Or, alternatively, players who are more invested in those Big Route Bonus Markers might rescue the Soo with their stock purchases (though it is much easier to "rescue" the Soo before they get into trouble). I think this creates some interesting incentives.
If the Soo is the worst company in the game, then the best company, without question, is the yellow company – the Wisconsin Central. Historically, this went on to absorb a lot of other lines, and I kinda capture this in a sideways squint-and-you'll-see-it style with its special power. When yellow runs its routes, it ignores the stations of other companies, running right through them. The only way to throw a spanner in their works is to build some inconvenient changes in track gauge. Since it is surrounded by revenue centers, there are plenty of opportunities to do this.
The other company powers are less extravagant: doubled starting cash for white, a reserved station for orange, and a connection bonus for red. The latter two drive those companies westward.
That "to St. Paul" destination hex is the key to snagging those Big Route Bonuses. Like Chicago on the Detroit map, the destinations in Wisconsin double the revenue of the route that ends there. So while the red CM&S definitely wants to get to that hex, and the orange GBW is likely to build in that direction to get to La Crosse, other companies also have a vested interest in making that connection.
This is especially true because the other destination hex, representing shipping along Lake Superior, is in a pretty remote part of the board. In fact, in early playtests no one really seemed to bother with it. Why spend all that time building through the rugged wilderness when St. Paul was closer and easier? And this is a point where the more abstract and less granular nature of Dual Gauge poses a problem. In a game where say a player had some kind of investment in shipping, or in goods that needed to be shipped to Canadian markets, there would be a natural pull for those players toward the Lake Superior hex. But in a simple and streamlined game that reduces geography to two types of terrain, that incentive wasn't there. So I brute-forced it.
The first company to lay track into the Lake Superior hex gets a $70 Connection Bonus. For reasons of proximity, this is likely to be either blue or orange. Again, these are the "worst" companies in the game, so this dangling carrot can make them appear more viable, and can encourage cooperation between them.
It can also devolve into a game of chicken, because the company that builds into one of the adjacent hexes knows that the other company will be the one to complete the connection. The viability of cooperation is going to depend on how evenly the Presidents of both companies are invested in them – if you've got three shares of orange and I, the blue president, have only one share of orange, I'm probably not going to be super-interested in helping you get $54 while I only get $18. (Unless perhaps you're losing the game badly - $18 is still $18 more than I had previously, after all, and those doubled routes ain't nothing to sneeze at.)So while the Wisconsin map ditches the usual question, "will the 3Ts rust?", it replaces it with some interesting and interconnected ones: "how big are those big runs going to be?", "will players build constructive track or obstructive track?", "will orange help blue get to Lake Superior, or will they help red get to St. Paul, or both?", "how much will the big route bonuses be worth – if they're worth anything at all?" Those questions, and how the answers create wildly different endgames, have quickly made it one of my favorite maps.