Tag Archives: Chicago Express

Boardgames in the News: Is Rapid Market Growth a Good Thing?

The way boardgames are published and sold has changed massively over the last few years.  The development of Asmodee is one of the main stories of the last decade:  it has grown from a small company (primarily known for clever little kids games like Dobble), into an industrial conglomerate swallowing up the likes of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-man Games, Mayfair, Lookout Spiele and most recently, Repos Production.  There have been other significant shifts too however. Changes in the way “hobby gamers” learn about and acquire games has been hugely influenced by the internet and with it, the rise of crowdfunding, in particular, KickStarter.

KickStarter Logo
– Image from
kickstarter.com

To give an idea of the impact KickStarter has had:  last Easter, they announced that more than one billion US dollars had been pledged by over three million backers, funding nearly seventeen thousand games projects since the platform started a decade earlier.  This growth occurred in tandem with a huge expansion in the hobby which has seen modern boardgaming move from the shadows of a dingy corner of geekdom towards the sunny uplands of the mainstream.  For the last five years, there have been more games released than any year previously.  Despite this growth, the dominance of Asmodee and KickStarter, have increased the squeeze on the smaller players in a relatively niche market.

Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) Logo
– Image from alderac.com

These smaller players also flourished as the market grew, but maybe a corner is now being turned.  Last year, Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), producers of games including Smash Up, Love Letter, Cat Lady, Dice City, Thunderstone, and more recently, Ecos: First Continent, announced that after twenty-seven years in the industry, they will be making fewer games.  From their press release:

“There is a reason why there are so many games coming. It is a great time to be making games, maybe the best ever. That does not mean it is easy. In fact, it is also the most challenging time to be making games that I can remember. The bar to get noticed and have any kind of staying power is higher than it has ever been.”

AEG are not the only company affected.  US Publishers, Winsome Games (producers of train games like TransAmerica, Chicago Express, Age of Steam, Railways of the World and the 18xx family of games) have announced they will no longer be presenting new games at Essen.  Part of this is due to owner and developer John Bohrer “aging (dis)gracefully”, but changes in the market have also no doubt taken their toll.

Steve Jackson Games Logo
– Image from sjgames.com

Other companies also seem to be feeling the pinch; last year, Steve Jackson Games (perhaps best known for games like Munchkin, Ogre and Cthulhu Dice) reported that gross income for 2018 was slightly down, the fourth year in a row.  In their 2017 report, they stated that “the current market is more a periodicals business than one that encourages growing and nurturing single games”.  In the 2018 report they observe that “things only got worse … as fewer and fewer copies of new titles were sold into distribution” and as a result, they “were forced to let some talented and hardworking staff go”.  As a company, they have expanded their use of KickStarter, observing that “over the last few years, our core hobby market has changed dramatically”.

Fantasy Flight Games Logo
– Image from
fantasyflightgames.com

Even the massive behemoth that is Asmodee is not unaffected.  About eighteen months ago, Asmodee was bought from Eurazeo by PAI Partners, a European private equity company, and  it seems they are now consolidating and streamlining their assets.  Earlier this month, Timothy Gerritsen, Head of Studio announced the closure of Fantasy Flight Interactive (FFI).  FFI was an independent subsidiary within Asmodee Digital with the remit of adapting tabletop games and creating new digital experiences based on Fantasy Flight Games’s best loved brands.  One of the highest profile of these was the Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game, but unfortunately it was not as successful as the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game it was based on.

Asmodee USA Logo
– Image from asmodeena.com

The cuts at Asmodee were wider reaching though, with the initial closure of the Fantasy Flight Customer Service department followed by reports of redundancies elsewhere in the company.  This has been more recently followed by a withdrawal of Customer Services for products all products from Asmodee, Fantasy Flight Games, Days of Wonder, Catan, Plaid Hat Games and Z-Man.  This change in policy is apparently due to “the number of quality titles in Asmodee USA’s growing library” which is making “maintaining an independent stock of elements of each game … more difficult”.  This may, or may not be true, but it is clear that as the market is growing, things are changing for everyone:  gamers and publishers, both big and small.

28th December 2016

Being a Wednesday, and with lots of people away for Christmas, we weren’t sure how many to expect. In the event we had a reasonable turn out, and enough for a six player game of Chicago Express (aka Wabash Cannonball), the evening’s “Feature Game“.  This is a fairly simple game, with just three possible actions per turn, but the consequences can be far-reaching.  At the start of the game there are four rail companies B&O (blue), Pennsylvania Railroad (red), C&O (yellow) and New York Central (Green), trying to build routes from the east coat to Chicago.  Unlike most train games, players don’t play the part of the railroads, instead they are investors, speculating in order to accumulate as much cash as possible.   To that end, on their turn players can auction a share of one of the companies, extend a network of a company they hold shares in or “improve” one of the hexes that a rail-line goes through.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

At the end of each round, there is a dividend where owners of shares get a pay-out.  The game is played over a maximum of eight rounds and the player with the most money at the end of the game wins.  There are a couple of clever parts of the game. Firstly, there are the three action wheels.  Each time a player takes an action, the associated dial is moved on one step. Each dial has a maximum number of steps per round and once this limit has been reached, that action is unavailable for the rest of the round.  Once two action dials have reached their maximum, the the round is over and dividends are handed out.  The dividend depends on the length of the railroad, where it goes, any upgrades along the route and the number of shares held.  The second clever aspect of the game is the economic merry-go-round. When players buy shares, the money is paid to the company and it is this money that is then used to build rail routes.  Money is gradually fed into the game via the dividend which is taken from the bank.  Since the winning condition is solely based on money at the end of the game, there is a strong incentive to minimise the amount paid for shares.  However, this can be a false economy as it can leave the company that short of funds for development.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor da pyrate

So, the balance is hard to strike, and as the game progresses, demand increases for the companies with the largest dividends.  In general, there are eight rounds, but if three companies run out of trains or three companies run out of shares, then the game ends early, so players have to watch what they spend to make sure they don’t get caught out. Only money counts at the end of the game, shares are worthless, so players can’t afford to overspend.  Chicago Express was a Christmas gift for Pink, and only Blue and Pink had played it before, and then only with two players. They explained what had happened and, as the game starts with an initial share auction they offered as much of their (albeit limited) experience as they could to help players value the shares, but the suspicion was that the game would play very differently with six.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

Blue took the first share in the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR, red), Burgundy placed a stake in the B&O (blue), Pine invested in C&O (yellow), and Purple took the last initial offering, snapping up the New York Central share (green). That left Black and Pink with nothing at the beginning, but with their starting funds untouched.  Because funds are replenished (at least in part) by the dividend at the end of the round, it is very important for players who lose out in the initial auction to ensure they get a stake before the end of the round or they risk having to fight a rear-guard action for the whole game. To this end, Pink started out on a concerted campaign to auction off shares. By the end of the first round, Pink had joined Pine in the yellow C&O and Black had gone into partnership with Blue in the PRR. Blue on the other hand had bankrupted herself by dividing her loyalties and joined Burgundy investing in the B&O.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Mouseketeer

After the first round, everyone could see how things we playing out and it about then that another share in the New York Central was put up for auction. The dividend had been one of the highest; hitherto, Purple had held the only share and she was very keen to keep it that way.  As the price crept up, players gradually dropped out of the bidding, eventually leaving just Burgundy and Purple.  Burgundy pushed her to the limit, but thanks to her slightly higher dividend in the first round, Purple was able to hang on to her monopoly.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

As the game progressed, more shares were auctioned and railroads gradually progressed westward, though the routes they took varied considerably.  Black and Blue took the PRR by the most direct route as did Burgundy (with little help from Blue, his silent partner), while Green went to the north.  In contrast, Pink and Pine took the C&O along the south coast, where there were lots of cities making it increasingly valuable and consequently, a target for takeover.  There were lots of shares available though, which simply had the effect of diluting the holding and eroding its value.  Nevertheless, Pine and Pink managed to hang on to the majority between them, so all their efforts weren’t totally wasted.  Meanwhile, Purple managed to fight off another unwanted takeover bid, with Blue forcing up the bids this time.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Toynan

It was about this time, at the start of the fifth round that train stocks and share certificates began to run out, and suddenly everyone realised that the game could be close to the end.  Purely by chance, Blue hadn’t spent any money in the previous round having been repeatedly outbid, which meant she had more than anyone else. However, as she only had two shares she had one of the smaller shares of the dividend due, so she needed the game to end before the start of the next round. With this in mind, she began aggressively selling C&O shares, which not only brought the game to an abrupt end, but also led to a dilution of their value as others could see the writing on the wall. The tactic worked though, and after the last dividend had been handed out, everyone added up their profits and the game finished with Blue out in front with forty-two dollars, eleven dollars clear of Purple in second place.

Chicago Express
– Image by BGG contributor damnpixel

As the dust settled, players considered what had happened with the benefit of hindsight.  It was clear that although the game is unquestionably very clever, not everyone appreciated the combination of simplicity and difficulty.  In truth, it really isn’t a “train game”, more an economics game with a train theme, which could be responsible for making it less popular than, say, Ticket to Ride.  It can also be quite unforgiving, especially for players who fail to get shares in the early part of the game.  Since only four shares are auctioned before the game starts properly, the higher player counts pretty much guarantee that someone will have to fight to stay in the game.  On the other hand, if they are lucky, they may be able to get potentially valuable shares relatively cheaply by capitalising on the fact that others might have overpaid to ensure they don’t get left out.  All in all, it definitely left some players with mixed feelings.

Chicago Express
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor da pyrate

With the post-mortem out of the way, we started a game of Las Vegas.  We’ve played this simple game quite a bit, in fact, most times that it comes to games night it gets played, probably because it is an easy option.  The idea is that players begin their turn by rolling their dice and then assign some of them to one of six casinos.  Each casino is numbered one to six and has a jackpot drawn at random from a deck of money.  Players must use all the dice displaying one number to bet on the casino of that number.  Once everyone has placed all their dice the player who placed the most dice on a casino takes the highest value currency card with the person in second place taking the next and so on. The really clever bit is that before any money is handed out, any “draws” are removed, which leads to a lot of barracking.  As usual, we included the Big Dice from the Boulevard expansion and the Slot Machine mini-expansion from the 2015 Brettspiel Advent Calendar.  The Slot Machine acts like a seventh casino, except that it can hold dice of any number, but dice of each number can only be added once (though a player must add all the dice they have of that number).

Las Vegas
– Image by boardGOATS

For some reason, this game always seems to take our group ages. Black commented that it was because we all play the same way, hedging our bets at the start of the round, hoping to be the last player with dice and to be able to use them to greatest effect.  As Black pointed out though, in practice, most of the time, even when the dice roll to leave a player with the most dice at the end, it is rare they can actually use them to great influence.  With that in mind, we tried to play slightly more aggressively, and also decided to play just three rounds instead of the usual four.  In the event, game play was slightly quicker than in previous games, but not much, and in truth nobody really minded.  The thing is, Las Vegas is very relaxing to play because there is are short spells of intense thought interspersed within longish periods while others play. Although this would normally be tedious, somehow watching others roll and the anticipation while they choose what to do is strangely compelling.  This time, the first round was fairly even, but it was the second round where things got interesting. Normal service was resumed for Burgundy who got nothing and Blue didn’t do much better. Black was the real winner though, taking money from several of the casinos, many of which were quite substantial. He was less lucky during the final round, however, and it was Purple, who had been consistent throughout who finished in front with $370,000 just $20,000 ahead of Black in second.

Las Vegas
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor ckirkman

With the fog, and an early start the next day for some, Black, Purple an Burgundy headed off, leaving Blue, Pine and Pink to a game of Finca.  This is a fairly light set collecting game centered around a rondel.  The idea is that players have two options on their turn, the can move a meeple round the rondel to pick up fruit, or deliver sets of fruit to the Mallorcan villages. The rondel movement is the interesting bit: the number of meeples on its start space dictate how far the meeple moves and the number of meeples on the space at the end of its move indicates how many fruit the active player gets.  If the meeple passes one of two markers during its move, the player gets a donkey cart token which can be traded in for the opportunity to make a delivery.

Finca
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor mikehulsebus

The game has a couple of other features. Firstly, in order to stop players hoarding fruit and starving others, if there are insufficient fruit available when needed, everyone returns everything of that type that they have, before the active player gets their due. This also applies to donkey cart tokens an it forces players to deliver frequently. In any case, donkey carts are generally small and hold a maximum of six fruit, so there is rarely good reason for hoarding.  Secondly, the villages each have a pile of demand tokens, face down except for the top one. Each of these depict some number of fruit from one to six.  When a player delivers to a village, they take the demand token and the number of fruit on the token is equivalent to the number of points awarded to the player at the end of the game. Thus, a player could collect one token featuring six fruit, alternatively, they could claim two or more tokens that sum to six (or fewer – donkey carts don’t have to be full).

Finca
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor thepackrat

Finally, bonuses are available for players who collect sets of demand tiles numbering from one to six, and when all the demand tiles are taken for a village, the finca tile is evaluated which gives more points. The game ends when demand tiles have been taken for a set number of villages and points are added up. Pine was new to the game, though Blue and Pink had played it a few times before. So it was that Pink, slightly needled by his poor results in the first two games, showed the way, initially by delivering the first fruit and collecting the corresponding demand tiles, then by collecting a set of six tiles, and with it, seven bonus points.  Blue collected plenty of fruit and turned them into demand tiles, but Pine and Pink between them took all the available “three value” demand tiles preventing her from getting a bonus. Pine quickly got to grips with the game, but his problems were compounded by the fact that he kept drawing with Blue when the finca bonus tiles were evaluated.  So it was Pink led from the start, picking up both finca bonuses and set bonuses as he went and snatching tiles just before the others could take them, and he ran out the worthy winner with fifty-two points to finish the evening on a landslide.

Finca
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Learning outcome:  A game needs more than trains for it to be a “train game”.