RollingCon or The Time We Took a Train to BGGCON

I’m currently on a train getting ready to pass from Illinois into Missouri. It’s 7:00, dark out, and I think there’s snow on the ground. (That’s now now, when I’m writing it, not when you’re reading it, when I finish it, or when I proofread it.) It’s the second dinner break on either the first or second day of the first or the only, “RollingCon”.

This is how we got here.

My flight home from HeavyCon was delayed by 12 hours. As I sat in the terminal debating alternate methods home, I thought about getting my plane rerouted through Boston, so that I could be on Rand’s flight home and we could play games with strangers on the plane.

It was a short jump from there to where we ended up. A little inspiration from there, some input from over here, and Rand suggested: we invite some friends to join us in Chicago to take the train to BGGCON in Dallas; 21 hours to play train games…on a train.

Rand and a crew would start in Boston and others -from Portland, Texas, Cincinnati, Taiwan, and, well, Boston- would meet at Union Station in Chicago.

The virtue of the 21 Texas Eagle is this:

The “Observation Car” isn’t our seat-seats, but it has tables, these stunning windows, and is next door to our seats.

Eleven of us set off from Chicago around 1:45 on Monday. I haven’t ridden Amtrak in a number of years, and, well, things had changed a little.

Rather than a more casual boarding process, we waited until all passengers were in a line, and an attendant led us on a sorta parade through the station and to our train.

It is still general seating, so what happened was all the window seats (with easy access to electrical outlets) were taken right away, and then we each sat in separate seats.

But it didn’t need to last long, as the conductor came around shortly to scan our tickets, and then we adjoined to the ConCar.

(Most passengers also weren’t here for RollingCon, which is to say they got off well before Dallas.  Even well before St. Louis we had secured better seating arrangements thanks to Edward’s looking out for us on that front, and also thanks to Jess, dinner reservations had been arranged for those that were interested.)

I have registered for Age of Steam Con next year, and, as I have mostly played Steam, I was glad that Matt had brought Age of Steam and some maps.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a game where you build track like a pile of spaghetti, while delivering cubes as inefficiently as possible, and hope one day to stop taking loans.

We built the track from Chicago to St. Louis first, as it would be needed to continue our journey.

It was beautiful to watch the scenery go by as the snow started to fall.

So first, I guess we’ll stop by Northern Pacific.  I had a chance to play this at a recent convention, and while I imagine you’re getting a review of this from the group at some point soon, I’ll tell you a little about it here.

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Low expectations, and all that, I didn’t expect to enjoy Northern Pacific.  This is the recent Rio Grande Games reprint of the Winsome game of the same name from Tom Russell. It’s a minimal design, that I feared would be balanced on a razor’s edge in a way that I don’t like – where it can easily devolve into a state that, well, isn’t necessarily enjoyable.

However, after 2 plays, I love it.

The players are collectively expanding a railline from east to west. The track cannot branch, and the routes have arrows showing the direction the train must go from a city.  On a player’s turn, they may either place a cube in a city where the train has not reached, or extend the track.

Each player starts with one large and three small cubes.  If the railroad reaches a city with one of your small cubes, you retrieve it and one from the supply.  For a large cube, retrieve it and 2 of your small cubes.

Once the railline reaches Seattle, the round ends.  Players score points for how many cubes they have available in front of them, representing successful investments in towns along the way, and a second cube will represent track cubes that were left on the board – your unsuccessful investments.

The games takes place over three rounds, and between each round, the board and cubes in front of players are reset.  After the third round, whoever has the largest sum of successful investments wins, with the unsuccessful investments only coming into play as a tie break.

I’ll try to save my gushing about this game for a full review later, but for now I just love it.

Andy (who it turns out is playing train games online with a ‘Nathan James’ who is not me, and resulted in several moments of confusion today until we figured things out) had brought several titles from this year’s Winsome collection and we played two of those next – figuring that Southern Pacific would be a good chaser for Northern Pacific.

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Northern Pacific seems to be a game of financial shenanigans.

In general, companies operate, and then players operate.  The companies operate in the order shown, with each having the option to auction or not auction a share, lay up to 3 pieces of track, and purchase 3 pieces of track from another company.  When a company lays track into a city, it pays for the connection, and increases its income.  Depending on other companies already connected to a city, other incomes may adjust.  (I’ll note that the chart is income only – there’s no tracking of stock value per se- and it is cash on hand only that will determine the winner.) Lastly, the company can issue dividends – as small as they’d like, or everything in their coffers.

Once each company operates, the players each can choose a company which auctions a share in a once-around-auction, ending with the player that chose it.

Ultimately, this one was too opaque for me, and seemed to snowball towards the end – with income that once seemed impressive now being meaningless- in a way I dislike.

We went back to Tom Russell designs with another of this year’s Winsome set, London & Northwestern, which felt like a surprisingly ‘normal’ game for that pedigree, and was very enjoyable.

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Here, again, unexpectedly, a player starts with a President’s share of a company, and while you can, and probably will, buy shares of other players’ companies, our game didn’t see anyone purchase more than 2 or 3 shares in a game, and the way victory is calculated, you can count unissued shares in your company as your own.

Again, companies will operate, and then player’s will have a chance to purchase stock.  Here, the company’s can pay for technology upgrades which will lessen the cost of future track lays, or license that technology from other companies.  When a company wants to expand, it can lay its own track, or lease track from other companies and expand from there.  Licensing and leasing both providing ways for one company to directly pay another.

When a company connects to a city, income goes up.  At the end of the company’s operations, income is collected, and dividends are issued or withheld.

It was a solid game that I’d be happy to play again.

Somewhere in there we ate dinner.  This train, and probably others, are odd ducks.  I mean, here’s a creepy room:

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There are others. It seems like they don’t lock things – outside of one bathroom which locks with you inside it. As I’m typing this part, its 12:26 AM and we’re somewhere in the Mark Twain National Forest, a little over an hour behind schedule, though the announcer promises we’ll makeup time once we leave Arkansas.  The snack bar closed at 10, and the clerk would like you to know that doesn’t mean 10:01. The announcer came on a while ago to announce quiet hours, and again, as various announcers have stated with each announcement, reminded us to wear our shoes at all times.

Each time the announcer comes on I expect it to be some sort of end to RollingCon, as it’s not as if we told Amtrak we were throwing a party on their train. We were having more than our fare share among the passengers I saw. But other than a few small children, we largely go unnoticed.  Not a circus train, but it’s a motley crew.

We’re a bag of mixed nuts too – we invited our friends, but that’s not to say we all play the same types of games, or even ‘train’ games, or even have the same definition of what a ‘train’ game is.  We also learned that we don’t have the same definitions of what a “chicken-foot” or “bow and arrow” tile is in Age of Steam or 18xx, and Andy attempted to demonstrate the proper forms:

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Sleeping went, fine.  I woke up somewhere in Arkansas.  Central Time gave some of us an extra hour of sleep, and others of us, something different.  I walked down to the Observation Car around 6:45 AM to type some more words and watch the sunrise, and found Matt awake and ready to play.

We set up Ted’s Age of Steam St. Lucia map.

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It is a two-player only map with no cities on the board at the start.  Cubes start in the empty and river hexes and can be delivered over incomplete links.  No cubes are added to the board.

While acknowledging that I’ve only played it once, this was an outstanding experience and seemed to be incredibly balanced.  We used nearly every cube, nearly every hex, and nearly every loan. Several pieces of track were partially built and then abandoned. Throughout, I felt that each decision I made was likely costing me the game – which to me, is a good thing.

Up next, I taught some folks Gads Hill 1874, which I’ve previously reviewed over here.

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I continue to love it, and look forward to playing the new Jesse James expansion.

Also, uh, we’ve made it to Texas! I realized that I forgot to send my nephew a photo of the train yesterday so I got off at a stop for a photo to send him. It’s 9:00 now, and 4 attendees are still trying to enjoy some rest.  Amtrak shows our status as ‘on time’, but comparing the map and the expected time table, I could feel more confident.

Up next, I played Run Metro.

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It’s a release from the Spring Game Market. The included rules are under-developed and it may be under going further development, but it has a quite intriguing tile mix.

What else have we been up to? Well it’s apparently Planksgiving, so we took a plank break.

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We also spent a bit of time discussing how we slept, and how we may sleep in the future – including this technical air mattress from Andy:

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We played a few more non-train things, but then we shortly arrived in Dallas.  I hadn’t realized it would be the case – but the train station is adjacent to the new hotel that the fall BGGCON moves to next year.

For me, this is part of my Year of Making Mistakes. You’ll hear more about that after I do a thing in January, but I’m trying to take more risks, as an effort to help myself internalize that it’s OK to make mistakes.  What if people didn’t come. What if the train didn’t have the Observation Car. What if Rand took an Uber during the Chicago layover to meetup with Glenn Drover and eat a prime rib sandwich and almost missed the train. What if when we first board we can’t sit together. What if the train gets into Dallas so late that we miss prior obligations.

Eh. It was worth it. Thanks to everyone that joined in our whimsy; it means a lot to me.

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6 Responses to RollingCon or The Time We Took a Train to BGGCON

  1. Dale Yu says:

    Man. This almost makes me jealous that I didn’t get invited. Well, until I saw the picture of that creepy car where the hobos almost certainly live and spill all their corn chip crumbs on the floor of that dank unlit car. Seriously, WTF.

    • xitoliv says:

      It’s leaves that they tracked in on their boots.
      Also, despite not going on the prime rib sandwich caravan, Smoox shared half of his with me on the train for dinner, so huzzah!

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Awesome idea! I have had some nice spontaneous gaming in trains coming back from Essen to Berlin. One year, Peer Sylvester and I met each other on the platform in Essen and discovered we had reserved seats next to each other! We found another Berlin friend with a table and played games all the way back. Another time, 4 friends and I played Eurorails on the train from Prague to Berlin (we just finished at the end of the 5-hour trip). I was proud of the fact that I was the first to deliver Czech beer to Berlin from Prague :-)

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    That observation car is a really cool game room!

  4. Andy Miller says:

    This is the most amazing gaming idea I’ve ever heard of. Congrats on a cool adventure!

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