Gulf, Mobile & Ohio
- Designer: John Bohrer listed on BGG
- Publisher: Rio Grande Games
- Players: 3-5
- Ages: 14+
- Time: 60 minutes
- Times played: around a dozen between current and older version
This is certainly an interesting time for game reviews; it’s hard to write reviews on games when I have almost no opportunity to actually play them right now! We’re being asked to stay at home in Ohio right now, so my outlets for traditional boardgaming are about nil. I did just receive a box of games from Rio Grande; and surprisingly enough, I found a new version of an old favorite within! I have yet to have a chance to play the new version but it appears to be identical (gamewise) to the original clamshell version of the game from 2008 so I can review it based on my previous experience with the game.
Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (GM&O) is one of the last games I bought as a regular subscriber to the annual Winsome Essen package. Back in those glory days, Mr. Bohrer would sublet a corner of an Essen booth for a single hour on the Friday of the fair, and he would collect money and distribute his pre-ordered sets of Essen games. This was pretty much the only way to get the whole set of games, and you had to buy them all. Having done this for a number of years, I would come up to the booth – wearing my Bengals jersey for sure – and ask for my set. Mr. Bohrer, in his Steelers garb, would invariably grimace at my clothes, and then deliver set #69 to me. (Nice). Sure, the components were rudimentary – usually simple cubes, construction paper money and shares, all wrapped up in a thin plastic clamshell case – but the games inside were always challenging and inventive. Each year, I was almost sure to find at least one keeper in the Winsome set, and due to the relative scarcity, I could almost always find homes for the ones I didn’t like as much. (you know, anything that begins with 18…)
GM&O became both one of my most favorite and least favorite Winsome games – mostly because I still have no idea how to play the game successfully after repeated tries. Each time that I think I have grasped the underlying strategy and flow of the game, I am unable to repeat the success in a later game… The game though has a couple of interesting/unique concepts which separate it from many of the other train games of the time.
The board shows a hex map of the Southeast United States with the Atlantic Ocean on the right (Richmond VA, Wilmington NC and Savannah GA) going westward to a line between Memphis TN and New Orleans. There are various cities and towns shown on the map, with a number of starting cities shown with their names encircled in red. Almost every city/town has the ability to be a starting city for a railroad, and the abbreviations for these lines is seen at the top of the hex. There are also a couple of mountain ranges in the northern parts of the map.
Along the top of the board is one of the unique parts of the game, a set of six colored rows that show the number of cubes left available in the different colors. The eight starting companies have their charter share and common share separated from the remaining 15 train lines’ shares. Yes, that’s right; 23 companies, each with only 2 shares! Each player receives a starting amount of cash based on player count, a starting player is chosen, and the game is ready to start…
On a turn, the active player must choose from one of four action choices: 1] Charter a Railroad, 2] Auction a common share, 3] Presidential expansion of a railroad, 4] Pass. The chosen action is resolved and then the next person clockwise gets to go. The game continues until either all players have passed consecutively OR if at least one cube of all six colors is on the board after a Charter a Railroad action is taken – then the game ends immediately. Players can freely choose what action they would like to take except for the very first turn of the game. The start player must choose to Charter the South Carolina railroad company as his starting play. I believe the reason for this is due to the quirk of train games trying to stick to actual history, and according to the rules, the South Carolina Railroad was the second railroad in the US to operate, and at one point, it was the longest railroad in the world.
Charter a Railroad – Choose an available company and put the Charter Share up for action. The active player makes the opening bid, which can be $0. Bids go around the board with each player raising or passing. The high bidder takes the Charter share, the money spent on the share is placed on top of the share for now, and the winner selects a color for the company. For now, the Charter Share is placed with the $5 side showing (denoting the dividend). The color chosen must be a color that has the most available cubes at that moment; if there is a tie, he can choose amongst the tied colors. One cube of that color is placed on the Charter share to remind everyone of the association. The player must now use money in that company’s treasury (i.e. the money spent on the share) to connect at least two cities. If two cities cannot be connected – generally due to not enough money being used to win the share (at least $9), though it can also happen if the color forced on the company cannot be legally placed in the starting city/cities due to that color already being present – the sale is canceled; all money is returned to the winning bidder and the action for that turn is considered to be a “Pass”.
To build a railroad, you must place cubes on the board. Each will cost $3. There are a bunch of rules that affect placement:
- The first cube must be placed in a designated home city for the railroad; and other than the 8 starting lines, all railroads must be started in a home city that already has another cube in it. The color of the cube on the Charter share must be followed for all cubes in that particular line.
- All subsequent cubes for that line must be placed adjacent to at least one other cube of its line
- Cubes may not be placed in a hex that already has a cube of that color NOR in a hex adjacent to one that has a cube of that color (so that each cube can be easily traced to the company that it belongs to)
- Cities can have up to 6 cubes in them (one of each color), but rural hexes may only have one cube each, and no cubes can be placed on the mountain hexes
- Any money left over at the end of the build is placed back in the bank.
As you place cubes, you score points for your placement:
- 1 VP for chartering a line (plus an additional VP if your charter share is one of three companies that gives you a bonus VP)
- 1 VP for placing a cube in a city other than Atlanta; 2VP for placing in Atlanta
- 1 VP for each new color that a line comes in contact with
Finally, check to see if you have opened up any new lines. If you have placed a cube in a hex which serves as a starting city for a line, make the shares for that line available. Also, check to see if the game has ended – if there is at least one cube of every color on the board at this time, the game ends.
Auction a Common Share – The active player nominates an available Common share for auction, and the player who currently owns the Charter share of this line immediately turns the Charter share over to the $3 side. (All Common Shares say $3). An auction is conducted, and the winning bidder takes the Common share and has the opportunity to build track with the money spent on the share. Unlike the charter share, there is no minimum winning bid needed and there is no requirement for a cube to be placed at all. There is a Common Share track in the bottom right of the board; this marker is moved one space forward. If it is moved onto the “2” space, all players collect dividends for all owned shares and the marker is moved back to the “Start” space.
Presidential Expansion – A player may use any money from his personal supply to expand a single railroad that they own the Charter Share for.
Pass – Umm, the player passes. Nothing happens. Unless all players around the table have passed in consecutive turns, at which point the game ends.
Scoring – the player with the most points wins the game. There is no endgame bonus scoring. Players score points in the course of the game as they place cubes, and this is the only way to score points. There is no tiebreaker, and unlike the usual Rio Grande tie rules, players do not rejoice in their shared victory but instead “they must reluctantly accept the result”.
My thoughts on the game
Well, as I said at the start, I’ve played this game a bunch of times, and I’m still not sure how to form a successful strategy. Each game (at least as far as I can remember) plays out differently as there are so many different companies that can form each game.
The cube color restriction is the most fascinating part of the game for me. In most occasions, the game forces a color onto a company, and this definitely can affect the growth and expansion of a particular line as well as the companies around it. When the most prevalent color is a tie, this also can lead to some interesting choices.
The game is extremely tactical. As each company only has two shares to be bought; the timing of buying them is paramount. In order to maximize scoring, you might need to wait for a particular color to be available to be chosen. Of course, if you don’t bid on a share when offered, you might lose the opportunity to place cubes at all. The game is fraught with decisions such as this; trying to figure out marginal gains from a particular action; sometimes it comes down to a single dollar on a bid or a single cube to be placed on the board. The game can be quite frustrating if you want to feel in control, because it is rarely obvious what an optimal play would be at any given time, and more likely than not, the game will come down to one or two of these seemingly small decisions.
Unlike most other train games, this one isn’t about the infrastructure of a company. You don’t try to take control of a company and then help it expand. You don’t try to slowly accumulate shares in a company to eventually take it over. Sure, you need to win shares in order to place cubes, but there isn’t as much power behind those shares as usual. All shares end up paying a similar dividend, and there are enough Charter shares to go around to allow everyone to have enough options for Presidential expansion.
Maybe you’ll end up offering up a charter stock of a railroad that you don’t particularly want to own. But… you’d like someone to own it, and you might be able to force that player into a particular starting city, cube color or both based on the current board state. And, while that might not help you out now; it might help keep the board free for you to have a massive presidential expansion of an older railroad later in the game. I have also seen devastating plays where a player builds a seemingly nonsensical line of cubes, but ends up running a color out of cubes, thereby freezing the growth of all other railroads that share that color.
There is not much long term planning here in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a fragile balance of trying to maximize your own actions or at least minimizing the plays that your opponents are able to make. When placing cubes, I often try to cut off the possible expansion of other colors. I might also carefully choose where I lay cubes as I might not want to open up new train lines for the other players at that particular moment That being said, there is some long term strategies in trying to predict or track which colors will be available at which times – and this will help you decide what plays will be best for you. Of course, my track record has proven that I simply can’t figure this out at all! But that’s what kept me wanting to play GM&O more; to try to figure the game out. From what I remember, the games are either super close or they have runaway winners. And, IIRC, no one in my regular group (At that time) was able to replicate success and consistently blow everyone away.
The components of the new version are a distinct upgrade from the original. The shares now have a better visual look – both giving the dividend info on the share as well as the starting cities on the Charter shares. The money is also a nice Monopoly style money affair as opposed to the construction paper squares of the original.
The new cover art is nice, perhaps a lateral move from the original. There is a reproduction of a beautiful oil painting in the rules, and a portion of this has been cropped onto the box. I might have wanted the picture to be zoomed out a bit as the art is a bit pixelated and grainy, and I don’t think that the zoomed-in image is not as beautiful as the whole image. But, that’s a minor thing, and the box/bits are still a huge step up from the plastic clamshell and kindergarten art class supplies.
GM&O is a great game, and another nice selection from the Winsome catalog for Rio Grande Games. This one is going on the permanent shelf next to Northern Pacific – another unique train game redone by RGG.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Dan Blum: I liked this better than most of Winsome’s offerings, but that is pretty faint praise. It definitely feels different from many other superficially similar games in that money is just a means to an end, which is good. However, my recollection is that it seemed to turn on nuances of timing – you can often score very well when a new color becomes available, so you want to make sure you have the most money when that happens. There’s nothing wrong with this per se but it seemed kind of plodding and processional most of the time. That being said, I didn’t play it as much as Dale so I suppose I’d be willing to try it again.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y
- Neutral. Dan Blum
- Not for me…