By heck, does tha call that a railway?

Review of board game West Riding by Pevans

Han Heidema's new railway game from Winsome Games is set in Yorkshire at the start of the Railway Age. It is another crayon game and another build-railways-and-buy-shares game. There is a definite resonance with Dutch InterCity, too, but Han has once again provided us with a new slant on these ideas.

The production quality of the game is very much Winsome's usual standard: what you think of it will depend on how you like your games. The components are nothing to write home about: laser-printed paper and thin card. The map is laminated, although on thin stock, and there are dice and a set of crayons. Everything is serviceable albeit basic.

So, on to the play of the game.

First thing each turn is that players nominate and auction a share in one of six railway companies. The twist is that the successful bidder must use the money s/he bid to connect another town to the company's network (any excess goes into the company's treasury). Fail to bid enough to do this and you don't get the share. An immediate implication of this is that the starting bid for a share is usually the cost of the cheapest connection. The Director, who runs the company, has the advantage of being able to spend the company's own money as well. In theory this allows Directors to buy shares more cheaply in their 'own' company and thus gives players an incentive to concentrate their shareholdings. In practice, other players usual bid up the price anyway.

Players continue to nominate shares for auction in turn. This continues until someone runs out of money - with the proviso that everybody gets to nominate a share at least once. In the early turns there will often be only one round of share-buying. However, as the game goes on, the players get richer and there is scope for more shares to be sold - though they are worth less (as the dividends are spread more widely and there are fewer turns in which to pay out). The same mechanism was used in Dutch InterCity and is quite effective. It allows a few tactical ploys and encourages people to spend money rather than save it - being left with just a little cash can be really bad news.

Because each player in turn nominates a share to be sold, there is an obvious tendency to put up the share you want - after all you can't rely on the others. Another tactic is to put up a share no-one wants (as the others did to me when I was the man with the cash; forcing me to buy shares I didn't want or let one of them bid what they had left and finish the auction). Again, as you know how much cash each player starts with (it's announced to determine the order of the players at the start of the turn) it is relatively easy to keep track of how much money each player holds and optimise your bids.

Connecting another town to the network is simply done by drawing a line on the map and paying the fee. The cost goes up if rivers or hills are involved. Routes cannot cross and can only connect at towns. The rules constrain players to build the shortest route between the chosen towns, not to build the shortest route available. This gives some scope for tactics by choosing which town to connect. Such as building a longer route to reduce the money going into the company's treasury (where it's only useful to the Director) or building lines to prevent other companies expanding (since lines can't cross).

Once share-buying and line-building are complete, it's time to gain some money. Companies gain income for each town they connect to (income decreases as more lines run from the town) and for track built this turn. So another implication of a share being sold is to increase the company's income in that turn. Lines are marked when they pay out so that they can't be claimed again.

Each company also belongs to one of two 'grouping' companies - either historical or randomly determined at the start. The 'group' companies build no track and gain income for towns controlled by the group. The first group to have lines into the town from two of its companies takes control of the town.

The only way to gain a group share is to trade in two shares of member companies. This has several implications. In income terms, you are losing the dividends from two shares to get one - it had better be worth it. Because the shares you get rid of still count when calculating dividend payments, you are reducing the total income generated by member companies. This makes these shares less valuable for income, but you have to buy them in order to get more 'group' shares. However, a rule of thumb is that shares in a company are worth more in the turn you acquire them, so a useful tactic seems to be keeping shares for one turn and then trading them in.

This is quite a complex game, but it seems that shares in the 'group' companies are key. The big decision is picking the right moment to go into them. Clearly you are better off gaining income from the basic companies first, but at some point the group companies begin to pay more. Of course this point lies in the control of the players. The faster/slower they claim cities for the 'group' companies, the faster/slower the dividends from these shares will increase.

The game appears to polarise into two camps - each working for a particular 'group' company and co-operating to some extent. If this is correct (and being in both camps may be a good strategy), it implies that the smaller team in a game with an odd number of players is handicapped.

The game ends when there's nothing else to do. My experience is that this will take three hours or more. There's a final scoring mechanism to cash up all the companies and the player with the most money wins.

This is a long game and certainly one I have not mastered yet - I'm not sure I've understood it, even. I certainly cannot come to any definite conclusions on the best strategy yet. Though I always feel that the key to success in share-dealing games is having lots of shares. The only problem I can see is that the map is small for something that is going to be pored over by several people for several hours. Otherwise this is a worthy addition to the pantheon of railway games and another winner for Han Heidema and Winsome Games.

By the way, when I bumped into Han at Spiel I asked him if the Yorkshire setting was to differentiate the game from Martin Wallace's Lancashire bias (notably Lancashire Railways, also from Winsome). However he assures me that the location came about purely because of the number of early railways in the area.

West Riding was designed by Han Heidema and published in the USA by Winsome Games. It is for 3-6 players and takes 3 hours to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review is due for publication in Games Games Games 152.

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