Ferrocarriles Pampas

Published by Winsome Games
Designed by Martin Wallace
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

3 to 5 players
120 mins

The latest Apple computer adverts carry the message, "He who has the idea has the advantage. He who implements it first is the winner." How very true. As I look at the box file on my shelf marked 'Railway Design', I am conscious that one of those ideas has now been made flesh by Martin Wallace, ably assisted by John Bohrer of Winsome Games. It comes in a tube marked Ferrocarriles Pampas (FP) and it has been applied to the expansion of the Argentine railways between 1870 and 1890. Fortunately, they have also added a number of extra concepts and tweaks to the usual railway game formula, and unlike my idea, they have been made to work in the main. Good on them for that, and I will re-use the best bits at a later date!

Yes, it's a railway game. Not sure how many of the audience just switched off, but it will be more than a few. It is also a railway game that has precious few non-railway bits in it, so unlike 1830 which you could play as a share game, or Railway Rivals which could be played for the races, you'll get little joy from this one. Even better, it concerns an area of railway history that I hadn't heard of and am frankly none the wiser now - this is not a criticism since I am sure the FP system could be equally well applied to Upper Volta or perhaps Tongan Narrow Gauge.

The system works broadly like this, with some detailed explanations of the important sub systems further down the page. There is a map of Argentina on which the railway routes are already marked. The track is one of three types, easy, medium or difficult, indicating how tough it is to build - mountains being a major factor... With some exceptions, track starts from either a port or a major town, and then remains contiguous as it snakes off into the hinterland. There are six companies that can be launched to build this track, and each has five shares. Track (drawn on using crayons) is built corresponding to the company colour and, as in Santa Fe/Wildlife Adventure, you can build track for any company. Companies grow in value (see below), new shares are issued up to the maximum five and the network spreads across the country. Dividends are paid intermittently, with a terminal payout. There are no trains, and no distinction between freight and passenger income. Tracks are deemed to earn money all the time once built and players have 'interests' in getting tracks to certain towns. Oh, and TWITPWMM (the winner is the player with most money).

The main driver in the game is a chit system. There are a lot of chits in a pot and, assuming you are not launching a new company which is the early game alternative, one is pulled out in your turn. It may tell you a dividend is payable on all shares (the eighth one signalling the end of the game, wertung style, and also adding an element of unpredictability to game length - a double edged sword), it may dictate that a piece of track can be built somewhere or it may indicate that a new share can be sold in an existing company. The problem here, unlike many games, is that the chit tells you what you can do in that turn, not that it is your turn. There is no often no decision making beyond shall I do it, or not. And if as we found, you are desperately waiting for a shares chit to expand your holding, you have no interest in track or dividends coming out. But come out they do. We found there were large sections of the game where we were simply passing - either because there was no money or because we wanted a specific type of chit. So, interesting try but I'm not sure it works.

If the chit drawn is Build Track, the player pulling it has the choice to nominate a section of track for construction. The player to his left can nominate a rival route, or one elsewhere, thus creating two possible ventures for the government to approve. Each of the first two players, assuming they nominated and didn't pass, becomes a member of one of the two rival consortia and the non-committed players then join them if they wish. So the third player might decide Option A is no good to him, but he likes B, and joins by chipping in some money. The bids rise in this fashion until one side pulls out and then it falls to the other consortium to finance the construction - the bid may be much lower than cost, and they have to hammer out a deal to pay for it. If they don't, the consortium fails and their bids are lost, as well as giving the losing consortium the chance to build instead.

This aspect of the game is enjoyable but potentially time consuming. Enjoyable because the consortium approach is interesting, there is plenty of room to bid cleverly and stitch up opponents, and the whole deal making feel and 'Option A or Option B' is excellent - the government will sign a chitty, but no-one knows for what land tract, and who will pay for it. This is all good stuff. The downside is that this can take a long time and it is vital to realise when there is realistically only one (or no) viable build, because of vested interests or bank balance restrictions (!), and to cut to the quick. If you don't and these bids and negotiations drag on, you will not finish inside two hours and the player not involved will get mighty bored. The downtime early in the game can be misleading though, as later on the deals speed up, and often go through unopposed, or on the nod.

The only income available, beyond that with which you start, is from dividends. A common sight is for a player to be urging a dividend chit to come out because he badly needs money. And of course a dividend wertung may not come for ages and then three come at once. For this reason, you have to watch your cash flow all the time and some sort of cash reserve is vitally important. It is no good sitting on a pile of good shares if you haven't got the liquidity to build a key piece of track. Once you are aware of this realistic constraint, it is a good challenge to monitor your likely income and expenditure, money is tight (as it probably was in real life) and everything seems to be nicely in balance cost-wise. Chalk up another credit.

And so we reach the bit that has been cruelly invented and published before I even got it working. The company valuation and share system is rather neat. Companies have a value, which is determined by how much track it has built, and also an income, which is simply a function of all the towns connected. In this way you can, quickly and neatly by looking at the markers around the board edge, identify companies with very little asset value (one or two sections of track) but with a high income from ports and coastal cities, or rural giants serving loads of small mountain towns - low income, high asset value. These factors influence share price by way of a minimum bid, but also its perceived value. You can also, as with 18xx, look at the company networks, see where they might build next and invest on that basis. And since shares are few and far between, and you're allowed to bid competitively for them, some interesting share prices materialise - some based on income (which is the sole determinant of dividends - it would be interesting to know if this was the case historically), others on assets, control or deprivation which I think is a nice angle and one we will see more of. Now I know there is little here that isn't in 18xx, but it is done so much more cleanly, without all that fussing with counting runs and trains, that it feels superior. In fact, were this share sub-system to be added to Silverton, I think that could be a dynamite combination. Another plus for FP.

As we chuff towards the end of the game, we start to think about the victory conditions. Okay, so you'd be thinking about them all game, but you know what I mean. At the start of the game you are dealt a number of town cards. These are the target towns to which you would like a large number of lines, from as many different companies as possible, to connect. Each town has a value and the end game bonus is value times lines times companies. Yes, it is a Santa Fe lift and, sadly, it carries similar problems. The towns are not easy to locate on the map so you are forever looking at/for them and cross referencing them to the evolving network. Worst of all, it is almost impossible to link your strategy to the random selection of towns. Part of the problem is, because the cards are randomly dealt, they could be scattered all over the map or, jammily, grouped nicely for rapid connection. Add this to the non-intuitive adding up that we had in Santa Fe, and that these target towns are of course secret, and you are confused as to who is leading at any time. We've had this discussion before; whether leader signals are good, bad or even required, but in this game it would be useful if you are negotiating with someone who is miles ahead. But this point is moot since the other aspect of the final calculation is so fiddly it would be impossible to know anyway. The formula is: Share Pay Off = (value + income)/number of shares sold. Yes, very good. I can see exactly what we are getting at here, but it results in a game where you play to the finish, have little idea who is leading, sit down for a few minutes to work it all out, and then, anti-climactically, a winner is announced. In our case, we were all surprised and discussion of whether this is desirable should probably be saved for another day. Production is typical Winsome - first class graphics in full colour, good components and all rolled up in a tube for a reasonable price. Considering the limited runs of these games, what we really have is another bargain, compromised only by the shipping costs to England, and VAT. We found the map benefitted from BluTac at each corner to hold it flat to the table, and the income/value markers were a bit fiddly, but otherwise it is entirely functional. Oh, and unlike my copy of TrainSport Austria which remains a mystery, the crayons worked without any problems - the yellow is a bit hard to pick out, but otherwise fine.

Ferrocarriles Pampas is an interesting piece of design. I say that cautiously because I don't think it works fully as a game, but there is enough here to say, yes, we are making progress. Some aspects are good, some are good but long winded, some are not so good, and the chit system was probably a mistake. Whether it works overall is a tough call. Of the five players who started game one, three never wanted to see it again. This would have been largely down to the chits, target town and negotiation systems, the downtime, and the elapsed time for the progress made when we gave it up. Game two was played with three players and worked much better. It still had problems, but at least we rattled through to a finish and could see the shape of the network, the stronger companies came through and we all had a feel for the subject. This is not to say the game isn't playable with four or five, it is, but I guess it will take at least two hours unless someone ensures you get a move on.

So, I suppose you all want a verdict? On balance, I'd say play it once and see what you think. It has some good elements as I said, and is worth experiencing, but I think there are just enough problems to either push it into the 'probably fixable' camp, or rapidly onto the sale list, depending on your outlook. Like X Pasch, I was happy to give it table time even though I knew it would ultimately not make five outings. My gut feeling is that this is a transitional design and we will see some of its devices used again, while others will die in that sluggish evolutionary scheme that is game design. In that respect it is as worthy as any other rival railroad design we have seen since 18xx and Railway Rivals staked their claims all those years ago, and perhaps in time we will see a new king of the hill. Ferrocarriles Pampas will not be that game, and it cannot be said to be as good overall as even Winsome's own TrainSport system, but it offers some guidance as to where we might go next, and as with most areas of life, we all learn profitably from mistakes.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell