Tracks to Titicaca

Published by Winsome Games
Designed by John Bohrer
Reviewed by Stuart Dagger

2-6 players
2 hours plus

Reviewing Winsome games is a bit like marrying Henry VIII: interesting, but don't waste your money on the pension plan. As you probably remember, six months ago Mike wrote a review of Trainsport: Austria. It was sufficiently favourable to make me buy the game - and I am glad that I did - but he still found himself being told that he was the cruellest person since Caligula and personally responsible for the fact that the designers had chucked themselves off an alp. So it didn't come as a surprise when I was summoned in to the office to be told that he'd like me to do this one. The word "expendable" wasn't used, but it did hang in the air.

The game, as you'd expect from the title, is a follow-up to Tracks to Telluride, John's game about the mines and railroads of Western Colorado. This one is about the mines and railroads of the Andes. However, do not assume from that that this is simply the earlier game transposed to a new map. The heart of the game system, which is a belief that the way to deal with a mountain pass is to throw money and dice at it, is the same, but the story line and the feel are very different. John has clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching the railway history of the Andean countries and the result is an interesting and distinctive game. Whether it is also fun, or whether it is all a bit too much like hard work, is something on which players will disagree, but more on that later.

The map, which is plastic-laminated paper on which you draw with crayons, shows the Andean areas of Peru, Chile and Bolivia, together with a region which was in dispute between the three. The geographical features that will shape players' strategies are over 80 mines, an extremely formidable mountain range, a nitrate bearing desert and a lot of coastal ports that provide the bases for each company's operations. Unlike those in the Colorado game, the mines are all open at the start and remain so throughout. Simply owning a mine will bring you an income, but that income will increase significantly if the mine is connected by rail to a coastal port. Later in the game, the income from mines which do have a railway connection can, in many cases, be increased still further by building smelter facilities. This constant striving to increase income is vital, because, as in Tracks to Telluride, victory is determined not by how much money you have squirrelled away, but by what your income is when the game ends. This is a clever feature of both games, because it means that there is always something active for you to be either doing or planning to do. The money you have during the game is just working capital and in effect you either use it or lose it.

At the start of the game each player chooses a handful of mines. Just how many depends on the number of players, but getting on for a quarter of the total will be taken in this set-up stage. Thereafter, the sequence for each turn is: everybody selects a new mine; an event card is drawn; everybody has the opportunity to build new track; everybody collects their income; players have the opportunity to do deals with each other. Typical event cards are unrest in one of the countries, shortage/surplus of labour ditto, availability of a good engineer who for one turn will work for the highest bidder, and so on. There is nothing particularly drastic, but there is enough to add obstacles and opportunities and with them some extra interest.

When it comes to building, each player will have several railway lines on the go. Unlike in other games of this type, it is not necessary that all your track should link up and to start a new line you simply pay to develop the harbour in a hitherto unclaimed port and build some track from it. Extending track is the usual matter of drawing lines on a hexagonal grid and there are two types of hexes, lowland and mountain. The lowland hexes each have a fixed cost printed on them. This can be anything from 0 up to 9 and you just pay over the money and draw the track. The mountain ones each carry a difficulty rating and to attempt one of these you pay $10 and roll three dice. If your total is greater than or equal to the rating, you build the track; if it isn't, you don't, but you can pay to make a further attempt either this turn or later should you wish.

And, apart from the one-off payments that come from strip-mining the nitrates and being the first player to reach a new town, that is just about it. This is not a complicated game to learn, but the large number of decisions that have to be taken provide it with a good deal of interest. Interest, yes, but is it fun? And to that there is no absolute answer: it depends on your taste and temperament. How long do you think a game should last? For how long are you prepared to keep putting up money in the attempt to land a 1 in 6 shot, before you start demanding to know what's on television? John's estimate for the game is 2-3 hours and that is based on the experiences of his three playtest groups. However, until your players have the detailed knowledge about all the mines that his playtest groups would have had by the time they finished playtesting, I doubt that you will come close to matching that. Every time a player selects a new mine they have the full deck to choose from. Choice is a good thing to have in a game and I understand why John opted to have no restrictions, but when the players don't know the yield of each mine, they will each go through the full deck each turn and the cumulative effect of that on the time it takes to play the game is enormous. At 2-3 hours I'd enjoy this game; at double that I feel it outstays its welcome. That is not to dismiss the game: it has too much potential for me to want to do that, but I would suggest that until your players have acquired the necessary knowledge you devise some way of restricting the choice of mine deeds.

The other judgement you need to make is whether you and yours will enjoy "probabilistic building". There is a certain amount of this in Tracks to Telluride but a hell of a lot more in this one. In the Colorado game the typical situation is that you fight your way through the pass and are then greeted by a stretch of open country; here the typical pass is followed immediately by another and another. What is more, these are tough passes. Ratings of 14, 15 and 16 (to be thrown on 3d6) are not uncommon. With these numbers the chances of success each time you throw are (approximately) 1 in 6, 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 and there are no consolation prizes for getting close. If you don't enjoy chasing this sort of long shot, you are liable to find the game very frustrating. My own view is that I accept John's argument that when you are operating as close to the edge of what is possible as the people who built these railways were, you have to accept that success is far from assured and that costs can not be calculated in advance, only estimated and even then only with a large margin for error. That being so, there has to be dice rolling and risk taking, but I also think that the way it is done in this game is cruder than necessary. Saying this in John's hearing is running the same sort risk as mentioning to the Ancient Mariner that you have never seen an albatross: the ensuing conversation could be quite long. However, he is not the only one to have a commendable willingness to fight his corner and we are both old enough to recognise that we are talking about taste rather than truth and so are unlikely to come to blows.

So, having chanted my mantra to ward off evil spirits (and legendary American engineers), here is the variant rule that we adopted the last time we played and that we found made the game more enjoyable: if you are 1 short on the dice roll, an immediate payment of a further $5 entitles you to draw the track; if you are 2 short, the immediate payment required is $15; if you are 3 short it is $25. The right to "rescue the project by spending more money" is a right, not a compulsion, and it doesn't carry over to the next turn. If you don't have the money for immediate payment or are more than 3 away, tough. The rationale for this is that some projects succeed, some don't quite succeed but are rescuable, and some fail and need to be either restarted or abandoned. I am not putting this forward in the belief that it will be any closer to universal popularity than the original, but by way of illustrating what is my final verdict on this game. Many people will like it as it stands; others won't, but quite a few of those who don't will be able to retune it quite easily to something they do like without damaging either the interesting story line or any of the game's essential features.

The Game Cabinet - - Stuart Dagger