Saturday, August 06, 2005

There's Gold in Them Thar Cards

Last month in sunny Connecticut we spent some time revisiting a game that we had first played three years ago, back when we were first getting together as a group; this was Silverton, a train game that tells the story of the 1859 Colorado gold rush and the subsequent growth of the railroads in the American Southwest. I had liked the game quite a bit back then, as it is engrossing and atmospheric, but of course I was discovering a lot of other new games at the time and so the old-school all-dayer soon took a back seat to shorter and more intense Eurogames. I did later buy my own copy, though; it was on sale at (twenty bucks—not bad for a game with two hundred and fifty-three wooden pieces) and it struck me as a sensible alternative to 1860. "Why buy an expensive game I'm not going to play when I can buy a cheap game I'm not going to play? At least I know I already like it and there's two other people who are willing to sit down to it."

Anyway, for some reason this summer seemed like a good time to revisit the mines at Leadville, so Marty McMartin, Chris and I sat down to a standard game one Saturday afternoon. The general gist of Silverton is that players build rail networks to earn income from the lumber yards and coal, silver, copper and gold mines that are available at the moment. Players buy claims, dig up the coal, chop down the trees, take a quick whiz on the torn & ravaged earth just to make sure it knows who's boss, throw the stuff in the back of a freight car and go sell it in town. Players can also earn good money running passenger lines from city to city, since all the prospectors, hookers and highwaymen have to get around somehow.*

Probably the game doesn't sound terrifically exciting from my little description, but what I'm leaving out are all the tons of little details that lard a thick coating of atmosphere onto the proceedings. The map is crowded with connections, every one of the one hundred and eight claims has its own individual risk profile, there's a complicated market mechanism for each commodity, your prospectors can get thrown in the clink or shot in the head, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The downside of the game is that it can be a somewhat solitare-ish affair, and this was definitely the case in our game that Saturday. We all struck out in different directions, there was no squabbling over coal mines or lumber yards, and Martin and Chris graciously conceded to me all the passenger lines that I could reach. This last courtesy, though admirable in the extreme, was perhaps my opponents' downfall, for, thanks to the extra income of the lines from Denver to Colorado Springs and Pueblo and the extremely lucrative Denver-to-Leadville run, after about ten turns the ledger of Gola Western and Central boasted over $9,000.00, whereas Marty McMartin Enterprises and ChrisCo had only about $5,000.00 cash on hand each. Gamely they insisted we play on to the target of ten grand, and I was glad that we did, for in the best tradition of The American Dream Martin and Chris both rolled up their shirtsleeves, got down to business and gave me a run for my money, with Chris finishing only $500.00 or $1,000.00 behind me and Martin only a little ways behind him.

This outcome highlights one of the really interesting things about Silverton, which is that is that for the most part the game doesn't have the typical rich-get-richer problem of most economic games (without the gamey, artificial dampers on the leaders that Power Grid or Age of Steam have). In building their rail networks players are constrained more by time than money, and the mines pay out what they pay out regardless of whether you're Rockefeller or Fred C. Dobbs. Other designers looking to make a good economic game might take a page from Silverton's book: gains can be based on the profit per venture rather than the money-buys-stuff-which-gets-you-more-money model.

Two weeks later Chris had left for the WBC so Martin and I decided to give the two-player "Golden Spike" scenario a try. In this campaign variant each player starts with one surveyor in Salt Lake City and one in El Paso, and so presumably the competition ought to be a little more fierce. This time Martin snagged the infamous Denver-to-Leadville passenger line, but after a failed bid for the Salt Lake City-Grand Junction run due to some bad luck he lost his taste for human cargo and focused his energies on freight instead. I once again took the opportunity to monopolize the passenger trade, and in fact I was seized with such a monomania for moving people to and fro that at the end of the game I spent five turns banging rails south so that I could boast of a gigantic Salt Lake City-Denver-El Paso network. Never before had such a feat been accomplished in our Silverton games, and perhaps with good reason, since there isn't actually a passenger run that allows one to capitalize on that particular achievement. I was able to take the Denver-El Paso line, however, a $1,000.00-a-turn moneymaker, but since there were only two turns left in the game in which to operate it, and the purchase price was $1,380.00, and it had cost me $600.00 to build the track, my ultimate profit was $20.00, or just enough to buy Stetson hats and bottles of sarsaparilla for one angry board of directors.

Despite all this buffoonery, I was still able to squeak out another win, as Martin finished the game with $30,000.00 and change and I finished with $37,000.00 and change. The game took about four and half to five hours.

Silverton is one of those enjoyable games where, even if there isn't much in the way of cutthroat player interaction, the unfolding of the story provides an interesting and memorable experience. The next game will no doubt be a more competitive one, since by now I think that everyone has learned that the passenger lines can't be ignored completely. I suppose you could say that the real competition in Silverton is just in how well you know Silverton, and there are people out there who really enjoy that sort of thing.

Later on I'll add a session report to BGG with a lot of tiresome detail for anyone who wants to learn more about the game, though there are already plenty of reviews, the first being Mike Siggins's at the Game Cabinet, and then some newer ones posted to BGG here. Check these out before you track it down to make sure that it's going to be to your taste; despite the fact that I like it, I wouldn't make the case that it's the ideal game, or that it couldn't be improved with a couple of tweaks. For fans of Eurogames the slow pace and multiplayer solitaire aspect might be a turn-off, and even those favorably inclined will have to have a high tolerance for math; having a couple of calculators handy on game day is not a bad idea.

I'll add just one more note, which is about the game's origin. Silverton was designed by the late Phillip J. Smith and was originally published in 1991 by Two Wolf Games. It seems that this and the game's southern map expansion were Two Wolf's only productions, and that plus the small-publisher quality that Mike Siggins describes in his review at the Game Cabinet might lead one to guess that Two Wolf Games was run by Smith himself. The game was then apparently picked up and republished by Mayfair in 1999 (the version I have), and the cover of the rulebook bears the following dedication by a Ms. Dori Smith:

"This game is dedicated to Phil Smith (1962-1994), who combined his love of gaming with his love of railroading to produce the original edition of Silverton. The original edition included a note: 'This game is dedicated to my wife Dori, who supported our family while I worked to publish this game.' Silverton was, after our son Sean, his pride and joy, and he would be honored by its re-issue and proud that so many fans still hold it in such high esteem."

Maybe I'm a sentimental chump, but one thing that makes a good game even better for me is the knowledge that the author really cared about what he was doing. I think one of the joys of the hobby is knowing that these games of ours that we hold in our hands are not commodities made by committee but are instead the result of other people's sincere desire to share their creativity and sense of fun.


*Ordinarily in the case of frontier towns one is obliged to say "hooker with a heart of gold," but with all the prospectors and highwaymen around it's best not to talk in such terms lest there be an epidemic of floozy vivisections.


huzonfirst said...

Just to give credit where credit is due, the late, great Game Cabinet was actually run by Ken Tidwell. One of the many services Ken provided in the Cabinet was electronic versions of articles from back issues of Mike Siggins' Sumo magazine. To many people (myself included), this was their first exposure to Sumo and remains a lasting testimonial to this groundbreaking publication. But Mike and Ken were, and are, two very different people.

Joe Gola said...

Thanks, Larry and my apologies to Mr. Tidwell. I should've said "Mike Siggins's review at the Game Cabinet." I'll fix that at some point.