Posted by: gschloesser | October 30, 2012

Baltimore & Ohio

Design by:   Eddie Robbins
Published by:  Eagle Games / Winsome Games
3 – 6 Players, 3 – 4 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

 

NOTE:  This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website.

While I am not an avid 18xx player, I must admit to be quite amazed at the seemingly inexhaustible stream of new games using the same or strikingly similar mechanisms as found in that series of games.  I guess there are a lot of years and different territories with which to work.

Baltimore & Ohio, designed by Eddie Robbins and published by Eagle Games, is set in the United States in 1830.  The first steam locomotive puffs along the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  Players represent wealthy railroad tycoons, hoping to link America’s cities with iron roads and reap huge profits in the process.  Astute business acumen, savvy and guile are required to succeed.  The meek may inherit the earth, but they will fail miserably in this often ruthless game of high stakes.

The super-thick and fairly large map depicts a section of the United States, specifically the northeast and Ohio Valley, stretching as far west as St. Louis.  Each hex has a cost which must be paid in order to construct track there, while each city has a track listing six income levels that a railroad may earn if it is connected to that city.  The board also contains numerous tracks and player aids to assist the players.

For a game requiring careful planning, tough choices and proper timing, the rules are surprisingly brief.  They are, however, completely devoid of examples, making them challenging to comprehend unless you are familiar with 18xx style games.  Perhaps a familiarity was assumed, but I would have preferred a bit more explanation and some examples, as this would have made the game easier to learn.

Depending upon the number of players, each player begins with starting capital of $250 – $500 and a randomly dealt turn-order card.  Each turn follows the same sequence:

Market Round.  In turn order, each player has the opportunity to sell as many shares as they desire.  Players receive the current value of the stocks, which are then placed in the “Orphan Stocks” box, a sad-sounding but potentially beneficial location.  The value of a company’s share is reduced with the sale of its shares.

It is important to track who has the most shares in each company, as that player is considered the company’s president and controls its operations.  Sometimes the sale of shares results in the presidency changing hands, which could be favorable or unfavorable, depending upon the circumstances.

After selling shares, each player may purchase shares in ONE company.  These shares can be from the regular stock of available shares or the Orphan Shares box.  The only difference is that money paid for regular shares goes into the company coffers, while money used to purchase Orphan shares goes directly into the bank.  Note that if a company has any shares remaining in the Orphan Shares box at the end of the market round, the value of that company’s shares is reduced.  Thus, it is usually wise for the president of a company to rescue any of the company’s shares from that box.

Alternatively, if available, a player may begin a new company, purchasing shares in the fledgling enterprise.  A safety tip is in order here:  make sure the money invested in the company is sufficient for it to purchase capital equipment and expand its network into one or more cities.  If not, the company will flounder, resulting in the loss of precious money.  I speak from experience!

Business Round.   Each railroad conducts two business rounds.  The order of play is based on share values, going from highest-to-lowest.  Turn order can be quite important, particularly when constructing rail networks, providing yet another reason to have shares with high values.

During a business round, the company president may sell and/or purchase capital equipment, which is essentially a type of locomotive.  Locomotives get progressively more advanced, allowing the railroad to service more and more cities each turn.  For example, a level “3” locomotive will allow the player to service three cities, receiving income from each of them.  There is no limit to the number of locomotives a company may own, and the service values are cumulative.  Companies will often acquire several locomotives in order to service more cities and increase their income.  Care must be taken, however, as maintenance costs must be paid on each locomotive every turn.  The amount paid is based on the current technology level, which is based on the current level of the locomotive available.  The technology level also affects city income and the number of tracks may be constructed by a company each turn.

In addition to selling and/or acquiring capital equipment, a company may also construct track.  Unlike most 18xx games wherein this requires the correct placing and orienting of a tile, here it involves the placement of a cube and paying the cost indicated on the hex.  The idea is to construct a rail network that connects valuable cities and coal resources, thereby potentially increasing the company’s income.  Cities have restrictions as to how many companies may be present there, which usually causes a race to reach valuable cities.  This restriction generally gets more lenient as the game progresses, but it is important to reach key, valuable cities early.  There are a few additional fiddly, but likely necessary building restrictions that limit where and when companies may construct track into certain cities.

After companies construct track, gross and net income is determined.  This process is very tedious, as players must tally the income garnered from each city, which is based on the current technology level and the cumulative value of their capital equipment.  The game provides a HUGE incentive for increasing a company’s profitability each turn, so often players will want to limit their income as opposed to just taking the maximum.  However, they must service as many cities as their capacity allows.  This requires a careful surveying of the cities they CAN service, then deciding which ones to service in order to guarantee that they can enjoy an increased income the following turn.  All of these factors and calculations cause this phase of the game to drag.  While I don’t play computer games, I must admit that this game would likely move MUCH quicker if there were a computer version.

Players subtract their maintenance costs – the cost of maintaining their capital equipment – from the gross income to determine their net income.  If net income is greater than zero, a company is profitable.  The president must decide whether to keep the profit in the company coffers (which can be used to expand and/or acquire capital equipment in future turns) or pay dividends to share holders.  If paying dividends, each share earns the holder 10% of the income, including those shares still held by the company.  An advantage of paying dividends is that it injects money into one’s personal treasury and also increases the company’s share value – provided the company’s net income was greater than the previous round.  If, however, a company’s net income is less than the previous round, the share value decreases – not a desirable result.

What if a railroad is unprofitable, meaning its net income is zero or less?  Well, that isn’t good.  The share value of the company’s stock decreases by two spaces on the valuation track and the company president must return one of his shares to the railroad without receiving compensation for it.  The stockholders are losing confidence in his abilities.  Based on my past performances I this game, I learned the hard way that I am not suited for the railroad business!

Play continues in this fashion until either a railroad stock is valued at $375 or greater, or the technology level reaches level six.  This generally takes 3 or more hours to accomplish.  At this point, players total the value of their cash and owned shares.  The player with the greatest personal wealth is victorious and achieves the coveted title of “railroad tycoon.”

As mentioned earlier, I am not an avid player of 18xx games.  While not technically a direct relative of the 18xx series, Baltimore and Ohio does share many common traits and mechanisms.  Buying and selling shares, controlling companies, expanding rail networks, balance sheets … all will be familiar to the 18xx player.  So, too, will the cutthroat tactics of being able to dump companies and perform other nasty tactics that can damage your competitors and leave them reeling.  The railroad business is not for the timid.

In spite of containing a rule book devoid of examples, Baltimore & Ohio is one of the easier games in the genre to learn.  The sequence of play is fairly straight-forward and there are not an abundance of rules exceptions.  The game is very challenging and forces players to make important decisions each and every turn, some of which can be critical.  Personally, I have a difficult time with the timing aspects that are required to perform well.  I seem to purchase or dump a railroad company a turn or two too late, or fail to acquire or sell shares at the optimum time.  I simply have not acquired the necessary acumen to properly time my moves and actions, and as a result, I am usually trounced by more experienced opponents.  It can be frustrating to play a game where you know you are outclassed.  That is one of the potential drawbacks to games in the 18xx series:  experience is of paramount importance.  When playing with both newcomers and experienced gamers, the experienced gamer will likely not only win, but will probably win big.  So, the best game is played with a group of equally experienced – or inexperienced – players.

The biggest drawback to the game is the amount of calculations that must be made during every income phase.  This is a tedious and time-consuming process, one which grinds the game to a halt.  As mentioned, it would be ideal if these calculations could be performed with the aid of a computer program, which would greatly speed the process and make it less cumbersome.  Without such an aid, however, this aspect of the game is quite unpalatable.

While the 18xx genre is generally not my style, I do find Baltimore & Ohio to be one that I enjoy more than most others I have played.  It is easier to learn and play, making it possible for me to somewhat understand its intricacies and nuances.  While it may prove a bit simplistic for experienced 18xx gamers, newcomers to the genre will likely find the system appealing.  One must learn to walk before being able to run with the big boys.

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