How well can you do?
When I first started playing Age of Steam, I had to admit that I was stumped. Yes, money was obviously tight, and yes by the end of our first game, we were all making a profit, but how on earth did we get there? When should we have been issuing shares and upgrading the locomotive? And how did choosing certain actions affect our score? I wanted to find some justification for certain game plays rather than just going with the groupthink or the "intuitive" choice (which often seemed non-intuitive to me!). I was completely convinced, however, that AoS was a great, deep game that I wanted to own. And, after shovelling some cash at Germangames.com to get my own copy, I hit upon the idea of creating an excel spreadsheet to track the game and make predictions. Specifically, I wanted to see how an early action choice, a share issue, or a locomotive upgrade could ripple onwards to subsequent turns in the game.
My spreadsheet involved a column for each turn, detailing starting cash, starting income, capital positions, shares issued, etc., and calculating resulting capital, resulting obligations, total shares issued, locomotive level etc., rolling the relevant info into the next turn column. I factored in the taxation breakpoints, and allowed some default level of costs for track builds and dollars used to bid. Results also included your capital position at the end of each turn and an estimated running score and final score, depending on the number of players in the game. I'm not going to post it yet until I have it polished up for viewing (and, hey, a guy has to be allowed to keep SOME results of his labour secret!) but I will divulge several sets of results.
1. Your bid amount paid each turn will be $1. The spreadsheet handles individual turn bid payments, but let's simplify here.
2. When you are capable of shipping a cube, you will be able to ship one for your current locomotive value, thus achieving maximum income. This is not always practical in the real world, but we are looking for maxima here.
3. When manually upgrading a locomotive in a turn, you will do so first, and then ship a cube using the new locomotive value. Again, this could be different in a game, when it might be tactically advisable to steal a cube immediately.
4. You will spend the lesser amount of cash left over from your bid and expenses, and $8 dollars. I pick this amount as a reasonable average track cost; again, the spreadsheet will handle a different amount and individual turn overrides.
5. I am assuming rough hex cost of $2.5 in order to calculate the cumulative track built and estimate points for track.
6. The spreadsheet is incapable of evaluating whether your track network can actually support the shipment links allowed by your locomotive, and this factor must be accounted for in every scenario.
7. All final scores will be reported in a format a/b/c where a = the 6 player score, b = 5 player score, and c = 4 player score.
8. Scores reported are fully integrated into the tax bracket Income Reduction mechanism on AoS, but in the interest of discussing general principles, I will not discuss trying to fiddle with arranging your income to border the break points until I start talking about advanced topics and tactics in a later article.
SOME TEST CASES
Lets look at some possible outcomes. We'll start from the minimum extreme and move upwards.
First: Issue ZERO supplementary shares in the game. NEVER upgrade the locomotive, leaving it at value 1. The result is that you only ship a cube for 1 income , and do it twice every turn. You make a steady 2 income every turn, chasing cubes around the board, and finish with an estimated 27/30/33 points. Note that you probably can't build ANY track in turn 2 or 3, so this income may even be optimistic, and you will face an unbelievable cube shortage.
Second: Issue ZERO supplementary shares in the game, Always manually upgrade your loco by 1 every turn to the max of 6. Note this means you will not be able to build any extra track on turn 2 or 3, because you have no cash. This limits your income to 2 per shipment until you make a profit and can build a link. The first turn you can take advantage of your 6 locomotive is on turn 6. Scores? An unbelievable 63/84/105.
Third: Issue ONE supplementary share every turn, including the first. Always manually upgrade your locomotive by 1 every turn to the max of 6. Now you build track every turn, so we can remove the locomotive restriction. Scores are now 63/81/93. This is a bit unreasonable, though, as you have so much income on turn 6 that one share is overkill, so modify it to only issuing one share on each of the first 5 turns, giving 65/86/101.
Fourth: Issue NO extra share on turn 1, and then issue 2 shares each on turns 2,3 and 4. Upgrade your locomotive by 1 every turn. You end up with very few track-building restrictions, as cash is usually available, but the scores are 64/85/100.
By this point one begins to notice a few trends. The first case is untenable in real life, but using it to compare to any other illustrates the value in foregoing current income in order to gain future better shipments with a better payoff later. Now let's see what happens if you delay increasing your locomotive. Let's modify the fourth case a bit.
Fifth: Issue NO extra shares on turn 1, and then issue 2 shares on turns 2,3 and 4. Begin manually upgrading your locomotive only on turn 2, and increase it up to maximum 6. Now you gain income of 2 on turn one, but also income 2 on turn 2... final scores are 36/62/83.
In a six player game this is almost as bad as issuing no shares and no locomotive upgrade for the whole game! Two factors influence this drastic score reduction. The delay in locomotive upgrade means that your max income on every turn except the first is one less than in test case 4 until you reach max locomotive power. Also, the turn on which you finally upgrade to loco 6 is one later, meaning you are foregoing a turn where you can make 2 runs of 6 links. In essence, you have decided to ship two cubes on turn one, for max income of 2, instead of 2 cubes on turn 7 for a maximum income of 12. In a 6-player game... there is no turn 7.
Now lets look at my favourite test cases, where you use the auction choice of locomotive upgrade. For simplicity we will use the parameters of test case Four again.
Sixth: Issue no extra shares on turn 1, and then issue 2 shares on each of turns 2,3,4. Upgrade your locomotive manually on turns 1 through 4 and on turn 5 use locomotive auction action. Scores are now 71/92/107. Upgrading to 6 using locomotive has given you an extra 6-link shipment.
Take that case and extend it by using ONLY the locomotive auction choice for the first 5 turns.
Seventh: Issue no extra shares on turn 1, and then issue 2 shares on each of turns 2,3,4. Upgrade the locomotive using the auction action only for the first 5 turns. Maximum scores possible are now an astronomical 90/105/120
Remember how upgrading the locomotive later hurt your maximum possible score? Let's try the following scenario.
Eighth: Issue no extra shares on turn 1, and then issue 2 shares on each of turns 2,3,4. Upgrade the locomotive manually on turn 1, AND use the locomotive auction action on turns 1,2,3 and 4. Max score possible is now 95/110/119.
Wow! This is even technically possible, given that the cash flow is good enough to build a 4-link route on turn two, although the odds of achieving it in reality are a bit low. The point, however, is that if you refuse to upgrade your locomotive early, you immediately lower the maximum score you can attain in the game.
Finally, my last test case:
Ninth: Issue no extra shares in turn 1. Issue 2 shares in turn 2, and 1 share in turn 3. Upgrade your locomotive using the auction action on turns 1 through 4, and manually upgrade your locomotive on turn 2. Maximum scores are now estimated at 105/120/129. Twice around the scoring track in a six-player game, and a grand total of 5 shares issued! Just to tease you all, this is not even the optimised max score possible, when you play around with bid amounts and shares issued.
The reason the sixth through ninth cases work so well, is that you break even early on in the game, and the ninth case illustrates how income can substitute for shares issued even early on.
THE ULTIMATE OPENING MOVE
This is the equivalent of the chess opening game where you mate the other player in a handful of moves. To do it, you need to be allowed to build a 2-link opening route using 3 hexes, and have 2 cubes available for shipment. You must also win the locomotive in the auction. Issue no supplementary shares. You can now ship 2 cubes for 2 income each, giving you 4 income... and since your locomotive is at 2 and shares issued is at 2, you have broken even in the first turn of the game! If your gaming group is as sharp as mine it'll never be allowed to happen, but it's nice to dream, no?
SHOULD YOU MANUALLY UPGRADE TO 6 LOCOMOTIVE?
When looking at maximum possible score, the answer is "not always". It takes time to make up for the income you lose on the one shipment, and in this case you could have been shipping for 5. You need several extra shipments using your 6 locomotive to make up the difference, not including the extra $1 obligation required on every remaining turn, and you must look at how many turns remain in the game. In a six-player game you might run out of room. Tactically, there may be a good reason, however. Sometimes the only possible shipments left to you require a 6 link, so necessity dictates the upgrade. If you can get the locomotive auction action to do this however, you don't restrict your income to get there.
SOME GENERAL PRINCIPLES
- Upgrade your locomotive early. You want to forego early shipments worth 1 or two income instead of foregoing later shipments worth 5 or 6.
- The locomotive auction choice is incredibly powerful in terms of maxing out your possible score.
- Frugality of share issue really pays off in the long run.
- Always arrange to ship one cube on your turn.
- Cash used for bidding will restrict the amount of money you have to build track, and will extend the amount of turns you will need to keep issuing shares.
- Your dollars are probably even tighter than you originally believed!