Within my own gaming groups I quickly realised the key to winning an Age of Steam game was to upgrade your train quickly as possible so as to make sure that you are regularly delivering blocks for $5-6 by the end of the game – this resulted in me winning a lot of the early games we played (Basically I did the fiscal math as regards Low Expenditure/Small Train Vs High Expenditure/Large Train and having a large train always came out on top).
However the other players within my regular gaming group soon began to realise what I was doing and begun to adjust their play to counteract my strategy by doing the following:
• Taking the locomotive upgrade when opportunity presented it (rather than letting me get it)
• Delivering cubes I might deliver elsewhere before I could deliver them myself for $5-6
• Obstructing my delivery routes by urbanising cities with the colour of cubes I would wanted to deliver further away
All of the above resulted in my delivery options being reduced & therefore my income not increasing as it had done previously.
All this got me thinking about track building, in that there seems to be an objective focused desire to build track towards a city you either want to deliver blocks to or take blocks from. Whilst this is a fine idea, it does create a tendency to leave you with limited options as regards block delivery as the game develops. Basically you end up with linear route along which all your blocks have to be distributed and it is only the end blocks near the end of the route that can be delivered for $5-6, and only then if the city of the required colour is at the opposite end of the route (assuming the route isn’t obstructed by a similar coloured city).
For instance assume you have built the following route connecting cities (A) through to (G) together.
Only blocks on Cities (A) & (G) can be delivered for $6 and only then if the city at the opposite end is the correct colour.
In fact for a 6 train on a linear 7 city route the average potential value a block on each city could be delivered for, destination and same colour city obstructions permitting, would be as follows:
City A $3 ½
City B $2 2/3
City C $2 1/3
City D $2
City E $2 1/3
City F $2 2/3
City G $3 ½
This gives an overall potential block delivery value average for the above network of $2 3/7
Imagine however if you had built a circular route and city (G) links back to city (A)
Now the average potential value of a block on each city could be delivered for, if you have a 6 train, would be as follows:
City A $5
City B $5
City C $5
City D $5
City E $5
City F $5
City G $5
Basically each city, destination and same colour city obstructions permitting, always deliver for $4-6
The explanation given above is very stylised as it makes quite a few working assumptions, but what they do demonstrate is the financial flexibility of having a circular route over a liner one, basically where it might only be possible to deliver a cube from city (A) to City (B) for $1 it is now possible to deliver of the ‘long way’ around the loop for $6.
Essentially any cube that appears on a given city has the potential to be delivered for more income. Having more cube delivery options also means it is harder for the other players to ship away all your high value cubes.
However a simple circular route is far from being completely flexible as in a real game situation it is possible that deliveries might still be obstructed by same colour cities or still not be the ideal delivery value of $6 depending on where the potential delivery city is on the route.
With this in mind there are benefits in utilising ‘cross-cuts’ across the circular loop.
Imagine you have the circular route described above, but that Cities B&G are also linked directly.
From city (A) you now have the potential to deliver to both (F) and (C) for $6 where before it was only $4. Deliveries to (D) and (E) from (A) have the possibility of being increased f $4 to $5.
Deliveries from (G) that could have been obstructed by same colour cities at (A) or (F) can now be delivered to (F) for $5 rather than $1 (via the link to city (B).
Adding an additional cross-cuts, for instance from (F) to (C), (B) to (G) and from (A) to (D) – will increase your options even more.
The real life specifics off where you build your cross cuts will off course depend upon what the actual cubes distribution is and what same colour cities you need to by-pass.
Additionally having ‘spurs’ out from you circular route to additional cities, perhaps of a colour not on the Circle or which can act as the source of more cubes to be delivered, provides even more flexibility.
For instance imagine we have an additional city (H) on a Spur from City (D)
With the network described above deliveries from city (H) have the potential to be delivered to any city (Except city (D)) for a value of $6. Conversely if City (H) is of a colour not on the circular route, goods of it’s colour can be delivered from any city of the network (Except city (D)) for a value $6.
The act of building such a circular route, and the benefits it provides, cannot expected to be implemented without interference from other players. For their own purposes, or possibly just to obstruct you, your competitors will be building their own track. A degree of flexibility might then be required if your planned route becomes obstructed, you might either have to pay your competitor money to utilise a link or create a different variation of the planned loop (Maybe even only building a 5 link circular route and supplementing it with some spurs).
In fact, if possible, the sequence in which you build a circular route and it’s ‘cross links’ might benefit from building shorter loops (Which can later become ‘cross links’) which are more appropriate to your train size that point in the game.
For instance if you had a 3 train, you might choose initially to build a route with cities (B), (C), (F) & (G) on it.
And once you have expanded to a 4 train you can link to city (A) creating a loop that maximises the potential use of said train.
Finally if you have created your circular route flexibly enough, and if your competitors are linked into it and short of other possible deliveries, they will find it very difficult to justify not paying you to utilise 1 or 2 of your links are order to gain whatever scant income they can.
Credit: BGG user "SkiBoy" (Richard Minson)