Fixing Rail Baron Startup Problems
by Steve Okonski
Getting a good start in a game of Rail Baron is very important to your success. If your first trip is to an easily monopolized destination, such as Portland, ME or Miami, your chances of winning are greatly diminished. Another important factor is turn order: going last in a 6-player match is bad news. In fact, studies have shown that the person going last in a 6-player match is only about half as likely to win as the person who goes first. This article discusses two simple changes you can make to address these problems.
FIRST TRIP PROBLEM
Dee Ann Gehring, one of the Rail Baron tournament finalists at the 1999 World Boardgaming Championships, had the misfortune of drawing Portland, ME as her first destination. By the time she approached, the B&M had been purchased, and she spent a total of $10,000 getting in and out. Heikki Thoen, owner of the B&M, collected that $10,000 and went on to win the match.
As in most board games, Rail Baron contains an element of randomness. The problem in Rail Baron, however, is that a single random event (such as an initial trip like Dee Ann's) can virtually eliminate one's chances of winning. The impact at the start of the match is too large.
FIRST TRIP FIX
Fortunately, there is an easy fix via a simple house rule that I call Home Swapping. Here's how it works: after a player has determined his first destination, but before he rolls to begin movement, he may state he is Home Swapping. This simply means his first destination becomes his home city, and his home city becomes his first destination. He freely teleports his engine to his new home city, then proceeds normally (rolls dice for movement, etc.). For use fee purposes, assume the player is established on whatever RRs serve his new home city. For victory purposes, he must return to his new home city.
So, for example, if your home city is Los Angeles, and your first destination turns out to be Portland, ME, it makes sense to invoke Home Swapping. Now your home city is Portland, ME and you're bound for Los Angeles. It's very unlikely opponents will be able to monopolize the RRs that serve Los Angeles before you can establish yourself on one of them.
With the First Trip Fix, no one gets a terrible first destination and no one spends the next few hours dragging themselves around the map with little chance to win. Of course, it remains possible for someone to draw a poor home city as well as a first destination (say Miami to Portland, ME), but the Home Swapping house rule greatly reduces the odds of a dismal start.
GOING LAST PROBLEM
Turn order is another luck-based element that has too large an impact in Rail Baron. If the person to your left happens to roll the highest, he goes first, and you go last. Perhaps you should have chosen a different seat at the table! Turn order creates a problem because the player who goes first has the best chance of arriving first, and buying one the best RRs. The person who goes last, or even next to last, has a poor shot at getting a good RR.
At the 6-player 1999 WBC Rail Baron finals, Paul Van Bloem went 5th . By the time of his first arrival, the PA, NYC, B&O, C&O, SAL, NYNH&H, and B&M had all been purchased by others. I am comfortable with some randomness in a game, but I'm not happy when it means that some players don't get a fair shot at a reasonable start. Based on his experience, Paul helped me devise the following house rule.
GOING LAST FIX
There is a house rule you can implement to have create a more fairly balanced start of the match. I call it Pick First Region. Basically, it allows all players the option to pick the region of their first destination, and do so in reverse turn order. Specifically, here's how:
1) After the turn order for the match has been determined, but before the first player rolls for his first destination, perform the following steps.
2) The player who goes last has the option to pick the region to which he wants to travel. He then rolls to determine the destination city within that region. This is his first destination.
3) Next, the player who goes next to last does the same thing, EXCEPT he may not choose the region of the first player's first destination. He must choose one of the other regions.
4) Any player who doesn't like the regions that remain available can, instead, simply roll the dice to obtain a region just like normal. This random method is the only way he can obtain a region already occupied by someone else's first destination.
5) Proceeding in reverse turn order, each player picks a region and rolls for a destination, but he may not pick a region that contains someone else's first destination.
6) After everyone has found his first destination, the first player proceeds with his turn.
As you can see, the players whose turns are later in the round get to pick earlier, and therefore have more choices available for their first region. This allows them to pick an ideal (less risky, good distance) region, helping to compensate them. In a 6-player match, by the time the region choice is offered to the player who goes first, as few as two available regions will remain.
The net result is that the start of the match is more balanced, helping to equalize the chances for players to purchase a good RR upon their first arrival.
You can use both the House Swapping and Pick First Region rules in the same match since they are not mutually exclusive. Combined, they give all players a better shot at a decent start in the match, and thereby increase the overall enjoyment of this classic railroad game.