Thursday, October 16, 2008

Game Central Station: Union Pacific - Rules & Variants

Yes, campers... yet another refugee page from my original gaming website, Game Central Station. (Which is NOT gone, btw, just frozen in time.) I did a lot of work compiling this particular page, as Union Pacific is still easily one of my top 20 games, and wanted to make sure it was published somewhere that people can find it.

This is the first post of three about Alan Moon's wonderful train game, Union Pacific - the other two are Union Pacific - Strategery and Union Pacific - For Two.

2nd Edition Rules

I know you're thinking... what's with this 2nd edition rules thing? Well, Alan likes to tweak his games... even after they're finished. (Witness the epic discussion about how to obtain cards in Elfenland... yipes!) As well, one rule was left out of the 1st edition rulebook (the one having to do with track cards). So, without further ado, here are the changes.

Variant Rule

Players may not draw a UP Stock Card. They must always draw one of the four face up Stock Cards or the top card from the deck. The only way to acquire a UP Stock Card is to trade one Stock Card in your hand for one UP Stock Card.

Additional Rule

If all train spaces of a track type are full, the Track Cards of this track type are unplayable. A player may discard an unplayable Track Card at the start of his turn and draw a replacement (the unplayable card should be removed from the game).

Rule Changes

  1. At the start of the game put 6 Stock Cards on the bottom of the deck. This means that the last Score Card cannot be one of the last six cards in the deck.
  2. Deal 5 Stock Cards to each player at the start of the game instead of 4.
It's my opinion that the variant rule and the two rule changes lead to a tighter, cleaner game. For example, in a 6 player game, there are potentially 18 less stock cards able to be played to the table than in the 1st edition game. (6 at the bottom + 14 that were traded for UP stock.) It's also MUCH easier to explain how to get UP stock when the only option is to trade for it.

What's Public? What's Private?

The long-running argument from UP's great-grandaddy, Acquire, continues on...


While Jay Tummelson, the head of Rio Grande Games, plays Union Pacific with open money, we here at Game Central Station play with the old "pile" rule.... you don't have to show us how much you have, but you do have to keep it all on the table. In fact, we play most "economic" games this way - giving players a guess at what you've got while avoiding the "I put the play money in my pocket & forgot about it" problem.

Union Pacific Shares

The artwork should be dead giveaway on this one... but just in case, Jay clarified that it is legal to ask a player how many shares of UP they are currently holding.

Stock Cards in the Draw Pile

Alan Moon (the designer) has always played that it was permissible to count the remaining cards to make 'informed' decisions about investing or building. Around here, we don't allow that at all.

One interesting variant from "Steve" (can't find more information about his real name in my notes) caught Alan's eye (and mine!). Discards are placed on the BOTTOM of the deck, which prevents people from counting in a very interesting way!

Is U.P. Stock Too Darn Valuable (or not)?

Hey, I'm in the "not" category - I think it works just fine - but there are a ton of would-be rail barons out there who disagree. What follows is a pair of the most convincing arguments in favor of the game "as is" (2nd edition rules)... then a couple of interesting ideas for dealing with the perceived problem.

wisdom from Greg Aleknevicus, editor of
The Games Journal and creator of Wooden Cubes & Cardboard.

I think people get fooled by the high values for UP stock when they should really be looking at the payout DIFFERENCES. In a 3 player game the most that anyone will gain in UP is $18. (Assuming everyone played at least 1 piece of UP stock.) While $18 is a decent amount of money almost every other company will pay out more than this over the course of the game.

In fact, I think UP might be a LOSING company because of this. Its big advantage is that you can always choose to contest its ownership whereas with other companies you're somewhat at the luck of the draw. I'll happily give up first or second in UP if it means that I can take over another company. Taking second place in a company that's only worth 6 points pays off $12 over the course of the game. (Simplistically speaking.) A bigger payoff than swapping a level in UP. ($9 per level for all 4 scoring rounds.)

I suspect that the "problem" your group has is that everyone thinks UP is valuable. Therefore everyone always fight for it and the winner ends up winning the game. What "should" happen is that one (or more) players ignore UP (with the exception of his/her single stock declaration) and takes control of one or more other railroads while you're fighting. He/she then goes on to win the game. A lot of games suffer from this so-called "group-think" syndrome. There are a couple of games that my group just doesn't play "right". Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix is one of them. We always bid far too little for the cars and I'm sure that a good player would probably clean the floor with us.

from the brilliant mind of Steve J. Chapin

I know the all-out-to-collect-UP-stock approach would fail in our games, and I still strongly suspect that it will not succeed forever in yours.

This is what I was suggesting is a result of group think. In early play (as a group), the UP seems to be extremely valuable, and so everyone goes for it.

Then the next phase will be at the other extreme, when some players decide early on to only have one or a few shares of the UP (turning in "dead" shares, where one has little or no hope of even a 2nd place in a rail), but gaining holdings in many other rails (thereby simultaneously adding to their earnings and diluting their opponents', as almost no one else should have exclusive ownership of a rail).

The third phase will be a between the two, where players balance interest in the UP with development of minor rails.

Help move your group along; play the next couple of games at the opposite extreme (buy no extra UP). See how well you do. I know that in games where I've sacrificed "dead" shares for what turned out to be meaningless UP shares, I've regretted it later, because I could've been in a position to take over first or second place in a rail.

It's rather like the joke about the guy coming in last in a race in the Olympics: "You mean I trained four years for this? I could've sat on my couch and still come in last." You can lock up a last-place share in the UP without ever trading in other stock to draw another UP share beyond your starting position. Try it and see...

and speaking for the Loyal Opposition, "docterw", with the Ventura Variant

After playing a track card and placing a train, the player chooses a share card and places it in his hand. He may chose from the four face up cards, or the topmost card in the draw pile or a UP share stack. This ends his turn.

In essence, this variation is just to limit options for drawing a share card to the three listed on page 8 of the rules. The option to collect a share of UP by discarding as listed in the "note" under "The Union Pacific railway company" on page 9 is _not_ allowed.

Under this variant, a player will add one share card to his hand, select only one share in the turn, and pay a slightly higher cost for his UP share in that the only way to collect one is by foregoing the adding or selecting of another share card in the turn.

the down-under-wonder himself, Pat Brennan, pipes up with the variant they like the best (note: Pat's not the only guy to mention this one - Mark Guttag & Jonathan Degann did as well...)

If I'm playing with UP pro's, we usually play a variant where you're not allowed to trade for a UP stock in the same turn that you build / pick up a stock card. Switching a stock card in the hand for a UP card instead takes their whole turn.

It makes UP stock very expensive, and usually means there are UP cards left over at the end of the game. How much it gets picked up depends on the number of players. With 3, the end difference between first and third is only $8m so it doesn't get picked much. With more players it gets more attractive as the difference between first and last is more pronounced.

The variant does provide a better solution for getting rid of 'useless' cards in the hand towards the end of the game, whereas in the 2nd edition rules, UP is usually gone by the time the second dividend card comes out, and definitely by the third dividend card.

Dave Blizzard suggested using this same variant, but allowing players trading for UP to still build track while NOT receiving a new stock card. I think I'd prefer that way, if I ever chose to play with this kind of variant.

and once again, Greg "I've Got An Idea" Aleknevicus with a final U.P. variant, proving once again he's one of the brighter bulbs in the building

You cannot select or trade for a share of UP until after the first scoring round.

This MAY work better than it sounds for the following reason: By the time of the first scoring round rivalry's should have started amongst the other companies. This makes the opportunity cost of selecting UP that much greater. In the few games I've played UP gets grabbed right away because everyone knows its going to be fairly valuable and they're unsure about their other holdings (relative to the other players anyway). A couple of "regular" rounds and players might realize where they are strong and have more reason to defend and control the other companies (which I feel contribute more to victory than the UP). Grabbing UP would then be relegated to what I believe its original intent was: A way of converting usless stock.

We haven't tried this last variant here at Game Central Station, but for my money, it's the one with the most merit.

Too Much Time on Their Hands

I'm devoting the next section of this overly-long post to stuff that's anything but "middle of the road". Folks, you're gonna love this stuff or hate it (honestly, I'm not a big fan of most of it), but it's educational to see just what an intriguing game design can do to the minds of a group of people with too much time on their hands... so, without further ado (whatever "ado" is), here's a smattering of very odd variants.

U.P. Stock as a One-Time Dividend (Jim Pulles)

In one game, we went a little overboard and played that UP shares were much like a one time dividend and that ALL UP shares went back into the common pool after each scoring round! This made competition in UP a little too erratic... but it was exciting after the 3rd score card came up!

Re-Doing the Payouts for U.P. Stock (Dave Arnott)

For scoring rounds 2 and 3, simply give each player $1 for each share of UP they have on the table, and for the final scoring round give players $2 for each tabled share. You could try doing $1, $2, then $3... but that might be too powerful. Or maybe not. This reduces the "power" of the UP shares, but also restores a bit of the "power" by not penalizing people who are tied, shares-wise. Not so much of an arms race as it is a bonus.

One Safe Round (Dave Arnott)

At the beginning of the game put N*3 stock cards off to the side (where N = number of players). Set the game up as usual now, not using these cards. After each scoring round, place N cards on top of the stock deck. This guarantees that after each scoring card, all players will get at least one turn before the next scoring card comes up. Actually, we mostly use this in five and six player games, as that's when you can get burned the most, but it works great in four-player games as well.

Note: this one actually looks like it would work...

One At A Time (Peter Evett)

Place initial stock cards face-up in turn order rather than simultaneously -- thus players are not stung by splitting initial stock ownership unless by choice. (Split ownership can be devastating when a quick 1st score comes up and all other players are scoring 1st & 2nd place in their company)

Three of a Kind (Dave Arnott)

If you start your turn with three of the same type of track, you MAY (but are not required to) declare "three the same," show your track cards to the other players, discard one... and then draw TWO to begin your turn. Of course, about half the time you're going to draw two more clear tracks anyway.

Dividing Equally (Rich Shipley)

With 4 and 5 (and 2) players, all players can get the same amount of UP stock. With 3 and 6 players, you could take out 2 UP shares to have be true in those games also. UP stock is not the only way to win, but this may make it seem more fair to the players.

Unlimited U.P. Stock (mentioned by a number of folks)

There is no limit on U.P. stock - make up new stock for the game and allow players to acquire as much as they like.

"I Don't Feel the Love" - Five different gamers take on the "problem" of unloved stock cards

WARD BATTY: About the unloved cards syndrome in UP, maybe a fix would be when you draw a down card off the top of the deck, you turn up the next card so there are 5 up (or 6, etc.). When players draw an up card, don't replace them with another from the deck it if there are still 4 or more exposed cards.

JONATHAN DEGANN: My fellow Left Coasters Dave Arnott and Winton Lemoine have developed (and developed!) an elaborate two player UP. [Conductor's Note: the 'finished' version is the third post in this series.] Their card drafting rule requires you to put a token on the left most card when you draw from the closed pile. Next time, put a token on the next card. If you draw a card with a token, take the token off. If all three cards have tokens, then the next time you draw from the closed pile, you discard the left most card and the token.

"XOSSFS": During phase one play as normal. In each subsequent phase pay $1000 per phase to pass over the face-up cards and draw from the face-down pack. With each phase the price is getting more expensive. I have yet to play this way but I have watched games played this way and the "lesser" railroads get played in a lot earlier and the stock spreads are much tighter so many people have a chance in a road instead of getting as many runaway owners with no chance of anyone else getting into the railroad.

MARK BIGGAR: One possibility would be to retire the four up cards and replace them when ever a payout card is drawn.

MARK EDWARDS: How about this one, borrowed from Vinci. Whenever you take a random card from the draw deck you must place a token on one of the face up cards. You must place them evenly (like building houses in Monopoly). When a player picks one of the face up cards with tokens on it he gets paid a bonus of $2 per token.

Or how about leaving it like it is? He he he.

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