Thursday, October 16, 2008

Game Central Station: Union Pacific - Strategery

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

In Defense of of the Game

Muscian, poet, scholar, & friend, Stven Carlberg (he of the Missing "E") has written a number of eloquent & well-thought-out posts to r.g.b. and other online gaming communities that do a bang-up job of defending UP pretty much 'as is'. If you're one of those folks tempted to throw EVERY variant I listed in the previous post into the mix, read this first... it's a 'greatest hits' collection of Stven's thoughts on U.P.

I'm finding it amusing that certain people are complaining that the four cards face up to draw from are a problem (let's avoid that "broken" word -- I agree it should be saved for games that truly don't make sense) because the situation can arise where people's choices are so limited that nobody wants any of the cards showing....

And at the same time, certain people are complaining that the track cards should be dispensed with because they're NOT limiting people's choices enough and are therefore a waste of time.

My group has played Union Pacific at least a hundred times -- obviously we like the game quite a bit! -- and we like both of these mechanisms just the way they are.

First, the four face-up cards: Yes, the situation can arise where nobody particularly wants any of the four cards showing. In our experience, it's a rare game where this situation does NOT arise. It can occur even early in the game, but it's a standard feature of the late middle game, where you're around half to two-thirds of the way through the deck and the last Union Pacific stock gets traded for. At this point, a useless stock in your hand is going to be a useless stock in your hand for the rest of the game -- there's nothing left to trade for. So the wisdom of taking a face-up stock that only MIGHT be useful to you goes way down. And as always, you run the risk of turning up a really GOOD face-up card for somebody else, one that you could have drawn yourself as a secret. Yet the possibility of drawing a secret which is completely worthless to you also exists, compared to drawing a card from the face-up display which has at least some small but known worth.

THIS IS ONE OF THE GAME'S TOUGH DECISIONS. This is what makes you have to think. This is what makes the game interesting, and not just a matter of knowing you're routinely going to be handed a good card every turn. Those four cards are SUPPOSED to sit there while the turn passes around the table three or four times, with people drawing secrets or taking the opportunity to meld. This situation FORCES THE ACTION. This is a GOOD thing.

Now, as for the track cards. If you have never been in a situation where you wanted to build a train for a particular railroad but none of the cards in your hand would let you do it, then you just haven't played enough Union Pacific! It's true that it is quite difficult to block a railroad's growth completely -- yet in almost every single game, at least ONE railroad does become completely bottled up. Even if you can only block a railroad's growth on one particular type of track, that can prevent another player from building on it because he doesn't hold that particular track card. The track cards most certainly do put limitations on players. Obviously the situation is frustrating to some who would like to be able to block trains more easily, but that doesn't mean the mechanism isn't working -- it just means it takes a little more patience to complete the block. Another common situation is that the mere THREAT of a block, among our experienced players, will prod somebody into building a train to keep from being blocked... sometimes when he might rather have built somewhere else. So again, this mechanism FORCES THE ACTION, and again, this is a GOOD thing.

And then Stven responded to the whole "trading for U.P. stock controversy"...

There are VERY few actual "crap cards" (stock) in Union Pacific, especially during the early stages of the game before leadership has been established in most of the stocks. Often you have a handful of cards that you definitely want and are looking at four face-up cards with at LEAST one that you also definitely want. Or perhaps you have two or three shares of different stocks that would be worth second place somewhere if you could just get one more -- but you don't know WHICH of those two or three stocks you're going to have a chance to draw a matching share in, so you'd rather not discard any of them just yet. My experience has been that, right about the time you know which stocks you're out of the race on and can afford to discard, the Union Pacific stock runs out (typically a little before the third dividend card comes up), so THEN the problem becomes, you might draw a face-down card you don't need and there not be any Union Pacific left to trade for. But before that point, you're more likely to be scrambling for something you can bear to trade.

So, to put it in a nutshell, the practical effect of having to trade for it is that Union Pacific is not half so tempting a grab, and not every player WILL choose to trade for it.

Indeed this process does cause "more confusion about who has a majority in the other companies," as certain stocks are discarded out of the game, thus changing the numbers required for an absolute majority in that railroad. We regard this confusion as a good thing. Also note that, if you are the player who has discarded a particular stock, it leaves you with an extra piece of information which you may be able to use to your advantage. The other night, for example, I was in a situation where I needed to trade for one of the two last Union Pacific shares in order to preserve my second place in UP. I had two of the purple shares (9 total shares of stock in the company) already declared and two more in my hand, and one other player had one purple share declared. Obviously this was not a "crap card," but I chose to trade purple for the UP (instead of two other choices in my hand I liked even less) because that left me at least with a little bit of knowledge about where the purple stock was. This paid off later in the game when a third player declared a share of purple, and I drew one more, and I knew that my four shares would be good for first place and could go full steam ahead building up purple on the board.

Big finish now...

I do agree with the comments that Union Pacific seems to have been published in about a 90% finished state. Alan Moon's "fix," which hit the newsgroups at about the same time the first copies of the game were hitting our tables, where you can only get Union Pacific stock by trading for it, was essential in my opinion and brought us up to about 99%. The game would not be nearly so interesting if you did not have to face the decision about whether the stock you have in your hand is worth less to you than the Union Pacific stock you can trade it for. The other details, such as how to prepare the deck and what to do if there's no place left on the board where a certain type of track card can be used, constitute the other 1% in my informal estimation. (Conductor's Note: in other words, Stven likes the 2nd edition rules listed at the top of this page... with the variant deck construction rule at the end of the English rule book.)

We also know Acquire backwards and forwards and played at least 300 games of Acquire before we ever heard of Union Pacific. Acquire is a classic game and gave us the first-and-second-place payoffs mechanism without which Union Pacific and dozens of other games would never have existed. What Union Pacific adds to the equation which makes it especially interesting is the meld mechanism -- the business about owning cards but not having them count for you until you have declared them. The decision of whether you can afford to take that juicy card from the four face up without being caught by the dividend card before you get a chance to meld (and often having to make the decision for multiple turns in a row!) is another key part of what makes Union Pacific such an interesting, and for us endlessly replayable game. (Conductor's Note: What Alan did with Airlines, in my opinion, then did one better with Union Pacific, is to meld elements of Acquire & his own Get the Goods/Reibach & Co. into a wonderful whole.)

Union Pacific Strategy

You know, I worked for almost two years trying to sort out strategy thoughts & ideas... then Pat Brennan sent me this and I realized I was wasting my time. So, what you've got below is Pat's original post, with added commentary from the Conductor. In case you haven't figured out by now, I'm the guy writing in italics.

I've played the game over 20 times now, mainly because the family keeps clamouring for it and its an excellent game to introduce to non-gamers. There is luck in the game of course (and some gamers may scoff that a strategy guide for UP is a contradiction in terms) but managing that luck is the key. A lot of it is just good gaming practice, but here's how I do it.

1. Initial investment card

Play as low a card as you can, but only if you've got a good chance to get two more trains built for it (check your track cards).
  • 1a - By playing a low card, its unlikely other players will also get that card invested before the first round, giving you both first and second prize money.
  • 1b - Be confident you can build two more trains in that colour so as to get to the $6m mark ($4m for first, $2m for second). Grey is ok (spotty track seems to come up regularly), Gold is bad (white track never comes up when you need it), Brown is marginal (thick track seems to be more frequent than white, but not as good as spotty), Light blue is fine. And I don't care what the track card distribution officially is :-)
  • 1c - Middle tier is ok (white, royal blue, black) - at least it gives you a base to build on and you may get lucky
  • 1d - Top tier is begging for competition
2. Second investments

If you can get another line or 2 to yourself, excellent, otherwise invest on other people's lines to stop them getting 1st/2nd combos and get them to defend. This is preferable to trying to be first in 5 stocks - you only have so many builds (roughly 18 to 23 with 4 players) which means you can only build one or two lines to its max anyway.

3. Get your cards down early and quick

Especially in the first phase! It's preferable to tie with someone (get some money yourself, cut their money) than to hold on for another card to make a coup for first place, only to not get a chance to get them down as the scoring card comes up. It also forces them to defend while you do something else.

4. The rule of three

If you can get a collection of three cards in one stock invested early, people will ignore that stock for most of the game as its too much effort to chase - until it gets real big anyway by which time you'll have been able to pick up some for defense.

5. Diversity is good

You want to own one top tier line (green, red, yellow) with blank / clear track (the most common track card) or two middle tier lines (preferable as easier to defend) throughout the game so that you always have something to build on (rather than building on other people's tracks). It's good to diversify with the kinds of tracks you own (a good combination would be yellow (open/black track) and light blue (white/dashed track)) so that you never have a useless track card.

6. Invest on lines that are owned by the player on your left.

You'll get first play at the cards he wants as the other players leave them until your turn.

7. Never pick up cards for stock that is going nowhere.

It's better to be second in a big red line that someone else is building for you than first in a gold line of size 3 that you don't have time to build on.

8. Make every card pickup count

It's better to pick an average card from the draft than be stuck with a potentially useless card in your hand. Make each pick up count - 'the bird in the hand is worth two in the deck'. Conversely, the element of surprise should not be underestimated, particularly against card-counters. This strategy probably varies depending on one's opponents.

9. Go hard for UP

Once you have three or five cards invested, go hard for UP until you're up by 2 on your nearest competitor, usually even if it means foregoing a place in a stock line (assuming most popular variant of swap card in hand for UP in buildphase). You can always reclaim the line later, you can't reclaim UP. Once you have a lead of two, swap UP for UP to run down the stock. As UP have different backs than normal stock cards, holdings are public knowledge and you can always ask how many other players have.

Here's where I jump in and disagree... I'm one of those folks who believes that the most important thing in UP stock is "not last".

10. What if the first scoring card is late?

If the first scoring card is delayed, get all your cards, even UP, invested. How often have two scoring cards come out before you get another chance to play? Countless. And its a game breaker if you're the one invested and others haven't, so go for the chance. Conversely, if the first dividend card comes out very early, keep in mind that there won't be another one for fifteen or so draws, giving you a good opportunity to draw a big hand and weed out the useless cards to trade for UP. But don't get caught before you can declare them all!

11. Best offense is a good defense

Hold a card in your hand of a stock you're leading in for defense, letting you play other investments / builds until someone forces your hand (so to speak) to invest it to maintain first place.

12. Pay attention

Naturally watch what other people are drawing and plan accordingly.

13. Don't bother trying to get half of all the cards of any one line

Some will be discarded for UP, some will be at the bottom of the deck and won't come out. A lead of 1 or two with a card in your hand is safe enough. The only exception to this would be the very small lines (6 or 7 shares), where people appreciate their value and may be reluctant to trade them for UP stock.

14. Cut off your opponents

Hem in opponents lines if possible (usually not, but sometimes). Build your lines so they can't be hemmed in.

15. More UP advice

Coming first or second in UP is ok ... after that you'll need to hit the UP leader's stock investments to catch up ground. Hope they're on your left. If not, don't get in that position in the first place! Never, ever, be caught without one declared UP stock after the first dividend card comes up. The loss of income is inexcusable.

This time, I agreee with Pat - it's criminal to miss out on the UP cash, even if you don't get much of it.

16. Treading water

If you lead in two lines and could build either, take note of who is in second place for those lines: if it's different people, try to alternate building one, then the other on successive turns. This way you get a $2M gain, while they only get $0.5M each. Conversely, if you are behind and in second place on two important lines, and first place is owned by different people, you can effectively tread water and build on them alternately; you are giving them money but you are also giving yourself an approximately equal amount. This strategy works better the more lines you can devote to it. (But it chews up the draw deck, so don't pursue it for too long.)

17. Don't have more than 4 stock in your hand

You WILL get caught sooner than later.

18. First in UP, first in two other lines, a few selective seconds...

Ta-daa! Or not... how about: middle in UP, first in one line, lots of seconds & ties?

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