Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Board Game Review - Baltimore & Ohio

There are several things about a board game that tend to earn bad reviews from me. Design an ugly game, and I’m going to tell people. Make me do a bunch of math, and you’re likely to piss me off. Give me a dull-ass theme with arbitrary historical accuracy and no body count, and I might just end up putting your game through a wood chipper just to keep it out of the hands of children who might play it and not realize how important violence is to board gaming.

It’s important for this review to know that I hate all those things about board games, and every one of those flaws can be found in Baltimore & Ohio. And the reason it’s important to know how much I despise ugly games with lots of math and boring themes is because when I tell you that I have enjoyed Baltimore & Ohio, you need to understand how enjoyable this game had to be to overcome an incredible number of hurdles.
For starters, Baltimore & Ohio isn’t just unattractive. It’s facial-scarring-as-a-baby, wearing-a-mask-to-look-in-the-mirror, hairless-mole-rat ugly. If my fourteen-year-old daughter made a game using OpenOffice and a box of Crayolas, it would have been more attractive. The graphic designer for this game should seriously consider a career change, maybe as a thumb-breaker for the mob. If he can do this with a game, just imagine what he could do with a bucket full of battery acid.

If it wasn’t enough to make an ugly game, they also had to dump buckets of math into it. And this isn’t just a bunch of adding. When we played, everyone at the table had to have a calculator. Not just one calculator for the table, either – we each had to break out our cell phones so we could handle the algebraic equations that the game produced.

And the story is soooo boring. It’s the thrilling tale (yes, that’s sarcastic) of how some people bought stock in train companies. All the railroads are based on actual train lines from actual history, which means that some railroads have to hit particular cities before they can expand, and others can’t even be purchased until the game has been going a while. Why? Because that’s how history did it, so by God, that’s how we’ll do it.

[Quick aside – why are all train games about the same period of history? Why doesn’t anyone ever do a game where you build Japanese bullet trains or New York subway trains? What is so fantastically exciting about making game after game that reenacts the exact same part of American history? And what’s so damned exciting about trains in the first place?]

So, after all that complaining, here’s the ‘however.’ You know, the line that pretty much negates everything that came before it. The game is ugly, the math is atrocious, and the theme bores my face off. However, it’s so much fun that after I played with my regular group, I took it home and played with my family, and had fun again.

See, it’s not your standard Martin Wallace rail-building extravaganza. You don’t have a color, you just have money. You buy stock in railroads, and then build them up – but don’t suck, because if you do, you could actually lose your railroad. You could theoretically run your railroad into the ground, lose all your stock, and have some other guy swoop in and steal the last way you had to make any money. You wouldn’t technically be eliminated. You would just have to sit there and be pissed at yourself for making so many idiotic mistakes.

You can build track, too, but the tracks are just wooden cubes that say, ‘yep, this train goes there,’ and it doesn’t really matter if it’s a crossover or a turn or a split. As the president of a railroad, you don’t care how the lowly manual laborers get the train to Buffalo. You just want to cash in on having a line that goes that far.

The stock thing kind of threw me at first, because you don’t actually pick a color. It’s different from most games, but in a good way (and several bad ways). You can buy stock in your opponents’ railroads (and probably will, if you’re winning), and you can start up completely new companies halfway through the game. At first you’ll be broke, barely scratching out enough income to build just one more piece of track, but then later you’ll have money flying all over the place, until you have to build a huge swimming vault like Scrooge McDuck and dive into it.

Calculating and planning and scheming is fun, and Baltimore & Ohio has tons. You’ll plan exactly how far you can stretch in one turn, pushing your money as far as you can, and have to decide the perfect moment to declare a dividend and put money in your pocket instead of into your train. Because, see, when the game ends, having the best railroad means absolutely nothing. You can own half the stock in the most profitable company on the board, but if that company has all the money and you don’t, all you’ll get is what you can score when you sell your stock.

This is an incredibly deep game, and if it were any heavier you could use it as a boat anchor. It will hurt your head trying to come up with good strategies, but interestingly enough, you won’t have to work that hard to understand the rules. In fact, if you pay attention, you should understand how to play by the end of the first turn. Of course, you’re still going to screw up the first time. And probably the second. Possibly the third.

As I was playing Baltimore & Ohio, I looked at my friends and complained about how I was going to be so embarrassed. I have to give a good review to one of the ugliest games I’ve ever seen, with no bloodshed anywhere, and enough math that we all had to use calculators. Hell, I have a reputation! Ugly games with too much math aren’t supposed to be fun! They’re supposed to suck! It’s like the fabric of the universe is unraveling around me!

I hear that Baltimore & Ohio is a lot like the 18XX games. I’ve never actually played any of those, because they all look as boring as this one did, but if they’re as much fun as Baltimore & Ohio, I may need to check them out. I know virtually nothing about any of them, and can’t really be bothered to look up any information, but if I get a wild hair up my ass, I may check them out.

For now, you can run over to the Eagle Games site and procure your own copy of Baltimore & Ohio, so that you, too, can have fun playing a game as hideous and overflowing with math as this one.


2-6 players

Brilliantly deep strategy

Super duper ugly
So much math, you'll need a calculator (really - that's not sarcastic)
Boring retread of a theme

Dogstar Games does not carry Baltimore & Ohio, which does not surprise me even a little. They tend to carry games that are much prettier than this one. But Eagle Games can hook you up:


Steven Davis said...

This sure does sound like an 18xx, though those don't need calculators.

If you are inspired by the genre, I'd check out 1830. The others are more track oriented, but 1830 balances building and market manipulation.

I do recall a Eurorails/Empire Builder variant called Nippon Rails which is, oddly, really good with 3 players.

I suspect that the open/chaotic capitalism of early US rail history invites making games in this period.

Speaking of bloodshed, did you ever get into "Up Front"?

Tim Harrison said...

Ken Boon wrote a computer application to assist with the math. It regularly sheds a good 30-45 minutes off of our games. It is available on BGG.

Matt Drake said...

I've never even heard of Up Front, but I'll check it out now.

Fez said...

If you hate the components for this one, I'd love to see your reaction to the 2009 Winsome Games release of this game --very spartan. The edition you reviewed is MUCH nicer.

Matt Drake said...

Then that must be one ass-ugly game, because this one is seriously unattractive.

Steven Davis said...

It is out of print. I hope you can find a copy. I haven't seen anyone else use a similar system.

Warren said...

I have Up Front. My Dad bought it years and years ago, and it's all mine now. It's a WWII-ish soldier-on-soldier card game sort of thing. Sort of ... We got through some of the rules at some point a few decades ago, and that only took hours and hours. The rule book, from what I recall, is a buzzillion pages long. But there are two huge plusses:
1) It is an awesome game. Absolutely awesome. Just cards, but each card is a soldier or weapon or ability or something like that. Lots of strategy involved, and lots of details.
2) The incredibly long rule book is broken up into parts. You read through the first part, and then play a game. Then read some more, and play again, but this time using more of the card traits and such. And so on. The minus here, though, is that each of these parts is pretty long, like 15-20 pages of small print, if I recall correctly.
But Up Front is a fantastic game.