Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Harry Wu


No. of Players:
2 - 6



One of the games which was awaited by a quite big audience at the SPIEL 08 convention was Chicago Express by Harry Wu. The gaming principles of this railroad game have been used in its predecessor Wabash Cannonball, and after the great success of this small publisher publication the major German publisher QUEEN GAMES had applied for a license to reproduce the game on a larger scale. And indeed, not only the nicely illustrated box of the game looks rather promising, but also the gaming components like the colourful gameboard with movable action-gauges, the wooden Locomotive playing pieces and the included money and shares of the different railroad companies all challenge for instant gaming.

Unlike many other railroading games, Chicago Express basically is a game about investments where the players invest into up to five different railroad companies, four of which have their starting towns located in East Coast cities like New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore. All of the East Coast railroad companies are competing to bridge the distance to Chicago which is located on the Western side of the map, but while building their rails they will try to include valuable cities in their railroad grid.

All the players receive at the beginning of the game is an amount of money, and the game then starts with an auction phase in which one share of each of the four East coast railroad companies is auctioned. The starting price for each share is determined by the position of the railroad company's marker on the income track, and at the beginning this income will just be determined by the value of the starting cities. Bidding for each share is continued until only one bidder is left for each share, and that bidder then will place the money of his successful bid on the company sheet of the corresponding railroad company.

During his turn, a player either has the opportunity to start the auction of another share of his choice, or he may continue building railtracks with a company of which he possesses at least one share. The cost of placing a piece of track (a wooden locomotive) into a new hex-space which is adjacent to another track of the same company is printed in the space which is chosen to be connected, but the price actually will be multiplied by the number of present locomotives of the railroad companies in the same space. Thus, it gets very expensive if one or more companies already have placed a locomotive at the same space. If the newly connected space is a city or a mountain area, then the space also will generate an income, and the income marker for the railroad company will be adjusted on the income track.

The most striking ingenuity of Chicago Express is the fact that the money for building tracks actually is not taken from a player's own pile of cash, but instead the money comes from the sheet of the railroad company. Thus, the railroad companies can only expand their railroad grid with money they have gained through an auction of a share, because the marker on the income track also means no additional money for the company itself. Making the situation even more difficult, each company only has a certain number of available shares (ranging from three to six for the four East Coast railroad companies), and so the possibilities to gain additional money are rather limited.

The third action which a player may chose is the special development of city, woods or mountain spaces. A development marker (a small house) is going to be placed at the chosen space, and each railroad company present at the newly developed space either will gain an additional increase of its income on the income track or an instant monetary benefit. Three special cities on the gameboard even may be developed several times, and whereas Wheeling and Pittsburgh may be developed thrice or four times by the players, Detroit will can automatically be developed when a dividend phase takes place.

Each of the actions chosen by a player will be recorded on the three action gauges on the gameboard, and an action only can be chosen if the gauge should not yet have reached full power. If full power is reached on a gauge, only one of the two other remaining actions can be chosen, and if a second gauge reaches full power as well the game will be stopped for a dividend phase. In this phase, the current income of each railroad company will be divided by the number of the company's shares currently held by the players, and the shareowners then will receive a portion of the money corresponding to the number of shares they hold in their portfolio. After all the dividends were paid, the development marker for Detroit is advanced by one space and all gauges are returned to their starting position before the game is resumed normally.

Every time a railroad company makes a connection to Chicago the income of the company will receive another bonus, and afterwards a special dividend phase will be made just for this specific company. The rules for the calculation and division of this dividend are the same as the rules for the normal dividend phase. In addition, the arrival of the first railroad company at Chicago marks the opening of the small Wabash Railroad company, a very small company with a low number of available locomotives, only two shares and a starting space quite close to Chicago. The first of the two shares will be instantly auctioned off, and from that time on the Wabash Railroad takes participates in the game just like the four other railroad companies.

The end of the game draws near when three companies have run out of locomotives, or when three companies have run out of shares, or when three or less development markers are left in the stockpile, or when the development marker for Detroit has been adjusted for the seventh time (reaching the "8" space). If one of these conditions has been fulfilled, the game is continued until the next regular dividend phase has taken place. Neither a player's shares nor the status of any of the railroad companies is of importance now, but instead the game simply will be won by the player with most cash.

After playing Chicago Express a few times I can absolutely understand that gamers around the world were waiting for a new release of Harry Wu's game once the fame of the sold-out Wabash Cannonball started to spread. The elegance of the share-driven game-engine is simply outstanding, and the approach of buying participations in several railroad companies and thus financing their operations has been implemented in absolute perfection. The game offers ample of room for the players to experiment and explore different winning strategies, and no two games will be quite alike because auctions will end up with a different distribution of share ownership and the financial situation of each of the railroad companies will vary from game to game. Thus, a company which has reached Chicago in the last game might very well end up with a low income level and a small railroad grid in the following game, and it is up to the players to discover the best ways to earn a future without spending too much of their already gained dividends.

This considerable playing depth is even more astonishing considering the moderate playing duration and the average complexity of the rules, and although hobbyists should be the primary target group for the game I still see a good degree of attraction also for families. Participating children should not be too young due to the fact that some calculations must be made to maximise profits, but otherwise a few games of Chicago Express should ensure a good degree of understanding which will bring much playing fun to seasoned players and families alike. A rather strong contender for the Spiel des Jahres 2009!

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Copyright © 2012 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany