Silverton is a recent release from Two Wolf Games of Poway, California and concerns the development of the Rocky Mountain railway networks around Denver, Salt Lake City and Santa Fe. Players take the role of railroad managers and aim to make money by building useful track, shipping freight and passengers and, uniquely, controlling the mines and lumber yards that produce the freight in the first place. Inevitably given the subject matter, there are some similarities to Adventure Game's Rails through the Rockies (RTTR), but Silverton is on a much larger scale (concerning itself with long distances rather than individual passes) and, by way of strange coincidence, offers many of the qualities that I was seeking last time in the 18xx piece.
For a game that costs just £15 or so from, presumably, a one man band, Silverton is nicely put together. It comes in a professional bookcase box, has a quality mounted mapboard, glossy counters and numerous play aids. The cards that show the various mines and so on could have been a bit clearer and the cash is made of cheap paper (easily replaced with chips or similar) but overall Silverton is well worth the money.
The rulebook is, to be fair, both good and bad. What is there is explained well and it isn't overly long or fuzzy - as a result the game is very easy to get into. During play though a few loopholes appear, which can be extrapolated or amicably resolved, and the game turn structure seems a little too rigid. We played most of the sequences simultaneously, with all four players producing, laying track and so on, while only a couple really need to be performed in chit (player turn) order. The rulebook insists that each player take a turn and the others sit back - this would obviously lead to substantial time increases but we had no problems playing the way we did. If there was ever an unusually involved phase, we slowed down to work out the sequence properly.
The rules come in three parts: basic, advanced and solitaire/options. We played using the basic rules which seem perfectly reasonable and quite complex enough for the type of game on offer. The advanced rules add variable locomotive power and snow ploughs along with complication of freight deliveries and related time delays. I considered them almost superfluous for a good game of Silverton but there will be those who really must use the train counters. I found the flavour sufficiently good as it stands. The solitaire rules seem to be have been thought out well. You run a company using the normal rules but have various deadlines to accumulate a sum of cash. If you achieve it by turn ten, say, you have scored a decisive victory while turn fifteen might be considered a loss. The optional rules add a couple of variants for players controlling two railroads each among others.
The shape of play will be quite predictable to anyone familiar with railway game mechanics, though Silverton adds a few wrinkles along the way. Each player is given a team of prospectors (to stake claims on mines) and surveyors (to claim and build track sections). These employees are placed each turn on a limited range of upturned available claims or on the map to show which section of track your company would like to build. In addition, from time to time, lucrative passenger franchises appear which can also be claimed by a prospector once you have the track in place to provide the service from, say, Denver to Pueblo. In the event of two rival prospectors being interested in the same target, it is settled by die roll.
The claims are one the most interesting parts of the game. They come in a range of flavours, from the common and unexciting coal mines, through lumber claims, silver and gold mines. You pay to stake the claim and you pay to operate it each turn which should, in theory, generate commodities for later sale. The key here is the production roll for the mine - 2d6 are rolled and the chart on the claim card is checked. Normally, a few tons of coal or ounces of gold will result but there is the dreaded 'depletion' result which means the mine is spent. The mine closes, no more production is possible and the track built there, especially that to remote locations, is often useless unless another mine can be bought in the same area.
As the depletion roll can happen at any time (though less likely on the first production - modifiers apply), a constant evaluation of risk and number of active mines is essential and player interest in the prestige claims gets rather heated later in the game. As you might expect, gold mines are expensive and produce small quantities of valuable output but are prone to depletion, whereas a coal mine produces tons of relatively cheap coal for much of the game, unless you are really unlucky.
Much more reliable than the fickle mines, passenger franchises pay a regular income almost every turn, but cost relatively more to purchase initially. Their value in terms of producing a steady cash flow for expenditure on track and more claims cannot be underestimated in this game. The only time passenger income fails is when the weather turns to snow; no-one travels, so no money is earned. The claims meanwhile can keep on producing all winter for delivery to market when the snow clears in the spring. I liked this part of the game, adding a lot more to the flavour and decision making than simply working out track routes. That said, trackwork remains important.
The track networks are designated in a fashion closer to Bus Boss than Railway Rivals - the track routes are already marked on the map and you pay to acquire them by placing one of your coloured counters. This speeds up play compared to drawing or laying tiles and the overall impact is surprisingly good - your company's routes are clear for everyone to see. And no messy pens either. Track networks are built outward from your start town (different to other players normally) and aim, long term, to set up a useful range of access routes to other towns, into the mountains or the surrounding countryside. This is essentially to connect the mines, lumber mills and passenger routes that will bring in the cash. Once operating and linked by track you can sell output from mines in the large towns, all of which leads us to the market mechanism that endows Silverton with much of its appeal and strategy.
Four of the towns on the board (Denver, Santa Fe, Pueblo and Salt Lake City) are large enough to support markets in at least one of the four freight categories. Each turn, freight can be delivered from the mines and sold at the prevailing price in the town in question. The price is determined on a market chart not dissimilar to that in Dicke Kartoffeln. A preset initial price moves up and down on a partially random basis, affected to a lesser or greater extent by the volume of sales in the preceding turn.
The nature of the markets is such that the price of silver may be driven to just $1,000 in Salt Lake City while still being able to obtain twice that in Denver. Questions of arbitrage possibilities aside (an armoured stagecoach full of gold must be worth the effort), this means that you could be linked into a market that isn't paying as much as you would like. The solution is either laying tracks to another market town, making a deal with another player (not always feasible) or building up a stockpile in the hope that the price will recover - demand increases throughout the game to simulate the booming economic climate. The preventative strategy is probably to have a wide range of mines and the ability to deliver to at least two markets. Again, a nice play problem that offers an appreciable challenge.
The profit gained from selling to the markets, and the frequent payments from passenger service, are the only income available to your company. As Silverton has no company share dealing like that in 18xx and the companies run on cash alone, if you don't plan your outgoings at least roughly, you could find yourself bankrupted. Particularly important is a provision for snow turns. That said, money is quite plentiful (the system tends towards inflation) and you aren't going to find yourself in a RTTR cash flow crisis where you are scraping the barrel every turn and projecting forward to see if you are going to pull through. Although the tight cash of RTTR has a certain appeal, I feel it is something that adds more headaches to an already tough game, so the Silverton approach is much preferred.
On one rule, we unwittingly played an instant variant. Per the rules, players are allowed to make deals relating to claims or track sections (and presumably cash) - we expanded this a bit to allow deals on almost anything which I think probably improved the game compared to the more restricted rules, but you could play it either way.
In summary, Silverton is a well designed system. This comes across both when you are reading the rules and in play. It isn't all original (it sometimes uses the best parts of other systems) but it has enough new ideas and the whole is smoothed into place to make the game appear novel and fresh. In many respects, because it pulls together a number of interesting strands, it feels very close to an ideal railway game as far as I'm concerned. Despite all the comments you read on 18xx last time, I am a lot happier with the range of games now available and feel that with RR, Silverton, 18xx and Alan Moon's forthcoming Santa Fe, we are starting to get better coverage across the range. This leaves 18xx at the 'long and heavy' end of the spectrum that I won't need to visit quite so often. Ironically, with a share system added on, I could rate Silverton even higher!
Silverton is an impressive game. It is highly playable, has all the railway game flavour you could ask for and is a reasonably challenging game with some neat systems. I doubt it will prove to offer the same heady tests as the 18xx series but, within the time it takes to play, the reward is high and the game really cranks along - your company plans come to fruition in minutes rather than hours and the level of financial planning you choose is up to you. What is really appealing is that the game plays in around two hours, close enough to my ideal to cause no complaints here. Silverton (or a slight variant) could also, one hopes, easily transfer to other geographical locations and certainly has an entertaining enough system to allow such extended play. Silverton is an encouraging first game from this new company and one that will get a lot of play here in the future. Recommended for all fans of railway games, especially those seeking a shorter game.
I am unsure whether Two Wolf will take orders direct at Two Wolf, 13454 Poway Road, Suite 570, Poway, CA 92064 USA, but it is available from Gamesmanship in Costa Mesa, 999 Games in Holland and presumably other shops in the US for about $25 plus shipping.
On to the review of Elfengold or back to the Introduction.
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