Did you know that Ireland’s track gauge isn’t very common? 1,600mm. That’s rare, apparently. Not that you’d know it from Tom Russell’s Irish Gauge. Some games fill you in on what they’re about. Scratch that, most games. Some go the extra mile by holding forth on the ancient lineages of their elves. Irish Gauge doesn’t warrant a paragraph. Not even a blurb in the rulebook. The back of the box says something about puffs of black smoke and braking steam — real scene-setting stuff — but nothing about why Ireland requires such wide tracks. You’d think that’d be an American thing.
Not that it matters. If Irish Gauge is presenting one of Russell’s systemic arguments, it’s silent on the topic. Instead, this is a design of sharp edges and barbed hooks. And it peels its way under the skin with only a single sheet of rules.
The summation of Irish Gauge is familiar: easy to learn, hard to master. It’s a cliché statement and somewhat wrong — learning a game isn’t only about internalizing the rules — but as far as generalities go, it serves. Like many games about trains, this one has a reputation to uphold. The rules aren’t difficult, the play is fluid apart from the occasional stammer while everybody tallies numbers, and its real challenge appears the instant it’s set loose into the social sphere. What’s the best action to take on your turn? Even though there are only four options, expect to mull over that question. Navigating the ambiguity that delineates a fine turn from a train wreck is the entire game.
The game’s goal, money, is emblematic of that division. It’s an easy goal to parse, accrued via stock certificates and periodic dividends of spendable cash, but also a difficult goal to navigate. Consider, for example, the game’s auctions. Occurring both during setup and whenever somebody decides to declare a certificate up for auction, on their face there isn’t anything special about them. You declare how much you’re willing to bid, with the certificate’s value setting the minimum. In order, everybody either passes or bids higher. Around it goes until you’re the remaining bid. Nothing tricky about it.
Until you zoom out into the wider perspective, that is. Since money is your goal as well as your currency, every pound spent is a pound you won’t have during final scoring — apart from each stock certificate’s minimum value. Over the first play or two, shrewd investors can take advantage of other players’ spending. By waiting until everybody’s billfolds have been squeezed thin, it’s possible to begin an auction and make off with a certificate for its stated value, thus preserving your investment in its entirety. Lean times become your chance to grow fat. Or get knocked out of the running within the game’s first handful of turns. Like I said, there are a few biting edges to watch out for. Fortunately, the game’s briskness soothes such wounds, and it doesn’t take many lowball bids before everybody recognizes the error of leaving only one prospector with any money.
Meanwhile, stock certificates aren’t only good for their printed value. They’re also buy-ins for their companies, along with the ability to lay track, develop special interests, and collect dividends. Laying track is the most straightforward action, an allotment of three “build points” that can be split across new track, merging with existing lines, or trundling over difficult terrain. The effect is concise in its clarity: wherever your company’s pieces pass through towns or cities, they stand to earn money when paying out dividends.
The paying of dividends is where Irish Gauge becomes an exercise in loaded probabilities. And once everybody knows how to manipulate the odds in their favor, the entire enterprise becomes a tangled web of interrelated incentives and payouts.
Here’s how it works. When somebody decides to pay dividends, they draw three cubes at random from a bag. Then every single company tallies how much it’s worth based on the towns and cities it connects with rails. Towns always pay two pounds. Cities are worth four, but only if they’re holding a cube that matches one that was just drawn. Because there are only three colors of cubes, and ten cubes per color, the quantity remaining in the bag is a known quantity, as are the relative likelihoods that each company will pay out. The numbers aren’t low enough to tell at a glance, but they’re close.
Within that framework, everything about Irish Gauge snaps into place, albeit more subtly than they might first appear. Certain lines can be worth a lot of money if they pay out, but those payments might be contingent upon particular cubes appearing from the bag. Other companies will be diverse, fluctuating up and down according to what’s drawn, while others capitalize on towns for smaller but more consistent paydays. Further knotting this web are a handful of additional factors. Your payout increases as you hold extra stock in a single company, but snapping up all of a company’s stock often stunts its growth because you’re the only person expanding its reach with rail actions. Similarly, it’s possible to place a cube on the board to upgrade a town to a city, chosen from the same pool that you draw from during dividends. This diversifies a company’s potential payouts while simultaneously diminishing the odds that your newly placed cube will be drawn from the bag.
To put it in more concrete terms, let’s say you own shares in a company that only pays out on black cubes. Hence the big question: should you gamble that future payouts will draw black cubes for a lottery win, place another cube on one of your towns to increase the odds that you make some money no matter what gets drawn, or pursue broader avenues such as diversifying your stock portfolio or racing to connect Ireland’s three biggest cities for a one-time bonus? Such questions only provide a multiple choice quiz’s worth of answers, but they’re answers that are only decimal points apart.
And if this doesn’t sound sufficiently messy, remember that most companies will soon seat multiple investors. Placing a cube in a spot that futzes with somebody’s payouts, laying rails in an odd direction, or taking dividends at a seemingly optimal moment are all actions that tend to benefit or diminish more than one player. Blocking a train route across some hilly terrain might sound like a fantastic idea; less so when you’re considering buying into that company in the near future. Within the same breath, it’s possible to effectively lose very early on while also becoming hopelessly entangled with everybody else at the table. It’s the sort of game that will see people preemptively declaring that it has “keys.” The key to winning is auctioning stock certificates when nobody else has money! The key to winning is finishing an early Belfast-Galway-Dublin line! The key to winning is dumping your opponent’s favorite color of cube onto low-priority towns! These can all be true, but only conditionally. Rather than a single page of rules, mastery of Irish Gauge requires the reading of entire books of rules — one for each player at the table.
When we talk about decision spaces, the crucial measure isn’t how many actions a game offers, or its quantity of resources, or the ability to strike out in any direction. Rather, it’s the import of our decisions, both within the span of a single turn and across the game’s entire duration. Irish Gauge is a supernal example of how to give decisions weight. The repercussions of the game’s first auction are still felt when the final dividend is paid out — provided you haven’t already been unseated by marginal payouts or flimsy stock options. Such things can happen. As I wrote earlier, this game bristles with edges that snag at both your attention and your elbows. At times, it can feel as though you’re picking between an array of terrible options that somehow benefit everybody else more than they benefit you. Other moments can feel too tangled for comfort, leaving everyone dizzy as they pluck threads that bind everyone together.
In a game this brisk, what a breath of fresh air. I’d call Irish Gauge winsome, but that’s a pun too far. Instead, I’ll call it a nasty, loaded little thing, with far greater volumes beneath the surface than its pleasing exterior would lead one to expect.
A complimentary copy was provided.