When All the Good Routes Aragon…
Yesterday we looked at Amabel Holland’s Trans-Siberian Railroad, a cube rails game so stuffed with ideas it had a serious case of stomach cramps. Published only two years later, Iberian Gauge tinkers in similar spaces. This time, however, its appetite and gaze are simpatico.
As the third entry in Capstone’s Iron Rails series — and thanks to its similar title — Iberian Gauge reflexively recalls Irish Gauge, that nasty little ditty about speculating on stock payouts. That isn’t their only point of comparison. Iberian Gauge, now similarly spiffed up with Ian O’Toole’s illustrative style, also limits its rules to a single page, with nary any room for exceptions or provisos. How do you get a train game to catch on? I don’t mean to speak out of school, but it seems like there’s something to the KISS method.
Apart from a few parallel tracks, Iberian Gauge barrels toward another horizon. This time, Holland uses the mountainous terrain of the Iberian Peninsula to great effect. Rough terrain was featured in its predecessor, but the Irish countryside was open enough that players were only forced to pay a premium for rails when they were in a hurry or a rival company had already snapped up the easiest routes between cities. Here, there’s no getting around the mountains. Either you stick to coastal terrain or pony up a whole lot of cash to cut across stone. In the first case, your profits will be severely limited. In the second, all those implied bridges and tunnels and feats of engineering will eat into your bottom line. It’s the board game equivalent of moving to another state for a twenty percent bump in pay only to realize that the cost of living has gone up by a fifth.
This isn’t only presented as a limitation. Instead, it spawns an entirely different approach to stocks and company control. At the ownership level, buying into a company doesn’t require the repeated auctions of Irish Gauge. Simply identify the company’s current stock value, slot one of your cubes into its stock board, and congratulations, you’ve given yourself a stake in a venture. These cubes and their boards function as an initiative track. When it’s time to lay track, you start at the top and go down. Every cube’s owner gets to build a rail with the company treasury. Easy as pie.
Of course, this being a cube rails game, that easiness soon gives way to thornier considerations. Much of the time, your goal is to connect cities with your railways, increasing your companies’ income and earning more cash when they pay dividends. Given the prevalence of rough terrain, Iberian Gauge permits rail leasing, letting shrewd investors transfer pesos from one of their company treasuries straight into another, bypassing the need to hammer through all those rocks while still watching their stock valuations tick upward. Those are the nice options. When invested in a company that pays more to a rival, a more conniving option presents itself — corporate sabotage. Perhaps it’s time to build a spur straight into the mountainside? Maybe a spur that doesn’t actually lead toward any urban centers? The especially canny might even find a way to rent a sponsor company’s rails and still do nothing to help their rival.
Enough eyebrow-waggling; the point is that Iberian Gauge affords just enough room for shenaniganry without necessitating additional overhead. As is the case with many of Holland’s best games, the social spaces here are negotiated entirely through the whims and canniness of its players. Unlike Trans-Siberian Railroad, those spaces are proportionate with the ideas rattling around the game’s head.
That proportionality is present in nearly every detail. Early on, the build rounds are so brisk, with expansions so inadequate and short, that transiting the Iberian Peninsula seems like a herculean task. As more investments trickle in, bringing new shareholders and their additional connections, the game picks up steam. Soon enough, companies begin leasing rails from one another and jumping across the entire map. What first seemed impossible has been achieved in the name of raw profit, encapsulating the very spirit of industrialization. It’s a remarkable depiction of how one inch of progress leads to the next mile; that it features so many dashed hopes and sudden fortunes is just the cherry.
My one complaint happens to be the only spot where Iberian Gauge’s trim form sports some unexpected flab. It isn’t uncommon for companies to overcapitalize, spending cash until they’re dead in the water, waiting for that next infusion of profits and investments. By the last round, those dry spells have all but washed away, and in all likelihood every treasury will be flush with excess. In practice, this leaves little reason to bother paying out any leasing fees to companies that have finished their final build turn. It’s a small thing, but it feels like an absence in the middle of an otherwise filled-in game. I’m always curious about why games end when they do, about what happens the turn after we sweep the cubes and cards into the box. Here, the conclusion tastes of artificial sweetener, ending for the sake of brevity rather than because somebody has definitively won.
Ah well. More games have that problem than have solved it. And it’s beside the point. Iberian Gauge refuses to bite off more than it can chew, either in length or as a depiction of stock manipulation and rail leasing. This is premier Holland, all the enthralling intersecting goals between players, only a portion of the brittleness found in Trans-Siberian. This time, the proportions are just right.
A complimentary copy was provided.