Reviews

City of the Big Shoulders

 

The Game

 
City of the Big Shoulders tells the story of Chicago, from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. This was a golden age for the city. You are capitalists who invest in and operate companies. You manipulate share prices to increase your wealth. To win, you must become the richest individual. The value of the shares you hold will contribute the most to your net worth. It is not about the success of the companies you have invested in. They are but tools to create wealth for you. Your cash in hand also contributes to your wealth. If you fulfil some of the public objectives, you will score some spare cash too. 
 
 
The game is played over 5 rounds, each representing a decade. You start with a little money, enough to start one small company. At game start there are 10 different companies to pick from, and they are all slightly different. They produce different products. They can run a different number of factories. They need different raw materials and different numbers of factory workers. They also produce different quantities of finished goods. 

 

 
This is the main board. The left third with the 12 cards is the demand area. The dark dots represent demand. When a company sells goods, they are placed on these dots. In the right half of the board, the section at the top is the raw materials markets. The middle area are spots for worker placement and buildings. The bottom area is the market for capital assets (machines). 
 
City of the Big Shoulders features share holding, worker placement and resource conversion. Yes, that does indeed sound a little greedy, but all these mechanisms hang together pretty well. When you are the majority shareholder of a company, you become the CEO and you make all decisions for the company, including sinister ones if that’s your thing. A company may issue up to 10 shares, and whenever you buy one, the money you pay goes to company coffers. The company needs this money to operate. What you as a shareholder hope is that the share price will go up, because this increases your net worth. When the company makes a profit, it may issue dividends. That’s another way you increase your wealth. Share price goes up too when the company issues a large enough dividend. On the flip side, share price falls if the company does not issue a dividend. The share price also falls if someone sells a share. This is one way to sabotage the share value of a company. 
 
In the worker placement aspect of the game, everyone starts with two partners. In this game the partners are your workers. Many actions can only be performed by partners. Your partners may perform actions for any of the companies under your control. As the game progresses, you may gain up to three more partners. One of them is awarded automatically by Round 3, but the other two require conscious effort to fulfil specific conditions. Having many companies is not necessarily good, especially when you don’t have enough partners to help these companies perform tasks. 
 
Every round you will get to pick one building from three to add to the board. Buildings are new worker placement locations where anyone may send partners to. You may pick buildings which are helpful to you, so that they assist you in your chosen strategy. You may also pick buildings which are useful to everyone, because when other players use your buildings, you usually earn cash. 

 

 

 
The resource conversion part of the game is all in company operations. Every round there is one phase when companies take turns to operate. One company does all its operations before you move on to the next. The turn order is determined by the appeal level of the companies. Every company has two or three factories. Each factory requires a certain number of workers and a specific combination of raw materials to operate. It also produces a specific number of goods. If you employ a manager for the factory, you gain some extra benefit whenever the factory produces goods. You compete for workers and raw materials at the main board. Factories can be automated. You move those black columns to replace workers, and workers can be reassigned to other positions or dismissed. Fully automated factories produce more goods. 
 
If you employ salesmen, you increase the price of your goods (leftmost column at each company). 
 
One crucial rule is player money and company money must be kept separate. Victory is based on player money, not company money. You only own shares of a company. You don’t own the whole company. Company money is not your money. Only the value of your shares count towards your wealth. The company can only give you money by issuing dividends. 
 

 

During game setup five objectives are randomly drawn. If you fulfil an objective, you will earn extra money at game end. In this particular example, if companies you control have the most capital assets, you earn $200. 
 
In a nutshell, you invest in companies, and you run companies. In both cases your ultimate goal is to grow your wealth. Companies will compete, especially when they produce the same product type. Company turn order is often crucial because whichever company gets to sell first earns much more money. Players can manipulate share prices. What is most important to players is the growth potential of the companies. A small company with potential for growth is better than a large company with a stagnant share price. 
 
The Play
 
Share holding games is not really my thing. I’m always a little uncomfortable with them because I’m not good at them. I can’t quite get out of the mindset of “this is my company”. That’s why despite having tried 18XX games and being able to appreciate how clever they are, I rarely seek them out. When Han, Allen and I played City of the Big Shoulders on BoardGameArena.com, we were mostly conservative and we played with the “my company” mindset. We did not explore far the stock manipulation aspect of the game. We did use the advanced rules which allow hostile takeovers, but in practice this didn’t happen in either of the games we played. We didn’t consider sabotaging our own companies. We stuck to doing an honest day’s work operating our own companies. We did invest in others’ companies, to leech off their efforts and opportunities. One tactic I applied was to invest in others’ companies early, only to dump their shares in the final round. By doing this, I benefited from the share price growth throughout the game. Then by the final round, I cashed out while forcing the share price to drop, which would hurt the majority shareholder (i.e. my opponent) the most. This seems to be a mandatory tactic. I can’t think of a reason not to do it. 
 
The company operations part of the game is nothing particularly new, but it is fun and satisfying. There are many ways to improve your companies, but you can’t do everything. You must prioritise, and that’s what makes the decisions interesting. You have a limited number of partners, and a limited number of turns. 
 
Companies can run low on cash, and you will probably need to inject more cash by buying more shares. Normally you want “your” companies to make profit and pay dividends every round, so that the share price keeps going up. Companies are under pressure to not miss a beat at any time. 
 
 
The competition among companies for appeal is fierce. The biggest reason is turn order. The company which gets to sell first may make all the lucrative sales, leaving crumbs for the rest. Climbing the appeal ladder also gives companies many benefits, as indicated in the image above. E.g. you need to hit Appeal 9 to get an extra partner. At Appeal 13, your share price goes up one notch. 
 
 
Near game end, the demand cards will likely run out, exposing those low demand boxes in the leftmost column. You may sell any number of goods here, but only at half price. This is why it is important for companies to go early in turn order. You want to sell to the full price spots. 
 
In both the games we played, I had conflicts with Allen because we produced the same goods. In one particular round, we had to spend three partners to take actions related to improving appeal, all for the sake of the turn order of our competing companies. That was intense! 
 
 
These four rows in the centre are the players’ buildings. Every player gets one row so you can easily tell which building belongs to who. We were in Round 5 now, so everyone had 5 buildings. Han was red, and his buildings were most popular. He himself and Allen (blue) used his buildings. I was green and I used my own buildings and Allen’s. 
 
 
You may only buy raw materials from the rightmost three boxes in the raw materials  market, and they are priced at $30, $20 and $10. Raw materials are purchased by companies, not partners. After a company completes its turn, if any of the boxes are emptied, raw materials in the box to its left will be shifted over. This is how refilling works. Raw materials will drop in price as they get shifted right. If you want to hurt the next company (assuming your company can afford it), you can leave just one raw material in each box. This makes raw materials scarce.  You can also just buy up just the specific raw materials the next company needs. 

 

 
These are the available capital assets. I think of them as machines. This market for capital assets works in a similar way as the raw materials. Not all companies may purchase capital assets. Those which can can only purchase one. 
 
Both the game I played were mostly played like development games. We mostly just took care of our own companies. We were not very adventurous with the stock manipulation. When the games started, we avoided competition by picking companies making different products. There are four product types, so even in a full 4-player game, everyone can pick a different product at game start. Only when the second companies started, the competition became more intense, because we now had directly competing companies. 
 
In our first game, due to being unfamiliar with the user interface, Han missed selling goods in one early round. This was painful because it meant his share price dropped instead of going up. This meant a 2 or 3 step difference in share price. By game end, a 3 step difference can mean about $400 in player wealth. Our differences between winning and losing were around $100 to $300, so $400 was a huge deal! 

 

 

This on the left is the share price track. At the lower end, one notch is just $5, but at the higher end, it is $50! The dark region is the share price range allowed when launching a company. 
 
 
You are limited to holding at most 12 share certificates. However some certs are worth 3 or 2 shares. This is the only way to better utilise your share slots. Another restriction is you may own at most 60% of any one company. 
 
In our second game, I had the most cash by the final round, and had much more freedom to manipulate the stock market. Allen and Han had used up their cash to buy shares and couldn’t do much any more, unless they were willing to sell some shares for cash and then buy. At that point I knew I had to sell shares in “their” companies, to deflate their share prices. They held more shares in those companies so doing this would hurt them more. However I made a mistake of not selling all of the shares of Han’s company. At the time I was focused on one of the objectives of holding the most single-share certs. I was busy selling my double-share certs to free up space to buy single-share certs. When I finally became the single player with the most single-share certs, I happily passed to move on to the next phase of the round. I forgot that I should have continued to dump the shares of Han’s company. Sloppy! When the game ended, Han beat me by less than $100! Head-against-wall moment. 
 
The Thoughts
 
City of the Big Shoulders is all about growth. You want to commit your cash to where you expect to see the most growth. This is a very capitalist game. Companies are just tools. I was a little apprehensive before we played, but I found myself enjoying the game during play, probably because we played it very much like a regular development game. I am not sure whether there can be a lot more of stock manipulation than what we have experienced. Since the company founder holds 30% of shares, it is actually not easy to do hostile takeovers. I did have one chance to takeover Han’s company, but I missed it (sloppy again). Han told me about it afterwards. Even if I did notice it, I might not have wanted to do so, because if I controlled too many companies, my partners would have been spread too thin. I would not be able to manage my companies efficiently. 
 
When we were the major shareholders of our companies, it was in our best interest to run them well. We would benefit the most from the dividends and the increase in share price. It seems counterintuitive to want to sabotage my own company. At this moment I am not 100% sure how much variability there is in the stock manipulation aspect of the game. It is possible that I haven’t seen fully what the game can do because we have not explored this aspect aggressively enough. 
 
The development game aspect is satisfying. I must admit I tend to like development games. That sense of progress is always pleasant. There is plenty of player interaction. Appeal is one aspect. The worker placement bit also creates significant tension. When someone takes a slot you want, and it is painful, the game is doing something right. In the early rounds, you only have a net worth of $200 – $300. Cash flow can be tight for both yourself and your companies. Companies struggle to afford workers and raw materials. You also worry about scraping together enough money to invest in more shares. By game end you will be worth about $4000. That acceleration throughout the game is exhilarating. 
 
There is a clear story arc in the game. You can’t really break out of this structure. In a way it feels scripted, but perhaps a more positive way to look at it is the game is trying to tell the story of Chicago in that particular period in history. The game starts relatively peacefully when all the young startups have good opportunities for growth. Things heat up mid game as competition appears. The stock manipulation escalates towards late game. Eventually recession hits and all companies brace for impact. Some may continue to prosper. The general plot is set. You flex and compete within this context. 
 
I suspect playing the physical game will take much longer. There is a lot of calculation to do, especially when you need to issue dividends. Playing on the computer saves a lot of time and brain power. 

 

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