3rd Feb 2024 - Bullfrog Goldfieldby Robin. Sat, 3 Feb (Updated at Sat, 3 Feb)
I've played two obscure and very interesting games at the club this week. I think I preferred the first - Age Of Comics: The Golden Years; but I'm going to dedicate this write-up to the second - Bullfrog Goldfield. Age Of Comics is a very thematic game, and the theme is nicely summarised by the title. But what on Earth is Bullfrog Goldfield?
The clue is again in the name, but well-hidden. It's not about bulls, frogs or fields - but it is about gold. And trains. But even the most avid railway guru will likely not have heard of the short-lived Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad. Likewise, the many board gaming mining gurus will probably not have heard of the even shorter-lived Bullfrog gold mine, or the ghost town of Goldfield.
The Nevada Gold Rush started in 1905 and was essentially over by 1910. In those few years many new towns were founded in southern Nevada. Almost all are now ghost towns, with the notable exception of Las Vegas, which survived as a railway junction before finding its true calling in another industry altogether. The railways didn't last much longer than the mines, but Las Vegas is now the largest town in the country to have been founded in the 20th Century - one of the few national records to be held by both Las Vegas and Milton Keynes.
Anyway, this game is basically an 1830-esque game, in that we play primarily as investors, and also as directors of the companies that we control. We don't just run railways: we also run mines. And the scope of the game is pretty much just the length of the gold rush, which provides the nuance to this 18xx variant: the mines are good investments up-front, because they can produce gold and therefore dividends immediately; whereas railways require substantial loans to get going. But by the end of the game, many of the mines will likely have become exhausted and thus worthless - while the railways continue to turn a profit and retain their value. All the railways concerned were actually also shut by 1930, but that's apparently after the end of the game.
So what do you do? Generally the approach seems to be: invest in mines first, then move onto railways. When a railway connects to a mine, it increases the value of both - so building a railway becomes profitable for you, as an investor, once you also own a mine nearby; even if the railways itself takes a while to turn a profit. In fact, only two of the four railways built in our game ever paid a dividend. So you're not necessarily investing in them for a direct return - if you get that it's a bonus.
As a spin on an 18xx game I really like it: the initial part of the game is literally a gold rush - a race to get to the mines. And the later part introduces a push-your-luck jeopardy that really spices up the usual 1830 mechanics: each round the mines are excavated further; you might strike it rich with a new goldseam, but the deeper you go, the more chance the gold will run out and you'll be left with nothing for your shares. So I think many 18xx fans would enjoy this game, though the choice of name will have kept them - and everyone else - in the dark.
There are also a couple of glitches. I've played this game twice - both with Steve - and on both occasions he's managed to find a way to break the game slightly. A good person to have at playtests. The first time he broke it in a way that left him hopelessly last from the first round, with no chance to recover. So we learnt from that pitfall this time and made sure no-one repeated it. Then this time he found a balancing issue that gave one specific company - which he owned - a huge advantage that no-one else could compete with; which was a form of justice after the first time, I suppose.
The rest of us, who didn't have the magic way to win, had a very close and intriguing game. If we tweak the rules to prevent the breakages, it would be great. The 18xx model - few decisions but with very significant downstream consequences - is not my favourite; and I can see why as it is this game only scores 6.7 on BGG. Like the theme, its beauty is very well hidden - but it's definitely worth a look.