Designer: Martin Wallace
Artist: Javier González Cava, Ossi Hiekkala
Publisher: Alley Cat Games
A recent reprint of Tinner’s Trial has me all excited to play an older Martin Wallace game. With his recent designs more fantasy-themed, I was more interested in hunting down his catalogue of older games published by his Treefrog label. Tinner’s Trail, Steel Driver and Princes of Renaissance are high on my list. So, when the reprint was announced, I knew this was one that I could get my hands on.
Much like Wallace’s other economic simulations such as Brass, Tinner’s Trail is also set in the British Isles where plenty of mines were churning out ore and coal to power the factories during the Industrial Revolution. In Cornwall, tin and copper are the primary extractions and in Tinner’s Trail, players are tasked to dig up and sell as many units of the ore in the region to earn money which are then converted into points.
Water woes plague mining operations
The main area of competition in the game is the land grab to build mines and the resources to improve the efficiency of ore extraction. After that, players must then sell the ore at prevailing market prices and converting the money in chunks for victory points. At the start of the game, only a handful of regions earmarked in Cornwall for mining have open information regarding the amount of tin, copper to be extracted. Along with the metals, the amount of water in the mines are also noted on the resource tiles. Water, is a hindrance to the mining operation and many of these mines lie below the sea level. As ore is extracted, water seeps in to replace the vacuum and effort is made to pump water out of these caverns to continue with the operations. In game terms, it is costly to extract a mine with lots of water and one must pay money to do so. Moreover, with each unit of ore extracted, more water will enter the mines and as such, you have to pay more to extract more. This incentivizes players to maximize the capacity of extraction each round so that the maximum amount of ore is removed at the cheapest price before the costs escalate. At some point, it becomes not worthwhile to pay to remove that last cube ore in the mine that is filled with water.
Mining is hard work and unpredictable
The game is set up where many more regions in Cornwall have resource tiles that are placed face down so players have no idea how much ore or water is underneath the ground. To claim an area for mines means players must take some risks during the auction phase. Only the active player has the potential privilege get a peek at the face-down tile by playing a survey card. This leads to a possibility of bluffing during the auction phase, as the active player can drive up bidding on a garbage region with low mineral deposits. This unpredictability in estimating mine outputs probably mirrors the reality of ore extraction in Cornwall, but implementing this uncertainty in a board game is another matter altogether. Judging by the commentary in reviews and forums, it is clear that not everyone has embrace this blind tile-flipping mine building design. While the survey cards mitigate some of these risks, the entire exercise of blindly selecting tiles can still feel like a Russian roulette. More so than getting hoodwinked during an auction, it is equally frustrating to play a survey card on a region that is water logged with minimal copper or tin deposits. These factors will most likely irk some players who desire a more measurable outcome when investing in mine building.
Perhaps even more bothersome for many, is the inability to predict the sale prices of the ore you have mined. Each round, three dice are rolled twice, and the sum total for each roll sets the price for tin and copper respectively. There are no particular modifiers or variables that would influence how the die rolls are determine between rounds (save for a +1 to the cumulative sum if the price index languishes at the bottom of the scale). In other words, the game state in previous rounds do not impact future rolls. Everyone is at the mercy of the dice gods as the price of ore can fluctuate wildly, with copper for example, selling as low as 2 pounds per unit and as high as 10 pounds a unit between rounds. That means that while you are well-positioned to extract copper, you maybe selling it for pennies on the pound this round while your neighbor stands to collect a windfall in the very next round. Unfortunately, or perhaps intentionally, supply and demand doesn’t alter prices and cannot be used to predict the changes in prices between rounds. One can argue that some measure of a stock market pricing should be implemented for the game ala Brass.
Efficiency is key to profits
In between carrying out actions to purchase mines and selling ore, the remainder of the game is spent improving the mines prior to ore extraction. Each round, a certain number of upgrades are available on the board to enhance the efficiency of extraction either by removal of water or increasing the capacity for extraction with miners, steam pumps, or building trains, ports or adits. Adits which are drainage conduits, also allow you discover new copper and tin deposits in the mines. These upgrades are limited on a first come first serve basis for each round and it pairs nicely with the action point allocation system to determine turn order. Essentially, all actions are measured as time units and each action will consume a certain amount of time units which is marked on a track. Reach the end of the track and your turn is over for the round. Turn order is then conducted with the person who has the lowest usage going first until such time where another player takes over that position on the track. This means that players who perform action that eat up less clock may get to perform back-to-back actions to catch up. This opens up the floor for certain clock management strategies in action selection. It is intriguing and utilized very well in Tinner’s Trail.
Eventually, every player will run out of time on the track and the round will conclude for everyone. At which point in time, all ore that is extracted for the round will be converted into money based on the market price and players will have the option to covert that into points based on a chart, with those passing first on the time track having a better money to points exchange ratio. As to be expected, the early rounds feature a more favorable ratio and more bang for your buck in the conversion. Unfortunately, money is always tighter up front and some difficult decisions must be made on how much cash in reserve you want to keep for the following round. Cash flow is important here as not having enough money in the next round could hamper ore extraction and competition in auctions for new mines.
Is too much Realism in board games bad?
It is indeed the individual parts of the game that I have come to enjoy. The time track action selection mechanism, for one, melds nicely with the game and some difficult decisions must be made with each action because you can’t have it all. Timing your selection is also key, especially with auctions. New mine owners might be more reluctant to jump into the bid, which creates an opening for getting cheaper mines. Keeping an eye out for cash flow is critical for action selection. No doubt, the blind bids can be annoying at times, but it does not rise to the level of frustration. The money/victory point conversion chart is a Martin Wallace hallmark. This relationship is featured in many of his designs and it forces each player to evaluate cash flow and to find the right balance between earning money and sequestering them for points. In total, I find the individual mechanisms in Tinner’s Trail appropriately thematic and very well integrated for the game.
However, none of the positives negate the overarching concerns by some players regarding the unpredictability of game system. I have no doubt the game simulates the Cornwall mining industry quite well in that era. But exactly how much of the real-life constraints should be implemented in a board game? More often than not, we hear players complaining about pasted themes and mechanisms that uncoupled from the narrative. Perhaps, the opposite might also be true where too much theme is bad? I suspect that that line in the sand will be very different for each player and gaming group. Clearly, in the reprint of Tinner’s Trail, Wallace has resisted the temptation to tweak the game to reduce price variability.
With all the negatives, it may sound that I have jumped on the naysayer’s bandwagon. That is not the case as I genuinely enjoyed Tinner’s Trail because my expectations for total mastery of all the variables in board gaming are not nearly as high as others. I don’t enjoy a free-for-all random slugfest, but I can tolerate some uncontrollable variables that may ruin my plans, so long as I am aware of the damage and can plan for it. In this case, I know that the prices will vary in Tinner’s Trail, and accept that this is just the way the game is designed. I will admit that the increase in randomness that is coupled to a historical perspective makes it more palatable for me and I am likely to be less charitable if the mining was carried out on a fictional planet. That may sound superficial, but I think efforts to simulate real life situations in board games should be appreciated, and perhaps even encouraged, at the expense of absolute control over all variables.
Tinner’s Trail is another great design by Wallace despite the perceived flaws. It may not gain accolades like Brass or Steam but it shouldn’t detract you from giving it a go, especially if you are a Wallace aficionado. I hope that Wallace continues to stay on the same trail as he has been, and develop games with ties to historical and geographical perspectives – on Earth and not some fantasy land. After all, it is from Tinner’s Trail that I learned about pasties. Now to find one and try it!