Thursday, November 29, 2012

Theremin Thursdays - Iron Horse edition

There are a lot of songs in the rich repertoire of North American music that concerns Railroads (there are a lot). Not surprisingly, as railroading in many aspects is of great interest to me, this music is also of interest to me.

The history of railroading, with powered locomotives, goes back to the turn of the century, 1800.  There about, several inventions came together (flanged rails in the last century, and steam engines most recently) to enable the major developments that lead us to what we view as the classic railroad - a powered locomotive pulling cars full of either passengers or cargo.  As a brief note of interest, however, cars on rails goes back to about 1550, when rails were first built in Germany to enable cargo wagons to travel easier.

Railroading in Europe and North America grew and grew in prominence and sophistication all the way up to the point where road traffic started to supplant it economically.  Around the period of the 1930s, during the Great Depression, there is a ton of American folklore and history that has to do with railroads - it was a part of almost all aspects of life.  PBS did a very nice documentary about young hobos riding trains, called Riding the Rails, with information available here.  One of the things they did along with that was a nice article about the history of Railroad based music.

For the music selections in this edition of Theremin Thursdays, however, I am going to concentrate on some later music. First to not cover some territory already done in this area, I can point to a great article posted on the music blog, Hidden Track, called B List: 10 Best Songs about Trains.  Amongst other things, it covers two of my favorites - Casey Jones by the Grateful Dead, and Take the A Train by Duke Ellington.  As you can see, the coverage of Railroad themed music covers a lot of different genres, even in modern times.  The list at Hidden Track covers some of the greatest musicians of the pop music over the last 50 years (Pat Metheny, Gladys Night, Bob Marley, Rolling Stones, etc).

The railroad companies themselves, in the mid 20th century, started putting out videos about their history and service, and some of these (for a gamer) are very interesting to watch.  Here are two that I think are pretty neat, although a Youtube search will uncover a lot more.  The first is a history of the Chicago and North Western Railroad (C&NW), released in 1948, the 100th anniversary of their existence.  There is some (fun) dramatization to watch in this, but also a nice history of the spread west of North American railroads.

The second is a nice article about the impact of railroading on American industry and the economy.  If you play economic railroad games, this is a very interesting history worth watching.  It is from the New York Central Railroad, one of my personal favorites.

But, now to the music, and then to the games.  The first is from Gordon Lightfoot.  Gordon Lightfoot's song the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a great song, and will probably be part of a future Theremin Thursdays article. The song being featured here, of course, is the Canadian Railroad Trilogy.  What a great song, about the history of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Another song from around the same era is Jim Croce's Railroad song.  What a great song.  There is a version on youtube, below, but it has some special effects added in for the train sounds.  Not sure I like those . . .

I could add a link to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Railroad Song, but enough with the mellow stuff.  I will end the litany of music about railroad songs with one of the most fun (if ridiculous) songs about trains.  The song, of course, is Crazy Train by Ozzy.  But, for a video, I'll post a version of the song done by Iron Horse (what a cool Train name...), in a bluegrass mode.  At least I didn't post this version.

Okay, so what about gaming and Railroads.  First, there is the immensely popular game Ticket to Ride.  But is it a train game?  There is a whole sub-hobby of railgaming purists out there who would say no (note: I gently disagree, as to me any game with a Train theme is a train game, but there are of course different types, and different levels of difficulty and degrees of simulation involved).  A fun game, and an excellent gateway game to the hobby of modern board gaming, but not a train game.  Okay, so then, what is a train game?  A future article could be dedicated to this very question, but it seems to include some aspect of rail line building; cargo delivery; be based on economics; and sometimes have some aspect of company control, or a stock market.  If we use that as the criteria, then our list is a lot shorter.

The main categories seem to be three.  First, there is the whole large collection of very nice Crayon based Train games from Mayfair.  These are so nicknamed because they involve drawing on the game board, marking up your train segments, as you build them.  This could be done with crayons or with erasable markers, on a board specially built to be easily erasable.  The first of these was Empire Builder, but there have been lots and lots of successors.  You build your train network in the first phase of the game, and then you deliver cargo in the second phase of the game.  Nice.

 The next category are games where the main action is driven by control of various train companies, through the purchase or selling of stocks.  These are chiefly nicknamed "18xx" games because many of them feature a year from the 19th century (1830, 1860, 1853, etc) in the title.  One of the main influences in this category is the title 1830: Railways and Robber Barons from Mayfair, which was recently (and beautifully) reprinted.  These games have the players building routes, etc, but the main emphasis is on ownership, for determining control and winning the game.

The third main category of train game that railgamers take seriously is the series that is heavily based on Martin Wallace's design in Age of Steam.  Successors have been Railways of the World, Railroad Tycoon (taking the name from the enormously successful series of computer based Railroad games), and Steam.  I personally have Steam and Railways of the World - both are good games, and all four of these differ in some very important ways.  These games have the player controlling one train company throughout the game, but the action of building train lines and then delivering cargo is what the game is all about.  All great games, in my opinion.  Here is a picture of Steam, one of my favorites.

Okay, so those are the big categories, and I like them all.  Of the three my favorite is probably the third (Martin Wallace) category.  I love Steam, and I don't think I could play enough of it.  There are just so many layers of strategy to be employed, and lots of decisions (both tactical and strategic) - features I really like in games.

There are, however, other games that even serious Railgamers might grudgingly acknowlede as railroad games.  Here is a nice list of shorter games.  One of the criticisms of the above three categories is that games of those types take a l_o_n_g time to play, typically.  Not as long as, say, a 6 player or 8 player version of the Avalon Hill class Civilization, but still, pretty long.

So here is the list, it is called "Train Games in An Hour or Less" with the subtitle, "Where you don't own a Company".  Well, I don't know if Chicago Express breaks that rule, but it is still a very good list.

A few of my favorites that are not in the categories above are First Train to Nuremberg (which was, btw, Dec 7, 1835);  Chicago Express (which features really cool dials on the board, but is also a great game); and Steel Driver (which involves stock shares, and line building, but is otherwise pretty benign).  One of the cool things to note about those three titles is that they all started life in different forms.

First Train to Nuremberg - has long deep roots to Last Train to Wensleydale (the new version includes the old version).
First Train to Nuremberg
Last Train to Wensleydale

Chicago Express - Was originally Wabash Cannonball from the train game specialty publisher, Winsome Games.
Chicago Express
Wabash Cannonball

The third of this trifecta of Games Chuck Likes is:
Steel Driver - Which is very strongly based on Prairie Railroads
Steel Driver (note: Rubik's Cubes not included)

Prairie Railroads (updated Cube version)
I think that in all three cases, the newer versions (First Train to Nuremberg, Chicago Express, and Steel Driver) are all very attractive games, with first rate components, but if it wasn't for the design pioneering with the originals, we might not have gotten there.

Much the same with today's high speed rails, and the debt they owe to the pioneer in self powered railroads.

Shape of the Future? California High Speed Train

An early train of the Stephenson's Rocket era

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