Operations on a Maintenance Centre Layout (Part 3 – Game Theory)


This is the third post of the continuing series on Operations for Maintenance Centre Layouts. In part 1, we looked at the types of passenger facilities I’m familiar with. In part 2, we looked at how we can use the prototype’s methods to develop an operations plan that suits a small layout.

In this post I wanted to address two questions about small layout operations: firstly is model railroad operations a game, and if so, how can we keep the game interesting for the longer term?


Railroad operations is a game?

From my first introduction to model railroad/railway operations (railops), I noticed a lot in common between it and the Role-Playing Games (RPGs) and board games with which I was familiar. Bear in mind that I’m addressing railops in a general sense (both freight and passenger operation), not just as it applies to Aaron’s excellent layout and Rob Chant’s design, as there is much in common to apply to both styles of operation.

I want to give a quick side by side comparison (they’re really one below the other) of the parts of your ‘average’ board game and a small layout.

The board game has A small layout has
counters or player pieces Cars and Locos
a board on which the counters move The layout board
rules that describe how the counters can move Rules
a means to add some randomness (usually dice, or a spinner) a means to add some randomness (car cards/waybills, the timetable, the ops plan, the list goes on)
a starting point and an end goal to close out the game a starting point and an end goal (switching cars into spots according to the ops plan), which when complete, ends the game

Once you see the commonalities, I’ve found there’s no going back.

Countering boredom with randomness

On Facebook, back in November of 2020 a post from Paul Boehlert got my attention. I didn’t want to reproduce the post in its entirety, so I’ve cut it down to the following.

A couple of days ago, a member asked the group how we keep interest high on a small switching layout. The following is a short description of a scheme my son and I worked out. It makes each session a bit unpredictable and adds variety, which helps maintain interest.

My adult son is a skilled and talented games designer and has been around model railroading all his life. When I asked him what he would do to make operation more interesting and varied on a small layout, his reply was immediate: I needed to generate some randomness, and I needed an adversary.

Paul went on to describe how he used one of his son’s 12 sided gaming dice to assist with introducing random events into the operations gameplay. His initial focus was on the weather, due to the setting (location) of his layout. Multiple roles of the dice allow him to determine the time of year, and the level of ferocity of the weather.

As he points out, the weather is not the only adversary. The interactive nature of the railroad right of way with cars, trucks, other railroads, shippers and receivers, trees, power lines and the poles they use (just to name a few) means that lots of events can and do on occasion happen that interfere with the railroad doing its stated job of moving stuff. Technology can be a problem, no matter the time period you model. Steam engines sometimes wouldn’t fire correctly lowering their tractive effort and slowing them down. Diesel locomotives have mechanical, electrical and electronics issues that need to be rectified either on the road or in the shed before being able to complete their shift. Cars become bad-ordered due to mechanical faults, accident or loading/unloading damage, or vandalism which all have effects on the operation out on the line.

Paul’s solution was to make “a list of random events, and roll the 12-sided die one more time when things get a bit too predictable. If you want lots of random possibilities, gaming dice come with up to 100 sides.

No two days are the same in the railroad industry. Each day presents different challenges, and there is always something that is not working the way it should. It affects what you can achieve and how you can achieve it.

At work often nature is our adversary. For example every time it rains we have problems with random detector loops. These pick up transponder signals. They are sealed, but they misbehave whenever there’s a lot of rain. But never the same one each time. Or high winds bring down trees along the rail corridor, blocking lines until maintenance crews can get out and cut the trees and clear the line.

There are general technical issues that occur, point/turnout motor failures for example are unfortunately common at the moment. Each of these requires spare parts and in the COVID world of 2021, those parts are not always available. So it’s back to the 19th century we have to go, manually throwing over the switch blades (points) until the spare parts arrive. Electronics are slow for the same reason at the moment with computer chips being in short supply due to COVID-19s effect on the supply chain in China. From design to fabrication, land and sea transport, we have slowdowns that are affecting rail suppliers worldwide.


Takeaway

Treating railops as a game, and using randomness and an adversary can make for better gameplay and longer-term interest.

Final thoughts

On small layouts, especially those with a small visible footprint, even with all the permutations mentioned above, can it, like Monopoly, Cluedo, or Trouble get too predictable?

Can boredom set in too early in the life of the layout? Is that why so many small layouts are sold on, torn down, rebuilt and replaced with yet another?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.


Resources

The series so far:

Staying in Contact

Interested in keeping in touch or discussing posts, pages and ideas?  You can do that in several ways by:

  • Commenting on this post (I read and answer each one)
  • Sending me a note using our About page (email)
  • Connecting with us on Facebook at the Andrew’s Trains page

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