Presentation of Vom Kap Bis Kairo: Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics, Economy, and Uncertainty

Vom Kap Bis Kairo

Vom Kap Bis Kairo (From Cape to Cairo) is a card game by Adlung-Speile, a game company from Ramseck, Germany. It is inspired by the Cape to Cairo Railway, an uncompleted railroad line that had its roots in the end of the 19th century in order to connect the African colonies of the British Empire (Epstein 2013).  According to,

Players attempt to be the first to build a railway route from Cape to Cairo through various terrain types in Africa. Players begin with 100 pounds, which is used to bid on terrain cards and purchase missing tracks necessary to cross terrain. Each turn, a number of terrain cards equal to the number of players in the game are auctioned off and placed before the appropriate player’s train, representing the next space to be crossed. Terrain cards show a number of tracks ranging from 0 to 3 and require from 6 to 10 tracks to cross depending on the type of terrain. In turn order, players flip additional terrain cards, and decide whether to build (cross terrain) or pass. When a terrain is crossed, the card is flipped face down and the player who completed the crossing receives back a number of pounds as indicated on the card. The track-building phase continues until one player has no terrain cards lying in front of their train, at which time a new set of terrain cards are auctioned. The first player to complete the crossing over eight terrain segments is the winner (BoardGameGeek 2016).

The game is simple, plays quickly, and is small enough to be portable and played almost anywhere. There are two states to the game: the land buying phase and the track-building phase. Aside from the cards included in the game, players only need a pen and paper for the game’s bid phase.

Game Mechanics

Cards: The game contains four trains (in four colours) that become the player’s avatar and 50 terrain cards. The cards act as a randomizer, as the cards are shuffled and drawn at random. The cards also act to keep track of states in the game as the tracks are layed by flipping landscapes over when they have been “built”. In certain conditions, bonus cards can be retained as tracks to be used to cross a terrain. These bonus cards are terrain cards faced down (track-side up). 

Auction/bidding: The auction/bidding mechanic of the game is central to Vom Kap Bis Kario’s gameplay. Auction/bidding occurs at the beginning of the game, or if there are no terrain cards in front of a player’s train. During the land buying (bidding) phase, bidding allows the player the first choice of terrain cards that are on the table. Players start every game with 100 pounds. A number of cards (equivalent to the number of players) are laid out on the table. Each player secretly places a bid, and subtracts that amount from their total pounds. Players reveal their bids and the highest bidder gets first choice of the cards on the table, the second highest bidder gets second choice, etc. The purchased terrain cards are placed in front of the player’s trains, which determines which terrains the player will have to cross. Bidding requires managing resources of the tracks, pounds, and number of tracks on the cards that are up for bid.

Track-laying: Track-laying is how players progress towards the game’s goal and win the game. As long as there are terrain cards in front of a player’s train, the game is in the track-laying phase. The trains are placed in the starting position side-by-side. As the player progresses through the game, terrain cards are flipped to reveal a track, and the player progresses their train up the track. During the track-building phase, players can build their track when the number of tracks on the terrain cards on the table plus the total number of track pieces on all terrain cards in front of player’s train is equal to the the number of tracks required to cross that terrain. Players may also purchase tracks for 10 pounds. Bonus tracks can also be used towards the total number of tracks in front of the player’s train. Laying tracks affects the outcome of the game, as the player must progress through 8 laid tracks to win the game. Players “build” their tracks in the sequence they are bought.

Turns: The player who won the highest bid begins the round after the bidding phase and decides whether or not they would like to “build” their track. A player can only build over one terrain per turn. Each turn generally increases the number of tracks available to build. If the player does not choose to build, the player’s turn is over and it is the player to their left’s turn.

Catch-up: There are two catch-up mechanics in the game. The first is during the bidding stage, where if players place the same bid, the player with the least amount of pounds takes first choice. If the values of the both player’s pounds are the same, a random element decides which player gets first choice, as both players will draw a card from the pile and the highest number of tracks wins first choice. The second catch-up mechanic is the river card, which allows players to receive bonus tracks. When a player builds over a landscape, all players that have a river in front of their train receives two bonus tracks. A player can only have a maximum of 5 bonus tracks. 

Movement: Players move through the landscapes as they gain enough tracks and build during their turn. When a player traverses 8 tracks, the player has won.

Resource management: Players must balance the tracks required to cross the terrain card, the number of tracks on the card, and the pounds earned from crossing the terrain. It costs 10 tracks to cross a river, 9 tracks to go over a mountain, 8 tracks to go through a desert, 7 tracks to go through a village, and 6 tracks to cross a savanna. As players progress, cards are laid out on the table and the number of tracks available to the player increases. Each of the 5 different types of terrain shows 0 to 3 track pieces on the left, which helps the player build through terrains. In the top-right of the card is the coin value collected when the player succesfully crosses the terrain. Terrain cards with fewer tracks have higher coin value.

Races/Goal: The goal of the game is to race to cross 8 terrains that represent landscapes of Africa. The player who crosses 8 terrains first wins.


Bidding: Players have to manage their resources and place higher bids on less risky cards. Putting a very low bid can also work in the player’s favour when all cards are perceived at more or less equal value.

Managing the Economy: Players must balance the tracks required to cross the terrain card, the number of tracks on the card, and the pounds earned from crossing the terrain. Players may bid more aggressively on cards that have more tracks, however knowing this fact, it can be advantageous to save pounds knowing that the other players will also bid aggressively. In this sense, strategy is key in the bid stage, as the value of the card must be balanced with how much the other players will bet to obtain that card. Players can save pounds by taking riskier cards or take less risky cards by bidding higher amounts. Players either try to make a profit on a bid by taking riskier cards or if they are falling behind they can bid higher on more “secure” cards that have more tracks and require less resources to build. For example, a player that can afford risks can take a river card knowing they will receive two tracks every time another player builds and thus build rapidly. Rivers are perceived to be riskier, so players can use that perception to their advantage. However, mountains are in fact riskier, because they cost 9 tracks to produce yet the player does not receive any bonus tracks in return. Ending the game with pounds isn’t important, so bids can get higher towards the end of the game but players may want to retain enough pounds to build a tracks if they are near winning. Managing the economy also takes place during the build stage. Players will attempt to build when they have the required tracks. Players may buy a track for 10 pounds if they are close to building. If, on the other hand, the player notices that other players are falling behind, they may opt to wait until their next turn to build in order save their pounds.

Aesthetics and Flow

According to the taxonomy set out by Hunicke et al. (2004), Vom Kap Bis Kairo is a competitive game that has the aesthetic of fantasy, as players imagine themselves as a train traversing through Africa, and discovery, as players imagine themselves as crossing landscapes of Africa in the 19th century. In managing the many resources of the game, player enjoyment can overwhelmingly be found in the bidding phase and from progressing through the landscapes by purchasing tracks. The bidding phase pits opponents against each other by bidding in secrecy, and when bids are revealed it can create tense but enjoyable moments. The bid stage, which appears several times throughout gameplay, maintains player enjoyment and contributes to the “flow” of the game. For flow to occur, “a balance must be achieved between the external complexity of the system and the internal model that a user develops of that system.” (Cowley et al. 2008: 23). In this sense, players must manage their own resources and strategy, be aware of other player’s resources and strategy, as well as the current game state in order to understand player’s positions in relation to the end goal of the game. As players build, they develop strategies to ensure that their resources are properly managed for future turns, and that they are progressing through the game competitively. This contributes to flow in Vom Kap Bis Kairo.


Player Unpredictability: Costikyan defines Player Unpredictability as games where the players “affect each other in either a zero-sum (your loss is my gain) or a negative-sum (your loss is either a lesser gain to me, or also some loss to me) way… Player unpredictability does not depend solely on actions that directly injure or assist others; it can also exist in games that permit one player to take actions that either close off or open up opportunities for others, without affecting them directly” (Costikyan 2013: 78-80). In Vom Kap Bis Kairo, this occurs during the bid phase. While players are balancing the economy of the game, a zero-sum situation can occur when a player gains a higher valued card, either in pounds or tracks. The player with the highest bid will most likely choose a better card, forcing the other player to take a less desirable card. In that sense, the opponent’s loss is the player’s gain. A player’s decision in the bid will ultimately decide which terrains they will have to cross, which affects gameplay and future choices of all players.

Randomness: There is a random element to drawing cards. The cards are shuffled, and drawn at random during both the bid and the track-building stage. This creates “moment-to-moment uncertainty” (Costikyan 2013: 84). Players are not sure what the next card will be. 

Analytic Complexity: Players have to manage not only their own resources quite closely, but the other player’s resources, while keeping track of each player’s positions in the game. In situations such as these, “players need to think about what to do, have to parse a complicated decision tree, and perhaps are uncertain, even as they make a decision, that it is necessarily the correct decision to make” (Costikyan 2013: 86). 

Hidden Information: The bidding stage relies heavily on hidden information. Player bids are hidden from opponents until they are revealed. This fosters experimentation as players attempt to get into the other player’s head and predict their opponent’s strategy and decision.  In this way, “hidden information increases variety of encounter” (Costikyan 2013: 93).

Internal Economy

Vom Kap Bis Kairo relies heavily on a sophisticated internal economy. The internal economy in Vom Kap Bis Kairo adds “strategic depth” (Adams and Dormans 2012: 74). According to Adams, “[a]n econmoy is a system in which resources and entities are produced, consumed, and exchanged in quanitfiable amounts” (Adams 2010: 300). The internal economy is composed of sources drains, convereters, and traders. Sources are the mechanics that allow for “a resource or entitiy [to] come into the game world having not been there before” (Adams 2010: 301). In the case of Vom Kap Bis Kairo, landscape cards provide the player with new pounds and tracks. A drain, on the other hand, “is a mechanic that determines the consumption of resources” (Adams 2010: 302). This is not to be confused with converters, which are “a mechanic … that turns one or more resources into another type of resource” and traders, which “govern trades of goods, generally between the player and the game” (Adams 2010: 303). Vom Kap Bis Kairo uses drains for the bidding stage. As the players bid, the numeric attribute (pounds) of the game decreases. Vom Kap Bis Kairo uses traders that convert tracks (obtained during gameplay) into a track card so that players can traverse a landscape. The game also uses a negative feedback mechanism, that is to “create stability in dynamic systems” (Adams and Dormans 2012: 65). The game regulates the balance between tracks and pounds by balancing some cards with more pounds but less tracks and some cards with less pounds but more tracks. The pounds in a bid also deplete at rate that is similar to other player’s pounds. Similarily, a player that receives a river card, which requires more tracks to build, is rewarded with tracks every time another player builds. The structures of the itnernal economy ensure players obtain resources at a very similar rate.



Adams, Ernest. 2010. Fundamentals of Game Design. 2nd ed. Voices That Matter. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Adams, Ernest, and Joris Dormans. 2012. Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

BoardGameGeek. 2016. “Building the Trans-Africa Railway | Vom Kap Bis Kairo | BoardGameGeek.” Accessed June 26.

Costikyan, Greg, and Inc ebrary. 2013. Uncertainty in Games. Book, Whole. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Cowley, Ben, Darryl Charles, Michaela Black, and Ray Hickey. 2008. “Toward an Understanding of Flow in Video Games.” Computers in Entertainment (CIE) 6 (2): 20.

Epstein, Jeremy. 2013. “Current State of the Cape to Cairo Railway.”

Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. 2004. “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.” In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI, 4:1.


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