This is a complex game, and if you are not familiar with the rules set it may be worth glancing through the review first.
If you have played a couple of times and found yourself struggling at the back of the pack, then I hope this helps.
During the game:
Ships & Distance: One early sign in the game that shipping is going to be important is the placement of a city by one player in the corner of the map. Each game layout can be different but the more times you see a far flung city, the more you will watch out for the shipping lanes that might drag your goods across the map. In these games, you want to own fewer companies, smaller companies, trade early in the round or even better – own that shipping lane! The greater the shipping route the higher the cost to ship the good and the operating player has to ship and has to pay if he has spare resource!
Monopolies: Owning a monopoly in this game is powerful. You control which cities grow and can take more resources, because for a city to grow it must receive every type of good. Also, owning a monopoly means that you can trade that good last in your turn – if two players own a good then they need to rush to deploy that good in the cities between them – not so for our monopolist. A monopoly in shipping is different though – you might greatly restrict the ability for others to ship or be able to control the growth of the shipping company – once mature these are relative utility companies and the trick is to own the right operating companies to go with it.
Expanding Early: Early game delivery of goods is easy – companies have few goods to deliver and plenty of locations to go for. Expanding these companies should be straightforward and expanding them at pace will help you get more money for them at the merger. Watch out though that two turns of two growth is better than one turn of three growth and then not being able to ship all the goods!
Ships & One Company: As noted above, when shipping comes into play there will be a city in the far flung area of the map. This will make it harder for other players to keep shipping there profitably and it will make it harder for the cities to keep growing. Owning at least one operating company with your shipping company is going to give you a way to make new money, and to keep ensuring the supply of that city with at least some goods (perhaps even grow it once)!
Late Stage Companies: The later stage companies are more profitable by design. It will be hard to keep control of these as small companies with high operating margins are attractive targets to the rice barons of old! These companies are most important in that final double income turn when that super profitability becomes even more valuable.
Blocking Placement/Growth: Sometimes when you expand you expand into another players’ territory or into the territory where a city might go in the future. Blocking the formation of a city which could help your opponent avoid shipping costs, or blocking your opponent growing that late stage profitable company can really boost your success in the longer games.
Merger Tactics: Sometimes mergers are as much about selling as they are about buying. That old but large company you have may just not be worth the price offered and you should always consider whether your opponents bid is better for you than bidding back. Also, watch out for the player who over stretches himself (make sure it’s not you!) – this player is about to lose a company which he values because he hasn’t got the cash available to defend it from the small company merger!