At UnPub 3, during the three-player playtest of "East India Company," Ben Rosset expressed concern that in the game, the dividend track wasn't rewarding enough to justify the cost. He felt that in general, money can be better spent on ships and goods that will yield a better return on investment than declaring dividends. It was an observation that I took very seriously; I hadn't had a playtest in which anybody completely ignored the dividend track before. I wondered if it was a weakness that would emerge with extensive play and end up being a superfluous element of the game.
In a subsequent playtest at PrezCon, I tried a strategy of ignoring the dividend track until the very end of the game (when there was nothing else to do with the cash). I won that game, but only by about two points, which makes me think that the "ignoring dividends" approach has merit but is not necessarily an obvious decision. I needed to look more closely at how the numbers would really work out.
So I decided to take an analytic approach. I just ran a couple of test cases in a spreadsheet in which I simulated the transactions of a player in a game. I made a few simplifying assumptions and laid out how the cash flow would look under a certain strategy with minimal dividends, and then the same strategy with a more aggressive dividend declaration approach. I used this side-by-side comparison for two strategies - the "Spicy Craig" (going into debt to invest in a big ship and sending it to China to load up on spices) and the "Reinvesting Rosset" (turning over profits into an expanding fleet of small and medium ships to trade in a variety of commodities every turn). In each case, the difference between ignoring dividends and aggressively declaring dividends was very small. For the "Spicy Crag," aggressive dividends won 54-50 over ignoring dividends. For the "Reinvesting Rosset," ignoring dividends won 80-79 over the aggressive dividends.
These results are so tight that I've concluded that I should not adjust the dividend track at all, at least for the time being. I'll continue to pay attention to the opportunity cost of investing in ships or paying off debts vs. declaring dividends, but I have a feeling that the dividend track is pretty tight the way it is, and that I've put players in a challenging decision space - which is exactly where I want them to be.