Commencing 18xx, Engines On

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Introduction

My board gaming tastes have finally yanked me down a deep path track of no return filled with expensive, under-produced, long-winded, dry themed train games.  Now let’s be clear, my tastes have slowly been crawling towards this day ever since I began playing heavy economic games like Arkwright and Food Chain Magnate.  I remember first hearing murmurs of 18xx on /r/boardgames/ in random threads or on the subreddit’s weekly Train Tuesday post, which I always scrolled past without a moment’s pause.  A board game series about trains? My past self thought this sounded incredibly dull.  Why would I want to play a train themed board game when I could slay monsters, travel through space, or be whisked into an epic fantasy world?  There’s a reason why I’ve never played the beloved gateway game, Ticket to Ride—I possessed zero interest in trains.  That thought has always rung true in my brain until I played 1846 for the first time.  What was my past self thinking?  Train games (specifically 18xx games) are fucking awesome in their deceptively mundane mix of stock market manipulation and route building.  Read on to find out why from a beginner’s perspective.

What are 18xx games?

The origins of 18xx can be traced back to the 1970s when Francis Tresham first designed 1829, a game about running railway companies during the Rainhill Trials of 1829.  It is in this game that some of the core mechanics of 18xx emerged.  People found this design to be so compelling that they began to create other iterations from this foundation.  However, it wasn’t until 1830 emerged in the following decade, thanks to Avalon Hill’s mass publication, that the series really started maturing into something truly grand.  Most 18xx henceforth began modeling their designs after the beloved 1830 making it incredibly simple to learn new games in the series once you understood 1830’s ruleset.

At its core, 18xx delivers a highly interactive Euro game-esque economic experience full of tough decisions and surprising tension.  If you’re brave enough to try 18xx (and you should be), you’ll find a juxtaposition between two styles of games in the series: the operational aspect of network building where you will focus your efforts on laying track and purchasing and running trains for profit; and the stock aspect of investing into or even running railroad corporations and then further manipulating the market to your benefit (or more aptly your opponents’ detriment).  18xx gamers oftentimes find themselves preferring operational 18xx to stock market manipulative iterations or vice versa.  From my understanding, there are some 18xx that blur the lines between both camps as well (sure to satisfy everyone! Or no one?).

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Operational 18xx usually focus on running “good companies” to earn maximum profit by creating a beautiful topology of track and city and then running your trains through said network to earn that lovely cash money, at which point you’ll be faced with the interesting decision of withholding recent profits from shareholders and keeping it within the company to save up for your next big train purchase or complete payouts to shareholders in a full or half fashion.  As such, to win even in an operational 18xx, you’ll need to smartly invest in other players’ companies too, ensuring to get in while the stock is cheap and riding the company payouts all the way to the bank round after round until the eventual bank bust concluding the game session.

Stock manipulation 18xx focus instead on the shenanigans and trickery of investing in, the running of, and even the dumping of railway companies.  In these games, people may be less invested in running “good companies,” although I’m sure there’s still a fair amount of that at play too, and instead more invested in running companies into the dirt, making sure to get out with the company train, leaving the company in an unwilling party’s hand with no funds nor no trains to make funds.  This style of play can be the meaner style of the two (and for obvious reasons).

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Another important aspect of 18xx is their current availability or the lack thereof.  If you want to get your hands on most of these games, you’ll need to dedicate some time and care to make a print and play yourself or pay someone $100+ to do it for you.  Surely the quality of the series can be spoken for when you consider people are still designing new 18xx games to this day, forty years post 1829—and others are willing to go to great lengths to print and play these new iterations of the classic series or pay an exorbitant amount of money for someone else to create a print and play for them.  However you’re not completely out of luck if the aforementioned lack of availability deters you, some 18xx games have slowly been making their way to legitimate publishers.  1846 was recently published by GMT Games at an affordable price for higher quality components than what most 18xxers are used to playing with, and 1862 can now be pre-ordered via GMT’s P500 system too.  Lookout Games is even officially publishing a new edition of Avalon Hill’s beloved 1830 this fall.  Looking forward, I suspect more 18xx to follow suit.

My initial impressions with 1846

As I’m writing this on the eve of my first play of 1889, I’ve played 1846 twice and thought about it a considerable amount of times in between plays, which is always a significant way to gauge my enjoyment of a game.  1846 served me as a great entrypoint into the genre for its simple ruleset, availability, affordability, and shorter play time in comparison to other 18xx titles (which is still around 4-5 hours mind you).

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1846 falls into the operational camp.  I enjoyed running the “good company” and investing in other “good companies” but I also found myself yearning for the blindsides of smart stock market play.  Now that’s not to say I don’t enjoy 1846, as I can assure you that I unequivocally do, but I think that I may find myself after more experience preferring stock shenanigans.

1846 has been especially enjoyable due to its setting.  This is the first board game I’ve played that has my home city on the map—dead center.  As a homebody, running trains through my homeland feels all that more personal.

1846 has cemented my growing love (obsession?) of the series.  So much so that I’ve purchased 1889 from the gentleman who operates All-Aboard Games, which essentially crafts quality print and plays, and I have, to a certain extent, ceased being interested in more traditional Euro game fair for the time being.  I just want to play more 18xx…  Thankfully my fellow Cardboard Reality host...my compadre...my heavy Euro game lover...Joel has been bitten by the 18xx tick too.  Together we’ve contracted a form of lyme disease bent on making us play all the 18xx games under the sun that we can possibly manage.  He too has commenced collecting 18xx titles.  Hopefully we can fight the acquisition urge and explore the 18xx we currently own and have on pre-order for the time being and then expand our combined collection when necessary, which leaves me with one last thing.  Where should you start? Well, I’m so glad you asked.

Read on.

Where Shall I Start?

  • 1846

    • Style: Operational

    • Playtime: 4-5 hours

    • Player count: 3-5 (with an unofficial 2 player variant created by the designer)

    • Complexity: Simple ruleset that doesn’t follow traditional 18xx that are molded around 1830

    • Setting: American Midwest

    • Availability: Officially published by GMT and available on Amazon for an affordable price

  • 1889

    • Style: Stock manipulation

    • Playtime: 2.5-3.5 hours

    • Player Count: 2-6 (although not typically recommended at 2)

    • Complexity: A slightly simpler take on 1830 that will teach you how to essentially play most other 18xx

    • Setting: Japan!

    • Availability: Purchasable as a quality print and play from All-Aboard Games (or you can print it yourself)

For more information on everything 18xx including what other games to try in the series, please do yourself a favor and listen to The Long View’s superb podcast episode here. And to hear about our continued discoveries with 18xx and all things board games, subscribe to our Cardboard Reality podcast.