An Introduction to18xx

 by Peter Berlin 

Last spring Sumo, the general games magazine, raised the question of the games of the '90s (the sort of thing I thought was restricted to Sunday supplements, but all editors get desperate). Well, the intervening months have produced an incontestable answer: the 18XX series of railway games. Three months ago, when I promised Stephen that I would write an explanation of the 18XX games, I had played all four-and-a-half published versions of the game, plus one unpublished one. I was aware of a couple more private variants. Since then three more versions have appeared in the shops, I have played all of them, at least four more are promised and Stuart Dagger of Sumo tells me of a rich crop of semi-professional versions. There are more new 18XX games than Beatles releases. 

Unlike Railway Rivals, these are not merely an identical game system applied to different maps. Each version involves substantial changes in the rules, but the basic mechanism remains the same. Players buy and sell shares in railways; the railways build track, run trains and pay dividends at the behest of the player who owns most shares in each one. The popularity of the games is a tribute to the playability, originality and adaptability of the system devised by Frances Tresham for 1829 and refined by Avalon Hill for 1830. 

1829, about the development of British railways, was published in 1981 (at least that's the earliest copyright date on any of my versions) by Hartland Trefoil. There are two games, North and South, but the system is identical (it is also, I am told, simple but not necessarily wise, to play using both boards shoved together). It is out of print. Avalon Hill produced 1830, designed by Tresham, which covers the north-east corner of the US (and a sliver of Canada) in 1986.1 think this is the definitive version of the game. Indeed, it is my favourite ftf game. It is 1830 that I will describe in detail. Please note that the rules differ between the various 1 8xx games, I shall run briefly through the differences in other versions below, then finish a roundup of all other versions I know of and reviews of the ones I have played. 

THE GAME -1830 

The 1830 board is divided into two parts: the map (divided into hexes) and the share chart (divided into squares). It comes with 78 share certificates: one each in the six private railways, nine each in the eight quoted companies and sets of yellow, green and brown hexagonal track tiles. 

Each turn in the game is divided into two parts: share dealing and railway operation. The first share dealing round is distinct (a) because the six private, unquoted companies, must be sold first, and (b) because no quoted company has yet been floated, which limits share sales. Players start with roughly $2,400 divided between them (six players = $400 each, four players = $600 each etc.) There are two types of railway: minors and quoted companies. The six minors are sold off at the start of the first round usually for the reserved price but there can be auctions for the better ones. They are priced $20, $40, $70, $110, $170 and $220 (you don't have to be a Mensa member to begin to see a pattern here,. as there is in all the numbers in the game), they pay dividends of $5, $10, $15, $20, $25 and $30 a turn. But the more expensive ones have powers, control over hexes, the right to lay tiles, share options or even shares in quoted companies. 

There are eight quoted companies. There are nine share certificates in each: eight representing 10% holdings and the president's certificate representing 20% and worth double the market price (though strictly speaking it is never sold, only passed on when the existing president ceases to be the biggest share holder). The first person to buy into a major company must buy the president's certificate, setting the par price of the company as he (or she) does so: minimum $67, maximum $100. (NB in a six player game players have $400 - if they haven't bought a minor - but six shares cost a minimum of $402, fiendish.) Once six shares have been sold the company receives 10 x par price in starting capital to operate with. After that just about the only way a company can augment its treasury is by retaining earnings during the operating round which starves share holders of cash and depresses the share price. Company money does not count towards victory. It is useful because the company president does not want to have to buy trains out of his (her) own pocket (a sure way to lose the game and, worse, draw a big laugh from other players) and because the more money a company has, the more the president can loot. 

Cash in hand at the end and the value of the share portfolio determine the winner. The share grid is worth studying. Prices rise as you move up or right. Price rises are not proportionally the same. Launch at $67 and you'll face a series of small rises before you get to the biggest (percentage) leaps in the mid-1OOs. 

Shares go up (right on the share table) in price whenever the company pays a dividend or (upwards on the share table) when it is fully held at the end of a share dealing round. Share prices go down (left) when the company fails to pay a dividend in an operating round and down (downwards) for every single share sold. (One act of vandalism which invariably appeals to a group of players just discovering the game is to sell the same share in a company in turn drilling the price through the floor. Veterans only do it when the victim is doing very well and, more important, is not in a position to retaliate. This encourages players to pay dividends early on and push a company's price right into the area where the share chart narrows, limiting the up and down movement of shares.) Players may, generally, own a maximum of 60 per cent of a company. They may only buy one certificate in each round of market dealing but they may sell up to 50%, however once a player has sold a share in a company he may not buy into it again in that share dealing phase. 

Share dealing ends when everyone has passed in turn. The player to the left of the last player to buy or sell a share knows that he (or she) will go first next time. This is crucial knowledge, it gives you time to pillage a company before dumping it on a player to your left. (General rule: you need a very good reason to hold two or more shares in a company you do not control; if you only hold one the president cannot pass the presidents certificate to you). 

The operating round starts with payment of private company income. Then the floated quoted companies operate in share-price order (most valuable first, another consideration which can provoke nasty little flurries of price-wrecking share selling at the end of share-dealing.) The company is operated by the president. It is conceivable (though I've never seen it, even in a two player game) that the same player can be president of all eight railways. If so, the rest can just sit and watch (and kibitz). It is not unknown for a player to spend the game managing his or her portfolio, never run a railway and win. This is difficult (a) because there is a limit on how many share certificates players can own and since a president's certificate represents two shares, ceteris paribus, a fully-held president earns more than a non-president and (b) because if you don't own a railway you can't steal from it. 

Railways start by laying track. They can lay anywhere provided they can run a train into the hex from one of their home stations and they can afford the lay (if its in mountains or across water). Laying track, and building stations, provides huge scope for blocking other players or for co-operating with them. There can be a lot of diplomacy in the game (cemented by cross-shareholdings). Then they run trains, totalling the value of each station visited and either retaining the money for the company or dividing  it by 10 and paying it out according to shareholdings. Then the company may buy trains. 

Trains are the engine of the game. There are (stand by Mensa members!) six two-station trains (at $80), five 3-trains (at $180), four 4-trains (at $300), three 5-trains (at $450), two 6-trains (at $600) and any number of unlimited diesels at $1100 (usually). The trains represent progress, they power the game through the stations of history and propel the players to bankruptcy. The player who controls the tempo usually wins. 

When the first 3-train is bought, for example, companies may start laying the more complex green tiles. (Brown tiles are more complex and more lucrative still). These can be used to put junctions in track or to upgrade cities, increasing the numbers of routes in and out and the value of the station (typically from $20 to $30). The game shifts from one dealing round followed by one operating round to one dealing round followed by two operating rounds and, crucially, company presidents can sell private companies to public companies for up to twice face value (a.k.a. looting). 

Each time a new type of train appears, something changes in the game. Most importantly, 4trains make 2-trains obsolete, 6-trains make 3-trains obsolete, diesel8 make 4-trains obsolete. Once the last four train is sold there is a scramble to buy five and six trains. These are the relatively cheap permanent trains and their are only five of them between eight companies (and if a company has track it must own a train). It is possible for the game to settle into stasis at either when the penultimate 4-train has been sold or after the last 6-train has been bought. Nevertheless, the worst thing that can happen is to be president of a company that only has 4 trains is that someone else buys the first diesel. If the company doesn't have $1,100 (and if it had had $800 it would have bought the special discount first diesel on its last turn) then the president must find the balance from hand, selling shares (within certain limits) if necessary. If a president cannot raise the cash he (or she) is bankrupt and the game ends (allegedly Richard Wein, famously the best 1830 player in Britain has gone bankrupt and still won - because he made sure he held shares he could not sell). Otherwise the game ends when the bank runs dry. 

THE VERSIONS

 1829 

There are important differences between 1829 and '30. First, the companies must be launched in a fixed sequence and for a fixed price. Second, you have a surveyor counter which must arrive in a hex the turn before you build in it - and if someone else's engineer sits on yours he can't build the track. (in 1830 anyone can launch any company at any time if they can afford the president's certificate). All nine shares in a company must be sold before the next can be started, so players become deeply reluctant to buy the last certificate. Furthermore the early, high-priced companies are much stronger and will yield much better returns, the winner is generally a player who controls a disproportionate number of shares in the first three companies. The northern map is generally preferred. (A) because the LNWR, the first company out, can lay track from Crewe to Liverpool or Manchester then buzz its surveyor down to Swindon and prevent the GWR ever laying track,. Also some of the earlier companies (like the GWR) can lay track which guarantees that later companies which start from London can never create a route. If you play 1829 South make an agreement to behave before you start. This game is out of print. 

1853 

1830 was followed by Tresham's 1853, set in India, and subtitled (in a reference to 1830) a game for engineers who've had enough of financiers." Like 1829,1853 places the emphasis on game of track laying rather than stock market manipulation. It is still possible to do deeply unpleasant things to opponents but usually only on the map board and not on the share chart. (Players of a more constructive disposition can happily get on with building track and running a financially sound railway.) Tresham has devised an opening bid system which loosens this up a bit. There two types of track (narrow gauge and standard gauge) and two different types of train (for the different tracks). There are also two different types of run (passenger and mail) and incentives for players to build into certain hexes as well as limits on where they can build. Definitely the track builders' game. In the original version victory almost invariably goes to the players with the biggest holdings in the two top-priced railways, but the GLC club plays an opening variant which limits their advantage and adds another layer to the game. In this version it is definitely one of the three best. Retail price is around 39.99  

1835 

This was the first non-Tresham version. It is set in Germany. The railways come out more or less sequentially, as in 1829, although at the start players are given some choice. Adds six minor companies which are privates that can lay track and which also serve as share options for the Prussian, the national railway company that appears halfway through the game. The minors are one reason the game is always fun to play. Unfortunately it suffers from a lack of Tresham's obsessive attention the detail. He would never have created a game that was so utterly unbalanced. The first two companies - the Bavarian and the Saxony (particularly the Saxony, I've won every time I've controlled it) - as well as the Prussian are massively stronger than the rest. The other companies also come out to late, the last two (the Oldenburg and the Mecklenburg) barely get to run before the bank runs out of money. Also, the minors are badly underpriced at the start. Costs about 39.99 

1856 

Published this year by Mayfair. This is glorious capitalist anarchy in Upper Canada. There are 12 quoted companies and (at the start) you need only buy the president's certificate to launch. Since companies only receive share capital as they actually sell shares (and even then with restrictions) it means that companies are often horribly undercapitalised, especially if you want to buy in private companies. Don't worry, you can borrow money and if the company cannot repay its debts you can fold it into the Canadian railway which was, historically, launched to bail out all the rogues who had floated undercapitalised railway companies. (Although that doesn't mean either (a) you cannot have a ransacked railway dumped on you and (b) you cannot go bankrupt - it takes a certain amount of preplanning to ensure that your company meets the nationalisation conditions.) 

This game is currently very popular. My only reservations are that it almost too loosey-goosey and that where the other games have carefully researched company insignia and liveries on the share certificates and station markers here they seem to be modern designs and look like a collection of estate agent signs. 32.99. 

1870 

Another of Mayfair's recent burst of games. Like David Watts' Iowa map for Railway Rivals, this spreads out across the flat plains of the mid-west. There are some interesting twists to the stock market rules, which tend to encourage players to keep buying shares in the same company and a new wrinkle on the old business of trying to encourage railways to actually go where they historically did go. I've played it three times, I like it even though most of the people I played with did not. Also 32.99 

2038 

Trains in space. Also came out this year. It is based loosely on 1835 (a bad start really). It is very clever. It plays very well. I don't like it. First, this has ceased to be a railway game without becoming a sci-fi game. The texture that the best l8xx games have, allowing players to feel like dodgy entrepreneurs or pioneering engineers is gone, is replaced by the usual worthless Timjim chrome, e.g.: each minor company has a different stupid furry space alien to steer its ships and give them extra powers. Price: 40.95 

THAT's NOT ALL...

 Fans have also produced their own versions. Dave Ward regularly brings his much re-coloured map of the entire US to the GLC games club for another play test. I have played that, but from now on we are entering uncharted territory.... 

I saw Steve Jones playing some monster British map at FurryCon once. I saw a Korean map at the Essen games fair which Stuart Dagger tells me was simply an 1830 variant designed for a German PBM zine (one of three he knows of). Stuart also told me that Alan Moon (another designer I do not care for: he's responsible for Elfin Roads, Airlines etc.) has, designed an all-US version called 1869, but it takes 12 hours to play and no one wants to publish it. 

Mayfair has three more games (at least!) in preparation. A south east US game, 1832, which, says Stuart, awaits publication when 1854 and 1870 clear the tracks. 1850 - the northern plains which "just about works" and 1869 (Tresham has to approve all published games so the same date doesn't appear twice) covering the western US which is still in the early stages as the designer wrestles with the problems of building in the Rockies. 

Tresham has been on the verge of publishing 1825 for some time. It is set in Britain and designed, as Stuart describes it, in modules so you can buy three different maps and various extensions. I gather Tresham took money for this from salivating customers at Midcon in 1994 but has become bogged down in fiddly details. (The fact that he is a perfectionist is one of the strengths of his games, everything is so beautifully worked out). Some of those who handed over cash at Midcon are a little peeved. I think they could probably sue the current Con organising committee. [No they can't - Ed.] 

There are two Italian versions designed by Federico Vellani and an Austrian one which are available semi-commercially: i.e. you get an envelope full of coloured cards and have to cut them out, stick on the PVC etc. yourself. I have played none of them. The two Italian ones are 1839 (or perhaps 1841) a mammoth game set in northern Italy and a quickie, 1850, set in Sicily. Vellani, said Stuart, in what I took to an approving tone, "takes games apart and then puts them back together.'" Which means, I presume, that he was substantially rewritten the rules. 1839/41 takes 12 hours, 1850 takes two. I look forward to playing them. 1839 may become 1841 because there is a Dutch version called 1839 which, says Stuart, Mayfair might publish. Meanwhile Vellani is working on a US game, 1827. 

Apart from that there are two regional German versions, 1842 and 1847, designed by someone called Wolfram Janich and published privately and the 'legendary' Berlin tramways version, legendary, apparently, because only 30 were made and therefore almost no-one has played it. 

Of course this article is out of date by now.

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 40 

 

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