So, you're thinking about giving 18xx a try?
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Probably the most frequently asked question regarding 18xx here on BGG: where do I start? What do I do? It's really no big surprise, 18xx is definitely on the more obscure side of our great hobby, and what knowledge I have of it was obtained through a lot of searching through different pages here on BGG and on the internet (and, thankfully, since I started playing it, the talk about the series here on BGG seems to have increased quite a bit).

So here's a quick guide to 18xx, so the newbies have a reference. Any additions and corrections are more than welcome.
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1. Board Game: 1830: Railways & Robber Barons [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:110]
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Introduction

18xx is a game series of financial manipulation and railway construction. It's a game of money, essentially: trains and tracks are really just means to an end. In over 100 iterations of the series, one rule is never changed*: player with the most money wins.

Players open railway companies by issuing stock, and you can invest in other player's companies as well. All tracks are public (all companies can run through any tracks), with the companies only being able to block access by purchasing stations in the cities.

Rules are quite simple, once you understand them. However, rules-writing for 18xx has proven to be a daunting task, since all the different aspects of it are deeply interwoven. It takes real effort to present the game's mechanisms in a linear manner, since everything almost affects everything.

Because of this, it's a game much more easily understood by having somebody explain it to you rather than figuring it out yourself by the rulebook. It's not impossible, of course, it just requires an extra dose of patience. So if you know anybody near you that knows the game, you're better off trying to get that person to teach you the game rather than winging it out yourself.

---
1830 was the first big hit of the series, published in 1986 by Avalon Hill. It's still a damn solid design. It seems that Mayfair has bought the rights to this game and will republish it soon. We should all rejoice!

*I could be wrong on this one, but I don't think you could call a game 18xx if it changed this rule
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2. Board Game: 1870 [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:757]
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Characteristics

So, what should you know before playing 18xx?

1) It's long. 3 hours is short for an 18xx. Not uncommon for games to go up to 5, 6 hours. However, the more experienced you are, the faster it goes. We once knocked off a match of 18AL all the way to the end in 2 and a half hours.

2) It's ugly. I actually grew to quite like the art (maybe it's the hundreds of hours of fun that it gave me), but it seems that most gamers are put off by the art style of 18xx. This is probably not a game you can convince non-gamers to play too easily.

3) It's deep. It's deeper than any eurogame that I can think of. The game seems to be designed around butterfly-effects and timing: a small change here, a small change there will radically alter the end result. To be one second late can cost you your victory, and the decision that made you a second late could've been made hours ago.

4) It doesn't hold your hand. The mechanisms are quite clear (maybe not the traditional private-company auction that starts the game, but hey), but how they can and will interact is far from obvious. You have a ton of decisions to make, but a lot of them are "automatic", which is why an all-newbie match of 18AL can take up to 7 hours, while experienced players can end it in around 2 hours.

5) It's aggressive. Some versions being more than others, but as it turns out 18xx is a game where aggression usually pays off. Being friends with your opponents is only going to grant one of you the victory, so you should pay attention to your temporary friendships.

6) Experience pays off. The game gets more and more and more fun and interesting, as you learn how to exploit the different mechanisms at work. Each game will remind you of previous matches, how they developed differently and how the patters were worked by the players. Thus, an active 18xx group is invaluable. It's a game that doesn't show what it really is unless you're willing to invest a few matches in it, and with the same opponents, preferably (or at least with experienced opponents). I only grew to really really like it as much as I do around our fourth match or so.
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3. Board Game: 1825 Unit 1 [Average Rating:6.81 Overall Rank:2405] [Average Rating:6.81 Unranked]
Breno K.
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Branches

There are two branches of 18xx: the 1825 branch and the 1830 branch. The first one focuses more on the track building and portfolio management, while the 1830 side being more of a stock manipulation game.

All separations suffer from being artificial, but it's safe to say that the 1830 side is definitely the more popular side, at least if number of titles released is to be taken as the criteria. There are definitely more 1830-ish games than 1825-ish ones.

I much prefer the 1830 side, though I must say that 1825 does have undeniable merits (I think I was just too much of an 1830-junkie already to appreciate the differences in 1825).
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4. Board Game: 1860: Railways on the Isle of Wight [Average Rating:7.87 Overall Rank:911]
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The Two-player possibilities

One thing most 18xx players can tell you: most 18xx titles don't work very well as 2 player games. A lot of the system's depth comes from the interaction, and interaction is always different when there's just one opponnent (his loss equals your gain, while in a 3-player game that might make the 3rd player stronger).

Two titles come to mind as an exception to this: 1860 and 1825. 1860, however, is not a good introduction to the series due to its several differences in mechanisms and strategy.
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5. Board Game: 1843 [Average Rating:7.45 Unranked]
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Poker Chips

18xx is a game in which 95% of the actions result in money exchanging hands, in quantities varying from 3 to 1319. Most titles have a limited bank that serves as an endgame condition: once the bank runs out of money, the game is over. This quantity is usually around 12,000; that's the amount of cash the game will probably see play.

Using poker chips eliminates around 2 hours from gametime, just from moving chips around rather than dealing with crappy paper money. And these are 2 hours of decisionless time.

I have a set of 300 denominated chips, with the following values 45x1, 45x5, 45x10, 35x25, 35x50,45x100, 25x500 and 25x1000. It has served me perfectly for all 18xx games.

It also significantly improves any game in which money is involved, so it has proven to be one of the best game-related purchase I've ever made. I always highly recommend it, but with 18xx is borders necessity. I wouldn't play 18xx with paper money, even if it is by far my favorite game.

---
Some players use spreasheets and/or moderators, but I've never used them. These aren't really options for newbies, though.
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6. Board Game: 18AL [Average Rating:7.31 Overall Rank:1130]
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Print and Play

So, where to start?

18xx is hardly the most popular gaming option out there. Abstract graphics, demanding gameplay and long playtime are definitely obstacles for most gamers, so title availability is hardly ideal. You won't walk into any game store and find a shelf displaying an array of titles. Most online stores will have only one or two titles, too. So, what to do?

One path a newbie can take is try a print-and-play versions currently out there. The first two also double as good basic-level intros to the system (more experienced players are bound to prefer the bigger titles, but it serves as a smaller alternative, good to understand the basics):
18AL
18GA
18EU
18FR
18NL

Takes some time and patience, but not as much skill as one would expect, if your standards are usability-oriented, like mine. Regarding what materials to use, I can't really help you, but it's been discussed here, specially in the 18AL forum where Koryo redrew the graphics with a more mainstream appeal.

It's become somewhat common practice as well for soon-to-be-released titles to undergo "open playtesting": Files are uploaded on the internet so that different 18xx groups can play and test it. Currently, there are a few games on this condition (files are bound to disappear once games are fully released, though)
18Ardennes
1886

If you do print it out, make sure you give the designer some feedback on your experience with the game, though.
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7. Board Game: 18EU [Average Rating:7.60 Overall Rank:1509]
Breno K.
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Deep Thought Games

Another path is to make a purchase at Deep Thought Games, a publisher that deals exclusively (at least so far) with 18xx titles. They have around a dozen different options available. Your order is placed on a queue line and when its time arrives the games are hand-made and shipped to you (you only make the payment when it's your turn in line, so it doesn't really qualify as a pre-order). Production quality is top-notch, but gamers on a tight budget can also order unlaminated and uncut pieces to save a few bucks. It's definitely worth it to have the game fully produced, though.

The negative side to this option is that the waiting period at this moment is about a year. I have an order that was made in April and it looks like it'll be shipped in March. But hey, it took 24 years for 1830 to be reprinted, 12 months is almost nothing close to that.
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8. Board Game: 1844: Switzerland [Average Rating:8.50 Overall Rank:1723]
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Straight from the Designers

Another alternative is to buy titles straight for the designer. Helmut Ohley is probably the most active designer in this category, with 4 designs currently for sale (1844, 1848, Orgler's 1854 and 1824, this last one about to be reprinted this year) and two more on the making (1880, set in China, and a pre-historic 18xx as well). His games are really polished and interesting, and production values are pretty good (1848 is quite nice looking).

Other designers that follow this method:
- Wolfram Janich (18Rhl, 18SX, and a few other titles, some even by other designers)
- Mark Frazier (18C2C, though usually people only have the option of buying a CD with the files for 10 dollars.)
- Andrew/Clay Games (18EZ and soon 1865)
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9. Board Game: 1856 [Average Rating:7.52 Overall Rank:520]
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Out-of-print searches

Scouting ebay and BGG marketplace for out-of-print titles can be a fruitful alternative, even if a bit limited.

A few companies have tried mass-marketing 18xx titles in the past, so a few titles (1835, 1856, 1870) are easy to find for a sane price. A few others had super-limited print-runs and will probably cost a fortune.
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10. Board Game: 1853 [Average Rating:6.96 Overall Rank:1883]
Breno K.
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Distrito Federal
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Mainstream publishers

Another option is wait until Mayfair publishes a few more titles in their attempt at a commercial revival of the 18xx genre. A few veterans frowned at the art direction, but it should hardly be seen as an impediment for gameplay.

Why they chose 1853 to start off their investment is somewhat of a mystery. Most 18xx veterans do not consider this particular iteration to be one of the finest (many go as far as saying it is broken without the extra rules that were later developed for it after its first release), but at least it doesn't cost >150 pounds to get a copy of it anymore, if you're a completist (or really really like India).

---
Oh, and JKLM opened pre-orders for their reprint of 1860, but it appears to be a pretty bad place to start your 18xx-ing at (game is too different from the usual 18xx games, so it's probably a bit too much for newcomers)
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11. Board Game: 18EZ [Average Rating:6.26 Overall Rank:5895]
Breno K.
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Entry Level games

So which is a good design to start off 18xx with?

Actually, I find this matter to quite a bit less strict than most newbies seem to think. I've started newbies off with entry-level 18xx games and mid-level 18xx games and there's little difference regarding their rules-absorption. As far as strategy goes, it's near impossible that the newbie will get half of what's going on under the surface, so IMO the objective is to see that a lot goes unseen (quite the paradox, huh?) and see how interesting that can be.

In around 50 18xx matches or so, I've never seen the newbie win. This can only happen due to terrible blunders on the experienced player's part, to the point of it being their fault instead of the newbie's merit. Being a game of the unfolding of long-term consequences of earlier actions, a total newbie has little chance

Anyway, here's a list of entry-level 18xx titles:
18AL and 18GA - Mark Derrick's single state games have the strong advantage of availability (just print and play) and solid design, but do feel a bit bland to a number of the more experienced players. The maps aren't tight and confrontational, which makes the game a little less sharp.
Steam over Holland - I haven't played this, but I've seen a copy and it has the advantage of its production values, it looks great. Carcassonne-thick tiles and wooden houses for stations. Pricy and somewhat difficult to find.
1889 - Haven't played this, but looking at the map (The rules are very close to 1830's) it looks like a very solid map. The disadvantage is DTG's queue line.
18EZ- Most experienced 18xx players have said that this does not serve as a good introduction to the game, but it may serve as a good introduction to the rules. The actual design is allegedly bland and lacking in excitement, but it appears that the designers did manage to break the circular rules of 18xx apart to make them easier to understand by just the rulebook, without having someone explain it to you. However, one cannot judge the series' strategy and fun-factor by this title, since it did not prioritize these elements.
18Scan- Haven't played it, but most say that it has a bit too much chrome for an entry-level game
18VA- I think the mines-or-passengers element makes the game a bit too distinct from the usual 18xx fare for the game to serve as a good introduction. That and the fact that the gamers over here (myself included) didn't like this version too much.
18FL- Haven't played it, but have heard mixed reports. From what I've seen of the map, there doesn't seem to have much replayability.
1895 Namibia - a bit too miniature-sized and restrictive. Plus, the track is quite formulaic, something most newbies equalize to the game always being the same (it took me more than a dozen matches to understand that it doesn't).
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12. Board Game: 1848: Australia [Average Rating:7.86 Overall Rank:2210]
Breno K.
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Mid-level games

Just as an addition to the last item, here's a couple of non-entry-level 18xx games I've used to start newbies off

1830 (works really well, since there are comparatively few rules)
1848 (worked well, since the chrome can give the newbie an idea of the variability of the series between one version and another)
18MEX (worked slightly less well, due to the chrome being a bit more structural than 1848's, with the minors and the NdM being such a huge part of the game)
1870 (works well if not for its length, which is longer than the already-long 18xx average)
1856 (works somewhat well, since the nationalization rules are only really understood after seeing it happen and the game is pretty much preparing for the nationalization)

I really believe that once the 1830 reprint is out, most people should start off with that one.
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13. Board Game: 1841 [Average Rating:7.86 Overall Rank:2020]
Breno K.
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Advanced

And, as a final item, here's a list of advanced 18xx titles that should probably not be picked as a starting point in the series, unless you've got a bit more patience than the average human being.

1841
1844
18C2C
18US
1854
1817
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14. Board Game: Steam over Holland [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:1276]
Blake Morris
United States
Henrico
Virginia
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I have used this title to teach many newbies. The rules are relatively simple for 18xx, it plays 2 to 5, and the beautiful production is a strong draw. Be sure to upload my reworking of the English rules from the Geek (posted by Bart, the designer).
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15. Board Game: Poseidon [Average Rating:7.13 Overall Rank:882]
Breno K.
Brazil
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I haven't played this game yet, but considering it's from Lonny and Ohley, I have good expectations towards it.

Railroad barons (2-player cardgame adaptation of the 18xx financial system) seems like a solid little game as well, regardless of the incomprehensible (for 18xx newbies) rulebook
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16. Board Game: 1849 [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:2778]
Julius Waller
Belgium
Brussels
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Presuming that to teach someone its better to be in a small group - 1849 is a really good game. First of all you can play it with 3 and it is still fun something that doesnt work for 1830 and the other more mainstream 18XX. Secondly the board is small but it has many ofthe little variants and complexities you could come across in other 18XX variants. The game is also quick which again is good for a teaching game - true with the different types of track, the electrics and the volcano issue tehre are a few things to keep track of - however to induct someone quickly into the 18XX fraternity so that s/he can participate in game with more numerous and sophisticated (well experienced anyway) players this is a really good game to do it with,

Just my $0.02
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17. Board Game: 1861: The Railways of the Russian Empire [Average Rating:7.57 Overall Rank:1160]
Matthew Barratt
United Kingdom
Royal Leamington Spa
Warwickshire
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Two of my first three 18XX games were 1861. Getting to spend a few turns just doing the operations side of the game before needing to worry about share trading, made for a gentler introduction to the game.

On the other hand even once the share trading starts 1861's market never sparks like the market of a mainstream 18XX game.

Are there any games that start slowly like 1861 (allowing a newbie to find his feet), but end up more like a 'normal' 1830esque game (making it a better introduction to 18XX)?
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18. Board Game: Starship Merchants [Average Rating:6.76 Overall Rank:2006]
Eric Brosius
United States
Needham Heights
Massachusetts
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There's a new game out this month: Starship Merchants, which could be described as "2038: Tycoons of the Asteroid Belt without the stock or the map". For some people, it will be an ideal intermediate step in getting to 18xx. It's not 18xx, but it does teach some of the concepts that are key to understanding 18xx, and it's shorter than any 18xx game.
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19. Board Game: 18OE: On the Rails of the Orient Express [Average Rating:8.46 Overall Rank:2382]
Steve Carey
United States
West Coast
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The Beast - $200 a copy, has many small scenarios (all of Europe), I suddenly find myself intrigued but am unsure of availability (it was a KS campaign).
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