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In this article I’ve put together some initial thoughts on strategy for 18Ireland. 18xx players are a devious lot and I’m not going to pretend that this is a definitive guide to every trick that can be pulled while playing the game, that remains to be discovered. Rather I’m trying to give an impression of what it’s like to play the game, how it differs from earlier titles and some early pointers on what to look out for.
It’s important to remember that Ireland is a relatively poor country, returns on railway operation are modest. This means that some of the rules of thumb that I’ve heard 18xx players use down the years, like: “Always push the trains”, “When in doubt, start a company” or “Transfer the company’s money into your pocket” may only be partially true here, and may even be a short road to bankruptcy. The general approach should be to nurture your company and play a long game, sometimes sacrificing short term gain for longer term profit.
A Look at the Map
Trying to set an 18xx game in Ireland faces some pretty fundamental problems of geography. Like many islands, the biggest cities in Ireland are close to the coast, and the two biggest cities of all, Belfast and Dublin are a relatively short distance apart. This means that without some compensating downside, a company operating between those two cities is going to be at a substantial advantage over a company operating elsewhere. I’ve tried to balance that factor by providing some troublesome tiles for the Belfast, Dublin and Dundalk/Drogheda hexes. Also note from the tileset that it’s difficult to run through Belfast or Dublin until (and unless) grey tiles become available.
There’s also some challenging terrain in Ireland, and the further west you go the more challenging the terrain becomes. The solution in gameplay terms is to include narrow gauge track in the tile set. A large number of narrow gauge railways were built in Ireland, often in the poorest and most remote regions and it would have been a travesty not to have included narrow gauge, but its purpose in the game is to allow western cities like Limerick to be as lucrative as eastern cities like Dublin when it comes to operating your company. Just remember that the further west your company starts, the more you’ve got to build.
Initial Share Round
18Ireland isn’t a game you’re going to win or lose during the Private Company auction. Unlike most 18xx games, a semi-random selection of Private Companies is made available for sale at the start of the game, so it’s only possible to give general advice.
Two Privates are always part of the initial auction: Dalkey Atmospheric Railway is always worth acquiring as it pays the best percentage return, but don’t be in a hurry to sell it to your company once the green tiles are out, keeping it independent will inconvenience the owner of the other permanent feature of the ISR, the Dublin & Kingstown Railway. The D&K has both advantages and disadvantages: it starts with a station marker in Dublin and doesn’t need to sell shares for construction or trains before it begins to operate, so it tends to accumulate a nice cash pile on its charter. It can’t extend before green tiles are available, but then it has to build through the Wicklow Mountains to reach Wexford, which tends to be something of a dead spot on the board anyway, or head south westwards through crowded Maryborough. Bottom line is though: if you think you’re going to get the D&K, try to get D.A.R. first. It will let you build narrow gauge through Wicklow and the mountain hex, which you can then upgrade to broad gauge for free.
Two Private Companies that are always worth bidding for are the track layers: Board of Works and William Dargan Esq. Board of Works saves on terrain costs, which can be useful anywhere, but it’s especially good in three places: the Wicklow Mountains (see above), building a direct route from Maryborough to Limerick or getting through the hills around Donegal.
Other Private Companies are more situational in value as they synergise with 5-Share Companies. I’ll just mention two: River Shannon Shipping Co. boosts the value of Dromod or Limerick stations, but if these companies are well down the pile of 5-Share companies, I’d pass on the chance to buy. The Irish Mail provides an off-board tile that makes a lucrative destination once russet tiles are available, but it’s real value lies in allowing Londonderry or Waterford to be upgraded to a russet station tile, if it’s placed next to that city.
One final thought before we move on. Don’t even think about selling the more expensive Private Companies to your 5-Share Company for twice their face value. Half their face value can be challenging enough. This isn’t the Wild West and you’re not a robber baron.
Which Company to Start?
Aside from the Dublin & Kingstown Railway, there are thirteen other companies potentially available from the start of the game. You don’t have complete freedom of choice as the charters are shuffled during game setup and a random company removed from the game. The remaining charters are then arranged in a pile and can only be taken from the top, so there’s a random startup sequence. This provides game variety. Unlike many 18xx’s no company is inherently ‘better’ than any other, all have advantages and disadvantages.
When starting a 5-Share Company, it’s essential to go in with a plan, don’t just start a company and hope for the best. Don’t forget that the amount you bid determines the initial share price and so starting capital. There needs to be sufficient funds to allow for terrain costs, double tile lays and one or two trains to enable your company to generate worthwhile revenue on its second operating round.
A common problem in the game is starting a company with an initial share price that is too low. This limits the amount of capital that a company has available and locks the company into a cycle of poverty and low returns that can be difficult to break out of. Read that last sentence again and make a mental note, it’ll help your game enormously.
I won’t mention every company in detail, but let’s look at a few of them:
Dublin & Drogheda Railway
Like Dublin & Kingstown Railway, the D&DR starts in Dublin, always a good place for a station marker. Like the D&K, the D&DR won’t be building much track until green tiles are available. This is historically accurate as the River Boyne represented a formidable obstacle to nineteenth century railway builders. Once green tiles are available, the special tiles for the Dundalk/Drogheda hex determine whether you’ll be heading north or north-west. Try to lay the green tile here before anyone else does.
The Poor Five
These companies (take a deep breath, they are: Central Ireland Railway, Dundalk & Enniskillen Railway, Enniskillen, Bundoran and Sligo Railway, Kilkenny Junction Railway and Sligo, Leitrim & Northern Counties Railway) can be considered together as they all start in the less lucrative home cities: Dundalk, Enniskillen and Maryborough. They all have plenty of good places to build track to, but start them at a higher share price and run two trains from the outset. They’ll probably be competing with near neighbours to build track into nearby cities so make sure they have enough funds for double tile lays to get there first.
The Peripheral Three
Three more that can be considered together: Grand Junction Railway, Londonderry & Enniskillen Railway and Waterford & Kilkenny Railway. These will most likely be competing for the same yellow and green track tiles, so be aware if two of these companies are starting at the same time. Note in particular that Londonderry & Enniskillen Railway is called that for a reason: it’s always tempting to build towards Belfast but remember it’s difficult to build further without grey tiles. More subtly, you could build directly to Sligo or Armagh/Portadown, but consider yourself warned.
Whichever companies you start always be cautious about over-extending yourself and being tempted to start too many. Every company needs a train and you may have to buy new trains before you can reach the comfort of a Merger Round. To misquote Oscar Wilde: “To have one company needing emergency fund raising might be considered unfortunate, to have two (or even three) smacks of carelessness”.
Are Rusted Trains a Good Buy?
One unusual feature of 18Ireland is the way train rusting is handled. When non-permanent trains rust, they are turned over to reveal a similar train that costs half as much, but has half the range, and are then placed in the Bank Pool. The reason for this is that it’s pretty easy to go bankrupt and this feature is designed to cut the casualty rate at least a little.
The question is: are such rusted trains worth buying? The short answer is ‘no’, but then the unrusted non-permanent trains aren’t a good buy either. I would, in general, only buy a rusted train if:
1) I have a particular route in mind and I’m guessing the rusted train will run long enough to pay for itself, or
2) I’m just trying to survive until the next Merger Round.
All this changes once the permanent trains start coming out and the last non-permanent trains end up as rusted 3H trains in the Bank Pool, where they can be bought for a very reasonable £150. By this stage in the game many companies are critically low on funds, and these cheap trains look very tempting. As in 1830, it’s not a given in 18Ireland that diesel trains will come out, there are probably sufficient pre-diesels for each company to own one. However, it may well be in someone’s interests to get diesels into the game, and the first diesel purchase rots away the cheap 3H trains. At this point you’ll wish you’d put your precious £150 into buying a permanent train, but it’s a tough choice.
The Merger Round or When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Watch Your Back
If you’ve followed all of this advice throughout the early part of a game, then by now you’re probably feeling quietly confident. Your company is the best performer in the game and you’re clicking a comfortably large pile of poker chips in front of you. Life seems pretty good, but you’ve forgotten something. This is Ireland and by leading the pack you’ve painted a large target onto paper and stuck it firmly to your chest. Welcome to the Merger Round.
I should explain at this point that the Merger Round has a very different character depending on the number playing. When player count is low, players tend to focus on their own companies and generally control enough of their own shares to merge their own companies without outside interference. The main reason for merger is simply to reduce liability for buying permanent trains. Players who prefer to build good companies rather than wreck other people’s should seek this form of the game.
A higher player count the atmosphere is different. Not everyone can succeed equally and someone will emerge as the early leader. It’s incumbent on the other players to rein in leaders before it’s too late, preferably by merging their star-performing company with something barely solvent.
Poor performing companies share certain characteristics: they have a low share price, less cash and have sold more shares to the Bank Pool. Such companies will readily vote for merger, their owners want to offload them and those shares in the Pool will automatically vote in favour of exchange for new shares in a 10-Share Company of higher value.
So, if you control a good company watch out for other players buying your shares from the Pool. Naturally they want to share in your good fortune, but they’re also converting a share that will automatically vote against merger into one that will vote in favour at its owner’s discretion. That could be enough to secure the 6-4 majority needed for merger even if you personally vote against it.
Before ending this section I should point out that players shouldn’t necessarily seek to merge all their 5-Share Companies. 5-Share companies are very efficient in portfolio terms, you can own 60% in just two certificates and they are eligible to perform double stock jumps. One or two generally survive to end of the game anyway and if you can own one and equip it with an 8H train (that’s generally the limit of what a 5-Share Company can afford) that can be a winning strategy. Of course, if someone else owns such a company, well you know what to do.
So, in summary, 18Ireland is a pretty simple game. If you can: start the right companies at the right values, never be stuck for a scarce track tile, avoid an unsolicited merger with a donkey and manage the train rush without dipping into your own pocket then you thoroughly deserve to win. Trouble is, you’ll probably fail when it comes to at least one of those things. May the luck of the Irish be with you!
ASL ... yes, this is my Desert Island Game. If I have to give up all my 3000+ games and only allowed to keep one, this would be it. This bloody game stood the test of time. Around for more than 25 years - simply the best.
Devoted Follower of the Most Holy Church of the Evil Bob. Possessed and down the road to become chaotic, evil & naughty. All hail the Evil Bob and his Stargate.
Thank you for that review - you now have my full interest!
Can I acquire this game somehow? Download? Sending
chocolate money to the designer?
Can I acquire this game somehow? Download? Sending
chocolate money to the designer?
Thanks, Ron, I think I have enough playtesters for the moment, but keep checking in for further developments!