Michael Noakes
United Kingdom
Redhill
Surrey
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What makes for a great board game? There are as many answers as there are players, but for me, increasingly it’s coming down to some sweet spot between mechanics, theme and player interaction. It’s a rare thing, but when the mechanics of a game force players into some kind of very human, very intense bout of diplomatic wrangling—and fade from view as that human element leaps to the fore—and somehow still makes the resulting decisions meaningful; then, it seems to me, you’ve got yourself a great game.

I’ve held off on playing an 18xx game for a long time. It seemed a bridge too far, to mix metaphors, in the world of gaming. I wasn’t put off by the complexity; in fact, once I’d read through the 1830 rulebook I was surprised at how complex it wasn’t. There wasn’t anything in there worse than, say, The Republic of Rome or Twilight Imperium or Descent (the first edition) to wrap my head around. But something about the game put me off; it may have been an indefinite sense of elitism. Whenever I saw the game being played it seemed to involve a woefully austere board of minimalist design that gave short shrift to aesthetics; players seemed so intensely focused on route-planning and math that conversation died; and a single game outlasted a brace of “quick” games like Eclipse or Battlestar Galactica.

But I finally took the plunge: and man, am I ever glad I did! What a brilliant game!

I played my first game of 1830 yesterday at a Red Herring Sunday session. By luck, a number of other newbies decided to take the plunge as well, despite my warning that it was a touch more complex than their earlier experience with train games, Ticket to Ride. We ended up with four newcomers: me, the Northerner, the American Wife, the American Husband; and one 18xx veteran, the Cambridge Mathematician. Though his experience took away some of the thrill of discovering a new game (“you probably don’t want to do that,” he’d warn occasionally) his grasp of the rules and speedy route calculations were a godsend.

Rules explanations went relatively quickly, and we finally started. We were playing the Base game from the Mayfair edition—I’d recently picked up a copy cheap from a clearance sale from the Amazon marketplace—and so the private companies went swiftly, even though we didn’t really appreciate their respective value. I ended up with the Mohawk and Hudson, which I promptly forgot about other than for its revenue.
Corporations were soon floated: the Northerner went with the B&O, the Mathematician has the Pennsylvania, and American Husband the NNH. I threw my money into a few stocks of B&O and NNH, with an eye on getting enough capital together to found the CPR. Why the CPR? Because I’m Canadian; perhaps not the best of strategic reasons, but on a first game I like to play around with the mechanics of the game first and worry about winning second.

The hours melted away surprisingly quickly—we stopped a few hours in for food before picking up again, and I was surprised at how quickly it all went. The game does a brilliant job of keeping players engaged. Even if it’s not your turn, as a stockholder you’ve got an interest in other player’s operation of their lines, or are watching out for rivals’ aggressive moves into your territory. The NNH quickly found itself trapped with little room for growth into technology improved; the B&O grew quickly, then slowed. I dumped some of my stocks and floated the CPR, getting the Northerner to join in with me. Surprisingly, so did the Mathematician, buying up 40%. This seemed suspicious, even to newbie, and so unsurprising when after a couple of rounds he dumped his stock to found his second corporation, the Eerie. Meanwhile, AW the C&O and lay track into American’s heartland. Even though she wouldn’t win the game, she did finish with the highest-earning runs.

I had great fun with the CPR, connecting Ottawa and the Maritime provinces, but wanting to try a second corporation, I dumped some stock and floated the NYC, using the M&H to help get me started. It bought up a train for cheap from CPR and started running, and I started to get a hang of the interplay between running one corporation down so that you can build the other one up.



And then it happened: the inexorable march of technology forced a crisis. The Mathematician and Northerner were fine, sitting on some unrustable 5-trains; the rest of us were in trouble. My CPR’s turn came up and found itself forced to buy a train. The first Diesel train was on offer—well beyond the depleted corporation’s coffers. Other trains? Neither the Mathematician nor Northerner had any reason to sell of one of their trains (the Northerner’s B&O had a 4- and 5-train, but had little to gain by selling the 4.) American Wife had a 4-train and couldn’t sell it; American Husband, however, had two fours. If he didn’t sell it to me, I’d be forced into Receivership buying a Diesel, rusting his two fours. This would cascade onto his wife, rusting her train as well. But he either failed to grasp the implications of not selling me the train, or chose not to.

We negotiated. I initially offered him $300 for his train—all CPR had, really—and when he complained of lost revenue I pointed out he’d lose a lot more without any trains. We argued back and forth; others threw in their opinions; I dropped my price the more it became clear that, really, it was in his (and his wife’s) best interest to delay the start of the Diesel phase. An impasse was reached. Parallels were drawn with the shutdown of the American government. My offering price bottomed out at $1.

Diplomacy failed that day, but what fun it was to experience the diplomatic process spiral the drain and utterly tank. Unsurprisingly, the three of us went into receivership and soon after we called the game. There was probably a few more hours of game to play but it was pretty clear how it was going to finish. The Mathematician finished first by a clear margin; the Northerner second; American Wife, who managed to clear off her debt before we finished, took third; I had fourth, and American Husband ended in last place with final assets of about $500.

What fun! I think what took me most by surprise was: 1) how the rules and mechanics all felt instinctively “right”—the market operated as you’d expect, and the rules rarely felt arbitrary. For example, not being to buy up stock in a corporation you’ve just sold made sense for reasons of obvious abuse. And 2) I was surprised at how “social” the game was. As with my other recent favourite, Archipelago, the diplomatic interactions and necessity to occasionally cooperate together—or go bankrupt together—made for an excellent and fun game. I simply hadn’t expected it in what I’d otherwise seen as a game purely about economics.

I do think the game was better for being newbies with a single veteran player; sitting at a table of pros may have been a bit daunting, or discouraging. But I regret now not having taken the 18xx plunge earlier. I have no idea when I’ll get to play again, but hopefully the wait won’t be too long. Once again: an absolutely brilliant first session of a great game!
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Lutz
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Weloi Avala wrote:

But I finally took the plunge: and man, am I ever glad I did! What a brilliant game!


Welcome to the club. The 18xx family of games will provide hours and years of enjoyment.

One comment, I have never seen a train cross sold. Just buy the diesel, let his 4s rust and the $700 you would have to personally spend could possibly be made up. Also, now you force HIM to buy a diesel and I expect his corp didn't have the 1100 either. Unless of course it was the last OR of the set, and he had a dump victim based on the priority deal position.

Fun stuff it is!

Good report.

BOb
 
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J C Lawrence
United States
Campbell
California
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pilotbob wrote:
One comment, I have never seen a train cross sold.


I've both won and lost games through cross-presidency train sales. The first time I ever saw a 3-company dump involved my LHO selling a 3T to my RHO (3-player game) and then doing the shuffle required for the 3-company dump that drove me bankrupt and gave him the win. Not so very long ago I saw a 2T sold between players for just enough for the selling company to buy a 4T (thus taking me out of an about-to-be runaway lead). The most classic case for cross-presidency sales involves a company with $1,100 in treasury running an auction for someone to sell it a 4T to upgrade.

In that case a 4T is clearly worth more that nothing and less than $200. But how much less?
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jim b
United States
Berkeley
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Weloi Avala wrote:
We negotiated. I initially offered him $300 for his train—all CPR had, really—and when he complained of lost revenue I pointed out he’d lose a lot more without any trains. We argued back and forth; others threw in their opinions; I dropped my price the more it became clear that, really, it was in his (and his wife’s) best interest to delay the start of the Diesel phase. An impasse was reached. Parallels were drawn with the shutdown of the American government. My offering price bottomed out at $1.
...
Diplomacy failed that day, but what fun it was to experience the diplomatic process spiral the drain and utterly tank.

Offering him $300, then dropping it to $1, doesn't exactly sound like a "diplomatic process". ;-)

The situation after these receiverships might not have been so static- it's not unusual for players to recover from an emergency purchase (if it doesn't bankrupt them first).
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Samuel Hinz
Australia
Brisbane
Queensland
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Good write up Michael. As someone new to 18xx myself I agree with most of what you said here.

The rules just make sense with the theme and its super cohesive. Unlike say Poseidon which doesn't work thematically.
 
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