1856 is the #2 highest rated game by my Geekbuddies (after Puerto Rico, which is my favorite game). However, I'm not sure whether this merits my purchasing the game or not, as I have some reservations about whether I'd like it enough.
Ok, my reservations are about the game system in general. I like some monster games (Struggle of Empires, Revolution: The Dutch Revolt), and I don't mind owning these games despite the fact they will rarely get pulled off the shelf. But I do generally tend to be a minimalist when it comes to game mechanics, and I have a distaste for excessive or unnecessary fiddle in a game.
On top of this, I have not really felt a connection with some of the "stock market" games I've played, such as Acquire, Shark, and Stephenson's Rocket. There is something about this game mechanic that just doesn't click with me (I tend to lose miserably), and although on one hand this makes me want to explore the genre further to get past that barrier, on the other hand I try to keep my collection very pruned down to just the games I really cherish- I don't want to purchase any more games at this point that I wouldn't likely rate an 8 of higher (a tough demand! given my ratings scale).
Moreover, although I like Age of Steam, I find that I don't LOVE it as much as others here (and in particular my Geekbuddies) do. What puts AoS a notch below my favorite games is that has a rich-get-richer income mechanic that tends to create runaway leaders and/or losers in the early mid-game when there is still over an hour left to go.
In general, I am leaning towards picking 1856 up, in large part because I feel that me and my collection won't be complete until we've sampled a member of the legendary 18xx series. But I'd hate to get a game that I just won't like because it is too fiddly or simply not engaging for me.
One of the things I like about 18xx in general is "the process" of the game. The games are often anti-climactic. Much of the enjoyment I gain from 18xx games is the development of the game and not in just the end result of "winning." That said...
Most 18xx games attempt to adhere to the historical development of railroads in the geography in which they are set. 1856 is set in Upper Canada and has some mechanics that are based upon that historical development. Those mechanics are a little fiddly. Sound game mechnaics but it might take a couple reads and trys to get through them correctly. Now that I have been playing them 2-3 times a month for the last couple of years I can confidently recommend that 1856 is not the best place to start if you are gun shy of "fiddly."
I recommend one of the 18xx published by www.deepthoughtgames.com there are several games that are built for introduction to the 18xx system. Some of those are 18Scan, 18FL, 18VA, and 18TN (non-historical options). I have a bias toward 18Scan because 1, I own it and it is just fun to think about rail roads on skiis (I am sure the designer just cringed...).
There is another option if you want to do a little work. 18IR is in beta and you can download the rules and components in pdf, print them off, and give an 18xx for a reasonable amount in and paper and ink. If you don't like the game, throw it away! If you like it, then go and try some others at a convention that has a Puffing Billy competition or come to Columbus for Origins and I'll teach you 18FL, 18Scan, or one of the less fiddly medium length games like 18EU or 1846.
GET A SILK BAG FROM THE GRAVEYARD DUCK TO LIVE LONGER.
I think this game is worth picking up and trying, but only if you actually think you will have the group to play it with. I have not played 1856, but I have played 1860 twice. Although the specifics will obviously vary between games in the series, I can make some generalizations here:
1) Most game groups are going to be reluctant to play these because they are long. I have only played 1860 twice, because the game is about 6 hours long, and it actually seats 2 players comfortably. I don't know when I will ever get to play it with 3, though I would very much like to. If you are going to buy this, be sure to have at least 2 people enlisted.
2) The games are not super, super fiddly, though the track tile mix will probably take some getting used to. On the whole, the only real bits you have to deal with are tiles, trains, and the company charters. You build the board, but there aren't goods on it like AoS, or any fiddle there really. The most difficult aspect is probably dealing with the tiles, but they are numbered, so if you have quick reference sheets, keeping them in numerical order as you play makes the game relatively smooth. Money could be fiddly if you use bills (constant counting of banks) but just using poker chips solves that, as you can see the bank at a glance.
3) Involved rules, highly recommended that the other players you enlist from #1 are willing to read them through prior to play, because teaching a game like this cold means you are going to forget minor rules, it's just inevitable.
4) Nothing quite like them. I enjoy the 18XX system quite a bit, and I would like to play more of the games in this series, particularly this one, but the groups that they fit into a fairly rare.
I recommend one of the 18xx published by www.deepthoughtgames.com
there are several games that are built for introduction to the 18xx system. Some of those are 18Scan, 18FL, 18VA, and 18TN (non-historical options). I have a bias toward 18Scan because 1, I own it and it is just fun to think about rail roads on skiis (I am sure the designer just cringed...).
I second this recommendation. You should also look at 18AL and 18GA, available as print-n-play and were specifically designed as newbie-friendly games.
18AL and 18GA play in 3-4 hours. 18Scan plays in 2-3 hours, but I'm not sure I recommend it as a beginner game as it's got some extra stuff going on (special minors, progressive capitalization) that adds a bit of complexity.
If you enjoy complex game settings, then I think you would enjoy 1856. I will go into some of your more specific enquires soon, but just as someone else said the main question is - will you have a group to play it with? I think 1856 is a great game, but I think you should play it with 4-6 players and then it will take you 4-6 hours to play once you have got a grip on the rules (which might take 1-3 times if noone has played an 18xx game before).
I would say it's not at all as much fiddle as in Age of Steam where you besides building the track has all these goods and destinations to think about. In Age of Steam, you can really get lost trying to optimize - and still fail miserably. In the 18xx games the building of track is much more a development of the track, rather than monopolizing it. And track development is much more interesting in 18xx since you continue to build on top of the already built track.
18xx does not have a straight-forward rich-get-richer concept as in Age of Steam. There are a least two very good ways to intercept a runaway leader: One way is through the stock market. Another is through the economy of the companies, where you can buy new trains and thereby make older trains obsolete.
The stock market in 18xx is almost like a completely different game, and this is one thing that makes it much more flexible than Age of Steam. Acquire has a completely different mechanism and I haven't played the other two you mention, but yes a player can get screwed by the stock market in 18xx. The main risk is to suddenly find out that you are the president of a company that you just own two shares in - that can be a big thing, and something you must always be wary of. Then there is the risk that you own 40-60% of a company and others sell your stock and lower the price (and the value) of your portfolio. On the other hand, that might not be such a big issue.
This is really where the 18xx games, in my opinion, falls in the same category as Puerto Rico and Caylus in that there are many very different strategies that can lead to a successful game. I've played 18xx games with great stock market players who just buy and sell stocks all through the game and never really bother with running the companies. And I have played games with players that really have a knack for developing the track and make incredibly profitable runs.
In 18xx, someone could make your stock practically worthless buy buying and selling your stock, thereby lowering your stock value. But if you develop a really good track and keep the company with two trains, then your income from that company could very well balance the loss in value.
As to losers, there are major risks in 18xx of becoming a big loser all through the game - and you can really become a sitting duck for the rest couple of hours, if you make some major mistakes. In such a situation you might very well feel luckier if you go bancrupt and end the game. On the other hand, experienced players shouldn't get into situations like this and if you play with new-comers, you should table-talk them into not making too grave mistakes.
So, just go out there and find the players and have fun.