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Subject: [Review]1854: Impressions After One Play rss

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Seth Brown
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DISCLAIMER
Generally speaking, when I review a boardgame, I try to play it at least 3-4 times, so I can be sure I've ironed out the rules, see how it plays with different player numbers, see what improves (or deproves) after a first play, &c. This review is an exception, as I am writing it after only a single play. Also, I realize 1854 comes in a long line of 18xx games, none of which I have ever played before. Relatedly, there was a *lot* of rules confusion. So if people in the comments insist that my review is way off for regular 18xx players, and/or that my playtime is ridiculously longer than it should be, and/or that I got some rules wrong, they are probably correct. This is not a game I've explored a lot, but a game I have only played once. Because...



GINORMOUS
When I first wrote my review of World of Warcraft, I said it was mind-bogglingly big, because it barely fit on my game table if I removed everything else, and took 6 hours to play. Since I wrote that review, I acquired a larger gaming table. 1854 entirely filled up the new gaming table, and took us roughly 13 hours to play, over 3 days. And the reason I played 1854 instead of 1844 was because people suggested it would be the shorter of the two!

OVERVIEW
In 1854, players are buying and selling shares in various rail companies in Austria, company directors buy trains and lay track, and stock prices fluctuate. Sounds simple enough, right?

COMPONENTS IN BRIEF
Standard board, chipboard hex tiles and station/etc. tokens, cards for shares and trains, all of good quality. Paper money in 9 denominations and 17 company certificates on thin wobbly cardboard, of serviceable quality.



GAMEPLAY VAGUARIES
I normally call this section "gameplay in brief", but nothing about 1854 is brief, and attempting to list all the rules wouldn't work. So I'll just offer a very rough general sketch.

The game is divided into two types of rounds: A Stock round, which is followed by 1-3 (depending on game phase) Operating rounds.

In a Stock round, players on their turn may sell as many shares as they want and then optionally buy one. Money goes to the bank, until the company splits, at which point buying shares sends money to the companies. This goes around in circles until everyone passes. If enough shares of a company are bought, it is founded with some starting capital, and the director (largest shareholder) will control it. If all shares are bought, price will rise.

In an Operating round, each company's director gets to act for the company. There are 4 types of companies: Mountain (just get income, no actions), Local (play on separate tiny board), Merged Local (Normal board, but later in the game and stock isn't available to buy), and Major (The main part of the game).

Each company may get income from a mail contract, and may build one tile of rail and/or 1 station at a city. Then the company runs its trains on routes starting from its stations, and not crossing any stations full of other companies, getting income from every town/city reached. The company may then either pay dividends to shareholders (raising the stock price), or plow all profits back into the company coffers (lowering stock price). Finally, the company may buy a train and/or a mail contract to use next round.

When the bank runs out of money, stocks are all sold at current price, and whichever player has the most money wins.



GOOD POINTS

*Arc of the game feels well-developed. This is a game where you start investing in Mountain Railroads that give you a little income and don't even have a real train, moving on to local railroads which only service a small city and don't even travel on the country map, and then major railroads begin spanning the map, the tiny mountain rails close, and the local rails are forced to merge. Routes not only extend but become more complex, areas with a few towns can evolve into cities, more stations are constructed, stock prices fluctuate and some stocks split, new purchases can even result in a new director, basically a hostile takeover.

The game has an arc, and tells a story.

*The companies are people. This is likely common to games of the genre, but it was interesting to play a game split into Stock and Operating rounds, where the Operating round turns go not by player but by company. Each company takes its turn, and has its own funds separate from player funds. The director acts for the company, but it is the company's decisions, the company's money being spent, the company advancing, which is good for the shareholders. The fact that companies exist as real entities in the game, rather than just numbers that go up and down, makes investing in them a lot more interesting.

*A big space where anything could happen. Given the vast physical and temporal space of the game, along with the multitude of different companies, 1854 is a game where one can imagine all sorts of different futures. The routes may develop organically, but the end result of one company being blocked off or another having track all the way across the board seems more interesting as it plays out on a grand scale with multiple people owning a piece of the company pies. I can imagine that people could play the game many times and see different results each time.

*Incredibly deep. All of this vast playspace provides the opportunity for clever people to do a lot of clever things. There are interactions going on at many levels, from the buying and selling of shares, to the laying of track, to the expenditures of companies and when to pay dividends versus not. Timing matters, whether you're trying to place one of the few upgraded station tiles, or buying modern trains at the right time to force other companies to rust theirs, or a thousand other things. And all of those thousand things are interconnected, which is what makes the game tick.

The game has zero randomness, which means that the gamespace is all created by the players, and how they play each other. Having never played an 18xx game before, I can understand how this game might acquire devotees who wish to just play it dozens of times in spite of its hefty length. This is clearly a game that would reward familiarity, and yet because everything that happens depends on the decisions of the other players, it should have a tremendous amount of replay value.



BAD POINTS

*Unfriendly to new players. It is probable that having someone familiar with the game, or at least the series, to teach the game would be of tremendous utility. In my case, we had 3 longtime gamers who had never played an 18xx game before, and nobody knew what was going on. Strategically, obviously one doesn't expect to be good at a complex game at first go, but even basic strategy eluded all of us, having absolutely no idea why one might wish to buy or not buy various things, so we defaulted to "buy whatever you can afford". But also...

*Rules are somewhat confusing. Thankfully the different flags for the two different games in the box (1844 vs. 1854) made it fairly simple to sort out the bits that were not needed for the game we were playing. But we were missing some bits that were needed, specifically a number of stock cards -- some of which the rules referred to as available stock cards but apparently exist only as company certificates, and 2 cards actually missing (which we ended up forging onto a spare blank card). But even after surmounting this issue, some things such as how routes work were still a little confusing for a new-to-18xx player. The 16-page rulebook was admirably compact for such a complex game, but perhaps could have benefited from a few pages of examples.

*A long game. Reading around elsewhere, it sounds like 5-7 hours is more par for the course, so our 13 hours including setup was probably anomalous. I'm sure if we played it again, it would be shorter, especially as we had to refer to the rules constantly because we had little idea what was going on. Still, after a few hours, enthusiasm may wane. Length is also an issue especially because the game can be brutal and unforgiving -- for example, if your company's only trains are destroyed because someone buys a new era of train, and the company doesn't have enough money, you must buy a new modern train with your personal money, selling stock if necessary.



CONCLUSION
Again, I am not an 18xx player, and I played the game only once, so take my conclusions with a pillar of salt. There are a lot of cool things going on in 1854, and between the satisfying arc of the game and the various systems to explore, this was a neat experience and I can totally see why people enjoy such games. I'd say a play of this game is 4 hours of fun, and indeed I'd say our game was 4 hours of fun. The box says the game should take 5 hours, so once you know it well enough to play in that time, 4 hours of fun in 5 hours sounds pretty good. My game took me a lot longer than 5 hours, and still only had about 4 hours of fun, so that left me with less desire for a replay in the near future.

IS IT FOR YOU?
Honestly, I don't know.

If you're an 18xx player, you probably already know you're going to be interested in this game -- and some other 18xx player will be better suited than I to give you to details of how it differs from others in the series. Seems like it probably does whatever it does solidly, though.

If you're not an 18xx player, I recommend if at all possible that you get someone who IS an 18xx player to teach you an 18xx game. Having never played another one, I don't have a basis for comparison, but my sense is that this may not be the easiest one with which to start.


*Review copy provided by publisher
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Ron
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Now I await the 1844 review meeple
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Jimmy Okolica
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Great review! And your disclaimer at the end (review copy provided by publisher) explains why you decided to take this beast on.

There are certainly bigger 18XX games, but even 1854 is on the longer side. Since it's produced by Mayfair/Lookout, it's in the mainstream and I've been asked multiple times if it's a good intro to 18XX. As your review says, it's not. I'm not saying it's a bad game. For an experienced 18XXer, it does a bunch of interesting things, but this is not one I'd try as a first 18XX.

My personal opinion is that 18XX is a game that should be played for the first time with someone who knows 18XX just to help move it along. That said, your decision to "buy something whenever you can afford it" probably is what enabled you to finish it at all. My first time playing 18XX was 1830 with a teacher who had played it a few times, but not in many years. We stopped after 6 hours either right before or right after getting to the 5Ts and figuring we were probably halfway... I've always wondered how that experience convinced me that 18XX was something I'd like. Your review may have answered the question... The arc, companies acting as people, the depth, and the replayability. I'm really impressed that you could recognize all of that enough to verbalized it after a single play.

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Kelly Krieble
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Welcome to the world of 18XX.
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Roel van der Hoorn
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Osirus wrote:
If you're not an 18xx player, I recommend if at all possible that you get someone who IS an 18xx player to teach you an 18xx game. Having never played another one, I don't have a basis for comparison, but my sense is that this may not be the easiest one with which to start.


I found that 1854 has a certain level of chrome over it, which makes it indeed not the easiest to start with. I recommend 1830: Railways & Robber Barons or 1846: The Race for the Midwest (which is currently being printed by GMT).

I almost always play 1830 with new players. It teaches concepts that are present in many 18xx games, without overdoing it. Compared to 1854: only 8 major corporations (fully capitalized), no share splits, no options, a 2D instead of a 3D stock market, no small map, no tunnels, no plus trains, no mail contracts. It has a few additional rules, but those are easier to grasp.

I see in your photos that you're using paper money. Using poker chips is really a must for these types of games. It saves a lot of time, at least an hour.

It looks like there were not many tunnels used. Note that tunnels can be used in almost any hex! Not only on the grey hexes with tunnel symbols on them.
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Seth Brown
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Butterfly0038 wrote:
The arc, companies acting as people, the depth, and the replayability. I'm really impressed that you could recognize all of that enough to verbalized it after a single play.

To be fair, it was a single play that took 13 hours.

But thanks. I always try to get at the essence (good and bad) of a game, so I was all disclaimery because I worried a single confused play wouldn't get my to my usual level of understanding the gameplay experience. Glad to hear I got there anyway.

RvdH83 wrote:

I see in your photos that you're using paper money. Using poker chips is really a must for these types of games. It saves a lot of time, at least an hour.

It looks like there were not many tunnels used. Note that tunnels can be used in almost any hex! Not only on the grey hexes with tunnel symbols on them.

We actually had poker chips, but just used them as player markers to mark ownership on certificates.

And yeah, I think by the time tunnels were a thing we were considering, everyone was trying to save company money for a better train and was too cheap to pony up for one. I think someone may have built one towards the very end.
 
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Glenn Martin
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Definitely try 1846. You'll find it MUCH shorter. 18AL is a good one to try first and I'm very fond of Steam Over Holland.
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Chester
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1854 as an entry to 18xx for all new players....that was ill advised. It's a medium to medium long 18xx title. At least you didn't do 1817 as your introduction.

If you get the chance, I strongly suggest getting the same group and playing 1830. It will feel more vanilla after this, but you'll at least find out if you like 18xx.
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Ron
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cornjob wrote:
If you get the chance, I strongly suggest getting the same group and playing 1830. It will feel more vanilla after this, but you'll at least find out if you like 18xx.

And use that optional 6-Train in 1830! meeple
 
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Roel van der Hoorn
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PzVIE wrote:
cornjob wrote:
If you get the chance, I strongly suggest getting the same group and playing 1830. It will feel more vanilla after this, but you'll at least find out if you like 18xx.

And use that optional 6-Train in 1830! meeple


Nooo... instead, better remove a 6-train, so the game will more likely end in bankruptcy. Better let new players get used to it.
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J C Lawrence
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Sigh. You write as if going bankrupt were a Bad Thing.
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clearclaw wrote:
Sigh. You write as if going bankrupt were a Bad Thing.


If my reply had a sarcastic tone, then that was unintentional. I would actually consider removing a 6-train, before adding one.

A bankruptcy is a fine ending, which is why I don't like the optional 6-train. It makes the game go long (long as in time; maybe not in actual ORs). Especially with new players I prefer a bankruptcy over the bank breaking, since it usually makes the game a bit shorter.

This is why I also like 1879 as an introduction to new players. It has no privates, so it saves time explaining and auctioning. And the low number of corporations and trains makes it inevitable that players hold each other's stock more than is healthy for them. Several times I've forced the Diesels just to end the game. New players need to learn the risks. Unfortunately 1879 is not that easy to get, which is why I didn't mention it earlier in this thread.
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Bruce Murphy
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Unclear if '79 or '51 is harder to get hold of.

B>
 
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J C Lawrence
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'51 seems manifestly easier: Lawson likely printed more copies, and it is in both ps18xx and XXPaper
 
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Bruce Murphy
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That's not so clear. There are a bunch of winsome sets and xxs seem to shake loose fairly easily.

B>
 
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JR
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That raises an interesting question. What's the S/N of your 1851 copy, Bruce? And JC, if you have a Xris copy, how about you? I have #153 here.
 
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Bruce Murphy
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51/209. Not sure if JC managed to find one, we played my copy last time, carefully hand-carried across the ocean.

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J C Lawrence
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I have a copy, but it is currently ~40 miles away from me.
 
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Michael Theiss
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There are only 3 Winsome 18xx games and one 1830 cardgame that could be called 18xx.
 
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J C Lawrence
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Slightly more actually. These last few years aren't the first time John has sold 18xx kit, eg 1830: Wabash Cannonball Variant.
 
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thepackrat wrote:
51/209.


I have 51/204.
 
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Roel van der Hoorn
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Since I don't own 1851, is it worthwhile trying to acquire a copy?
 
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RvdH83 wrote:
Since I don't own 1851, is it worthwhile trying to acquire a copy?


Well, that's subjective, but given the opportunity to procure one, I would say it is worth buying if it's affordable to you. It's a nice game and the low availability of the game makes it highly unlikely you'd find anything but a profit if you decided you didn't want to keep it.
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J C Lawrence
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RvdH83 wrote:
Since I don't own 1851, is it worthwhile trying to acquire a copy?


Yes. Its a nice clean design that seems every bit as good as 1889 as an introductory title. Hopefully the conversations earlier this year on the list will carry through and DTG will reprint it (we kinda sorta semi-got that agreed to).
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Michael Theiss
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Mine 51/176
 
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