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Phil Campeau
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I first entered the world of 18xx gaming in November of 2017. In the year that has passed since that time, I’ve logged 32 face to face plays of 17 different 18xx titles. I say this to demonstrate both my relative experience with different titles, as well as my relative lack of overall experience in the genre. The people who play these games, play these games. I’m still largely a neophyte to the genre, but the bug has bitten me, and it has bitten deep.

The 18xx genre is still a niche within the niche of heavy boardgames within the niche of boardgaming in general. The oldest 18xx game that is still readily available, 1830: Railways And Robber Barons, has been in print for over 30 years and still only shows around 5,400 owners on boardgamegeek.com. But the attention for these games is growing. More and more designers are mentioning 18xx in their lists of all-time favourites, more podcasters, youtubers, bloggers, and reviewers are giving praise to these games, and slowly but surely more games are hitting the mainstream market. One game that has garnered quite a bit of attention as of late is Tom Lehmann’s 1846: The Race For The Midwest. This is in no small part due to GMT Games’ gorgeous reissue from 2016, which not only upped the production value significantly, but also reduced the purchase price by half, and put the game on store shelves around the world. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes this game great.



The box for 1846: The Race for the Midwest


Components

This section will cover the components of the GMT edition of the game.

1846 comes with a really nice set of components. The board is big and well produced, a 6-panel affair with excellent binding and really nice art design. For people who are less familiar with 18xx games, the board may look pretty austere, but this is standard for the genre. In a game where every action matters and no catch-up mechanisms are artificially inserted, you want to have a very clean and minimal art style. I love the fact that GMT included a revenue tracker on the board. It’s such a crucial bit of information to have during stock rounds, and many players I know have printed out tracker boards for other games that do not include one.

The charters are large and full of all the information regarding phase changes and train limits. They printed on sturdy card stock. One detail I really liked is that relevant locations for teleport tokens are indicated on the charters so you don’t spend too much time searching the board. It provides not only the city name, but the actual coordinates of the cities in question. It’s an easily overlooked detail which I’m glad they included.

The stock certificates and train cards are also very nice quality. Company logos are printed very distinctly, making it easy to count your certificates at a glance. GMT also employed very distinct colours for all of the corporations. Using fundamental crayola marker style colours makes everything very very easy to parse on the board and in your stock portfolio.

The tokens provided in this edition are cardboard chits rather than wooden discs. Personally, I really don’t mind, but it’s worth mentioning for the picky folks who do.

Then there’s the tiles. GMT decided to go with larger than normal tiles, roughly 45mm across instead of the standard 40mm. I suspect this is because they tend to use a standard board panel size for all their games, and there would have been too much dead space with 40mm hexes but not enough dead space to be able to fit the board on a 2x2 panel board. The tiles are also printed on 3mm thick chipboard, which has a very nice hand feel , but can lead to some readability issues. I’ve seen it happen where someone thinks the track on a tile runs onto pre-printed track on the board because they can’t quite see over the edge of the tile. It’s a rare issue, but one worth mentioning.


Clear, austere board art.



Gameplay

1846 is an interesting beast. It’s an 18xx designed by a man far better known for his euro game designs such as Race For The Galaxy, Favor Of The Pharaoh, and the expansions for Pandemic. His euro design pedigree is on display in this game; everything is streamlined, and many edges are smoothed over. The opening auction is replaced with a draft. Corporations can lay two tiles per operating round. The stock market is incredibly gentle. One would expect a game this streamlined to lack any real punch, maybe good as a learning game, but nothing that veteran players would enjoy. Yet somehow, 1846 manages to pack an incredible level of depth and strategy in its 3-5 hour play time, while still remaining completely accessible to new players.

The scaling in this game is interesting. Many 18xx titles have a fixed number of corporations, private companies, and a fixed bank, with the scaling coming from the amount of starting money that each player receives. In 1846, players always start with $400, and everything else scales: the bank size depends on the player count, and for games with less than five players, 2 private companies and one corporation are removed for each missing player. Often, lower player counts in 18xx games can lead to stale game states. I find this variability opens up the game, and creates a similar variability to the full 5-player game.

The game uses partial capitalization to open companies, meaning that they open as soon as someone buys the president’s share. You choose the price of a 10% share, pay double that amount into the company out of your personal cash, and take the 20% president’s share. The company will be able to run in the next operating round. All the remaining shares remain in the company treasury, and they pay out into the company. This creates an interesting decision between opening a company at a lower price to get more shares and more dividends to yourself, or starting it at a higher price to ensure more money is initially going into the company treasury. Corporations also have the ability to issue shares into the bank pool in exchange for almost their full share value, which is another way of raising additional capital early on.

The game allows full pay outs, half payouts, and full withholds, which is another way of controlling the money you put into the companies you’re running. The market price of your company drops if you pay less than half of your current share value (including $0), it goes up a spot if you pay out at least the share value, up two spots if you pay double the share value, and if you manage to pay out triple the share value of your company, you can move up three spaces if your stock price is at least $165.


The mystical $165 price point.




The ability to lay two tiles per operating round instead of one speeds up the early game, and really thrusts you into the meat of the game by the third set of ORs. Token wars are not uncommon by this point, though with the small amount of corporations available in the game this can be a risky venture. Blocking the runs of a company can hurt you in the long run, because there’s a good chance you’ll end up at least somewhat invested in that company at some point.

One of the key elements in this game is securing routes that allow you to run from an eastern off-board location to a western off-board location. In addition to generally being very long routes, the game awards bonuses for making these runs. I really like how Chicago is a dominant part of the board, not only because it links to one of the two western off-board locations, but also because it is the most valuable city by the late game. It’s a huge city, with four separate entrances, but it still tends to get tokened out and locks some companies from that connection. This is where opening additional routes down to the south-western St. Louis off-board location is crucial. Interestingly though, even the companies who are already stationed in Chicago will want to make that connection too, as it’s the only other western off-board spot. Securing a secondary route down to St. Louis early is often a good strategy, thought it might be a wasted effort if you can't secure a second permanent train. But for the player who can secure two East-West runs, the potential for those triple stock price jumps I mentioned earlier is huge.



A crowded Chicago in the mid-game.


Many 18xx titles open with an auction for private companies. This always proves difficult until players are familiar with the game, as it’s hard to gauge the real value of some companies until the game plays out. Indeed, many 18xx games are said to be won and lost in the opening auction. 1846 does away with this problem by offering a draft. Each player draws a fixed number of cards from the deck of private companies, chooses one, and passes the deck to the next player. After the draft is complete, players reveal their cards and pay the face value. I remember reading somewhere that Tom Lehmann playtested the privates extensively to make sure that every pairing of privates worked well together in some way, and I absolutely believe it.

Even more impressive is the ability many of the privates have to benefit almost every Corporation in the game in some way or another. Sure, there are obvious pairings; Big 4 and Illinois Central go together like pb&j, and Michigan Southern begs to be paired with Grand Trunk, but delve a little deeper and you’ll find excellent reasons to merge them with other corporations as well. Early on, players will find pairings that work, and may end up with the mistaken belief that those combinations are mandatory. But with more plays and experimentation, players will be delighted to find completely different pairings that also work excellently.

Final thoughts

You would be forgiven for playing this one 2-3 times and thinking you’d seen everything it has to offer. Thankfully though, that is not the case at all. This, I think, is the true magic of Lehmann’s 1846. The game is deceptively deep. This is a game that is both rewarding to repeated plays and still (relatively) accessible to new players. With its gentle train rush, stable market, and the partial capitalization system, it serves as a fantastic introduction to the 18xx genre. It’s far and away my most-played 18xx game, and I still have so many unanswered questions about what can be done in the confines of this map.

If you’re looking for an entry point to 18xx, you can’t go wrong with this title. The production is top notch, the rules are great and unambiguous, and it will surprise you every time it hits the table for years to come.

This review originally appeared in my blog: https://aboveboardgames.blogspot.com/2018/10/review-1846-rac...
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Eric Hartnett
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Got a copy a few weeks ago because of Lehmann making rules available to scale down to 2 players because my wife’s my main gaming partner but I still haven’t gotten it to the table. I’m still looking forward to it and your review only makes me want to try it more.
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Darrell Hanning
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"Teleport tokens"? Is that a reference to the home base station markers?
 
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Jason Bloody Purchase
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DarrellKH wrote:
"Teleport tokens"? Is that a reference to the home base station markers?


It's a reference to the stations that can be placed w/o a connection to them.
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Eric Brosius
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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DarrellKH wrote:
"Teleport tokens"? Is that a reference to the home base station markers?

Yes, and to provide more detail, those are the Chicago & Western Indiana station, the B&O station in Cincinnati, the PRR station in Fort Wayne, and the stations you get from the Michigan Southern and Big 4. None of these requires a connection from an existing station of the corporation.
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Chris D
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Great review Phil, best part of the review is describing how you can always learn something new from each game.

The other thing I like about 1846 is that you can usually look back over a game and pinpoint the exact moment your game changed for better but usually for worse
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Phil Campeau
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Reman wrote:
Great review Phil, best part of the review is describing how you can always learn something new from each game.

The other thing I like about 1846 is that you can usually look back over a game and pinpoint the exact moment your game changed for better but usually for worse


I definitely made some mistakes in our PBF game. I find the ability to pinpoint turning points in games is a feature in most 18xx, and Splotter games too. In fact, it's probably true of any game with minimal to no randomness.
 
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J C Lawrence
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Conversely, one of the things I've liked most about the 18xx is the relative inability/difficulty to trace root causes of failures -- I've lost and I don't know why -- thus requiring an explorative/testing approach across multiple games to work out many of the base relationships. If the games had been so tractable/transparent I'd have abandoned them years ago.
 
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Chris D
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clearclaw wrote:
Conversely, one of the things I've liked most about the 18xx is the relative inability/difficulty to trace root causes of failures -- I've lost and I don't know why -- thus requiring an explorative/testing approach across multiple games to work out many of the base relationships. If the games had been so tractable/transparent I'd have abandoned them years ago.


Indeed, when you stop making obvious mistakes you start making mistakes that are harder to spot.

Is it possible to make forced errors in 18xx? Or is that just a lack of foresight?
 
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Eric Brosius
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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If it's forced, it's not an error.
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J C Lawrence
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Reman wrote:
Is it possible to make forced errors in 18xx? Or is that just a lack of foresight?


There are certainly forks. Getting into a forked position cannot necessarily be prevented as other players may implicitly or explicitly collude between the subject's player's turns to create the fork without any ability for the subject player to respond.

This is one of the ways that 6-player 1830 games tend to elect one or two of the players in the game as necessary losers in the early mid-game.
 
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J C Lawrence
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Reman wrote:
Indeed, when you stop making obvious mistakes you start making mistakes that are harder to spot.


Several months ago I lost a game (not 1846, a different 18xx). Now I've lost since, but that particular loss stood out to me as it echoed another local player's recent complaint of, "Every decision I've made in this game has been reasonable and yet I'm already 25% behind everyone else!" and I just didn't really know why I'd lost or why he was already 25% behind. I too thought I'd made reasonable decisions... So I spent several months and umpty hours of conversation trying to dig into the particulars and I ended up with:

-- I lost the game in SR5 because I was positionally forced to bet on a long shot that didn't come out as there was nothing else to do/buy.

-- I got into that position because in SR5 it was too late to adopt a significantly different posture, I was already on my back foot, late in priority and in SR4 I'd been too low on cash and liquidity and hadn't been able to buy enough of the good shares and instead had had to make too many low-grade purchases which again put me late in priority.

-- I got into that low cash and late priority position in SR4 because I'd also been low liquidity and not bought enough of the good shares in SR3, and that was compounded because I hadn't responded effectively to FOO player's sell down of their company, I didn't predict the potential and didn't buy the clearly right shares in advance but let other players get them, and I didn't sell down myself and float at least two more companies (float, sell it down, float a new company, sell it down, buy better shares (or if one or both of them is stolen, dump them and float other companies and then sell them down -- make brown trains come out NOW, but leave with two extra companies under control) thereby changing the definition of what would be the good shares), and I didn't buy any control of priority for SR4 once I'd clearly committed myself into a late priority position, and I didn't use my already-late-in-priority position to safely suppress the market and at least minimise the damage for my position.

-- And I got there because in SR2 I made a stupid share purchase that went nowhere and paid nothing and instead made a second share purchase which was mostly pointless but gave up two slots of priority...

-- Because in the private auction I'd bid too much for my privates given the fact that I knew I was going to be second in priority and could thus buy two good shares in SR1 instead of only one, and then a third in SR2...and instead I got only one and one+bad and that put the crown on my liquidity shortness...

Which on the surface looks like an error in the private auction but is really a mis-evaluation of the value of liquidity in SR3. It really just sums to: Not enough liquidity in SR3 and didn't buy enough of the good shares and then a whole bunch of more implicit things about the game definition, liquidity management, portfolio building/control of those things, positional implications etc. But it took a few months, a dozenish games of digging and a few hours of analysing conversation to tease that out. In specific the particular value of liquidity in SR2/SR3 wasn't something we'd identified and so I'd not analysed game state in terms of what I'd accomplished in regard to before and after that inflection point, and that's a real turning point for the game.
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(Those-who-count might also notice a minor application of Five Whys in the above)
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Phil Campeau
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Sounds like you traced the root cause of your failure

When I said earlier that it’s often possible to pinpoint where you lost, I was hyperbolizing a bit. Rarely can I look back and say “buying that share of B&O in SR3 was the winning move!”, but in 18xx there’s usually a much clearer picture of the overall arc of how the victory was obtained than in, say, a eurogame.
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J C Lawrence
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philcampeau wrote:
When I said earlier that it’s often possible to pinpoint where you lost, I was hyperbolizing a bit. Rarely can I look back and say “buying that share of B&O in SR3 was the winning move!”, but in 18xx there’s usually a much clearer picture of the overall arc of how the victory was obtained than in, say, a eurogame.


What the winner did is usually less useful than identifying what you (and each of the other losers) didn't do (or did do) that was right or wrong and why you did or didn't do that and what you could have done instead and why. The answers to those questions have the advantage of being directly actionable in your next game.
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Jimmy Hensel
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Good review.

I'd like augment your comments on the components by saying that a lot of the detailed information needed during the game is printed on the board. There's a setup summary, an area showing how handling of revenues affect stock price, notes about corporations issuing shares, a map legend, and reminders about trains and phases. These really help with play in that they reduce the need for referencing the rule book.

This may become my favorite game.
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Bleicher
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pawnpusher wrote:
Good review.

I'd like augment your comments on the components by saying that a lot of the detailed information needed during the game is printed on the board. There's a setup summary, an area showing how handling of revenues affect stock price, notes about corporations issuing shares, a map legend, and reminders about trains and phases. These really help with play in that they reduce the need for referencing the rule book.

This may become my favorite game.


I'd second that. I recently bought another 18xx (18Rhl: Rhineland) and even though it is a wonderful game, it was quite a shock to see how much it lacks in terms of information in the right places (not only it doesn't have all the stuff you mention on the board, but not even the private cards show what each of them does) after getting accustomed to 1846.
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