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Subject: Why Groups of New Players Often Struggle With 18XX rss

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Eric Brosius
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Introduction

The 18XX series of games is challenging, and skill matters a lot, so people who want to learn the system face something of a challenge. In my first game of 1830: Railways & Robber Barons about 25 years ago, all 6 of us were new to the game, and it took 11 hours. This isn’t uncommon—many of the comments for 1830: Railways & Robber Barons on BGG say things like, “I used to own this, but traded it away in frustration after a 10 hour game.” For my favorite 18XX game, 1846: The Race for the Midwest, which my regular group plays in 2 ½ hours with 5 players, one BGG comment says, “I am guessing the 8 hours it took to play the game (5 players) is not the norm.”

Most meaty games take longer with beginners than with experienced players, but the difference is much larger for 18XX. In any complex game, new players spend time on decisions that veterans make almost immediately, but with 18XX there’s another factor at work. In most 18XX games, the players effectively serve as the game timer—that is, decisions by the players keep the game moving along. New players often fail to recognize when it is to their advantage to move the game along, because these decisions commonly impose some short-term pain as the price of a longer-term advantage. As a result, games easily stagnate.

This article explains this observation in more detail, and by this means provides guidance to prospective 18XX players. If you are new, learn by playing games with experienced players and just one or two new players if possible. If there are no experienced players in your area, the article will help you keep the game moving by playing like an experienced player, at least to some extent.


Train buying

I believe that the heart of the 18XX system is buying and running trains (the spaceships in 2038: Tycoons of the Asteroid Belt and the ships in Poseidon are clearly the game equivalent of trains.) Running trains earns money; this idea of investing to earn a profit is natural to strategy gamers. There are trains of different types—early game trains cost less but late game trains have more earning power—and this too feels perfectly natural.

But buying trains in 18XX has another effect—one that, while not obvious, is key to the timing of the game. The purchase of more advanced trains “phases out” less advanced trains; that is, it is possible to remove less advanced trains from the game (or in a few 18XX titles, eliminate the profit from them) by buying more advanced trains. Each design is different, so the details differ from title to title, but a basic principle holds across the broad 18XX spectrum: Buying a more advanced train can be used as a strategy to hurt those who are running less advanced trains. Thematically, you push new technology to make the old technology obsolete.

Let’s use 1830: Railways & Robber Barons as an example. It has the following train types, in order of appearance (and in increasing order of price and capability): 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and D (for “Diesel”.) The first trains to be bought are the 2-trains. When the (finite) supply of 2-trains runs out, the 3-trains become available. There is usually a period during which both 2-trains and 3-trains are run. But when the first 4-train is bought, all the 2-trains are immediately removed from the game. Similarly, the first 6-train purchase makes the 3-trains obsolete and the first Diesel purchase makes the 4-trains obsolete. The 5, 6 and D trains never become obsolete and are thus especially sought after.

Let me ask a question: Why would someone buy a 4-train (or a 6-train, or a Diesel)? One reason is to run it for money; anyone can see this. But trains cost money, and in some cases it’s hard to justify the expense of a new train just from the increased earnings it will generate. In fact, it is not uncommon that no player has enough incentive to buy a new train for the earnings alone. This is how games can stagnate.

This brings us to the second reason for buying a train: to make trains that are benefiting your opponents obsolete. Some players are out-earning others at any stage of an 18XX game, so that if the game continues as it is, these players will win. In most cases, this is because they are running the trains that are currently in play for more money. Unless you are the person who will win if the current trains keep running, you need to shake things up. You need to change the situation in such a way that you will be able to catch up. And a weapon is ready at hand—make the current trains obsolete by buying a new train! If your opponents are out-earning you by running fists full of 2-trains, buy a 4-train and stop the insanity. The benefit of the purchase is both your increased earnings and your opponents’ decreased earnings.

Even the player who is currently winning may buy a new train. This can happen if it’s clear that someone is going to buy a new train. If it’s going to happen anyway, it may be better to do it yourself than to let someone else do it (even though it kills the trains that were helping you more than anyone else.)

It is the timing of train buying that drives most 18XX games—that serves as the timing mechanism. No matter what the game situation, someone has an incentive to change things by buying a train. Even if the purchase hurts the buyer, it may still be worth making because it hurts other players more. Of course, there are still timing issues to consider—when do you buy that new train? And how do you set up a situation in which doing so works to your best advantage? But these are things you will be able to work out as you play the games.

Of course, 18XX games involve more than just train buying. In most titles, players cannot buy and run trains—players must buy stock in companies that buy and run trains. So when asking who will benefit most if the 2-trains keep running, you need to ask which companies are benefiting and who owns stock in those companies. Stations and track on the map also matter because a company that is well situated on the map can run a given type of train for more money than one that is not. But these details, which differ from one 18XX title to another, are things that strategy gamers will pick up readily. Starship Merchants, an upcoming game by Joe Huber and Tom Lehmann, has 18XX’s train (spaceship) buying and obsolescence mechanism without the stock or map, and despite these omissions it has some of the feel of 18XX.


Example

I have taught 1846: The Race for the Midwest in settings in which every other player was new to 18XX. While I’d do it again if necessary, these teaching games can be problematic. Let me give a few examples.

There are five 2-trains in a 3-player game of 1846: The Race for the Midwest. After the initial Stock Round, suppose my company will operate last. Each of my inexperienced opponents has his or her company buy one 2-train. I then have my company buy the last three 2-trains. Of course my company earns far more, and they look at me as though I’m taking advantage of new players. I could avoid this by telling them what to do, but I find it obnoxious to do so unless they ask for advice. Furthermore, though at this point their objective should be to eliminate my 2-trains as soon as possible by buying newer trains, they typically don’t recognize either the problem or the counter-measure.

Alternatively, if my company operates first, I have my company buy three 2-trains. My opponents see that there are only two 2-trains left, with the next set of trains costing significantly more money. Here too they feel somewhat taken advantage of. Even if I lead off by buying only two 2-trains, the fact that there are three left can lead one new player to feel as though the other new player got a lucky break.

In practice, none of the new players in the examples I have given was in a terrible situation (though it’s not usually optimal to buy only one 2-train at the start of 1846: The Race for the Midwest.) In a game with several experienced players beginners can look around, see various strategies in use, and pick something reasonable. If there’s only one experienced player, it’s harder to learn.


New gamer recommendations

If you are a new 18XX player in a group that includes more experienced players, watch how the experienced players use train buying to drive the timing of the game, and don’t be afraid to do it yourself if you don’t think you’re winning. If you are in a group of all new players, or mostly new players, I recommend the following rule of thumb: When in doubt, buy a new train. Often you will be right. Even if you’re not right, you will learn more by buying a new train (sacrificing income where needed to do so.) And at the very least, you will keep the game moving along. An 18XX game in which players don’t push the trains is like a guitar whose strings have no tension—bland, completely disappointing, and nothing like what the experience was supposed to be.

I participate in activities other than board gaming. I am also a challenge square dancer, and in the past I did change ringing. In these hobbies it is standard practice to teach beginners by mixing them with experienced people so they can learn by observing. It must be true in other activities too—learning to row is probably much harder if the other rowers in the boat are also brand new.

It’s true that board gamers are competing against the other players in the game, unlike in the other activities. In an 18XX game, if a beginner plays against experienced players, it is fairly unlikely that he or she will win the first game. But it’s more important to be playing a game that progresses as games with experienced players do, and that ends in a reasonable amount of time.
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I'm sorry, how is Outpost an 18xx game? Are you sure you've got the right game?

Outpost is a production game where you buy factories that produce revenue so you can buy points. There are not stocks and no trains.

BOb
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Great article!
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I'd wager he meant 1846: The Race for the Midwest, rather than Outpost. Extended cut-and-paste error, or something.
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Eric Brosius
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pilotbob wrote:
I'm sorry, how is Outpost an 18xx game? Are you sure you've got the right game?


Thanks for the catch, Bob! I was typing the gameid from memory and substituted one favorite game's ID for another.
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Andy Latto
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Speaking as one of the players in one of the three player learning games you describe, I completely understood that I needed to buy trains or I would lose badly, and was trying to buy trains as fast as I possibly could without bankrupting my company. My options seemed to me to be either saving for another turn, and buying a train later, or selling so many shares of my company to the bank pool that my company ownership was incredibly diluted, and even if my company did well, I would still lose badly. Mostly it seemed to me that any way I could find to finance train buying left me in a postion where you could buy up almost as much of "my" company as I owned myself; I couldn't foresee what would happen if I saved up for another turn, but I knew that if the situation was that there was one company you owned all of, and one company that you and I owned virtually equal amounts of, there was no possible way I could.

It felt to me like what I needed to do wasn't "buy a train", so much as "when deciding what company to start at what par price, look ahead three turns, predicting who will buy what, and make sure that you will have sufficient cash reserves to buy enough trains to improve your situation". Maybe there's some way to make rough estimates, but I couldn't figure out a way to do so that was accurate enough that I didn't feel like I was in a hopelessly lost position by turn 2.
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It is not as simple as always buying tains. The dial goes both ways. Games can be lost as readily by buying too many trains, or the wrong train at the wrong time, as from not buying a train at that key moment. That said, Eric is quite right: newbies most commonly lose games by being timid train buyers.
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Eric Brosius
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andylatto wrote:
It felt to me like what I needed to do wasn't "buy a train", so much as "when deciding what company to start at what par price, look ahead three turns, predicting who will buy what, and make sure that you will have sufficient cash reserves to buy enough trains to improve your situation".


This is a good observation. I agree that deciding what company to start, and at what price, is a difficult and non-obvious decision.

Tom Lehmann made a few posts in the following thread discussing this:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/534986

I'm an experienced 1846: The Race for the Midwest player, and I make this decision more by feel than by calculation. Your opponents can manipulate the situation so as to try to make your decision wrong (it's a bit like a multi-player log rolling contest, where each player tries to knock everyone else off balance.) I've concluded that:

(1) If you par your company too low, you will be a rich player saddled with a weak company (and this is especially likely to happen if trains are bought quickly.)

(2) If you par your company too high, you will be a poor player with a small share of a strong company (and this is especially likely to happen if trains are bought slowly.)

[It's a bit like playing Lost Cities, where if you start a lot of expeditions, your opponent makes the game go too quickly for you, but if you discard instead and start only a few expeditions, your opponent makes the game go too slowly for you.]

I've made both mistakes multiple times, and I will make them again. So I don't think there's any way to tell a beginner what the "right" answer is. If asked, I could perhaps give general advice like "you probably should start between $X and $Y a share in your situation," or I could say "here's what I think I would do in your situation," but that's as far as I can go.

In my very first 1846: The Race for the Midwest game, I started my company too low and spent most of the game flailing as I tried to obtain a permanent train for it. In another early game, I over-corrected by starting the IC at $137. I wound up losing the Presidency to another player because I wasn't earning money fast enough. But I was having fun trying to get it just right, and it wasn't too long before I managed to win a game. I think a learning process something like this is almost inevitable not only in 1846: The Race for the Midwest, but in any 18XX title.
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Andy Latto
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What do you mean by "a poor player" and "a rich player"? I thought that it was almost always right to spend almost all one's money buying stock, so that no player ever had money.
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By "Rich" and "poor", Eric is probably referring to the player's net worth, which is how valuable the player's assets are - and not how much money they had.

In most games, parring your own companies high will mean you have less money left over to buy stocks in other companies after floating (in an 1830 branch game). Early in the game, the number of shres are much more important than the quality of the shares, as the differences in the payouts won't be that different.

In '46 this is particularly important because of the partial capitalization model - because unsold shares pay to the company, every share in player hands (including yours!) weakens the company's long term prospects, and parring low means that it ould be a lot easier for your opponents to buy shares in your company to weaken it.
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Eric Brosius
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andylatto wrote:
What do you mean by "a poor player" and "a rich player"?


I'm referring to the amount the player is collecting in dividends each OR (and hence to that player's ability to purchase additional shares in the SR.) If you have just a few shares, unless they are paying way more than the shares of people who have more, they will be able to buy more shares and amplify the problem.

Your comment,

Quote:
I knew that if the situation was that there was one company you owned all of, and one company that you and I owned virtually equal amounts of, there was no possible way I could.


is the situation in which can find oneself that I'm describing as being "a poor player". This can happen even though the company you're running is doing great.

I believe there are winning strategies that lean somewhat toward the "rich player, poor company" side and others that lean more toward the "poor player, rich company" side, with the mix affected by various factors, such as what privates you (and your opponents) have, what approaches your opponents take, and so on. But if you go too far in either direction, it's hard to win.
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Eric Brosius wrote:

I believe there are winning strategies that lean somewhat toward the "rich player, poor company" side and others that lean more toward the "poor player, rich company" side, with the mix affected by various factors, such as what privates you (and your opponents) have, what approaches your opponents take, and so on. But if you go too far in either direction, it's hard to win.


That "approaches your opponents take" is, of course, the more subtle yet the more interesting for replayability. I just lost to Eric in a 4-player game by < $200 at TotalCon because I bet on somone else that faded quickly. Eric didn't, and the small difference early I think meant the difference at the end.
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andylatto wrote:

It felt to me like what I needed to do wasn't "buy a train", so much as "when deciding what company to start at what par price, look ahead three turns, predicting who will buy what, and make sure that you will have sufficient cash reserves to buy enough trains to improve your situation". Maybe there's some way to make rough estimates, but I couldn't figure out a way to do so that was accurate enough that I didn't feel like I was in a hopelessly lost position by turn 2.


There is definitely a lot of factors that go into making a company work, and getting a feel (as Eric puts it) for them all is not easy. I tend to struggle with share prices and balancing the immediate need for trains vs. having money for expensive trains later.

I don't see that there's much of a way to get better other than to play a lot.
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A big part of the problem is players only buying what their company can usefully use, rather than playing to beat the other players.

Also too many players use companies as if they owned 100% of them, when instead they can be leveraged and looted, or even sabotaged and used as an attack on another player's position.

18xx is much more interactive than most Euros, and I suspect a lot of players are used to playing heads down to get as many points for themselves as possible, rather than playing defensively.
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Quote:
The benefit of the purchase is both your increased earnings and your opponents’ decreased earnings. [...] Even if the purchase hurts the buyer, it may still be worth making because it hurts other players more.


It doesn't matter how little profit you're getting if it's more than everyone else :-)
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Is it safe to say that at any point in a game of 'xx, it can be declared that if things don't change, some player "X" will win?
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Yes, but time is a significant factor. There are two factors: asset value and appreciation rate. Those two plotted over time track the development of the player's position. It is important to know and understand the implications of both those values for each player's position.
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Could this game state, then, be proclaimed at the end of each OR with no ill will from players? If the potential for stagnation is a common problem in games with less experienced players, then why not key everyone in on the situation at hand?
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Last night in 1830 I bought a pile of 2-trains that I never ran; that won me the game. (Well, I won, and that decision helped.) In an ongoing 1817 game online I bought a train I had no way to run in part because I desperately wanted to lay a piece of green track in the next OR.

I'll admit to normally being a timid train-buyer, but I'm trying to change that...
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garygarison wrote:
Could this game state, then, be proclaimed at the end of each OR with no ill will from players? If the potential for stagnation is a common problem in games with less experienced players, then why not key everyone in on the situation at hand?


The problem is that in many/most cases the current state is not enough. It also needs to account what could/will happen in an OR set or two. This is effectively no different from recognising the same future potentials, and thus the predictive constraints that need be applied, in the auctions of cards in economic snowball games ala Phoenicia or Outpost.
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Knowing nothing about anything, and in particular having never played 1846: The Race for the Midwest, I would suggest part of the challenge is not with 18xx but with specifically 1846.

1830: Railways & Robber Barons has a wide variety of interesting challenges, but deciding what to par your new corporation at is not one of them. If this is what was killing Andy the answer might be to start off with a different 18xx game until you're a little more experienced.

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dkeisen wrote:
Knowing nothing about anything, and in particular having never played 1846: The Race for the Midwest, I would suggest part of the challenge is not with 18xx but with specifically 1846.

1830: Railways & Robber Barons has a wide variety of interesting challenges, but deciding what to par your new corporation at is not one of them. If this is what was killing Andy the answer might be to start off with a different 18xx game until you're a little more experienced.



Of course, reading the above thread, Tom states plainly that he intended 1846 to be suitable for beginners as it doesn't have some features such as the initial auction which are naturally going to challenge players new to the system.
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clearclaw wrote:
The problem is that in many/most cases the current state is not enough. It also needs to account what could/will happen in an OR set or two.


More specifically, 18xx is interactive in a way that other games are not -- you're not just competing for resources (as in many Euro games) or directly attacking each other (as in conflict games), you are collectively determining what resources are there to be exploited, with big winners and big losers possible each step of the way. The ramifications are much more multifaceted than the Puerto Rico player's "If I do Craftsman, the players to my left will get the best benefits from the Captain and Merchant roles."
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There's actually a significant resemblance between buying trains in 18XX and attacking an opponent's legion in Titan. It seems to many new players like a risky move, but it's often the right thing to do. And even if it doesn't increase your winning chances, it will help you learn faster, not only by making the games shorter so you can play more often, but by getting you involved in the rough and tumble of game play.

"If you're not rubbing, you're not racing!"

"1000 games to shodan"
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One really great way to learn 'xx (though it won't be 'fun'
for the newbs) is to play a clean game like 1830 (or 18AL)
in only 2-3 players with (only) one very experienced player.

I've had very bright people not 'get' the full depth until they
can see the control which can be exercised in its most obvious raw
form; and seen them walk away from that experience suddenly understanding,
and able to compete at the very highest levels. Sitting at a table with
a mix of skilled and unskilled players often obfuscates how much a
single (or two) players can really drive where the game is going.

It was a lot of fun to play as a n00b though, all of us discovering
the intricacies of decision making in this game - so don't disparage
if you have no one to teach you.
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