18US is a complicated game. Now, I believe that complicated games need components that guide players through the different states of the game, help them see the current status and simplify keeping track of the various special rules. So in this review I suggest several ways that the components of 18US might be improved in this regard. I am not judging the quality of production (which is DTG's usual standard) or how pretty the graphics are. While the review might give you some indication of what the game is like to play, that is not my primary aim.
Types of companies
18US is almost two 18xx games in one. If you were to describe it in terms of football (soccer), you could say that it is a game of two halves plus extra time. The game begins in the East, with the purchase of concessions (equivalent to private companies in other 18XX games) and then major companies. About 1/3 of the way through, a second game begins in the West, with an auction of new concessions and the purchaser of different major companies. About 2/3 through the game, the Eastern and Western companies meet and have the option of merging.
This is particularly tricky because the different types of companies have different abilities and special rules. The Eastern companies are like fairly conventional 18xx companies except that they begin with 4 shares and can gain a fifth share when they lay track that connects to the midwest. In contrast, the Western companies begin as Land Grant companies which need not own a train and can pay shareholders just for laying track. Eastern and Western companies can convert to ten-share companies, and two ten-share companies can merge to form "systems". Different rules apply to different types of company, so for example four-share companies cannot lay brown tiles, ten-share companies can jump two spaces on the stock market, players may only own three shares in four-share and five-share companies but may own all the available shares in ten-share companies, and so on.
So how do the components keep track of which companies have four shares, five shares, ten shares, land grant or system? Well, as companies grow, they get extra station tokens. These extra tokens are laid out in a special chart on the map until companies need them. So you can tell whether an Eastern company has five shares by looking to see whether it has taken the corresponding token.
This is not very clear. For our second game, I made some status certificates which we put on the company charters to show their current status. As well as using text and colour to clearly show what sort of company it was, each certificate listed the special rules that apply to that sort of company. We found these certificates showed the status of each company more clearly.
As an aside, the company charters as supplied also include spaces for all the tokens that a company may have during the course of the game. This is a little confusing, as some of them start on the special chart and are taken straight from there to be placed on the board. If the game used status certificates instead of the chart, all the tokens
could be placed on the charters and this confusion would disappear.
Types of train
There are four different types of train in 18US. The game begins with classic trains, which count the number of cities and add income from any towns they run through. In addition, any company that runs a classic train adds a "fixed freight bonus", unless it also runs a goods train. The later trains are either express trains, which ignore towns and get a bonus if they run coast-to-coast, or goods trains, which ignore track altogether and just count income from stations with tokens, adding a bonus for each such station. There are also commuter trains, which run only one or two hexes.
It can be complicated to keep track of the different bonuses that apply. This might have been easier had each train certificate included a reminder of the bonus that applies - fixed freight, coast-to-coast, or per station marker. The commuter trains do show a graphic to remind players of how they work, which I found useful.
In our first game, we kept forgetting the fixed freight bonus. For our second game, I tried to address this by creating a new certificate. I reasoned that this bonus was akin to having an extra train in the company, as it is received once per company instead of once per train. So my idea is that each company takes a fixed freight certificate when it first buys a classic train, and adds the bonus to its income as long as it has the certificate. (It discards the certificate if it loses its last classic train or buys a goods train). This seemed to help, although of course we might just have remembered the rule better because we were more familiar with the game.
When a land grant company reaches its destination, it receives a "golden spike" bonus. The size of the bonus is determined by how many yellow tiles it lays before it reaches its destination and before the first 4E/3G train. Each company records the bonus it will be due on a special part of the stock market. This is slightly confusing, because this bonus has nothing to do with the rest of the stock market and I think the track should have been kept separate.
For our second game, I created a certificate to place below the first 4E/3G train. This is a reminder to stop increasing the golden spike bonus from that time onwards, something which is otherwise easy to forget. This definitely helped us remember this rule.
The Pacific Railway Act
The western half of the game is triggered in two stages. The concessions are auctioned after the first 4 train is bought. One of these concessions is the Pacific Railway Act; the land grant companies are only available when someone buys this concession. At this point, there is a special rule that converts the remaining unsold 4 trains into 2G trains. Also, in the next operating round (only), companies may upgrade their 4 trains to 2G trains.
The game phase track does include a couple of graphics to remind players of some of these changes. However, they are listed under the 3E/2G phase, whereas they actually happen before that.
Instead, I created another new certificate, to be placed with the Pacific Railway Act, which reminds players to flip the unsold 4 trains to 2G trains. This reminder can then be placed with those trains for one round, to indicate that 4 trains can be upgraded.
In the first part of the game, one unsold train is removed from the game at the end of each pair of operating rounds. In the last part of the game, ten-share companies may merge to form systems at the start of each stock round. It would be useful if the round record track included a space to remind players to perform these functions. One design that might work would be to add an extra space containing a question mark between the second OR box and the SR box.
If all the above changes were applied, the layout of charts on the map could probably be improved. There wouldn't be a need for all the token charts (although the one with the extra tokens for ten-share companies might still be useful), so the phase record chart would be moved there. Then the golden spike track could be taken off the stock market and put where the phase record used to be.
18US is a complicated game and in my opinion the components could do more to help players keep track of the different types of company and stages of play. The game would not be any less complicated; we still found it challenging to remember the different income bonuses from doubling tokens, coast-to-coast bonuses and goods bonuses. But even my home-made additions seemed to simplify the task of remembering which companies have how many shares, which tiles they can lay or upgrade, and so forth.