Stuart Dagger
September 1997

A Beginner's Guide 18xx

This guide is intended for people who are either new or fairly new to the 18xx series of games. Its purpose is to tell you something about the history of the game, to give you some idea of the best places to start and, if you have already started, to indicate what might be a good title to try next. The focus will be solely on games that have been published by professional companies. This is partly to keep some measure of control on the length of the article and partly because I believe that it is on this list that you will find the best entry points to the series. For information on the other titles, many of which are fine and handsomely produced games, you must look at the individual game pages elsewhere on the site. These individual game pages will also provide you with further information on the games I shall be looking at.

With one, maybe two, exceptions, the 18xx games are railway games and at their heart is the fact that two, not always compatible, things are happening simultaneously. The first is that on a map of a country or region a group of competing railway companies are trying to operate as profitably as possible. To do this they will build networks (by laying tiles on a hexagonal grid) and they will buy trains and stations. As the game progresses they will also have to cope with the fact that the early trains that they bought become obsolete and need to be replaced. The money needed for these replacements comes from the company's earnings and that brings me to the second key component of the games. These are not games where each player runs a company. Instead each company issues shares and has its activities determined by a managing director (the person with the largest number of shares in the company). The decisions taken cover such things as where the company builds its track, where it establishes its stations, when it invests in new trains and what it does with its earnings. Do they go in dividends to the shareholders or are they retained for company use? If a player was only ever managing director of one company, these decisions would be interesting enough but would come down to exercising judgement on how best to make the shareholders wealthy while keeping the company profitable, but 18xx is a game of conflicting interests and it frequently happens that a player will be the managing director of more than one company. This is where things get dirty. A player's ultimate objective is to end up richer than all the other players and it often happens that what is best for the managing director's wealth is not the same as what is best for a particular company's profitability. This can cause a certain amount of distress to the minor shareholders as they see the company in which they have invested being exploited for the benefit of another company that just happens to have the same managing director.

From this you will have gathered that these are fairly sophisticated business games and that they can get rough. They are also not short. The playing time varies from title to title and from one playing group to another, but for most of them you should reckon on about four hours, and longer if you are all new to the game. On the other side of the balance is the fact that these are games where beginners can sit down with more experienced players and still have an enjoyable time. You won't win, but if your opponents are reasonable human beings, the fact that every company has several shareholders means that your opponents will be able to give you disinterested advice without compromising their own chances.

How 1829, the first of the series, came to be designed is a fascinating and entertaining story that its designer, Francis Tresham, told in a British boardgames magazine, Games Review Monthly, about ten years ago. For here, suffice it to say that it began as a game about airlines and over the course of over ten years changed its subject matter and almost everything else until in 1975 it finally made it into print as the first game from a new company called Hartland Trefoil Ltd. The new company was Francis, his brother and a couple of friends. The name comes from the year of the Rainhill Trials, the public contest held by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway to choose an engine for its proposed new passenger line between the North West of England's two major cities. This was an innovative project. There had been railways before the Liverpool & Manchester, but they were short haul affairs based on collieries and the trucks were drawn either by horses or by a system of stationary engines. This was to be a 35 mile run with a double line, trains running in both directions, intermediate stations and a regular timetable. In short, it was to be the world's first real passenger railway. The trials were won, and won easily, by another great innovation, Stephenson's Rocket. 1829 the game was also something completely new, which is, of course, why it was firmly rejected by the major games company that Francis showed it to and why he and his friends had to form Hartland in order to get it published.

The map for 1829 shows most of Southern Britain, from the Channel coast up as far as Preston and Hull. There are 10 major companies, four private railways and five steam packets. The stock market is fairly simple, simpler than we have become used to since. Each company has its own row on the chart and its share price moves up one notch when the company pays a dividend and down one when it doesn't. Sales of shares do not affect share prices and neither does having all your shares in player hands. The effect is rather processional and this is one of the things that Chris and others are referring to when they describe the game as "linear". The other is that the major companies become available in a fixed order, with the shares in a company only coming on stream when all those in its predecessor have been sold. This was done to ensure that the companies come out in historical order, but it does have the drawback that a player may have to wait quite some time before getting the opportunity to run a company. Fortunately, it is not difficult to modify these two features by means of house rules if you and your friends don't like their effects. Within a couple of years of the game's publication my group was using a more sophisticated share price movement rule based on price/earnings ratios. This gave us a game that provided us with a great deal of pleasure over a large number of years and we never felt the need to tamper with the other rule. However, you could do it easily enough, and without inflicting major violence on British railway history, if you felt differently. There seems little point in discussing how in this article, since, after a good long run, 1829 went out of print about 5 or 6 years ago, but if you own a copy and are interested in exchanging ideas, feel free to contact me. In 1982 Hartland released a a second version of the game using a "northern board". This had a different collection of companies and a map that ran from Inverness down to Birmingham, but was otherwise the same game. This too is out of print.

The second game to be designed was 1853, a game about the railways of the Indian subcontinent. Francis used to take this to games conventions in the late seventies and early eighties as a treat for the fans, but it was about ten years before it made it into print and for that reason I shall defer discussion of it for the moment. In the publication queue it was overtaken by the game that took 18xx across the Atlantic. This was 1830.

The people at Avalon Hill knew about 1829 and enjoyed playing it among themselves, but they seem to have felt, and probably rightly, that a game about the railway companies of 19th century Britain would not be a big seller in the States. They were more optimistic about Hartland's and Francis's follow-up game to 1829, the equally innovative Civilization. They snapped up the US licence for this one very soon after the game's publication in Britain. That put the two companies in close contact and so when AH heard that Francis had some ideas for an American game along the lines of 1829, they expressed an enthusiastic interest. The result was 1830 and it was published in 1986.

The map shows the North East corner of the United States, together with a strip of Canada. It runs from the Atlantic Coast across to Chicago and from the northern shores of the Great Lakes down to Baltimore. The basic structure of the game is the same, but with four important differences of detail, all of which were introduced to give players a feel for the early history of the American Railways. The men who ran the 19th century railway companies in Britain were aggressive but honest businessmen; their American counterparts were frequently crooks, men who thought nothing of manipulating share prices in order to defraud investors or of milking a company treasury before dumping the resulting husk on an unsuspecting buyer. Three of the four changes are designed to give the players opportunities for similar pieces of sharp practice. The first of these concerns the private railway companies that, as in 1829, are sold off at the beginning of the game. In 1829 they pay a dividend to their owner for as long as he chooses to keep them open. And that is all. In 1830 they pay dividends to their owners as before, but they can also be sold to a major company, usually for more than they are worth, thereby enabling the company president to divert company funds into his own private pocket. The second concerns the stockmarket. The basic 1829 mechanism of "shares that pay dividends increase in value; shares that don't pay dividends decrease" remains, but the share price of a company is now also hit if players sell shares. A lot of tactics result from the opportunities that this provides to hit your opponents in the pocket. The third is that, unlike in 1829, the Bank will no longer take a bankrupt company off your hands. Once a company is launched, it can't not have a player as president, no matter how bad a state it is in. The result is that you have to very careful when investing in a company you don't control, as the president might find a way to rob the treasury and then sell his shares, leaving you as the new president, with all the liabilities that that entails. The fourth change is not about knavery but to do with the fact that history did not impose a pecking order on American railway companies of the sort that you got with British ones. To simulate this, the companies in 1830 do not become available in a pre-set order; instead all are available simultaneously at the start, a good consequence of which is that you don't have to wait as often as you might find yourself doing in 1829 in order to get the opportunity to run a company. 1830 is still in print and also exists as a computer game with pretty good AI.

1853 finally reached the shops in 1989 and, like 1830, is still available. On the front of the box it describes itself as "a game for engineers who've had enough of the financiers" and that gives a fair description of its flavour. The railway development of Imperial India took place under the careful eye of a colonial government. A Vanderbilt would not have been tolerated and a Gould would have found himself in gaol. Consequently, the financial manipulations of 1830 would not be appropriate and are not to be found. The stock market goes back to the basic model used in 1829 and there are no private companies you can use to loot company funds. Instead you have a game that focuses much more on the rivalry between the companies. Interest on the building side is added by the use of both standard and narrow gauge track, mail contracts and Government paid bonuses for building to the frontier. There is also an initial "bidding for contracts" sequence which determines which group of companies are in play from the start, the others following one at a time once all the shares in this initial group have been sold. Some quite interesting play results from these initial bids, but their primary benefit is that, under normal circumstances and provided you are not playing with too many players, each player should have the opportunity to run a company from the beginning. In a game where the main interest lies in running the companies this is important.

The reputation of 1853 has followed a curious path. People spent ten years clamouring for its publication and then, almost as soon as it was finally published, many of them decided that they didn't like it after all. This is the sort of thing that must have game designers and publishers heading for the nearest source of hard liquor. The criticism came from two directions. The first was from players who had fallen in love with the financial tricks and aggression that characterise 1830. They found the game dull and said so very loudly. Many of them are still saying it. Why, one wonders, did they not read what it says on the front of the box? Lambasting a game for not being something that it never claimed to be is foolish. The second and more considered criticism came from players who found that the contract bid mechanism wasn't quite working in the way that Francis had intended and who also felt that the companies weren't quite as well balanced as one would like in a game which is primarily about the companies. Two fixes for this are in circulation. The first to appear, about a year after 1853 was published, was from Steve Jones and myself. It can be found on the web. The second came a couple of years later and is from Francis himself. It comes in the form of a small extension kit containing some extra share certificates and a leaflet with the rule modifications. Either try one of the British game shops that does mail order or write to Hartland.

A year after 1853 came the first of the non-Tresham designs. This was 1835, designed by Michael Meier-Bachl and published by Hans im Glück. The setting is Germany and if you have any interest in history, you will be aware that during the railway age Germany went from being a loose collection of independent mini-states to the powerful and unified country that we know today. What Edward the Elder and Athelstan did for England in the third decade of the tenth century, Bismarck did for Germany in the 1860's. This provides the game with a strong background story line and it exploits it cleverly. To the private and major companies that we were familiar with from the earlier games the designer added a third type, the "minor companies". Like the private companies, each of these has a sole owner, but, like the major companies, they lay track and buy trains. Then in mid-game they merge to form what quickly becomes the most powerful company on the board, the Prussian railway.

The financial side of 1835 is pitched midway between 1830 and 1829. As in 1830, share prices fall when stock is sold, but the rule that governs the fall is not so severe as that used in 1830. But if 1835 is closer to 1830 in its share market, it is closer to 1829 in its handling of the private companies. They can not be sold on to major companies at inflated prices; instead they either close or are absorbed by the Prussian in mid-game. The major companies appear in batches and this, together with the existence of the minor companies, means that everyone is involved in all aspects of the game --- share buying, track building and train buying --- right from the start.

The publication of 1835 seemed to be the event that opened the floodgates. Previously, all the games had been designed by Francis; now people seemed to realise that others could join in. The most important of the designs that followed were 1856 and 1870, the two games designed by Bill Dixon and published by Mayfair. These are both firmly in the tradition of 1830 in that all the financial tricks that characterise that game are here also, together with some extra ones that Bill came up with to enliven things even further. Good games both and you can find full descriptions on their individual pages.

OK, so you are interested, where do you start? If what appeals to you is the idea of a aggressive stockmarket game where the railway companies are the tools that you will use to try and drive your opponents into bankruptcy, go for 1830. The experts may have moved on to 1856, but that is because they have been playing 1830 for ten years and were looking for a new challenge. 1830 is the game that turned them into experts and it could do the same for you. Its advantage over the later titles is that it is shorter. My group can play each of the games I have covered in this article inside four hours, but we are fast players. Many groups, even of experienced players, take a good bit longer and newcomers certainly will. Once you have mastered the rules, 1830 will take 3-4 hours and so can be played in an evening by people who have beds to go to that night and jobs to go to the following morning. If (when?) 1830 has converted you into a fan, decide what aspect of the game you would like to see having more emphasis. If the financial side, try 1856 with its loans and company bankruptcies; if you want to do more track building while not sacrificing the interesting stock market manoeuvres, go for 1870; if you want a slightly toned down stock market and a good historical flavour, 1b35 could be what you are looking for.

1830 is one suitable place to start; the other is 1825, the game that Hartland published as a replacement for 1829. This game has not proved popular with expert players. They, and I include myself here, were expecting a new game with lots of new ideas and aimed at 18xx's core market; what they got was a cut-down version of 1829 aimed at a beginner's market. However, the very aspects that disappointed the experts could be exactly what you are looking for: 1825 is a basic, no frills 18xx that takes about two hours to play. This makes it a suitable vehicle for learning the basic system, as well as being a pleasant game for people who don't want the intensity that comes with most of the bigger games. From 1825 suitable progressions would be to 1830 or 1835 if you wanted more stockmarket interest and to 1853 if you were content with the stockmarket but wanted more on the building side and the early opportunity for everybody to have a company to run. You could also wait for the planned extensions and expansions for 1825 which will turn it into a bigger (and therefore longer) as well as a more complex game.

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Last Updated 3rd August 2001