The 18xx games are a genre all to themselves. Essentially they are heavy train games, which involve you buying and selling shares in train companies and then running those companies to make as much money as you can.
There are literally dozens of different 18xx games. The reason they are called 18xx is because they all take place in the 1800s and each one is named after a different year (and place potentially). Yesterday, I spent the day (yes, they’re long!) playing 1846: The Race for the Midwest and had a great time.
If you’re happy playing longer games and you like economic games, there’s a good chance you’ll really enjoy the 18xx series. Let me tell you about them…
The original 18xx game was 1829, which I was introduced to as a child by my father. He and my uncle loved 1829, and while I was really too young to be able to play competitively, I enjoyed the experience and appreciated being able to spend time with my father doing something he loved.
Regardless of which 18xx game you play, they all have a number of elements in common. While you spend much of the game running train companies, a key idea to wrap your head around is the separation of your own personal money from the company’s money. This can be tricky at times.
You start the game with a pile of cash and you buy shares in a bunch of train companies. You can buy one share in lots of companies or buy lots of shares in one company, but once all the buying is done, whoever bought the most shares in each company controls that company.
All the money paid for the shares goes to the respective companies so if (and hopefully you do) you find yourself in control of a company, you have to keep the company’s money separate. The company’s money can be used for building railway tracks and buying trains, but your money can only be used for buying and selling shares. You can potentially end up running several companies at once so you have to be super careful if that happens.
The main board consists of a hex map with several key cities (stations) on and lots of space for building railroad tracks. Each company takes it in turns to build track in an attempt to connect stations. Then they buy trains and run their trains between the stations on their route.
Each station grants a certain amount of money in the income phase to the companies who run trains through it. The bigger the city, the more money the station provides. All of this money goes to the company, which then has a key decision to make. It can either issue a dividend, in which case the money that it made is divided amongst the shareholders (and goes into their personal money pot), or it can keep all the money and use it to build more track, buy better trains, increase the number of routes it services and make even more money in the next income phase.
Re-investing the money in the company might seem like a no-brainer, particularly to start with, but if the company issues a dividend the share price goes up and if it doesn’t the share price goes down (more or less). This is where much of the tricky decision-making comes in. Running a company is intoxicating: you build routes, buy trains and make more and more money! But at the end of the game, it is the person who has the most personal money who wins. Company money is worth nothing.
Shares are all sold off at the end though, so if you have a lot of shares in a company that didn’t make lots of money itself, but kept issuing dividends (increasing the value of the shares), then the shares could be worth a fortune. You really want to grow a company to a certain extent though: if it’s making a lot of money, then you can start issuing dividends and you will get a large chunk of that money.
It can be all too easy to get caught up running the company, but you are often better off selling off your shares at a certain point, buying cheap shares in another company that is just starting and then building that one up. Growing your share capital is key to victory. There is a lot more to the games, but those are the main elements.
The series is not without its faults. Games vary from 5 – 10 hours in length typically, which can be too long for most people. It is also very maths-heavy: if the company made £720 and you have 60% of the shares, you’re getting 60% of £720 when you issue a dividend. You frequently want to have a calculator to hand.
Calculating the best routes to run your trains on is also time-consuming, which can slow the game down and lead to a lot of downtime with higher player counts. If you’re subject to an aggressive takeover bid from another player (who buys more shares than you have in your company), you can find yourself without a company to run for a couple of rounds. That’s no fun.
However, played in the right spirit, with people who aren’t going to slow the game down too much, the 18xx games can be a really satisfying experience. Building up the companies and running the trains is great, but the layer of stockmarket wheeling and dealing on top of it really elevates it. If that appeals to you and you haven’t tried one yet, I highly recommend it!
Have you played any of the 18xx games? Which one is your favourite?