What happened? For years, 1830 was the only rail game of its type published in the U.S. Others— Britain's 1829, Germany's 1835— were available overseas, but uncommon Stateside. Now, in the blink of an eye, a host of new games have joined the 18xx series. Why now? Why all at once? I haven't the foggiest. But here, Brian Bankler takes a quick look at the whole family of tile-laying, stock-manipulating railroad games.
Francis Tresham's 1829 game spawned one of the biggest and most popular genres in modern gaming -- the 18xx series of games. Each game sets the players the goal of earning the most money by managing one (or more) train companies. For the last decade or so, only 1830 (by Avalon Hill) was available in the US. However, this has changed in the last year or two. 1835, set in Germany, was imported by Mayfair games about 2 years ago. And recently, three new games have been added to the series: 1856 (which is in Canada), 1870 (set in the MidWestern US) and 2038 (set in the asteroid belt!). 2038 is made by TimJim games, while the other two are made by Mayfair. 1835 is made by Hans im Gluck and imported by Mayfair.
For those who haven't played 1830 (or one of the other 18xx games) before, an overview. The game is divided into two types of rounds: stock rounds and operating rounds. In the stock round, the players may (in order) buy or sell shares of the various public companies. Players may only buy one share on their turn, but may sell as many as they like. This continues until all players are satisfied with their position and pass. Then the game has one, two or three operating rounds, the exact number dependend on the current point in the game.
In each operating round, each company may lay track (which is done by placing a hex on the board), claim a station (or railhead) then determine it's income. It's income is based on the number of stops the company can reach, which is in turn dependent on the track, the companies railheads, and the number (and type) of trains the company has. After the income is determined, the company may pay dividends (to the shareholders) or put the money on the companies treasury. Paying income will drive the price of the stock up, while withholding the money will lower the price. Finally, the company may purchase trains or small companies called private companies (which do not have turns, and are typically auctioned off at the beginning of the game). All of the company's decisions are made by the majority shareholder. Trains are limited in number, and get better as the game goes on. However, with this change the older trains become obsolete and must be replaced. If a company has no trains, the president must typically buy a train with his personal money, which could lead to bankruptcy. The game ends when a player goes bankrupt or on the turn when the bank runs out of money. The player with the most net worth (cash plus stock value) wins.
There are more rules, but the rest of the rules tend to vary from game to game in the series. The main appeal of the 18xx series is that the only luck in the game is determined by seating order. In the rest of the game, chance plays no part (with the exception of 2038). Despite the lack of luck, the games are very different, because of the previously mentioned 'small changes.' Going through the games in chronological order for a synopsis review:
1830 was the game I and most of my friends started with. 1830 is probably the most brutal game of the series, and has a true feel of robber-barons. Companies can be easily looted and 'dumped' by the president (transferring money and/or trains out of the company then selling off shares before any of the other shareholders can, thereby giving the presidency to another player, which may force them to purchase a train with their own money). The map is fairly small and companies can easily cut off other companies from lucrative markets (such as New York). The 'theme' of 1830 is brutal competition, both in the stock market and on the board.
1835 is set in Germany. Unlike the other 18xx games, 1835 forces the players to open the companies in a set order. This, in my mind, leads to each game feeling very similar. The sprawling map also means that companies aren't in the instant competition that you find in some of the other games. The stock market, which allows for wild swings in 1830, is a bit more stable. Selling off a large percentage of the company does not drive the stock value down as much as in the other games, so there is less room for maneuvering in the marketplace. 1835 introduced the concept of "minor" railroads (who operate on the map, but do not have shares on the stock market and are instead owned wholly by one player). Typically, the person who gets more than their fair share of minor companies wins the game, because of good earnings and having more influence on the tiles on the board. In addition, 1835 takes much longer than the other games. Experienced players can play most games of the series in 3-5 hours, but 1835 takes about 5-7 hours. All of these points make 1835 my least favorite of the series. If I had to pick a theme for this game, I would have to say subtle maneuvering. Some players of the series really like the small tricks in the game; but, I am not one of those people.
1856, set in Canada, is a fairly forgiving game. Unlike any other game in the series, companies may take out loans. However, players start with very little cash, and unlike the other games of the series, companies do not get all of the cash from sales of shares when the open. 1856 is a fight to capitalize your companies. Since the companies are typically under-funded, looting them (like in 1830) is much less profitable. In addition, while companies that take out loans may be on the verge of bankruptcy, these companies can choose to fold into the Canadian National Railroad, so new players always have an easy way to avoid bankruptcy. 1856 also has a plethora of companies to choose from: there are 11 companies as compared to 8 in 1830, 35 and 2038.
1870 is set in the Midwest, and the most recent release in the genre. The first thing I noticed is the huge sprawling board. Companies have a lot of ground to cover, but the companies are forced to interact by the 'destination rule.' Each company has a destination on the board. While this is also true in 1856, in 1870 the destination is very far away, usually the length of the board. While reaching a destination isn't required, there are significant bonuses for doing so. These leads the companies into conflict as they try to reach their destination and simultaneously cut off their competitors from doing so. 1870 also has other new rules which allow presidents to 'protect' the stock value of their company when other players sell. This rule also changes the turn order in the stock rounds. While there is still no chance, the order can jump around the table. This makes planning much more difficult and makes dumping companies harder to plan. I have only played this game once, but it seems to be a good game.
2038 is basically an 18xx game in space. However, 2038 is significantly different from the other games in that the map changes from game to game. Players explore the asteroid belt, building the map as they go. This makes 2038 the first game of the series to have a significant luck factor, which some people may like and some people may not. The biggest failing of the game, in my opinions, is that the order in which the companies start up is, while not fixed, significantly controlled and that the minor companies, which I felt may have unbalanced 1835, are also here and are also a very dominant factor in the game. I'm not yet convinced that control of more minor companies is the only path to victory, but it is certainly a viable path.
I haven't yet seen the re-release of 1829, which is supposed to have modules (much like Advanced Squad Leader) that add more and more companies and maps to the game. The basic module allows 4-5 players, and each module makes the game bigger, and allows for more players. From what I have heard of the original 1829, it was a huge game, with very little emphasis on the stock market and more emphasis on track laying. Trains had two different 'gauges' of track and a train of one gauge could not run on the other type of track. In addition, there are 18xx games (the exact numbers escape me) set in Italy. However, these games have a very small print run and I have not yet been willing to pay the high prices associated with ordering directly from Italy. Perhaps another reader can inform us about them.
All in all, I enjoy the 18xx series. The reviews of these new games should be taken with a grain of salt, however. Because the games have come out so fast, I have been unable to play each game more than a few times, and I've only played 1870 once. If you are considering getting one of
these games, then I would suggest starting with 1856 or 1870. The rules for those games are well written, they are readily available (in the US anyway), and they are probably the 'friendliest' for the new player. Unless you are a hard-core fan of the series, I would avoid 1835, and the Italian series (and 1829) may be too expensive. 2038 is a decision that depends on your tastes, I still haven't made up my mind whether it's a good game, but it's definitely in the middle of the pack. Anyway, if you like business games or stock games, you should definitely try to play one of the most played series of games in the world...