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1839 and 1850

3-8 players (1839); 2-4 players (1850)

designed by

reviewed by

These, as you will doubtless have already guessed, are two of the threatened flood of 18xx railway games. If you are not already an enthusiast for the system but were thinking of checking it out, they are not the place to start and you should move quickly on to the next item. What you want is almost certainly 1825, the new one from Hartland, and we are still waiting for that. However, if you are an enthusiast and don't mind the fact that these are superior game kits, rather than properly finished, play-from-the-box games, they are worth checking out, especially 1839. Both contain significant and interesting new ideas which will force you to rethink your strategies; they are not simply instances of an old game on new maps.

1839 is set in Northern Italy and the major new development it offers is a much greater range of financial options for companies. Companies can now own shares in themselves and in other companies; they can control, and can even found, other companies; and they can merge to form bigger companies. The way that this has been set up is by providing a mixture of major and minor companies, some historical and some non-historical. There are 24 companies in all, but in case that sounds alarmingly unwieldy, don't worry: the number in play at any one time will be no more than in a game of 1829 or 1835 -- the train mix will see to that. The abundance is there to ensure that no matter what scheme you come up with, there will be a corporate vehicle available to enable you to put it into action.

1839 begins with seven historical companies potentially in play. Four of these are major companies (20% President's certificate, eight 10% standard share certificates and up to 5 company tokens) and three are minor (40% President's certificate, three 20% standard share certificates and up to 2 company tokens). The players write down bids for the concessions that will give them the right to start these companies. Each concession goes to the highest bidder and must be exercised straight away or surrendered, without compensation, to the Bank, from where it is available for re-sale. You are not allowed to hoard them for later use. To start a company, the would-be president sets the initial price of a standard share certificate and buys up to 40% of the stock in the company. You have to get your sums right when doing this, because you are likely to be the only person putting money into the company before the first operating round and the company (which floats as soon as the president's certificate is acquired) has significant early expenses which must be met from this initial capital. A train is the obvious one, but more significant is the fact that in this game you need to buy your company tokens. You don't pay to place them, but you do need to buy them and this is when you have to do it. Any you don't pay for at this stage are lost. And how do you know that other players are unlikely to be buying your shares in the first share buying round? Because in this game all share dealings take place at current market values and your shares are bound to be cheaper in the second one.

Other financial basics that you will need to adjust to are a share price mechanism that makes it harder to push your share price up (a company needs to be paying a dividend of more than 10% of its current share price for its share price to rise) and the fact that there are now three classes of owner for shares -- the players, the Bank and the companies. Shares owned by a company are of two types: those from the initial offering and those it has bought and placed in its treasury. The former are, by their nature, for sale, the latter are not, but the dividends from both go to the company. A company can also sell shares, its own or those of other companies, to the Bank. This raises capital but drops the price. Dividends from shares owned by the Bank are taken by the Bank and having any of your shares on offer in the Bank Pool has a damaging effect on your share price.

Another unique feature of the game is caused by the history of Italy in this period. At the start of the game, Northern Italy is a patchwork with a lot of borders and a strong Austrian presence (both Milan and Venice are in Austrian-held territory at the start); by the end it is unified and part of the country we know today. A similar statement could be made about Germany in the time period covered by 1835, but in that game the effect is limited to the now you see it, now you don't status of Alsace-Lorraine. This is probably because the pre-unification bits of Germany were on better terms than were those of Italy and also because when unification came it came quickly. In Italy the shifting borders and the political realities would have had a greater effect on the companies and Federico has made them part of the game. So, for example, at the start you may not build across borders. With the sale of the first 3-train this is relaxed, but there are still restrictions on what may be done in Austrian territory. Later (arrival of the 4-trains) Austrian retrenchment causes what up to this point had been the most profitable company to split into two less significant minors as the new border cuts Venice off from Milan. It all adds to the atmosphere and in a way that is not just chrome.

The non-historical companies, which are not available at the start, come into play in several ways: minor companies can be changed to major ones; companies can be merged; and new companies can simply be started by some player or company putting up the money, paying the fees and setting up business in some likely looking spot on the map. The last of these is cleverly handled to deter too much in the way of spoiling tactics: if you want to set up very close to an existing company, you may, but the fees (in the form of how much you have to pay for company tokens) are much higher.

All in all then, some fascinating ideas. Does it play well as a game? I can't yet give a personal opinion on that, but it smells right and the German players who were on to the game quicker than we were and who have reported on the Net give it the thumbs up. And the playing time? That will depend on your group and whether or not they are fast or slow players. Many people reckon that 1829 takes 6-8 hours; we play it in four and a half. However, my belief is that this one comes at the long end of whatever time range your group takes for 18xx games. The other thing that those who have played the game report is that this is a game where the trains arrive and disappear at speed. This will be popular with those of the 1830 crowd who seem to be of the view that people are not pulling their weight if the diesels aren't out by operating round three, but if you prefer something less frenetic, it would be easy enough to make adjustments. Making the 5-trains permanent and delaying the rusting of the threes and fours would do do it, and this might well be a good idea for the first game or two until you get used to the feel of the game.

1839 is an unashamed mega-game, but with 1850 we have an attempt at scaling things down: 2-4 players, 5 companies and an estimated playing time of 3 hours. We have played this twice so far and on both occasions new players meant a fair amount of time explaining the rules. Despite this, we finished the first game in two and a half hours and the second in just over three. The games also felt like proper, full games, rather than sawn-off versions of something longer, and so I reckon Federico has achieved his first objective. The second, ensuring an interesting game, also gets a tick, but for the third, that of making sure that the result is determined by how well you play rather than by which company you get, I am unconvinced. The five companies are most definitely not a balanced set. There is one clear star, two that are good and two that are difficult. This poses obvious problems, especially in a 4-player game, which both ours were. Three is probably the optimum number of players for this game.

The setting is Sicily. A backward-looking ruler meant that Sicily missed out on the mid 19th century development of the railways, but it needn't have as there were several groups of British businessmen keen to give it a go. The game is Federico's idea of how things might have gone had they got their way. The basic economic mechanism is a stripped-down version of that from 1839. All the stuff to do with mergers and major/minor companies has been jettisoned, as has the right of companies to own shares in each other, but companies can still own their own shares and the stock market operates like the one in the senior game. Companies are also launched in much the same fashion and the game again begins with bids for concessions -- though here Federico seems to have gone in for change for change's sake and has come up with a system that almost certainly ensures that some players lose before the game really starts, and my suggestion would be that you drop the innovation in favour of something close to the 1839 system.

The new features come from the way Federico has handled the problems associated with the terrain. Sicily is very hilly and so there are a lot of building costs to be met, expense that is made worse by the fact that in this game you pay to upgrade as well as for the initial build. Difficult terrain suggests a mixture of standard and narrow gauge and that is what is provided, with the building costs for narrow gauge being just a quarter of those for standard. That being so, the obvious next question is why bother with standard gauge at all, and the answer to that lies with what Federico has done with the trains. In all previous 18xx games the distance a train can travel is determined by the number of stations it can pass through; in 1850 you don't count stations, you count hexes and, with the exception of a few special trains that don't appear until near the end, trains travel twice as far on standard gauge as on the narrow sort. It is a mixture that makes for an interesting set of problems.

1839 and 1850 come as packs consisting of a large black and white map, a rule book and a great pile of laser printed card on which are the tiles, share certificates and so on. You then have to set to with your scissors and cut everything out. The card is thin, but, as anyone who has tried to put thicker card through a laser printer or photocopier will tell you, there is a good reason for that, and if you feel that you would prefer something more substantial, do what I did and mount the sheets on to thicker card and cover them with plastic film before cutting out. If you do that, and if you add some necessary distinguishing colour to the share certificates and tokens for 1839 (this is vital, as you can't hope to cope with 24 companies, many with similar initials, without some colour), you will end up with components that, the map apart, not only look as good as those from the professional companies, but look better. The rules are well laid out and in clear, fluent English.

In summary then: if you are an 18xx enthusiast, 1839 is worth getting and if you are going to send for it, you might as well buy 1850 while you are at it. However, if it is just the prospect of a shorter 18xx that appeals, my recommendation would be that you pass on 1850 and go for Hartland's 1825. I haven't seen this as yet, but if Francis has not done a better job than Federico, I shall be very surprised. It is not that 1850 is at all bad, but Francis is the governor. The games cost 45000 lire (1839) and 30000 lire (1850) and to get them you write to Federico Vellani, 28 v.San Giovanni del Cantone, 41100 Modena, Italy (tel 059 244457). The prices include postage and packing to European addresses and Eurocheque is a convenient and economical method of payment. Readers outside Europe should write to Federico for a quote. One warning: Federico does not seem to believe in `by return of post'. I waited eight weeks for my games to arrive and one of my American e-mail correspondents waited twelve for his. The games will arrive eventually, but you need to be patient. The same American correspondent tells me that Federico is working on yet another game. It is called 1827, will cover the whole of North America and is for up to twelve players. What do you mean it will never get played? All you need is eleven more certified fanatics, another set of dining room chairs and a table the size of Kansas. I don't see the problem.

Stuart Dagger

next up previous
Next: TRACKS TO TELLURIDE Up: Sumo 20 index Previous: SPRITFRESSER
Stuart Dagger