The 18xx Series - A Case for Re-Design?

A group of us played Hans Im Gluck's 1835 recently and although I don't consider a full review worth doing (it is close enough to the rest of the series not to warrant the space), I would like to make a few comments on the game and the system as a whole. Because of the trouble I usually get into with these pieces, I will open by clearly stating that I am dubiously playing Devil's Advocate again and would like to discuss the subject with other players and designers. So, no abuse please.

Despite there being a whole slew of unauthorised variants around at present, 1835 is the latest of the four 'official Tresham' railway building and share dealing games, the fifth if you count the 1829 Northern board. It concerns the development of railways in Germany and, like most of the series, contains innovations to recast the basic structure. This time we get minor companies that do not have quoted shares but which are good revenue earners and track builders in their own right - a development I enjoyed for reasons expressed below, but this opinion is not shared by many I understand. That said, in my view, this bolted-on advancement should have been balanced by heavy pruning elsewhere. As it is, the game is now rather top-heavy.

The other main play theme is the spectre of nationalisation in the form of the Prussian Railway. This takes over various companies at the game's mid-point causing much confusion and preventing much worthwhile forward planning. I didn't particularly like this rule as you could be building track in the early stages that might not benefit your cause. These though are just details in what remains an engrossing system but which, in my view, takes far too long to play and has a good few improvable points. So, having poked holes in the system, I will attempt to outline possible solutions or other ways of approaching the game and simulation problems.

To tackle the first criticism, 1835 took four of us nearly four hours to play up to the appearance of the Preussische takeover. At that stage, albeit our first attempt with the game, we estimated that we had played only half the game, perhaps much less. Other games in the series take between a not unreasonable four hours for the popular 1830 to a reputed eight or more for 1829, still regarded as the best of the series by some 18xx players. I would argue that these game lengths are unacceptable in the 1990's and that modern design techniques have not been brought to bear on the system, either by the designer or the gaming public. Many recent games, articles and discussions have lead me to champion the shorter game, but Alan Moon's Airlines was the major inspiration here.

Agreed, there have been subtle tweaks (see Mr Dagger's considered piece in an early Strategy Plus) but nothing that will revolutionise the system into something playable in perhaps half or (gosh), a quarter of the time. Call me a stirrer, but there seems to be an unjustified level of contentment with the basic system and the time required. This is true to the extent that its advocates regularly play these long games, in some cases once a week or more, seemingly without even thinking about the man-hour commitment - or is it that it is still considered macho to play an eight hour game? If the speed can be improved without loss of play value, then surely that is a positive result.

The last couple of 18xx games I have played have been partially devoted to seeing where the system is taking so long and what might be done to improve it. A proper time and motion study of 1835 would, I'm sure, have shown a high percentage of downtime for all players, especially those running just one company or none at all. I thought, for instance, that instant improvements might be made by cutting down on cash transactions (preferably completely), the need for constant checking of routes and dividend levels ('How much is the B&O paying?') and general administration of bank, company credits and personal cash.

Interestingly, some computer game assistance programs developed in Germany (and probably the UK for all I know) take much of this record keeping on board and thus aid speed of play considerably. I am sure we will see more of this as GAPs improve, though at present they still require a helpful Mr Chump to sit and input the data shouted out by the other players. This assumes honesty, accuracy and a willingness to take a slightly low-key role in the game, but the hobby is thankfully not short of such mortals.

Looking wider, I would also like to see some method of enhancing and speeding up track builds. Judging by myself and those I play 18xx with, the building of your track network is a strong (possibly the strongest) element in the game. It is, after all, a game about railways and the final track configuration after a long game is always fascinating. What I would like to see (as 1835 partially delivers) is quicker evolution of the networks, increased build capacity and more chance of reaching the interesting tiles and route structures later in the game. Perhaps this could be achieved by allowing three or four tile builds per turn, possibly depending on size of company, wealth and so on.

Much of the problem in game speed at present is that you only get to lay one or two tiles per turn and a simple count of hexes to your intended destination is often enough to get your reaching for the Elefantenparade there and then. Even more severe would be a move to a new build system (conceivably based on card play) that would enable you to build varying lengths of track in certain terrain, cause track to emerge from various private lines and so on.

Going further, and possibly into the realms of the seriously demented, I would consider abandoning the need for 'running' trains altogether, thus avoiding that drain on time caused by constant working out of routes. The trains themselves would still be purchased, retired and retain the speed attributes, but they would be linked to a fixed route on the network which would then have a known income. Re-assigning trains and routes would be possible, but only infrequently. There would be scope for a Shai-Hulud style nexus here, perhaps the Fat Controller could appear and grant three wishes?

As a very personal gripe, I would also do away with joint running powers unless mutually agreed by the companies involved. It has always struck me as odd that gamers who relish the (often nasty) interaction provoked by station markers think nothing of letting their sworn enemies run alongside on track laid built by themselves at great opportunity cost. Yes, this might be a necessary game fudge, but Railway Rivals gets round it nicely. On balance then, this rule goes in the bin along with the even more untenable and contentious station rules.

I think the share dealing system as it stands has inherent strength and interest but, because of the constant money transactions and the deterministic (and often game-swinging) nature of the 'first deal', I am sure we might achieve something a bit more exciting and volatile. What about a chit draw system (or a flip of an action card) that would determine who would deal when in the share round? The certainty and disadvantage is lost and you'd have to think on your feet. While we're at it, we could spice up the stock price moves a bit as well. The constant plod up and across has to be one of the least-inspiring elements of the game. Let's have some ideas on this.

Extending this line of thought, what about introducing an Airlines style system where you can only 'buy' the shares that are available in the market, which represent a small fraction of the total shares in issue? At the same time, we could ignore the cash value of shares for purchases, but continue to monitor their progress on the stock market. This gives an indication of their worth and the concept of 'game end' value remains intact. The scarcity of the shares, as in Airlines, would be sufficient to 'price' them during the game and the chit draw would be exciting if you were waiting to pounce on or dump a particular company.

These propositions could really make the game feel like the cutthroat, exciting business railroading was, rather than the inevitable, 'perfect-plan' environment 18xx is at the moment. Again, I am conscious of some gamers preferring the predictability and controllability that 18xx and other Tresham games offer. Compared to the delights of 'chaos gaming', where you never know what will happen next and things can go excitingly wrong, 18xx is a tame animal indeed. I have grown to enjoy the latter form of gaming recently and am sure there is plenty there to explore as far as game systems go. Whatever, both routes offer absorbing decisions; I feel the latter offers the greater challenge.

Another area is to guide the game towards slightly more historical results. David Watts achieves this in Railway Rivals through a clever design trick of making the best network emerge close to the historical one - you will have noticed the relation between the actual maps and finished games (involving good players), particularly on the earlier maps. I think this is one of RR's strongest features. Elsewhere, Alan Moon in his developmental 1869 (Western USA) features objective rules where each railroad can earn a cash bonus for achieving a historical link-up or connecting with a real-life distant destination. Nice ideas that add a lot of play value and atmosphere.

Having mentioned historicity, I am a little worried by the number of gamers who are playing 18xx in the belief that it is an accurate simulation. I would like to think there aren't many, but some of the comments overheard from some very experienced players has lead me to believe that the aficionados have started to believe that this is really the way it was. It is outside the scope of this article to go into the areas where 18xx fails as a historical simulation but I can't believe that the 18xx games look anything like the history books say it was. I will assume that the bulk of the 18xx gamers are simply playing it as the admittedly complex, rich, flavoursome game that it is.

I guess the above suggestions are really an experimental selection that will cause shudders and perhaps screams around the 18xx community. My main worry is that the game is one those that you can't tamper with as it may quickly unbalance - particularly in the stock market area. My good friend Ernst Knauth, who has played 18xx more than most, suggests that the whole of an 18xx game is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, and who am I to argue? If that is the case, fine. We walk away from it and start from scratch, perhaps targeting a new angle and aiming for fast play as a requirement. If not, I think there may well be something in this.

Right, that's it. I hope there are some points there that you will come back on, even if it is to say I am sadly mistaken and the game is perfectly fine as it is. Please say why though - I am not an expert on the system but then I'm far from a novice as well. However, if any of them make you re-think or doubt any part of the 18xx series, then I will have succeeded in my aim. Perhaps the outcome of the discussion might be a railway game that, possibly using the Hartland pieces, plays in two hours or less while offering just as much interest and play value. I'll sign off by saying that I am quite partial to the 18xx games and I even play them occasionally, but I think more needs to be done to further the series (and thus the genre) than moving the tried and trusted system around to new geographical locations and adding a few twiddly bits.

On to Spiel '91, Essen or back to the review of Computer Games.

Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information