18xx Letters

[MS: A good response to the article, which I am more than pleased with. I believe there are even conclusions to be drawn which I will leave to you. Firstly, on a point of trivia, I had several questions on why I call the series 18xx. To be honest, I either picked it up from somewhere ages ago or made it up (can't remember), but I always believed it derived from the Great Western loco class of the same name, which seems highly appropriate. Am I dreaming or simply trapped in the mind of a train spotter?]

Merfyn Lewis, Anglesey One of my favourite games is 1835 even though I wasn't keen on 1830 for some unknown reason and 1829 I find rather slow. 1835 has been improved in my opinion by the addition of minor companies and adopting the best systems in the 18xx series. The main trouble is getting people to play as the gaming group I play with don't like marathons, but I really enjoy Civilisation and 1835.

John Webley, Salzgitter Bad Moving to your comments about the 18XX games then you are quite right about the length of them although Dietmar Pfohl made a comment about playing 1830 inside 2 hours with computer assistance, but I will still seek out such games, partly because they take so long and so you get to see the results of your strategy unfold rather than explode. A consequence of my being primarily a postal player I suppose.

1835: I don't know what you have got against the Preussische. I am playing a postal game at the moment where the whole game from my point of view can be condensed down into a struggle between Keith Loveys and I as to who will get control of the Preussische while still not giving too much away to the Bayerische director. Far from wrecking forward planning it has dominated it. Admittedly one of us will be dissappointed but then it wouldn't be much of a game if you couldn't lose out, and even then a significant minority shareholding is not without worth. The only change needed is to speed up the bookkeeping, with computer assistance, and careful exclusion of the "if I look for another ten minutes maybe I will find an extra 1 M of revenue" players.

Three or four tile builds a turn would give a massive advantage to earlier companies, it wouldn't help the game, far from it. The board size would have to greatly increased to allow exclusive running, look at the number of hexes on a RR map as opposed to 1829, possible, but a very different game if you did it. The spicing up of stock price moves has been at least started by Stuart Dagger in his refitted 1853 whereby successful companies can move faster up the track. To sum up, I mostly agree with Ernst Knauth, in particular I think that the very limited number of hexes will make designing a faster game using the Hartland bits very difficult. But if you or anyone else does come up with something then I will be first in line to play it.

Stuart Dagger, Aberdeen The 18xx article was interesting, but since I didn't agree with the initial premise, it was unlikely that I would agree with the conclusion. And I didn't. 1830, 1835 and 1853 can all be played in about four hours, provided the players get a move on. So too can 1829 if you use the minor rules modifications that I gave in G.I.4. That makes them all playable in an evening session. (Ours start at 7.30 and finish around midnight.) The reason why, in other circles, the games frequently take a lot longer is that they involve a lot of small decisions, and many players like to consider each one lovingly, shuffling through the green tiles whenever one of their companies has a turn. Fine, if that is what the group enjoys, but it is not an unavoidable aspect of the game. To cut down the playing time you just have to cut down the length of time spent watching other people think. Make sure that at least one player knows the rules thoroughly, split the banking functions between several players, and get into the habit of planning ahead, so that when your turn comes round you already know what you want to do. Bridge players plan ahead all the time: not to is to give away too much information about the lie of the cards. If they can do it, so can boardgamers.

[MS: Paul Oakes said much the same to me about using downtime constructively (see below, somewhere) and I take the point. However, even doing that I think we are obviously less familiar with the system than yourselves. Even so, four hours strikes me as a pretty intense and demanding session if you are compacting our seven or eight into half the time. Do you still find time for idle banter and to abuse each other's play I wonder? I must say that I would find any game session bereft of discussion on films, TV, news or games in general would be a much less rewarding use of my free time.]

Stuart... As for doing something to produce a version that is playable in two hours, if that is what you want, design a new game. Why not? After all, our Mr Siggins is developing a reputation as a games designer [MS: Hoho], railway games are popular, and there is undoubtedly a shortage of substantial games of this length. However, I don't see why you have to demolish an existing structure in order to do it. The group I play with enjoys a mixture of game lengths and wouldn't want to be bound by a bylaw which said that games shall not be more than three hours in length. As far as we are concerned, the right length for a game is how long it can hold our interest. That is what governs the lengths of books and films, so why not games?

[MS: Fair point. Oddly, since writing the piece, I have come across two games that come a little closer to my ideal as far as time is concerned. Firstly there is Silverton, which should be reviewed this issue, and Alan Moon's prototype called Santa Fe which appealed to me greatly. Both have compromises when compared to the 18xx series, but they are both games I can foresee getting a lot of play.]

Paul Oakes, Wandsworth You argue that the arrival of the Prussian railroad in 1835 prevents much forward planning. In our first few games we were similarly annoyed at having to hand over our lovely little railways to that nasty Mr Woodhouse. But then we learned to analyse and predict who would have the Prussian shares (not difficult) and behave accordingly. So, if I find myself with a prospective 15% Prussian holding in a five player game, I stop laying track, spend or transfer all credits and leave my minor companies trainless when the Prussian takes them over. All the South London Mafia players do this, and as a result the Prussian is not automatically a game winning company for the large holders.

[MS: OK, so the game forces a reaction that must be considered highly unusual (dare I say unrealistic?) simply because the players are gifted with foresight on the coming of nationalisation. Did they know in real life? Damn, no books on German railways. If not, I don't see as this works as anything but an artificial gaming construct, hence my comments. Maybe that is enough.]

Your four hours to play half a game seems very slow. Even with Tringham playing we finish in under six hours (often five). Howver, your comments on downtime indicates that players are perhaps dreaming when it isn't their turn, and then stopping the game 'in its tracks' when they have to run their companies. Even if you're not a director, you need to be looking at the track, trains and treasuries to know what shares to buy and sell, which should make the running of the companies quicker.

To say that a game length of eight hours is 'unacceptable in the '90s' is not the most correct comment ever made. Yes, I would like it all in 15 minutes, but as with various other activities, shortening the duration often reduces the enjoyment to the level where it ain't worth it anymore.

[MS: Taking it to that extreme, one has to agree but I was pushing for two to four hours, an entirely manageable length of time. I stick with my view that six or eight hours is over the top. Who can fit it in? It's a whole day lost - with a ten am start you aren't going to be away till early evening. I know I can't do this easily and I'm not married, have no kids and am spared DIY around the house and so on. The other angle is the number of shorter games you could fit in in the same time.]

Your suggestions on improvements include some sound ideas [MS: Oh, thanks! - It wasn't exactly written on the fly!], but seem to be made without appreciation of the game's mechanics. Yes, it does take a while to lay a network down. But these early turns are quick (there's no train income to pay, no money left to deal in shares and only a few companies afloat.

Fixing trains to a route is a neat idea, and while it is a disadvantage for big networks with more track than trains, this may help play balance somewhat. Problem is, the 'known income' changes as station values change, so you'd still have recalculations to do. [MS: But trivial ones surely?] And you would have to be allowed a re-assignment every time you changed your train roster, which is where the problems usually arise anyway.

To remove the joint running powers could be rephrased as 'throw the last three companies to be floated back in the box as they will play no part in the game' - where would they run?

To have a priority deal decided randomly would alter 1830 completely. To take a recent example, Woodhouse held 3 directorships with 3 trains between them. I had shares in all these companies, all of which were (just) viable. Now if he had first deal, in the preceding operating round he would have transferred the train from the company he held least stock in to another company for a nominal amount, then sold the stock of the trainless company leaving me as director and forced to buy a train for this MCC clone out of my own pocket. During the share dealing round, it became obvious that he would not end up with priority deal and I was able to hold my shares (which were making money after all). This continued for a few rounds until it seemed he would end up with priority, when I sold and I was safe. Given your random priority method, I would have had to sell straight away to avoid a game losing cash call. The existing system rewards paying attention and analysis - a good feature I think.

[MS: And a good illustration of the chaotic vs ordered game system. I see that perhaps it wouldn't graft onto the existing system but as a technique it has appeal. I think otherwise we are back to the artificial game feel mentioned above - why would you have any reason to hold the shares except for the priority deal rule? They are making money, but the worry over the company's viability seems to be mainly an overstressed game mechanic.]

A limited choice of available shares is the case in 1829 and 1853. Your proposed system of random selection of shares to be open to buyers would allow a lucky player to control the key companies with only a little stock. It hardly adds to the game to work out the best routes, trains and companies and then can't buy them because they haven't been turned over yet. Airlines is a fine game, as is Operation Typhoon, but I don't want to see winter entrenchment rules in 1830.

So, '18xx is a tame animal indeed'. Well, 18xx is not a game. Played efficiently, 1829 can be dull and this is probably true of 1853 too (I need to learn how to play efficiently first). Interestingly, these are the pure Tresham games. As you comment later, his development work does sometimes leave something to be desired - Civilisation is bloody irritating. I love the game but can understand those who don't. But anyway, 1830 is far from dull, indeed we had a game last month which was unlike any we've ever played before and required a lot of fast thinking to survive in - the companies were rich, the proprietors nearly bankrupt.

I really feel you could benefit from a game of 1830 or 1835 with a group of experienced, reasonably quick players. But on the other hand, your comments (particularly the ones about chaos gaming being preferable to analytical approaches) indicate that you are a Challinger acolyte - you get the fun in quickly, make simple decisions and want a result now.

John Harrington, Enfield On the very next page of Sumo is another contentious article about 18xx. I really don't know enough about these games to mount a defence but again, going on empirical rather than objective grounds, the South London mafia's Sunday game sessions, which started out as "play anything we fancy" sessions have become almost exclusively 18xx sessions. I don't even know why, but we all enjoy them and even the arch sceptic Birks has been converted. Like Civilisation, it features lots of small game mechanisms which add up to a large, seemingly complex game. However, you can learn one part of the game at a time without too much disadvantage and gradually build up a good idea of how to play the whole game. How does that compare with, say, Republic of Rome, which I seem to remember you gave some reserved praise to the other day? (It seemed like bloody hard work to me).

[MS: It compares very closely actually. The last three sentences above describe Republic of Rome very well. I believe it is a game that, with the same level of effort, will give much or all of the rich play quality of 18xx. It is becoming apparent from the comments that a lot of the appeal of 18xx comes from a lot of playing experience, something that I don't have. If you are playing it at most sessions, I doubt I am ever going to match that and am not sure if I want to. As I said above, the draw of shorter or new games is too great and perhaps, as you will have spotted, my tastes are too wide to allow this level of indulgence.]

I'd be interested to see what Francis Tresham has to say about his own games. If he agrees with you, tell him he's wrong! I'd also be interested in a more detailed explanation of your comment "these game lengths are unacceptable in the 1990's". The thing about 18xx is that everyone knows it is going to take a longish time to play (less time with experienced players of course) and that therefore the people who sit down to play it are most likely to be people who really enjoy the game and who will put the effort in over the prolonged period of playing time. It is not a family snack or a convention filler, it is a main course for gourmets.

Your example of Airlines as a game with a satisfactory game length is fine for a game of its ilk. It is an enjoyable game to participate in but its luck element is too high to warrant playing over the length of time normally spent on 18xx. Ian Livingstone has been on at me to reduce the playing time of Breaking Away to under 90 minutes for similar reasons - there's not enough in it to warrant spending any more time on it (and if there is, it is short enough to have another game of straight after). Incidentally, in the South London mafia Airlines is running second in its class just behind Dallas (a.k.a. Cartel) and slightly ahead of Acquire.

Well, I've done it again. Started a section off with "I'm not going to comment on this much" and then wittered on at length about it. Are you sure 18xx is a game about railway building and are the final track configurations really fascinating? I can't wait to get the tiles back into the box and talk about the stitch-ups on the garrisons, the excellent or crass timing of train upgrades and the lost trading opportunities but I guess that says much about both our preferences. I will conclude this section of the letter by commenting that in both your comments on railway games (Tycoon and 18xx) you have evidenced an impatience to crack on with the development and get to the end game. In my experience the end game bits of 18xx pretty much run themselves and I would be wary of making judgements like being on- ly about half way through the game when the Prussian gets nationalised. The bank starts running out pretty fast once all the big cities have been upgraded to the max and all the trains are out.

Alan Harvey, Littleover 18xx - I, like several others, have a variant designed which will speed up the game. It has been tried several times and most players like it. The snag is I work such long hours that a final version may not appear until I retire in 3 years time as I am too busy to type the rules up.

[MS: This is a serious shortage of time. I hope you get paid well! Seriously, if you get a moment, I'd love to see the rules and I'm sure others would as well.]

Derick Green, Colchester I agree with your comments on 18xx and believe it is about time we had an 18xx game with the original flavour and ideas but playable in a shorter period of time. The idea springs to mind of a mixture of 18xx with the pre-determined tracks of Rail Baron.

[MS: See the Silverton review this issue for just such a game.]

Francis Tresham, Leighton Buzzard Some kind gentleman slipped me a copy of Sumo 6 and then, possibly dreading for his safety, decided to 'retire immediately' as they used to say on the better fireworks. He needn't have bothered. Due to the low key manner of his delivery, I forgot all about it.

Now, the article on 18xx. I agree with the vast majority of the points mentioned. Certain factors that are relevant are not widely known and some other things should, perhaps, be taken into consideration.

I was only involved in the ground work for 1835. I feel we could have knocked it around in detail with beneficial results. Too many of the things that happen (who will get the solitary 4/4 for instance) are quite uncontrollable. Such items add to the confusion in a game without adding to its enjoyment. I agree entirely about the PR which is potentially a game winning ploy for whoever gets it right. The Aktien Startpaket [and Waterman] and the Minor Companies are, in contrast, very clever. The Aktien, unfortunately, will behave differently according to the number of players and some of the wiseacres are already claiming to have found winning ploys and 'mug options' and I am not in the least surprised. It is difficult to avoid such things turning up when the number of players is fixed (Italy anyone?) and almost impossible when it is variable. The only irritation about the minor companies is that their parametric values are questionable. As this is usually (but not always!) one of the easier things to get right this seems a pity.

1829 was not intended to be a simulation and, in the geographic sense, it certainly isn't. The railway buying mania aspect, though, comes over quite well. Even so, we have never claimed it to be a simulation. 1830 was desired by certain parties to develop in a resonably authentic manner. Having lived through that epoch, and survived it, I have no desire to repeat the experience, not with a railway game anyway. The fact that the game also survived is perhaps even more remarkable. Any attempt at designing a literal simulation leads the game into a cone. As one approaches perfection one nears the point of the cone where only one thing can happen - that which actually did happen. Some purists may invoke chaos theory or quantum mechanics to escape from this argument and the best of luck to them. Games are primarily for fun. Realism should contribute to the fun. The risk with simulations is that this stops happening before you have gone very far in the direction of literal realism. The point is, however, well made and I have never been very happy with the GWR going straight from Bournemouth to Birmingham.

Computerised accountancy is highly beneficial. I didn't realise such programmes were being made available (under whose copyright?!) Perhaps we shouldn't ask and hope it remains a low key operation. Some other things mentioned or hinted at are already features of both 1837 and 1825. I realise that not everyone likes having a new date beginning with 18 hurled at them from official sources, let alone two in the same sentence, but there is no sense in panic looming. 1825 has been seen in public for years at cons and is just all or part of 1829 played to more open rules. If you play on a small board four people can go through a complete game in very much less than four hours. Below that, I have no immediate ambitions to go because the laws of babies and bathwater begin to take over. And, in any case, if you want to play for eight hours you need a game that will stand the distance. 1837 is the brainchild of my great friend Dr Richard Waring. It has great charm and I am hopeful we shall produce it before too long. Unlike 1835 it sets out to eliminate non-essential complications but is sufficiently new to be quite different in style from all the others.

The one I actually prefer is (dare I say it) 1853. I know it's vast and the start can be shambolic (the Stuart Dagger/Steve Jones mods are a big help) but I actually like the huge, slightly disorganised, games. There are moments to be savoured in them all, such as having 50% of the GWR by SDR4, making a route for the Erie when its president, for strictly personal reasons, would prefer it not to have one, and grossly insulting the Preussische Bahn by asset stripping it in front of all the other shareholders (I have done all of these at different times) but when your Type 6 comes in on the Calcutta to Delhi Mail it gives you a nice warm feeling of having achieved a sort of greatness and £170 in company credits.

Of far greater significance than any of the foregoing is your comment on 'perfect plan' as regards 'chaos gaming'. You will be astonished to know that we have often got ourselves into the most hilarious (for me) chaos gaming situations with prototypes, and when the dust settles someone (not me) says, 'Hmm. Terribly volatile isn't it? Not many people would wish to live with this sort of thing.'

Are you saying that we could/should? This is going to cause serious thought because Alan How said something fairly similar the other week and I know of others who regret that some games we now regard as playable are not the fun they used to be when they weren't.

[MS: Well, yes, I am saying that but as you have seen there is a large school of conservative opinion that would like another one 'just like before but a little bit different, please'. A friend of mine buys his suits the same way. My view would be that the perfect planners have had their games and can play them till the cows come home, but give me a four hour 18xx game with a modicum of chaos or a two hour game with lots, and I'll be queuing at the factory. There may be others, I don't know. The underlying idea of the article was to flush them out and get some discussion going - the games may well be excellent, but very little is said about them.]

All these points, and many more, are true grist for the mill. They will certainly come out again, along with many more, at the games design courses I run at Missenden Abbey. I enclose full details of the one in Jan 92 but I believe this is now full although an extra is planned in March if enough people are interested. There is another in May (15th to 17th) which is aimed at thematic games. If anyone wishes to know more they can phone me (0525 370913) for details of content but for booking etc, contact the Abbey direct: Missenden Abbey, Great Missenden, Bucks HP16 0BD, 0494 890296

Mike Clifford, Upper Norwood Shouldn't Francis Tresham appear in the next honours list?

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