Disclaimer: This article assumes some knowledge of 18xx games. If you are unfamiliar with the genre, please refer to my previous article Training for Difficulty and/or this lovely video by Ambie from Dice Tower.
I love train games. In particular, I love games that fall under the family of 18xx games. I am unabashedly a fanboy of economic share-holding games based on the expansion and robber-barons of early railroading. These 6-hour-long economic slugfests are the apple of my eye. I have a propensity to research that which I love. When looking for the “train gamer history,” I could find nary a collection of information. I have approached this project to find some shared heritage that all train gamers have and document it hoping that those new to our little corner of the world will make heads and tails of what was once so confusing for me.
As a relative novice, speaking with any authority on this matter has been something I have approached with trepidation. I hope that those who read this see I am acting in good faith to preserve a common heritage. If there is anything in this article that is incorrect, inaccurate, or false, it would be my pleasure to correct the record. I also am not assuming that I have the whole picture when it comes to the history of 18xx. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Wolfram Janich, David Hecht, Todd Vander Pluym, and Bruce Shelley. With the stories and anecdotes shared with me, I have done my best to put together a very narrow history of 18xx.
What is 18xx?
Before we go any further, I should do you the honor of introducing our topic. 18xx is a family of economic games focused on building and running railroads. Each game has a year in the 19th century or an “18” in the title. While specifics vary from title to title, players play as individual investors who may start or invest in companies. Play occurs over stock rounds (SRs) and operating rounds (ORs). In the SRs, players buy and sell stock certificates in public companies. In the ORs, the player who has the majority share in a company operates that company by laying track, building stations, collecting revenue, and purchasing trains. Once a player has gone bankrupt, or the bank has run out of money, whoever has the most money is the winner!
One of the most prolific 18xx players and designers is Todd Vander Pluym. Todd is a man of many hats. Some in the 18xx world call Todd a “macher” when it comes to his strategic wit. In his professional capacity, Todd worked as an architect and professional sandcastle creator. Due to his work’s nature, Todd frequently traveled and would encounter gamers all across the world. For those that know Todd, he is a wonder. His enthusiasm and curiosity are awe-inspiring.
18xx games also are a dance between you and your opponents. Todd Vander Pluym often described to me how he approaches playing his games. “If you can see where someone’s coming from, you can see where they’re going,” he would tell me. Todd would often read the players’ expressions and mannerisms around the table to make measured predictions of what types of moves a player would make.
One of the significant draws of 1830 to Todd was that the only thing in it was what he called “Human Luck.” Human Luck is when a player accidentally harms your position in the execution of their strategy. Outside of Human Luck, there were no other random factors affecting gameplay.
1830 also makes decisions difficult by providing shared incentives. A “zero-sum” interaction is one in which what you do directly harms someone else. Since, by nature, 1830 might have multiple players interested in a single company’s financial success, it is a non-zero-sum game. These shared incentives create an exciting tug of war when it comes to weighing your options.
These traits of 18xx games help them appeal to their audiences. These games are contests of wit. The player that has the most sound strategy and execution will be the one to win the game. I get a rush playing these games. They appeal to the mathematical and reasonable sides of my brain. If you have the aptitude, you can also negotiate with other players to get the upper hand. Narrowly avoiding having to pay for a diesel train out-of-pocket is the most fun I’ve ever had gaming. There was once a time, though, where this fantastic economic playground was but a twinkle in the eye of British game designer Francis Tresham.
The 1970s and 1980s were a time after the Vietnam War puttered out and was extinguished by 1975. War still hung in the air, but this didn’t stop gamers in the states from being obsessed with wargames or “conflict simulation,” as it often was referred to by its fans.
Wargames are a different breed of game than the ordinary sensibilities of European designs. Wargames had a few defining characteristics: length, complexity, and adherence to history.
Wargames were long, arduous campaigns at their most complex. Imagine sitting down as Rommel in North Africa and playing over several real-life months! This is a reality with the game Campaign for North Africa by Simulations Publications, Inc (SPI), published in 1978. Although, there is speculation that nobody has even completed the game. SPI started running one of the first wargaming magazines called Strategy & Tactics, which exploded in popularity and was collected by every wargaming aficionado.
In 1974, the hot new game on the block was 1829 by Francis Tresham. It is a game on a hex map with a stock market. It plays 2-10 players for 3-7 hours. It sold well in Europe and started to attract a cult following in America. It is a game about rail development in the United Kingdom, which also includes stock trading. It’s fans enjoy it’s metered pace and exciting decision-making.
Bruce Shelley had noted the success of 1829 when working for Baltimore-based publisher The Avalon Hill Game Co. At the time, Avalon Hill had set their sights on broadening its customer base. Avalon Hill had just acquired Victory Games, and Bruce Shelley was tasked with finding which designs were worth publishing with Avalon Hill. Bruce published the game Titan during his tenure, which was a success. However, Avalon Hill still needed to sell more games, and he was on the search for the next hit. Francis Tresham was around the Avalon Hill office working on what would become Advanced Civilization. Bruce Shelley and Avalon Hill found that to be the opportune moment to ask him to create a game similar to 1829 but based in the United States.
In making a game for an American market, Francis Tresham and the Avalon Hill team would face a different set of challenges in putting a project like this together. Wargames had garnered somewhat of a reputation for being long and complicated games that were inaccessible. When going to the drawing board on how they could adapt 1829 to an American audience, the overall design philosophy was to create something accessible, perhaps even family-oriented. David Hecht agrees that what would eventually become 1830: Railways and Robber Barons would be a horse that Avalon Hill would want to back. The masterpiece-to-be did stumble across the starting line.
The Masterpiece that Almost Didn’t Happen
I have seen it overlooked that 1830: Railways and Robber Barons almost died on the vine. Avalon Hill had their wargames and a magazine called The General. In Volume 23 Issue 6 of The General, Bruce Shelley penned an article about the game’s troubled development to coincide with the release in 1986.
When Tresham came to Origins Game Fair 1982 in Baltimore with the original prototype for 1830, the Avalon Hill Game Co. knew little about the long journey that lay ahead. There were plenty of issues with the original prototype that made it unappealing. Players could purchase private companies for up to 4 times their face value; companies had a set order in which they opened and a fixed price at which their stock started. Certain historical inaccuracies went against the original ethos of Avalon Hill Game Co. All of these added up to limited options and, therefore, little gameplay.
Tresham’s prototype, plainly, wasn’t enough fun. That was the main reason they couldn’t greenlight the project. There wasn’t one clear solution, either. All of their playtesters had their ideas of how to fix the game. Perhaps this was a shade of foreshadowing for the future.
The difficulty with improving upon the design was playing without Tresham. Playtesters remarked that Tresham played his games a certain way. Whenever the Avalon Hill team would play in a match with Tresham and his friends, Tresham & Co quickly shunned any line of play that strayed from their metagame. When outsiders would come and make moves that went outside of the expected line of play, they were faced with “we don’t play that way.” Brainstorming sessions were made difficult by both parties having different ideas on where to take the design. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t talent on the design teams. One of the designers on the project, Alan Moon, would later publish Spiel Des Jahres winner Ticket to Ride.
These breakdowns in communication left Avalon Hill feeling less and less inspired by the product on hand as development timelines continued to progress. As Origins 1984 passed on by, Francis Tresham’s word started to turn from a river to a stream to a slow drip. Eventually, a critical moment appeared. It became apparent that they could not publish the title in its current state. Bruce Shelley had been working on trying to get this project together for years now. There was certainly an air of frustration surrounding the game because of this lack of progress. At Avalon Hill, the powers that be gave Bruce Shelley the green light to do whatever he wanted to get the game published since they trusted that he knew what he was doing.
As part of an effort to try to fix the game, Shelley recommended changing the game to be less historical. He also recommended not setting a company order or an initial par price. Bruce said, “historical accuracy can only go so far,” when it comes to game design. As a result of this fundamental change to game structure, the Gordian knot was untied. 1830: Railways and Robber Barons had new life. 1830 officially released in 1986.
The Anemic Cat is Out of the Bag
When I spoke with David Hecht, legendary 18xx designer, he remarked that the public perception of 1830 had varied drastically since his first encounter with the game. The wargamers at the time saw a game that qualified as a palette cleanser. It had a regular hexagon-style grid and played in between more massive wargames during wargame conventions. It also fits the American palette much better.
1830 was off the rails. In aggressive playgroups, players would go bankrupt consistently. The first time Todd played 1830, a player with devilish intentions was about to deliver him the warm welcome all train gamers receive. “Welcome to 1830!” cried this player as they laid a piece of track blocking Todd out. The cutthroat nature of 1830 was a boon. Players would be embezzling money, trashing companies, and clawing their way to victory.
1830 was, in a sense, a clash of sensibilities when it came to game design. 1830 included design elements from both European and American schools of thought. David Hecht told me about conversations he had heard between game designer Reiner Knizia and designer/publisher Chris Lawson regarding the topic.
Knizia said that American games were different in design philosophy. American games are focused on finding a scenario to simulate and create rules to represent that scenario. While European games, which Knizia designs, are centered around him coming up with an innovative mechanism and tacking on coloration later. A popular eurogame from the time is Acquire.
1830 had the private companies and locale’s historical context, but their mechanisms were straightforward and hypnotizing. If one had a keen enough mind for it, it was a playground. Like most things, there was still disagreement on what should be tweaked in the game. Many gaming groups worldwide started to take the run-and-gun/cash grab aspects of 1830 and make it for their corner of the world.
Francis Tresham would later try to recapture the magic of 1830 with 1853 (1989) for engineers who’ve had enough of the financiers based in India. It didn’t see the same success as 1830, but, frankly, i think the cat was out of the bag at that point. The human propensity for experimentation had taken up 1830 within its grips. The same desire to tweak and change the design which plagued the designers in the playtesting phase would be the rosetta stone that ensured the survival of 18xx.
German Publisher Hans im Gluck would release 1835 (1990), which recreated Prussian Railway’s formation. This game was also a crucial development in 18xx design. It was the first game ever to feature minor companies, adding mergers on top of a strategic Rubix cube. At this point, it became common to hear people say 18xx games when referring to these economic train games.
Publisher Mayfair Games would also publish 1870: Railroading Across the Trans Mississippi from 1870 (1992) and 1856: Railroading in Upper Canada from 1856 (1995) by designer Bill Dixon. Todd Vander Pluym told me about a trip where he visited Bill’s gaming group in Vancouver around the development of 1856. After 16 plays of the game, Todd hadn’t won a single match. However, he was captivated by the gameplay and would go on to study how the other players strategized.
It became apparent that 18xx was also a great display of skill. 18xx competitions began to spring up all over the world. The World Boardgaming Championship even started a dedicated event for 18xx games. The studying Todd did on Bill Dixon’s playgroup would not go to waste. He was able to counteract their primary strategy to win the 1994 World Boardgaming Championship for 18xx.
Coincidentally, 1994 would be the last big year for 18xx on the World Boardgaming Championship stage. The 84 participants in the event would be the most the event has seen to the current day. Those who weren’t as fanatical just had other games to play.
The Great Silence
The end of the 1990s brought a lot of new games. With it, interest in 18xx games naturally waned. Games like Magic: the Gathering, Settlers of Catan, and Doom started to become commercially available. The audience that may have been tabletop fanatics are now being drawn toward video games. The reality of the situation was that 18xx has two major pitfalls: Time & Complexity.
18xx games are not short. Game Designer Wolfram Janich noted many local game groups didn’t want to commit to a full match of 1830 or 1835. 18xx were long and complicated compared to the games in Europe at the time. As a way to address this issue, he designed 1847 Pfalz. While Todd Vander Pluym was able to drive game time down to 15-45 minutes for 1830, the wider gaming audience didn’t have the same fortune.
With the proliferation of this beautiful thing called the internet, people could research and see things they otherwise wouldn’t. European and American schools of thought could now freely exchange ideas. European game design generally disagreed with 1830 on player elimination. Eurogames were on the rise and would continue to grow throughout the turn of the century. The accessibility of eurogames made them a much easier sell than 1830. With the American market now more aware of these games than ever before, there was less room to compete for space on the shelf.
All it would take is one bankruptcy loss to drive a potential player out the door. Todd recalled to me Railway Con, which would have a challenge called the “Puffing Billy.” Railway Con was a convention for tabletop gamers who are fanatics for train games. This included Ticket To Ride, 1830, and more. Players would have to run the gambit and play all the games available. New gamers who wanted to conquer the Puffing Billy would consistently get trounced by the seasoned 18xx players. In one of the games of 1830, a player went bankrupt and then promptly announced, “I hope I never play that ever again.”
Avalon Hill was also experiencing financial trouble. In 1995, Origins Game Fair collapsed in Baltimore. Don Greenwood was one of the last remaining members of the Avalon Hill team and had a passion for the games they brought to light. He single-handedly formed “Don Con,” which helped keep the community around these games alive. Without Don’s help, 18xx and wargames’ prospects would’ve been dire.
General interest in 18xx games started to go underground at this point. A lot of play-by-email groups began to form. Print-and-Play publisher Deep Thought Games and Chris Lawson both began to produce games around this time. That creative tick never left the heads of those who were inspired by the game family.
Designers Mike Hutton, Frederico Vellani, David Hecht, Ian Wilson, Tom Lehmann, and more would continually stoke the fire with new and fantastic games that were instant hits among fans of the genre. Therein lay a problem for the future of the family of games. It was a lot harder to get people interested in playing. Train games require a group of people willing to play a game repeatedly, getting trashed along the way, before winning their first game. The barrier to entry is just too high. However, for those willing to take the jump, a treasure trove lay on the other side.
Wolfram Janich echoed what I believed to be the guiding principles of a lot of designers at the time:
“I have focused on individual features for each game. I think it is not enough to produce only a different map with the corresponding corporations. Each of my games should have its unique character. Therefore I develop new features which are fitting with the area of the map. Also, I follow the historical facts as far as possible. To achieve this, I have to do a lot of reading about railway history. I also search for pictures of train engines that have run in the area depicted by the map. Another objective is the design of the game material. So each of my games comes with its unique design of the stock certificates. These designs are based on historical stock certificates, which I have simplified.”
To say that the genre was firmly in the hands of those who adored it would be an understatement. If anything, it is the love for the game that has kept it alive. From this point, many designers from across the world started making their games.
The World Boardgaming Championship demonstrates the stall in train games’ interest as they fell to their all-time low participation of 29 in 2005.
It is not all death and despair. The horizons are bright. When perhaps 18xx was getting ready for its death knell, it was administered an IV. A worldwide rejuvenation in board games’ interest has cardboard flying off the shelf at an expedited pace. With that, players old and new have started to dust-off or unwrap a copy of 1830. I am proud to say I have been a part of this infusion of fresh blood.
I’ve been continuously interested in what lay at the edges of what’s possible. There is a hefty bias towards quicker, easier games for those who have just joined board gaming. It is not uncommon for those who desire more of a challenge to find boardgamegeek.com threads discussing the heaviest games you have in your collection. Undeniably, an 18xx will often get mentioned.
The spreading of knowledge of 18xx has created a new interest in the game family. Publisher All-Aboard Games from Scott Peterson and Wolfram Janich’s Marflow Games have consistently pumped out quality 18xx titles over the years of print-and-play and play-by-email. Now, publishers are making mass-market titles. One of the most successful Kickstarters of recent memory has been Scott Peterson’s 18Chesapeake. 18Chesapeake is an entry point into the genre as a gentler and quicker game.
Online implementations of 18xx have popped up across the internet, as well. The most recent of which is https://18xx.games, an open-source project started by fellow train enthusiast Toby Mao. With these new tools, players are now able to find others to play with ease. The internet has been making it progressively more comfortable for people to get together and play.
I am continually bearing witness to new 18xx podcasts, forums, websites, and shops popping up everywhere. A new generation of train-gamers is forming right underneath us. 18xx games are also getting discussion on many popular board gaming outlets, which only grows more interest.
With the digital implementation of 18xx.games, there is also a whole new world of data analytics to dive into regarding optimal play. These games are far from solved. New strategies, theories, and games are consistently popping up. Players are now able to host global tournaments for games. Daniel Sousa helped organize an 1846: The Race for the Midwest tournament hosted by https://18xx.games, which had over 200 participants!
The 18xx community is knowledgeable and kind. They will happily squeeze you for every penny you’re worth, then show you how they did it. I’ve learned so much from talking with the people who share this passion. It feels like the future of 18xx is in the right hands. Everyone is welcome around the table, and that is with whom I want to surround myself.
The World Boardgaming Championship now has steady 60-or-so participants in the 18xx category every year. While perhaps the meta needs a shake-up with Bruce Beard’s domination, it seems like 18xx games aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.