Board Games

Training for Difficulty

The box looked benign as it sat on my gaming shelf. The oak tree and the olive-green train smoking by on the cover was a charming accent to the bold “1846” that lay front and center. The “boring” cover enticed me considering the unassuming lid of Container held one of my favorite games. Little did I know that it would be the catalyst of the wildfire that is my passion for 18XX games.

I had bought the GMT Games copy of the game that had been mass-produced. I had always been curious about 18XX games. The designer of this one, Tom Lehmann, had designed other games I’ve grown to love: Race for the Galaxy and Res Arcana. I figured if there were any gateway into this microgenre, Mr. Lehmann would be the one to open it.

Now if I say, “train game,” the first thing that might pop into mind is Ticket to Ride. This gateway board game has players setting down little trains in-between cities. You watch your opponents wince as you just took up their route they needed. Everyone slowly plots away at their lines until someone runs out of trains to place and the game is over! Hooray!

I’m sorry, what? That doesn’t sound like fun? Well, let me compare that to 1846. In this game, you own shares of train companies in the Midwest of the United States during a time where Eastern railroad companies were competing for dominance in the region. If you own a majority share in a company, you become that company’s president and therefore make all decisions about purchasing rail, trains, and selling/buying back shares of the company. You are also in charge of deciding whether you pay dividends and the potential effects this has on the share price. Be careful! Don’t tank your company’s share price.

With most things, of course, there is a caveat. Some players might try to purposefully tank a company’s share value after juicing it of all its resources. After properly sinking your share value, you sell your personal stake to crown another player as the company president. You got maximum benefit for the company but then gifted its corpse to your friend who looks at you incredulously. Now you’re building rail, running trains and rushing to end the game as every other player is scrambling to scrape together capital. That is the draw to an 18XX title.

18Mex in action.

As I get enveloped into a niche or hobby, I seek out information and clarity. So, there I was, sitting and watching five, thirty-minute-long tutorials on how to play 1846. I knew something was different about this genre of game when I was salivating at the mouth, my mind full of spinning numbers and optimizations. I was going to play it this Friday night with my weekly gaming group. Now just how would I go about teaching it?

1846: The Race for the Midwest was designed to be played in approximately 3-4 hours. That’s fine for a weeknight game. The thing is, though, that estimate is contingent on player knowledge of the 18XX system. There are many a story online that reads, “My first game of 1846 took 11 hours, so I’ve never taken it out of the box again.”

I had to figure out the strategy of the game before I even sat down to play it if I wanted to make a dent in that daunting time frame in which the game plays with a group of new players. I listened to a few podcasts, read some forum posts, and decided on replacing the paper money with poker chips. This feels like you’re crossing some sort of imaginary line. Most modern board games do not play with poker chips. Instead, they will opt to play with cardboard chits or paper money. The games that play with poker chips are usually, believe it or not, poker games. There has always been an heir of superiority, complexity, and even danger associated with poker chips. 

I was curious about the difference that playing with poker chips made in a game. I reached out to Derailed – an 18XX Podcast to see if they could offer an answer. They stated, “Quite simply, 18xx has a ton of transactions, and poker chips are one of the quickest ways to handle those. Much faster than fancy metal coins or any other vanity. [sic] Other groups keep a laptop at the table with a spreadsheet to make this even faster. Nobody really cares that it’s not on theme or even if it has poker or casino graphics, because it’s all function over form.” A lot of their response emphasized the fact that 18XX games were made to be simple to read and quick to judge. The game map should be clear, the tiles should be unambiguous, and the money should be easy to read. It really makes sense in the end. You have a very refined experience, and you don’t want unnecessary fluff getting in the way.

1846: The Race for the Midwest looking daunting as ever.

So, as I sat down on Friday, ready to introduce my friends to this economic beast that is 1846, I knew that there was no turning back. Even though 1846 is considered to be an entry-level game in the genre, there was a high possibility that they wouldn’t like the game and these next few hours would be torturous. If my friend group liked this game, I’m confident that train games would be hitting our table for the foreseeable future.

I have to say, though, that 1846: The Race for the Midwest was more of a traumatic experience for my friends than I would’ve liked it to be. Teaching the game was grueling as I saw exasperated facial expressions start to appear on the players’ faces. I remember vividly trying to be as enthusiastic as possible as I explained the merits of owning a company and how exactly you could bring one into existence. I was at least grateful that the players allowed me the opportunity to attempt to teach this monster of a game.

A quote that gives me a chuckle was, “But I haven’t even told you all about the private companies!” For some added context, I had just spent 45 minutes briskly running through every single rule that each player needed to play. Everyone around the table already had their heads spinning, and the private companies being introduced definitely was not their favorite thing in the world at that moment.

I also think part of the trauma came from the fact that the game from teaching to finish was about 6.5 hours long. Not bad for a group of first-time train gamers! Yet, you are locking yourself and your friends into an experience from which you cannot quit early. If one player wants to throw in the towel, all the shares they have purchased in addition to the shares of their own companies players have purchased have to be dealt with. It would end the game in a screeching halt. Then nobody would get the gratification that comes from seeing your weak train that can only make 2 stops be transformed into a train that can hit 8 stops and just rakes in revenue.

The game ended with the two last-place players having earned around $1k, I made $3k, and the two winners were about $70 apart in the $5k range. For our first time playing, we had scored on the lower end of the spectrum. Yet, I was grateful to be able to play, and I learned a ton. If I wasn’t wiped out entirely by teaching the game to 4 new players, playing the game finished me off. I was spent after trying to calculate and make essential decisions for the future of the Illinois Central Railroad Company!

Even with the trauma of teaching the game and the long playtime, the feedback was generally positive! Two of the players that night seemed to love the game, and I am thrilled that they did. To quote one of them directly, “F***ing train game. Please don’t buy more train games. I don’t think I can take it. I don’t want it to consume my life. I’m terrified of what I don’t know and of what I do. I don’t want to play trains for the rest of my days…. It’s such a f***ing good game though.” Another player remarked, “Dude 1846 was hype, I had a blast and can’t wait to play again.”

Along with the nickname, “Excel spreadsheet: the game” kindly bestowed by one of the players, we had all been wracking our brains for optimizations and best plays for the next time we got 1846 to the table. I certainly had a fantastic time and loved the idea of cracking this juicy puzzle. Other players had not been so vocal about their approval of the game, but I wasn’t going to fret. The game found its mark with a majority of the players, and I am sure I would have willing participants to play in the future.  

My expectations regarding 1846 had been surpassed by miles! The whirring machine that every player was interacting with seemed to hold a world of possibility, but also was wonderfully elegant. It wasn’t too focused on immediate rewards from moves. It was this beast that slowly moved and turned as players picked up trains and track. The ending was anticipated, and the game length felt justified, in my opinion. There was a lot to think about and a lot of arithmetic, two things I enjoy very much. Nothing felt out of place, and not a single part of the system felt unnecessary.

One of the hardest things about board gaming is explaining why a game is fun. 1846 managed to do something that few other board games do by being explicit in its appeal. The feeling you get when you place down a piece of track that causes your total revenue to double is a fantastic sensation. The sense of looking around the table and thinking, “Who will earn me the most money in dividends?” causes interesting decision-making as you take sides with friends. When nobody is buying your shares, you feel insulted! How dare they not invest in my company!

In 18XX games, there is a term called “train rush.” As more players buy up advanced trains, older trains become “rusted.” The rusted trains can no longer be used in the game. All the sudden, that beast picks up the pace as players need to purchase trains to catch up. The thing is you can be on two different ends of the spectrum when this train rush occurs. You can be at the end of “I saw the train rush coming and anticipated it.” Or the end of “I am close to bankruptcy, and the train rush will eliminate me from the game.”

A shelf of a true collector.

Even though 1846 might not be hitting the table soon, I had other plans with more seasoned train gamers. I had established contact with a gentleman on boardgamegeek.com who hosts 18XX game nights at his house. After getting lucky to be one of the few to attend, I took it upon myself to take in everything. I was completely ready to be destroyed by every single player there, but I also was supremely excited. I was going to witness what type of decision-making occurs in these games at a higher level of play.

I had this image in my head of grizzled veterans of the genre sitting in silence, calculating every variable, and weighing every decision as if the fate of the universe lies in their hands. What I found pleasantly surprised me. I arrived a few minutes early to the event and found the gentleman that invited me to attend. He was extremely kind. As he finished washing dishes that had remained, I prodded him for a few answers about 18XX gaming.

At first, I was curious about how my host was able to curate such a collection of people to play train games every month. While we set up 18Mex to be played with myself and another newer train gamer, the gracious host explained that after purchasing a train game, people started reaching out to him on boardgamegeek to get together and play games. After beginning an initial group of people, others began to reach out online, and the group started to grow. To put it simply, people know people. As you find more and more people who are interested in these games, they will ask to bring their friends who also find joy in tabulating their share of dividends! When prompted for his favorite 18XX title, he was quick to respond with, “1849.” Another entry to put down on my list of games to get around to playing.

The host was not the only gentleman I had the pleasure of interacting with that day. The third player in our game of 18Mex was a newbie like myself. He had only played four other train games but was miles ahead of me in terms of planning and strategy. It gave me hope that I, too, could improve over time! One of the senior train gamers who was engrossed in a session of 1822CA let me know that he had been playing 18XX titles since 1981! With modern board gaming, that is a stellar achievement. Not many games can captivate gamers for more than a couple of years if that! The fact that a genre of game has withstood the test of time for 38 years counting and keeps having people come back to it is mind-boggling.

It was at this moment that I had an epiphany of sorts. No matter the year, day or decade, there will always be someone willing to sit down at the table for a 5-hour long game with like-minded people. I had never met these people before in my life, but I was already making friends just by saying terms like “train rust,” “full cap,” and “float a company.” I was even giggling as they referred to one of the most massive games in the genre (1817) as an “economic sandbox.” I was being let in on the jokes and slowly integrated into the community of train game enthusiasts that have been around for several decades!

I had been so beset with the idea that 18XX games were this exclusive experience that only the most hardcore and dedicated board gamers would play. When I got the opportunity to play, I realized that there wasn’t much of a difference between the “hardcore” gamers I had met and the friends with whom I play more accessible games. We were people with a passion for gaming and spending time with one another. The size of the rulebook and the amount of mental calculation had no bearing on my outlook. The rules and teaching overhead only ever serves as a barrier to what each player wants to experience.

At the start of my journey into this genre of game, I was expecting unforgiving players ready to take advantage of my poor business decisions and leave me in the dust. To my surprise, I had found a group of gamers doing their best to try to cultivate the following for the games they adored! Much like any other game, there are good and bad players. The good players in the 18XX circle realize this and try to help green hands like myself catch up. Once you get involved in the system, everything starts to make sense, and you can begin to grasp all the nooks and crannies of the gameplay sufficiently.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help in strategy! Don’t be intimidated by the playtime of games! Most importantly, never be swayed from diving into an experience you are interested in. You will find people who feel as excited as you and will be more than willing to put in the time and energy to ensure that you had a fantastic time. 1846: The Race for the Midwest rightfully earned a spot on my gaming shelf. I suggest you go ahead and give that game you were curious about a try, even if it seems like it would be too hard. You might just find one of your favorite experiences of all time.

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One thought on “Training for Difficulty
  1. Very interesting, witty and clever article. I enjoyed reading it as much as you enjoyed 1846! Thanks for sharing your experience!!!

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