Posts about Game Observances

18GB Chat

This morning Dave Berry and I had a chat on the 18xx Slack #18xxdesign channel. Possibly this was prompted by my posting quick notes on the game (the second point of which is wrong as noted in the chat and back on the original posting):

  • Almost all the privates are overpriced compared to the same cash in shares. Shares are massively better. Play the auction for maximal income/expense ratio (because the rules require you to bid) and otherwise get out as cheaply and with as little as you can.
  • Outside of 2 & 3 player games there are twice as many companies as players. Letting someone get a third presidency is unnecessary & silly.
  • The train rush is brisk, not fast, but brisk & steady. This is a short and small game. There isn’t enough time or enough companies for 1860-style company cycling.
  • The red company is better than all the others by a significant margin.
  • Use your second company as a train-factory until your lead company is train tight, maybe longer.
  • Don’t forget to empty all the IPOs – leaving those shares paying to treasury for lead companies is suicidal in the early/mid-game.
  • Use the bottom of the market and the pool to time getting over 60% of your second company.
  • As the permanents hit/approach, flip and leave your lead company with something modest, single-stepping up the market and run your train stuffed crap company quad-jumping up the market.
  • A token-light game: the final board has a lot of open holes after every token has been placed.
  • Token every XX. Pay attention to the brown upgrades when making the green upgrade. OOs are better revenue than simple cities but lose control late, so only token OOs for early revenue. Avoid tokening simple cities except for control – they’re not worth it.

You can find the original log of our chat on the 18xx Slack #18xxdesign channel (recommended, but at some point it will age off the history), or here follows a lightly cleaned up log of the chat. All errors and misrepresentations are of course mine.

jcl – @DaveB Yo!

DaveB – joined #18xxdesign by invitation from jcl.

jcl – For everyone else: @DaveB is the designer of 18GB. Early in my plays of the game I asked if he’d be interested/willing to have an online chat about some aspects of the game I found curious and he’s graciously appeared!

DaveB – Better late than never (I hope)

jcl – To give a little more context, there was a BGG thread this morning on 18GB:

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2113647/first-time-play

DaveB – @jcl, what would you like to ask?

jcl – So the first thing for me is the small number of companies. In general it is 2N.

Locally this has meant that all the second round companies float at the same time least someone never get a second, and then are never significantly sold down least they never get it back.

Is there a logic/sense here?

Some of his is based on our games ending very comfortably in 6SRs, so there’s just not much time to do the necessary stock actions.

DaveB – I think it’s 2N+c, where c is 1 or 2. The exception is the two player game, where there are six companies, and the six-player game, where there are twelve companies.

jcl – A 4 player game has 8 companies IIRC (I’m a bit away from my copy). 3P is 7, 2P I think is 6. I’ve not yet done 5P.

DaveB – It’s 9 companies for the 4-player game, 12 for the 5-player.

jcl – Then I’m reading something very wrong there for 4P.

totters down the hallway to fetch his copy

DaveB – Unless something got messed up in production, it should be nine companies.

jcl – I just fetched my copy…checking back page of rules.

You are right! Aaaargh!

Okay, that makes a significant difference.

DaveB – Phew! I’m glad we didn’t mess up the production.

jcl – How long have your games generally been in SRs?

DaveB – I found that the “extra” companies often didn’t get floated. This may reflect the people who tested the game.

jcl – By default I tend toward capital heavy strategies, so all the companies will be used in every game. eg last game of 1860 I floated 5 companies and kept 2.

DaveB – 18GB was tested by several groups but to an extent the design reflected the biases and feedback of the testers.

jcl – Of course.

DaveB – In general, I think I’ve seen 6 or 7SRs. How many do you see?

jcl – 6 with 5 threatened. We’ve usually ended in 6.1 or 6.2.

DaveB – Do your games end with the top of the stock market or do you run out of trains>

jcl – Both, slightly more often top-of-market (sample size: 5 so a 3:2 split).

DaveB – That’s what I generally find.

jcl – It is hard to prevent a top of market when someone piles all the trains into a company.

DaveB – One aim of the design was to explore the space around 1825/1860 as investment games, in which you don’t have to worry about companies being dumped on you, but without the strict order of company appearance.

jcl – nods. Two areas I’ve long wanted to design something within: 1) the 1825 model (including Phase IV) and 2) Price Protection.

DaveB – Hence the borrowing of a couple of rule from 1860 to limit the sale of the last train, and sales of train-less companies yielding half price.

jcl – Of course – that rule prevents a boatload of degeneracy. But mostly here it has made for wee timing games of putting about to rust trains into a company so as to ensure it is train-less.

DaveB – A couple of players did suggest price protection, particularly in response to the impact of share sales on company conversion, but I felt the tactics around conversion can be quite interesting (and price protection would have been an extra complication).

jcl – I also think Price Protection marries particularly poorly with the 1825 economic model.

In particular, it isn’t as if stock value means or is worth much for the first 2/3rds of the game. And the hit to capital is…piffle trivial.

DaveB – (Also, I wasn’t particularly familiar with price protection at the time - I’ve only started playing 1870 recently).

jcl – 1870 is a wondrous game – but the skill curve is particularly long and deep.

In particular, I’ve seen none of the capital cycling in 18GB that you see in 1860 (for instance) of float a company, loot it, dump it, let it run insolvent for a while, pick it back up full of money etc as there’s just not time to do all of that....and given the rest of the game, this seemed....odd.

Mostly because there hasn’t been time…say you dump in SR3…by SR4 it is still crap....SR5 the game is about to be over!

DaveB – I did want that to work, and I have made it work sometimes, but you’re right that it does depend on the pace of the game. The X trains can put a fair bit of cash into a company.

jcl – With a 7SR game as you say you sometimes see…yeah, I could imagine it working, but not otherwise. As soon as the X trains hit here there’s a pretty basic pattern of ploughs-to-train-limit then pay-pay-pay.

DaveB – The conversion mechanism interferes with that as a dominant strategy because conversion gives another way to add capital to a company.

jcl – I almost always convert as quickly as I can. The capital is nice but largely irrelevant to my approach. I want the station markers! That said, I’m by no means convinced that this is a dominant strategy. Mostly I drive for paying-trains first, stations-second. Which means the blue trains are pretty close to toxic. (Blue trains are what you buy when you have no other choice)

DaveB – I know people who always convert as late as possible. I haven’t found either approach to be dominant (yet).

jcl – nods. There does seem some flexibility there.

DaveB – I don’t understand - trains first, stations second - but you convert to get station markers rather than trains?

jcl – Yeah. I can always get trains with the odd hold but getting key station markers down requires growing up.

DaveB – Makes sense. Getting the right tokens is important.

jcl – eg The last two games I’ve stitched up the midlands so that I’ve had the only companies that could possibly run N/S.

DaveB – (Slightly less so in the published game than in earlier versions, but still important).

jcl – Quite. I’ve been on your Development mailing list for some years now and worked through some earlier iterations. The current token count seems quite low.

(we had a few chats there over the years about odd bits)

DaveB – (Yes, I appreciated the chats.)

jcl – grins

DaveB – Some station spaces aren’t important, IMO. The competition for the more relevant spaces can be quite intense

jcl – I find it is mostly simple counting. Who gets a tile there first?

DaveB – If you have the tokens to place, yes. If you’re balancing that against converting late, it’s more of an issue.

jcl – Seems like there’s 4-5 control token spots on the board and then it is XX tiles. OOs are mostly a waste except for early and simple cities are stupid.

nods converting late. That’s why I convert immediately.

DaveB – Do you think that extra tokens would benefit the game, given they would be placed in less strategic positions>

jcl – Yes. Help stitch up the board.

One of the things I do with any game is count the total number of station locations if everything is fully developed, and then the total number of markers in the game. Ideally the second number is within a small handful of the first. A gap of say 2-5 is Okay.

DaveB – I worry that it would be a distraction, leading to more recalculation of routes for little overall impact on the game.

jcl – Depends if they fall early or late.

DaveB – Analogous to some games where people chase dits to increase their income by 10 each

jcl – If they fall early it makes for more track tile roster focus/interest in working around barriers and stopping people working around.

(Yeah, dit chasing is silly)

But I’m also of the mind that Frustration-Is-Good in games.

DaveB – Maybe I’ll experiment with adding an extra token per company. (Or do the sums properly).

jcl – Jolly good.

DaveB – I agree about frustration. In my experience, players want it to be easy to lay the right tile, play the right station marker, buy the right stock, keep their company afloat, etc. One of my goals as a designer is to make those choices less straightforward.

jcl – Precisely.

DaveB – On the other hand, if players are tripping over a mechanic that isn’t an essential feature of the game, then that’s a rough edge that needs smoothing.

jcl – Which makes 18GB’s two-upgrades-only-one-city track development seem incredibly excessively rich. Everybody gets…everything they want very quickly modulo tokens and hills.

(One of my general wants as a designer is for companies to be still laying key yellow track in the last ORs)

DaveB – Unless another company gets there first! Many of the track laying rules in 18GB arise from the nature of the board, with a dense area of cities in the middle and empty space to the north, south and west.

jcl – Of course. Mostly the whole board goes brown in a couple ORs and half the companies have no track to build/develop for their own interest for a large chunk of the game.

DaveB – Hence two non-city actions or one city. Also the restrictive upgrades and the unusual OO and XX tiles.

jcl – (My lead company has its tokens down and end-game routes already defined half-way through blue)

DaveB – The last few ORs are basically an evaluation function over the game state to that point.

jcl – Which leaves only the tail-end-charlie track development from blue forwards. (I’d say sets rather than ORs)

DaveB – Halfway through blue is quite impressive. Allied to the early conversions, of course.

jcl – nods. Always push.

DaveB – Do you find you’re making enough income compared to people with non-converted companies?

jcl – I lag for one SR and then blow past them.

(tokens)

Hang on, two hexes OR one city?

DaveB – Neat.

jcl – We’ve been reading that as two hexes of which only one may be a city.

DaveB – You’re right

jcl – Phew.

In 5 games....we’ve never once built a hill. In short the cost is too large a fraction of the price of a train and so is Just-Not-Worth-It as it is effectively punishing an already-loser. You?

DaveB – I’ve just finished an online game in which people crossed at least three hills.

Late conversions can lead to spare capital, which allows people to build round those pesky tokens.

jcl – Were they worth it?

Seems like that late capital is better spent doubling up on trains.

DaveB – In most cases, the hills seemed worth it.

jcl – aims for all of his companies to be train-tight for the second half of the game.

DaveB – I don’t recall which companies had which trains. In some cases, a player had one company build a hill that was used by another, where the second company had two trains.

There’s a risk if all companies aim for two trains, in that the game may end before those trains pay back their cost.

jcl – If you can get multiple trains usefully across the connection then…maybe. My early grow-up & track development tends to preclude such being interesting to me, but that’s clearly not a global constant.

DaveB – (For onlookers, this is because the game ends when all trains have been bought or removed).

jcl – Yeah. Thus our games that ended in 6.1. Mostly for us it has meant that the gap from the 4X->6X is about 1.5 ORs.

(I’ll happily buy trains that never run if it stops even more opponent’s trains from ever running)

DaveB – nods

jcl – It is good to deny people quad-jumps for shares you don’t hold.

You think the privates are worth buying?

DaveB – You mentioned on BGG that the privates are over-valued. That’s an area I struggled to get right and its probably the area I’m least happy with the design as it is.

jcl – I’ll buy the Liverpool.....and maybe the Edinborough thing if I have scrap money and it isn’t an edge on a share… But more generally if I could get out buying no privates I would in every game.

DaveB – Edinburgh? Do you mean the AF with the Perth tile lay?

jcl – Yeah, that one.

DaveB – The Leicester tile lay is quite strong.

jcl – It is for red, but it also requires a token, and that’s a stupid token.

DaveB – And the station markers can be good too.

jcl – But it is the only other one I’d think about

DaveB – The LNWR can build through Leicester too.

jcl – York? So very easy to wall off – and it isn’t even an EXTRA marker, just reserved.

nods LNWR.

Which brings up red (Midlands?) as being significantly stronger than black (LNWR) or light green (NER).

DaveB – If I had another round of tweaks to the design, I’d look at making the privates more powerful, both in ability and possibly also by making the closure payment multiplied by the phase (e.g. 1x for yellow/green, 2x for blue/brown, 3x for gray, or something like that).

jcl – Neat.

DaveB – I’ve never found the Midland (red) to be significantly stronger than other companies. The NER can be a bit weak, I agree.

jcl – NER runs a lot of short trains quickly and easily and has some good control token opportunities…but then suffers badly. LNWR…just desperately needs someone to build track for it. Something…some edge. MR is in the middle of a forest of XX that it can get and token before anyone else, defining both revenue and shape and the mid-board.

Oh, and if they are not XX they’re OOs that also pay more.

Plus…Liverpool.

DaveB – I think the LNWR can reach Manchester before the MR. Also, what about the LYR?

(Which starts in Leeds, one of the XX cities).

jcl – LYR has been second tranche in all our games…but even worse, is short a token.

If it had the token…I’d agree that it is stronger than MR.

DaveB – The reason I introduced the tranche system was because people were forming rigid openings. Varying the range of companies available to open made the game less predictable / less subject to groupthink.

jcl – nods. I’ve no problems with the tranches.

DaveB – I’m guessing you haven’t tried opening two companies in SR1, as you had only N companies in the first tranche instead of N+1?

jcl – I think I did once, worked out Okay.

DaveB – (This might not be possible with all player counts, as you start with less cash)

OK, good.

jcl – Yeah, certainly not at 4P which has been most of our games.

DaveB – I wanted it to be a viable option without being dominant.

jcl – It currently seems weak but not always Bad, but I also haven’t looked at it hard.

(Only time I did a 2-company start was in a 2P game – think? Tough to remember now.)

DaveB – OK

jcl – Gnahh…the games start to drift together and blur.

BtB I do like the add-legs-and-no-revenue pattern.

There’s been a lot of slag thrown at the N/S bonus as irrelevant BtB.

I’ve suspected that it may be the difference in getting multi-jumps for tighter games, but it hasn’t been here.

DaveB – Originally, the income for simple cities was always 20 regardless of phase. But people kept tripping over this, so I changed it to the more familiar pattern (albeit 10/20/30 instead of 20/30/40).

The N/S bonus makes the off-board hexes worthwhile compared to stopping at Glasgow or Edinburgh or Dundee.

I’d prefer it to be +30 instead of +20 but didn’t make that change in time for production.

jcl – Ahh, I jerk that sort of thing around here for my designs, so people are used to having to pay attention.

DaveB – I need to sign off tonight. Thanks for the conversation!

jcl – nods off-board. I’ve certainly wrangled or poisoned track to make getting to the off-board better/worse.

waves. It has been great to chat to you!

Would you mind if I posted a log of this? (With cleaned up typoes etc)

DaveB – On BGG?

jcl – I hadn’t actually thought about it, but uhh, sure?

DaveB – I mean, where do you want to post it?

jcl – I’ve not actually thought that through.

Left by itself this chat will slowly roll off the history. Seems like there’s ~value in making a log more accessible.

So, let’s say BGG.

DaveB – OK.

jcl – Thanks.

DaveB – No problem. Bye for now.

jcl – waves. Thanks.

Pennies to Peter or Paul

Say you have 6 shares of a company at $60 with a total run of $15.

  • You can withhold and reduce your net value by $30 ($5 per share) and gain control of $150 in capital, for a net of $120 ($150 - $30).

Or:

  • You can pay and increase your net value by $90 in dividends (6 shares paying $15 each) and $30 in stock appreciation (6 shares with $5 appreciation each) for a total of $120.

On first glance $150 is bigger than $120, and yes, it is actually bigger. But do you think you can do more with that $120 in your pocket to buy shares in companies that will buy and run trains and pay even more dividends and so forth…or is $150 in a treasury, which is not enough to buy a train, somehow better? (Remember: You can sell your shares in order to realise that stock appreciation so you can then flip that money into something even more profitable)

By the bye: You’ll often see experienced players selling down their companies, sometimes even until they only hold the bare presidency. Why? Because that company is exhausted, the money all spent and the trains soon to rust. They can buy paying shares in other companies (thus gaining those dividends and stock appreciation) while the sold shares also work for them by paying into the treasury – thus giving them double the money!

Commonly, the company also isn’t worth keeping hold of – a brand new company full of money is a better deal in every way. If someone wants to take it, bully for them – they can find and pay for a permanent train for it – otherwise all those shares in the pool will pay into the treasury when the company runs (partially resuscitating the company) and the shares will be nice and cheap to buy back in a future stock round after your money has been working for you more usefully somewhere else. And in the meantime there new companies full of money to float and help every other player’s trains to rust too…

Confident Termination

To give a quick sense of a fairly normal trajectory for 1830 and most other similar games:

  • SR1: 3 companies float.
    • OR1.1: First companies buy a single 2T each, last company buys 2x2T (thus ~guaranteeing that the 3T will come out in the next OR).
  • SR2: Some shares are bought and sold. (Sometimes a company floats if only 2 floated in SR1)
    • OR2.1: First company buys 2x2T+3T and their privates, later companies buy one or two 3Ts and their privates. Maybe a 4T is bought, but probably not.
  • SR3: 3-4 companies float. Sometimes all remaining companies are floated.
    • OR3.1: All the remaining 3Ts are bought, first and maybe all 4Ts are bought, 2Ts rust.
    • OR3.2: Companies run. Sometimes a 5T or two are bought.
  • SR4: Any remaining companies float, portfolios start to consolidate.
    • OR4.1: Any remaining 4Ts bought. Probably a 5T is bought, possibly all of them.
    • OR4.2: Likely a 6T is bought, possibly all of them.
  • SR5: Portfolios adjust.
    • OR5.1: Companies run. Any remaining 6Ts are bought.
    • OR5.2: First diesel is bought. 4Ts rust.
    • OR5.3: Companies run.
  • SR6: Final share buys.
    • OR6.1: Companies run.
    • OR6.2: Companies run.
    • OR6.3: Companies run. Bank is broken. Game over.

Many newer player’s games run for much longer than that: 7, 8, 9 SRs, sometimes even 10 SRs. The general reason why is slow train buying. As it is difficult to describe exactly what slow train buying is to a new player – slow compared to what? – the above gives a sense of what a game looks like from the outside with normal rates of train buying. Some games (with at least modestly skilled players) will go faster than that.

Now the above isn’t the only possible game trajectory or even always the ideal trajectory for every game, far from it, but it is a pretty common path in its broad shape. No 18xx player should be surprised by a game which runs at that rate or even a bit faster.

More broadly, 3-player games will tend to run a bit faster and larger player-count games will tend to run a bit longer. For instance, 6-player 1830 is commonly a 7 SR game simply due to marginal inefficiencies from the money being so divided.

Wrist Tapping

I’ve taken to using a 1 minute timer for players (me and one other) in 18xx games (the other players are not timed). It isn’t that 1 minute is a convenient time or a comfortable time. It isn’t. It is rather markedly too short. It is uncomfortable. Unpleasant. It encourages mistakes, big ones, game-throwing ones. It is too short and deliberately so.

There’s strong temptation to break the time limit, to make allowances, to permit a player to break and go over time maybe once or twice a game when decisions are especially chewy. Maybe a player has unlimited time for their decisions…say…oh…once or twice per game. Maybe a player could play very fast and accumulate time to spend later on bigger decisions? I have sympathy for the argument, especially given that I’m one of the players subject to the timer and also more likely to recognise and chew on such a decision. Such an approach would play to and accentuate my personal interests and abilities. But I refuse the argument. Players have a minute, period. I have a minute, period. If a player is not done in that time, if I’m not done in that time, then I or they auto-pass and it is the next player or company’s turn. Finis.

Why? Because the purpose of the exercise is to force the players to prioritise. No ifs, no ands, no buts, no forgiveness, no choice. There is barely time to look at your own position, let alone to examine the other player’s positions. Prioritise! The purpose isn’t for the players to make the best decisions, isn’t for the players to be maximally competitive, isn’t to approximate any sort of ideal game session, isn’t to make the game the most enjoyable. It is to give no choice other than to continuously prioritise everything and to still be too short of time.

Because then we learn, have no other choice but to learn.

Following Curiosity

What should be used to introduce a new or potential player to…

Use whatever interests them.

You are assumably playing this game, this teaching game for them, to help them, to expose them, to pilot their ignorance toward their curiosity with a steady hand – and not for you or your interests. It doesn’t matter what game that is, how unapproachable or complex you think it might be, or any of the rest. That’s your head, your evaluation, your value system and not their’s. They are interested and that interest is effectively the universal solvent for any and every problem.

Oh look, I got completely smashed and destroyed and I have no idea how or why that happened let alone what I could possibly do about that, this is incredibly confusing and I simply have no idea…isn’t that interesting!?”

And lo! That implacable unconfrontable morass of a game gradually dissolves before nothing more amazing than someone just being interested. Don’t waste the primary weapon and faith the other player is entrusting with you.

Inflationary Spending

A fundamental question is how to deploy capital into already extant companies and the friction and costs thereto. Possible methods include:

– Half-pays: intercepting part of the flow of capital from train-runs into the treasury. 18India and Rolling Stock perhaps take that particular pattern furthest in allowing the president to freely declare any between $0 and the full value of the the treasury plus run. Partially along this line, 18EA allows the company to “pad” the dividend with capital from treasury – often used to edge into a higher multi-jump stock increase.

– Revenue-generating assets sold/held by companies instead of players. This can be anything from cross-invested shares in 1841 to private companies with revenues, to bonds and other derivatives, to inter-corporate loans/securities and so forth.

– Horizontal transfers from other companies or other financial instruments, possibly newly floated or created for the purpose, can be interesting. Mergers, acquisitions, take-overs of objects with assets…can all fit in here.

– Direct access to the president’s personal cash. While 1832 has the London Bank private (company and personal cash are no longer separated), emergency train buys are the classic form of accessing presidential cash, but there are other ways from 1831 allowing presidents to freely contribute to train buys (and in some games, also other purchases), to even billing all shareholders for such elected purchases (pro-rated by the percentage held – yes, just being a minor share-holder is an ongoing risk in such games).

– Then there are loans. The most common form have the companies take the loans (eg, 1817, 1856, etc), but in some cases players can be the ones taking loans (1824, 1844, etc), sometimes solely by force (had to buy a train for a company and couldn’t afford it), and sometimes electively. Typically loans exert some sort of pressure, be it a constraint on future choices (eg most Double-O games), or interest payments (eg 1817, 1856, etc), or a long-term penalty on final score (various Vellani games).

– Company-issued derivative assets, be they 1817’s shorts or 18NE’s bonds or 1849 Electric Dream’s bonds or the Bill Dixon games with re-issuing treasury shares (also seen in 18C2C), or other ways of dynamically increasing the share issuance (ie the company dilutes its extant shares by issuing more shares that might be bought – ala 18201)…etc. (This is an area in which I expect to see considerably more innovation)

More broadly, the costs of redeploying capital are a largely untapped and rich field to be explored in 18xx games.


  1. I should note that the cost of deploying capital in 1820 is particularly high, averaging just over 40% in the early game (spend $100 in order to deploy $60 of capital) and varying from there onward. 

Falling Down The Sky Above

A play in three acts.

Act 1

I first meaningfully encountered the 18xx during a consulting gig in Groton Connecticut. It was in the rather grim basement of Citadel Games, the local game store in Groton. The game was 1870, the teaching was absent, I was out of my depth and adrift in multiple dimensions and I entirely and vehemently foreswore the family of 18xx games.

Act 2

Jump forward a few years and back to California and I began to think that I’d been unfair, I clearly didn’t understand the 18xx and yet I’d damned them. That seemed stupid. I’d been stupid and could do better. So I started working on 1830 and divers other games with a local mate.

It did not go easily.

Many things will submit before mere persistence, but it might take a while.

To give a sense of scale, several years after resuming my assault on the 18xx, we were up past a hundred 18xx games played, and I was damned if I was going to give up. I’m tempted to say, “It was personal”, but it really wasn’t. I’d said I’d not render judgement until I understood them and that was enough to persist.

By this time, after not much under a half dozen years of trying to push myself into the 18xx, I wasn’t doing noticeably better. I’d still only won the one game a few years back – which we’re convinced was a banking error – and more importantly, neither clarity or ability were dawning. I continued to not only lose and be confused and adrift, but to be destroyed and routed in every game. Every game, every time. Like a comatose sheep to the slaughter.

Act 3

A change of approach seemed in order.

I setup an 18xx-playing group: SFBay-18xx, a sort of sub-chapter of the South Bay Boardgamers, and we started playing 18xx at least once a week and often two or three times a week. Pretty much the same handful of people every week and a fairly small roster of games (almost all bought off the secondary market).

And suddenly, shockingly, gob-smackingly, things started to work for me. I tried gambits and…they worked! (They’d never done that before) This was different. I was able to make plans and carry them out, to make and test hypotheses, and thus to learn.

Previously I’ve written that I was unlocked because now when I tried things, they weren’t immediately shut down by a more skilful player exploiting my execution weaknesses. Now I could try things and even though my execution was fumbling and imprecise, I could see them (haltingly) work because my opponents didn’t know any better than I did. Now not everything failed. And I could see their attempts and struggles and failures and partial successes as well.

Maybe that was it, but I’m not entirely convinced. It is a bit too convenient and neat a post-facto explanation. It also wasn’t the only change I made – I’d also started spending at least 30 minutes on analysis for every hour I played. If I played a 6 hour game, then I spent at least 3 hours (usually more) working through that game and its implications. Sometimes I put in 2 hours for every hour played. That also had value.

We played a lot of…oh, go look at the geeklists: they’re all there. One result now is that I’m far less convinced of the wisdom of gateway games, teaching-games, on-ramps to the 18xx then I was then. I expect we’d have done better just diving into whatever interested us and carrying the new people along for the ride. Enthusiasm and interest are great vehicles. If there’s both interest and fortitude, I see little reason for players not to start with any title. Pick your interest and dive in.

So play and play and learn I did, ~rapidly unrolling and testing, verifying, vetting the ideas, notions, gambits and conceits I’d built up over the previous years. Even more importantly, I started to build a conceptual language of how the games worked, of what the immediate forces were, what the shaping forces were, how the games were structured, how they were shaped and defined, and what the players did both in the details and at the almost macro-economic level in their game decisions.


And that was maybe 6 years ago. That language and its backing conceptual framework is and has been my most valued take-away. Much has changed since then and I’m still working on that understanding except that now my primary investigation tool is game design.

meteing capital

On the difference between full and incremental capitalisation systems:

In full capitalisation games a little money creates and controls twice as much money. You invest $500 and get to control $1,000 and only half the income. In incremental capitalisation games there is no inflation of capital. Instead it is about income: a small investment controls a larger income flow. $500 controls $500…and 100% of the income. You don’t get free money, you get control of twice as much income. Which is why high pars are so difficult (you can’t get enough of the income you control to buy more shares quickly enough) and cross-investing rather than a gift of capital is a direct attack (your investment has stolen their income and fundamentally weakened their company for the long term).

Which in sum shows what’s needed for a successful second company: enough opportunity (usually time but can be track etc) for enough income to out-perform other opportunities.

counting cain

I’ve long mused on writing an article on Track-Tile Rosters In The 18xx: Their Use & Management. And clearly until now I haven’t. Well, almost. Perhaps a collection of quotes from my posts on the area will suffice.


A collection of minor and marginally impolitic rants about track-tile management and use in the 18xx, with focus paid to their use and abuse by players and the process of learning to do so.

On the use, abuse and lack of recognition of the existence of the track-game in the 18xx:

Summarising: You and your opponents are either too incompetent to see the track games before you or (less likely but it happens) are unwilling to engage them, and are (as sadly the vast majority of players are) utter crap at offensive track management and route building. Which is fine. It just means that there’s large chunks of the game you have neither seen or learned yet and so you have things still to do. Good stuff. The first step is recognition of the opportunity.

But your and your opponent’s incompetence does not mean that the game is absent.

Done well, track will just seem to happen, to be obviously impossible or inevitable and of course it came out that way. But it came out that way because a good track builder knows the tile distribution and the timing constraints of the game and made it happen. They saw that you’d need a #23 in a few rounds and arranged for them to all be used elsewhere, that you needed a #46 to do the second best thing and…oh well, that too. And that all the tiles they need are just automatically available when they need them, perhaps liberated by the upgrade their other company did just before. And this all looks so natural and easy that it seems incidental.

And it isn’t. No more than Curry’s casually tossed off 3-pointers or Messi’s corner kicks that tuck into the net with the light inevitability of gravity, or Bjoern Borg’s effortless ground play driving McEnroe to his knees – those aren’t just fate either, and for the same reasons.

But most players are crap at track. Really utterly dreadful. Even many of the old hands have just never put in the work to fully learn how to play the track game. Instead they think it is about drawing point-to-point lines using funny-shaped tiles…and then they struggle and hem and haw over irrelevant details and wondering what tile does what or if there is a tile that does this…and never give a thought to having planned those lays three ORs ago and having already considered and managed the implications of the other connections incidentally created by that track lay and what that does to the mix of available tiles and how that affects every other company’s track future…and thus they miss the game staring them in the face.

Which is not to say that the track game is the greatest or best sub-game in the 18xx. It isn’t. It is just one sub-game among several, and it happens to be the one that novice players are most ready to claim is obviously absent…(as I did)…and then spend untold hours faffing about and mostly accomplishing nothing and using that as a demonstration of their conclusion rather than of their inability.

Start out by learning the tile roster. Every tile, every count, and all of its connectivity and upgrade paths. This is easy enough in 1830 – there are only 85 tiles across 46 tile types in the game, so that’s fairly easy. Then start thinking about the implications of dits not upgrading, of the double dits and OO tiles in particular, of how many edges are ever connected by a given track tile and why 1830’s permissive track rules are important there…and then you should be able to give a reasoned argument for why there are only four #7s and #57s in the game…any why, and thus how you setup to use that limit to or against your advantage.

Then leading forward into the particulars, the actual management and definition of the problem space:

How many different possible ways are there for one line of track to cross a tile? A moment’s thought tells you 3: straight, broad & sharp curve. Okay, that’s 9 tiles down: the simple track, dits and yellow cities. Ooops, two of the yellow city types are missing, so 7. (I wonder why? Go to the map and fiddle for a bit, imagine what could be done with broad and sharp curve cities – ooooh, lots of balance problems there!) Next, let’s look at tiles with two routes. How many different possibilities are there? Yeah, a lot. Okay, break it down: How many where the two routes don’t intersect and join at an edge? So two different routes joining a total of four edges.... There are 9. Ergo there are 9 possibilities for green co-existing track tiles, 9 possible double dits and 9 possible brown OO tiles. Of course 1830 doesn’t have them all, for instance there are only 5 double dit tiles – so 4 are missing. Same for the brown OOs. And only 4 greens? Which are missing, and do the different tile types overlap?

Okay what about the green switches? Two routes connecting only three edges? How many of those can there be? Well, obviously one route could be a straight, broad or sharp; and the other route could also be a straight, broad or sharp…but they have to connect, so they could connect at either end of the first track. Oh, and some of them are impossible like straight/straight can never connect only 3 edges and broad/broad is either 3 or 4 edges and is rotationally symmetric…and yeah, a bunch of them fall out for being the same shape, just rotated, like the broad/broad switch is the same track no matter how you spin it. So fiddle with pencil and paper for a few minutes and you should come up with 10.

There are 10 possible green switches. 9 possible coexisting patterns and 10 switches. That’s not so many. Are they all in the game? Grrrrr, some are missing. Which?

Green cities? They connect 4 edges. How many permutations? Yup, 3: X, K and chicken foot. Except the last isn’t in 1830. Hurm, these exceptions are starting to be annoying. Still, we’ve just done 26 of the 46 different tile-types in the game and have spent what? Only a few minutes? More than half way done in so little time or effort.

On to the browns. Oh, they are a mess! So confusing! Or are they? We’ll use the same tools to cut them down to size. How many different routes on a brown tile? Yep, 3 or 4. Unghh. Okay, how many different edges are connected on any given tile? Yep, 3 or 4 and…yes..all the ones with 3 edges also only use 3 routes. And a given edge with track only ever has 1 or 2 routes. Never 3. Okay, grab your pencil and paper: How many possible ways are there of doing that? Now for the 4s, how many? And…which are missing from 1830?

Nothing joins 5 or 6 edges…? Oh, just the brown cities. Everything else tops out at 4. Really, everything. Go check. Does that have any…significance? Yeah, connected edges never go away across upgrades…so every time you lay a yellow tile you’re committing 2 of the 4 possible edges to be connected for the rest of the game. And when you do a green upgrade to a switch you’re committing the 3rd edge…which means that only one more edge can ever be connected. There are only 4 edges, ever.

There are no 5- or 6-edge simple track tiles. So during upgrades you can just count the edges, and if its 3 or 4 its possible, but otherwise, no go no how. Hang on, 1830 track is permissive! That means that when you plop down a green co-existing tile you’ve just dictated, forever, which 4 edges of that hex will be connected for the rest of the game. And switches…they commit two routes to an edge. Once that switch is down, nothing else will ever connect to that edge. Ever. Those are pretty strong commitments that you’re making with simple track-lays. Maybe, just maybe, you could use those little tidbits to make decisions?

So far in this little exercise you’ve spent what? We’ll call it an hour, maybe two hours; a little under or over. And yet you’re already significantly ahead of most 18xx players. Truly. Now keep going and figure out some more patterns. As you’ve seen, it isn’t hard and pretty quickly things like that 4-edges bit fall out, and that’s one hell of a handy weapon. Are there more?

Is any bit of the above process hard or even particularly time-consuming? No. Its just simple stuff, applied simply, one step at a time in simple and even obvious ways. Just plod along thinking it through, step-by-step. The only things that screw it up are the exceptions/missing-tiles – but even those tend to fall out in fairly clear-cut ways when you carry them back to the game and ask yourself, What would happen if these were present in the game? Would they significantly change things or would they just be irrelevant? Why? Does it make things easier or harder? For…everyone or just in these special cases? Do those special cases matter? Really?

It is easy. A bit laborious I’ll give you, but easy enough that just spending time and low levels of effort will get you there – things to fiddle with in your head while in the shower or commuting – and the pay-backs are strong and close to immediate in your games.

On holding the bar and setting expectations:

No, you’re way overstating and in the process affirming the dilettante’s self-reassuring assumption of, “That’s too much work…” Rather than holding up the clearly visible and should-be-rotely-assumed goal: Of course people know these sorts of things about the games they play.

The idea that things like the above aren’t an automatic part of playing any game, that they are just as obviously necessary as knowing the rules, is something continues to baffle me. What do you think of the player who asks the same questions about the game rules, makes the same mistakes, again and again and again, game after game after game after game after game after game? The same rules questions. The same mistakes and stumbles. Every game. Again. Why is that any different than a player asking and stumbling and tripping over the same questions about the track-tiles in a game, game after game after game after game? How is it different? The track tiles and their arrangements are just as much game rules as those about selling shares or running trains.

That said, I’ll happily admit that it took me a long time to get to seeing the above and using them constructively, starting from scratch with no guidance, but that wasn’t for lack of pushing. It was manifestly obvious to me that something was possible even if I didn’t yet see what it was, and so I hammered away and didn’t get far for a while. (It took a comment from Mark Frazier before the flashbulbs all went off)

Estimation of effort and structural similarities to trick-taking card games:

At no point am I deriding people who haven’t learned or figured out this stuff. I am deriding those who aren’t even trying. We all start out not knowing. The question is, What are you doing about that?

I assume you play or have played Poker or Rummy or Canasta or Euchre or some such. How many cards are there in a standard french suited deck? 52? How many suits? 4? What are the suits? Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades? How many colours? 2? How long is each suit? 13? What are all the cards in a suit? Ace, 2, 3, 4…10, jack, queen, king?

Simple, right?

You know all that, and I bet know it without a second thought and consider it “easy” and “automatic”. You likely use this knowledge in deciding what cards to play in games like Hearts without blinking. 1830 track tiles are not substantially different. They are just funny shaped cards. Their particulars are a bit different, but not a lot different: they just have a colour and 1-4 lines drawn across them in some pretty limited and standardised ways. They’re actually simpler than playing cards!

You also know the various melds for playing cards like 3 and 4 of a kind, runs of cards in order etc. Track tiles are also laid out in ordered structures, essentially cards in a shared tableau we call the “board” and the placement rules are even simpler than those for say Poker melds: Put down any tile anywhere so long as it:

a) Matches the type of what's underneath it.
b) Doesn't change what was there before.
c) Can trace a line from the new tile back to one of your
station markers.

And that’s pretty much it. (Everything else is basically an edge case or exception) Or if you want:

a) You have to follow suit.
b) The card must be bigger than the previous card if any.
c) Some connection rule which maybe doesn't map to
trick-taking card games well.

That’s really not so hard.

This isn’t a question of me operating in realms beyond mere mortals. Ptui! There’s not a single damned thing listed out above which you and every other reader here can’t observe, utterly and completely, in a few seconds. I’ve done nothing unusual above beyond articulate something that’s mostly obvious in one (hopefully) fairly cogent lump.

And of course, the parallels in Carcassonne, honing in on structure:

Carcassonne tiles have basically three types of features: castles, cloisters & roads. Each feature has simple constraints/patterns: castles always join 0 or 2 corners of the tile; cloisters sit in the middle of the tile; roads always run from the midpoint of the edge to the center of the tile, are never inside castles, and there can be 0-4 of them. And…that’s it. If you want to add in the river, it follows the same patterns as and is exclusive of roads. That’s pretty much everything structurally. Everything from there is about the distribution, how many of this tile versus that.

And I don’t think memory is really useful – certainly not in the presence of a tile sheet that’s just handed out – or for 1830 either. It isn’t being able to chant off how many #45s there are in the game (2), but rather understanding the patterns and rules of the system that’s been built. What is possible? What isn’t possible? What are the constraints? Which priorities does this create on players? How do you detect, determine and assess those? What edges does this knowledge create and how can you use it? Etc. None of that is based on learning tile counts, though that tends to happen as a side effect, but instead on understanding the implicit rules of the game as explicitly encapsulated in the tiles. There is a pattern and a logic and a set of structured limits there that can be readily understood and used.

In Carcassonne players learn really quickly to count the number of open edges on their castles. The more edges, the harder it is to ever close. Simple enough and not a memory thing. 18xx track has similar structures: 2 routes maximum on an edge, no more than 4 connected edges, 3 basic track types, 9 co-existings, 10 switches, all brown tiles are pairs of switches (there’s a new one for you)… All these things define the space in which the game happens and implicitly define the game rules even if they never have words put to them in the rules. They are just as much the rules to the game as what the train limit is or how much money the players start with.

So learn the rules to the game.