A play in three acts.
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.
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.
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.