Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Plays: 5Px1.

Many OTK old-timers are fans of 18XX games, and recently the Weiqi Boardgamers have been very much into it too. I have always been a little reluctant to try this family of games, because stock-holding games have never been quite my thing. I had one painful experience with Greed Incorporated (well, it's probably more my fault than that of the game). Chicago Express is clever but ultimately didn't quite click with me. I enjoyed Gheos well enough, but probably more for the timing aspect and the dramatic changes. The stock-holding aspect is not that big an element. I guess I've always felt uncomfortable about the two layers of play in stock-holding games. You are invested in some entities (train companies, nations, etc), but they are not really yours. You are using them to help you win, and you need to isolate how well players are doing and how well entities are doing. You can't get too attached to the entities, especially in games where ownership is very fluid. I am comfortable with Age of Steam, because you own your own train company. There is no stock-holding element.

The recent flurry of activities triggered me to decide to finally give 18XX a try, at least to satisfy my curiousity of whether I'd like it.

The Game

18TN is a game about the development of train companies in Tennessee. Like all 18XX games, players are investors starting with an amount of money. They start train companies by investing in them. Train companies lay tracks, buy trains, build stations and operate routes to earn money. Earnings can be paid to investors as dividends, or retained for future expansion. This is decided by the president, i.e. the biggest shareholder. During the game shares can be bought and sold, and company presidencies (I am reluctant to use the term "ownerships") can change.

There is a fixed number of train companies that be started, and they have pre-determined starting locations. This makes every 18XX game unique. As more and more advanced trains are bought, older trains become obsolete and must be discarded. So train companies need to be on their toes and need to be prepared to buy new, more advanced trains. Newer trains can run longer routes, thus earning more money. As more advanced trains become available, more advanced track tiles also become available, allowing more routes on the board, giving more space for building stations, and also increasing the income of routes. Stations are used to lock a city for a company, guaranteeing the company access to that city. If a city is fully occupied by stations of other companies, your company will not be able to run a route past that city.

Each train company needs to work hard to expand to earn money for its shareholders. It needs to work hard even to continue to exist. Obsoleted trains can severely set back a company.

From the player's perspective, the end goal is simply to be the richest. This is basically cash on hand plus share value at game end. The game ends when the bank runs out of money. It can also end if one player bankrupts. The player needs to always remember that the ultimate goal is to make money, from dividends, and also from having high share values for the shares being held. Many things impact the share price. It increases whenever the company pays dividends, and decreases whenever the company retains its earnings. If the shares are fully subscribed (i.e. none in the open market and none still with the underwriting bank), the price will go up. If anyone sells shares, the price drops for each share sold (ouch!). The price does not go up when shares are bought though.

The upper part is for marking share prices. Various actions in the game cause the positions of the markers to move. Moving up or right are good (price goes up), and moving down or left are bad. If the share price hits the yellow or green zones, things will be so bad that some restrictions related to share holding will be lifted.

The lower half is just for marking the dividends paid per share. The Open Market section on the right is just for placing shares that have been sold by players to the open market. They are available to be purchased by other players.

The company sheet. I was the largest shareholder of GM&O, so I was the president and I held this company sheet, which meant I was responsible for running the company. Each company has a number of tokens (GM&O had two left at this point) which can be used to build a station in a city. Stations secure the company's access to the city, and also block other companies from running routes past that city, unless they have their own station. At this moment GM&O owned two Level-2 trains. That table on the lower right is a convenient reference for rules that apply for different stages of the game. From left to right: (1) The phase colour indicates what coloured tiles can be placed on the board. The more advanced tiles have more station slots, give more income, have more branches and links, allowing more complex and more profitable networks. (2) Train limit is how many trains a company can own. (3) Train cost. (4) Number of trains of that level in the game. (5) What trains become obsolete.

From a player perspective (as opposed to that of a company), this is what I owned. I had cash, a private company (lower left) which was purchased in the early game, shares certificates in the GM&O company. The marker in the top right is just a start player marker for the next share round. It goes to the earliest player who passed in the previous share round. It is often important to manipulate who holds this marker. It can make a big difference.

There are some tricky manoeuvres in the game. I think in my first game I have been mostly learning from the sharks how not to lose disastrously as opposed to learning how to win. The sharks have been talking about Hot Sun all the time, a codeword for something very bad happening in 18XX games, but none were willing to elaborate further prior to the game. As we played and I witnessed one nasty thing after another happening, I asked, "So this is Hot Sun?", and I kept getting replies like "Not yet", "Not even close". One bad thing is your business partner dumping the shares of your company, sending the share price tumbling. It is a slow uphill battle to increase share price, and a sudden big drop is always painful to watch. But that's not Hot Sun. Another bad thing is trains getting obsoleted and the company not having any trains to operate. The company is forced to purchase a train, and if it doesn't have enough funds, the president must top up from his own wallet. A little unthematic here maybe? Aren't these limited liability companies? But this is still not Hot Sun. Yet another bad thing is one player who owns two companies does some hanky-panky with them, selling soon-obsolete trains from one to the other at high prices, then dumping all his shares in that about-to-be-ruined company, and then forcing you, the second biggest shareholder, to become president. There is a limit to the number of shares that can be sold to the open market, so you can't even sell your shares in order to "disown" the company. Soon, the trains become obsolete, and the company does not have enough funds to buy a new train, and you have to top up from your own bank account. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Hot Sun. I'm just thankful I didn't have to experience it first-hand in my first game.

The Play

We did a 5-player game, Jeff, Henry, Heng, Ang and I, and I was the only newbie to 18XX games. The game took more than 3 hours, excluding rules explanation, and this is an introductory 18XX game suitable for teaching new players. I was quite conservative and didn't game the share-holding aspect much, mostly because I didn't know how to. But I watched others dumping shares to raise cash to start new companies, and I watched how share prices were sent tumbling by mass selling. I mostly focused on one company, GM&O, and played it like it was "my" company (i.e. like how I would play Age of Steam). I did buy some shares of "other's" companies, mostly L&N which appeared safest to me (i.e. Henry the president at the time didn't seem to intend to ruin it - he seemed more trustworthy than the other company presidents), and also some I&C (after I felt more sure Jeff wasn't going to ruin it either). I think in this first game I have been focusing on not losing spectacularly rather than trying to look for efficient ways to earn more money. That's how it is swimming with the sharks.

There was some cooperation in the game, e.g. companies building and upgrading tracks which benefited both. Given that it was a 5-player game, often at least 2 players need to pool money together to get a company started.

And then there was the Hot Sun manoeuvre. It was pulled by Jeff on Ang. I think Heng did warn Ang about it, but at the time Ang was heavily invested in both companies that Jeff was president of. Ang was expecting Jeff to ruin the other one, but since Jeff controlled both companies, he could do whatever hanky-panky he wanted with them. Thus my first sighting of Hot Sun.

Everyone was careful about train obsolesence, and none were hurt too badly (well, except for the Hot Sunned Ang). The train companies had been retaining earnings in preparation for buying those new expensive trains that would soon become available.

Unfortunately I couldn't stay till game end and had to leave about 2:15 hrs into the game. At that time the most advanced trains had appeared and we were entering the game end stage. It was a pity I couldn't witness the end game. The final positions were Jeff, Heng, me, Henry, Ang. So I survived OK I guess. Here's Jeff's perspective of the game (up to game end). You need to scroll down to the middle of the page.

In the early game, two companies were started, GM&O in the south west, and L&N in the north. The starting cities of each company are marked on the board. That little table on the lower right is for marking the par values of the shares, i.e. at what values the shares started.

Two more companies had started, IC in the north west, which was enjoying some tracks already built by GM&O, and TC in the centre, making good use of tracks built by L&N. Green tiles had become available now that we had advanced in technology.

All six companies were operating now. The newest companies, NCSL and SR both started in the south east quadrant. The two initial isolated networks now connected. Brown tiles had become available.

This was the time that I had to leave. NCSL was the company that Jeff Hotsunned Ang with, and its share price was in the green zone. L&N was in the yellow zone, because it had been withholding earnings to prepare for trains becoming obsolete and for having to buy new (and very expensive) trains. The Level-8 in the centre is the most advanced train in this game. Many shares had been sold to the open market at this point.

Ang, Heng, Henry and Jeff. They all take the game quite seriously, including seating order. We drew cards to determine seating order. This reminds me of hardcore Puerto Rico players. But then, did Jeff win because his turn was just after mine (the newbie)? And Ang lost because he was before me? *spooky X-Files music*

I understand the rules now, but am still not familiar with all the strategies, in particular the ways to game with the share holdings, and also generally how to be efficient in making money. Now that I have experienced my first 18XX game, I am definitely keen to explore the system more. The stock holding aspect was not as scary as I had worried about. The company operations part of the game is interesting, but it would not have been able to stand on its own. The stock holding aspect is an integral part of the game.

The Thoughts

I like the game for sure, but I'm not certain yet whether I will love it. This is not a simple game, and some actions have many implications that you need to consider. I like this depth. You need to be constantly on your toes and watch out for dangers. You need to plan ahead. You need to make wise investments that bring the most profit. That means analysing the board and the potentials of the companies. You need to watch your opponents - which companies they are invested in, how their cash flow is. There are times to cooperate, and times to abandon your business partners.

I don't have a strong grasp yet on how to make money efficiently. This is a game that seems easy to lose and hard to win. The game is long compared to typical Eurogames, and I hear the short 18XX games are 3-hour games, and the long ones can take more than 8 hours. I like how there can be dramatic twists in the game, and how you can plan for such big moves. The game is fully open information, so over-analysis can drag the game.


Aik Yong said...

Welcome, Hiew, to the 18-series club!

Next we can do 1830, the granddaddy of the 18-series. Classic!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

The components of the new release of 1830 look quite good, and I'm a little tempted. But probably I'll play Allen's copy of 18AL before deciding whether I want to buy myself a copy of an 18XX game. Another reason for my reluctance on 1830 is it's best with 4+, and I usually don't have 4P+.

Lord of Midnight said...

1830 is still good with 4p but at 5p or more, it's at its best with bankruptcy the more common "end" to those games.

I think after you'd done 18TN, you'll find 18AL too "beginner".

In 1841, you actually get the 3rd layer ie. a train company can hold shares of another train company! Wahlau... now when hotsun, the effect is cascading here there like ping pong balls! :P

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Jeff, why would 18AL be too "beginner"? I thought 18TN is already a quite vanilla 18XX game.

A 3rd layer?! Okay... I'm not going anywhere near 1841 for now. I have barely overcome my fear of the stock-holding mechanism.

Lord of Midnight said...

In 18AL, there's only 5 companies if I remembered it correct and usually once you start and became the CEO of one company, you'll take it all the way to the end (so it's more Euro in a sense).

There's no point trying all the funky stuff in normal 18xx in 18AL.

In 18TN, it forces us to make interesting choices for eg at start, players always have to cooperate to float a company eg you & me for GM&O, Heng & Henry for L&N.

So it'll always a matter of whether you or me will dump GM&O shares first (depressing it's market value) and getting cash to start a brand new company. This decision keeps our brain working... :P

The 5th player eg Ang also needs to decide which companies he invest heavily in, carrying the associated hot sun risk.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

ah i see, so it's not that there are more or fewer special rules, it's just the general scenario like # of companies (and i guess it also depends on # of players).

Cecrow said...

I've owned 1830 for several years, lost the crowd that used to enjoy it with me and haven't found another yet. It appeals strictly to serious gamers.

You didn't mention another crisis that arises, at least in 1830: railhead battles, where you can potentially box opposing rail companies into small sections of the board while your diesels are running loose all over the rest of it ...

(I'll be trying "Imperial" next week for the first time: it's 18XX meets Diplomacy. Except that you can't sell shares, so that should put a significant clutch on the nastier strategies that arise in 18XX games.)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Indeed the danger of getting boxed in didn't really come up in this particular game that I played, but I can imagine depending on the map being played, this can really break a company.

I have not played Imperial before either. It's also a favourite among Jeff and his 18XX-mates, for obvious reasons. :-)