18EU and 18xx

When I’m back in Ohio, Kim & I usually get together with our friend Mark for an 18xx game of some kind – of late we usually do 2038 or 1825. This time, Mark had his relatively new copy of 18EU at hand, and since it was supposed to be a bit shorter (4 hours?), we decided to give that a spin over the 1825 we were originally thinking of.

For those of you whose 18xx lore may go back a ways, 18EU is based on an old Minor Companies Variant for 1835. In brief: 1835 contains 6 minor companies, companies with no shares that are simply owned by players outright but run similarly to public companies, with half the profits going to the player and half to the corporate treasury (most companies in 18xx games sell shares then split the profits among shareholders). These companies would then ultimately be scooped up and merged into one late-game über-company, the Prussian national railway.

1835 was the first 18xx to use minors, and it was a cool idea, but had one major problem: the minors were a vastly better investment than anything else in the game. A 100DM investment in a minor company would outperform any 100DM share of stock, often by a wide margin. Since the supply of minors was limited and uneven, getting more of them was a big head start in the game.

So along comes the 1835 Minor Companies variant. Instead of starting the game with a mix of private, public, and minor companies, instead all we get is a whopping 15 minor companies; then to start the public companies, you have “grow” a minor, with the newly-formed public company getting all the minor’s assets and the player getting a president’s share. This nicely solved the balance problems, since now there were plenty of companies available, and any unevenness in distribution could be made up for by the fact that some minors were better than others.

18EU starts exactly the same way – with 15 minors. Then instead of buying major companies with fixed bases, you instead have to “convert” your minors into majors, which can start anywhere (so you can get the Belgian state railway emerging in Austria, if that’s all that is available and/or the president is feeling slightly perverse). In the late game, companies can be started in the traditional 18xx fashion, by selling 60% of the stock, but you can pick a home base from any available on the map.

The rest of the game is largely 1830 in character – numerical trains with a rapid obsolescence cycle, a 2D stock market that will trash your stock price if people sell, and so on.

This was my first trip back to an 1830-style game in a long, long time. I’ve played 1825 a bunch recently, and occasionally a 2038, but it’s been ages since I played 1856, and even longer since 1870 or 1830. While at some level I remembered why I liked these games, on another level the return trip was a bit disillusioning.

For starters, I had forgotten how much I despise the “loot-n-dump” ploy that 1830 added to the mix. In 1830, the key innovation of financial markets – limited liability – does not exist. If you are the president of a company, and that company does not have a train, and not enough cash to buy one, you are forced to go into your own pocket to do so (this is not the case in 1829, 1853, or 1825). Practically speaking, what this allows is for a player who runs two companies to clean out one of all its cash and trains, selling the stock and sticking another player with an albatross. This results in very stultified play, because everyone is afraid to own more than one share of anyone else’s stock (with only one share, you can never become president). Everyone is going to get to their holding limits by buying 60% of their own company and 10% of every other company. There are a few exceptions, but the net effect of all this is adding a lot more rules in order to make the play of the game more boring. You miss out on the far more fluid and interesting stock market of 1825. Of all the 1830-style games, only 1856 has an interesting stock market game.

18EU’s other major failing is the endgame. As I have said so many times, in an ideal world, a game will end at the latest shortly after the winner is apparent, and hopefully nobody has to play to much after it’s clear that they have no chance to win. In most 18xx games, the last few turns of the game are played out rapidly, “on paper” or using a spreadsheet. The tiles are all played already, the cross-board routes are built up, and 90+% of the companies’ runs are locked in; it’s just a question of whether the folks who played for the late game have allowed themselves enough time to make up the difference in early game earnings. In 18EU, though, there are endless possibilities for adding trivial amounts to your runs, so runs are never locked in and lots of time is spent adding an utterly inconsequential £10 or £20 to your £450 run, which is tedious. At this point most players will know about where they are in the pecking order, and I found the last hour plus of this game to be a bit painful.

Last thing, I was a bit surprised by how “closed” 18EU was. A key tool of competition in 18xx games are stations: these are used to both extend your own runs and to block other players. In every other 18xx game (except the outlier 1841), these stations cost money, usually substantial money ($40 or $100, remembering that the most money a company usually starts with is $1000). In 18EU, stations are effectively free (you are forced to pay $100 upon floating for all your station tokens). When combined with the fact that most cities have room for only one station, the board gets jammed up quickly and most of the route-building is focussed on circumventing blocked cities, which is not all that entertaining.

For me personally, I found that these drawbacks to 18EU were not balanced by any countervailing upsides. The playing time is twice 1825, comparable with 1830, and the design is certainly nowhere near as clean as either. It adds complexity which largely serves to take away options. The whole early game with the minors was not sufficiently interesting, and the opening auction of minors is impossible to play sensibly until you’ve played the main game a few times, which will make 18EU inaccessible to all but the people who play 18xx games regularly. And that, I think, is the ultimate message here: 18EU is a game for the 18xx fans. It’s a game that’s different from other 18xx games, so will provide some variation. It’s got a reasonably sensible playing time, while most of the post-1830 18xx games are too long (often much too long). But it’s nowhere near as solid a game as the core games of 1825, 1830, 1853, 1856, or 2038.

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