2038

There have been a surprising number of 18xx-style games on my playlist of late. This is anomalous, I think, not a trend.

2038 is a game on which I have profoundly mixed feelings. I love the on-board play of the game, the exploring of asteroids and building up of routes. You can see a review I wrote when the game first came out some ten years ago here – it talks about these things, and reading it over again myself, my fundamental opinions haven’t changed that much over the years. The operations aspect of this game is brilliant. I am far less enamored of the financial markets.

I’ve ranted about the loot-n-dump recently, and 2038 has a particularly severe problem with it. This is tied into the fact that 2038 uses minor companies, and as I discuss in my review these companies are even more powerful than usual (!), generating enormous cash flow in the short term followed by a large cash hand-out and an Asteroid League share in the long-term. It’ll take a $500+ up front investment to generate the same cash flow out of a public company as you do out of a $100 minor, at least in the early game. This means not only can’t you trust a president who owns two public companies, you also have to be wary of player owning a public and a minor company (i.e., everyone). Under no circumstances should you ever buy more than 1 share of the first big public company which the game forces you to float, the TSI, unless the TSI president has no minors (extremely unlikely); it’s not clear that it’s a bad idea for him to simply clean the sucker out, dump everything into his minor, sell off the shares, and just start another public company which will then have immense resources. Since you are legally barred from selling TSI shares until after the company has operated, there is absolutely no escape from this if you have two shares, and you will lose the game in the first 20 minutes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bear in mind that when I go on about this whole tactic, the 1830 fan will point out that the loot-n-dump almost never happens. This is true. But it hangs as a threat over every stock purchase you make that is not a company you are president of, and it doesn’t have to actually be a good idea for it to be dangerous – it just has to look like a good idea to the president at the time. Normally in 1830 or 1856, you can diversify until a player owns two companies, at which point you will generally be compelled to sell down to one share in those companies; it’s just too risky – maybe the president does some math wrong, and you’re out of the game. In 2038, you’re restricted in share purchases from the get-go lest you be hammered.

There are other problems on the financial end: I don’t like the way the minors and their ungodly return on investment dominate the game, especially the early game, although I do very much like how their operations play out on the map. I’m not thrilled by the rules on Growth Corporations, which seem like a sucker play. I don’t like the start packet, which tends to railroad the early game. I’m not real happy with the small number of public companies (7) and the very constrained order in which they come out, which may deprive players of the option to own a company (when there are 5-6 players) through unlucky timing.

I’m also not thrilled by the long playing time, but this is a practical rather than fundamental objection. While 2038 is long, I have always felt it maintains a solid interest level throughout. The endgame is much more interesting than simply figuring out how to acquire a permanent train (a la 1830 or 1870), and despite their faults from a play-balance perspective, the minors give the game a very nice texture as things progress from minors-only to minors and a couple public corporations through consolidation into the Asteroid League. 2038 has a nice flow to it, much moreso than 1830 or even 1856.

The question for me then becomes, how do you keep the good stuff and lose the bad stuff? What’s to be done to turn 2038 from a niche game into the classic it clearly has the potential to be?

Obviously, we would want to keep the wonderful route-building and corporate management elements while cleaning up or deleting some of the not-quite-functional financial stuff, bringing the playing time down, and generally making the game a bit smoother. I would suggest the following rebuilding approach:

  • Do away with the minors as they are now and rebuild as double-share public companies with low par price options;
  • Get rid of the loot-n-dump by adapting 1825’s more realistic receivership rules;
  • Greatly simplify the start packet, possibly by simply eliminating it in its entirety and adding the minors to the available companies to start, or auction off only the 6 pilot cards, not the companies;
  • Increase the flexibility in terms of starting public companies, perhaps by using 1825’s broader and less-restrictive tiering rules;
  • Divide the game into sub-modules in order to make smaller, playable chunks. The short game would be pre-Asteroid League formation, the long game would be the whole thing. But in order to make the short game really short and still satisfying, the map and number of companies available needs to be shrunk.
  • While making the above modifications, ensure that the companies still have a way to get sufficient cash into their treasuries without witholding all the time, since route-building is so much more expensive. I’m partial to the “realistic partial capitalization” rules, whereby companies only get capital for stock as it is sold, but unsold or repurchased stock will “pay dividends” to the company itself.

Despite its troubles, 2038 is still an interesting game and one of the best attempts to really extend the 18xx system. While it has some hits and some misses, the good stuff in 2038 still leaves me with a fondness for the game. I’m just not going to play it very often.

As a final comment, I must admit I had forgotten just how well-designed the components are for 2038. The game is graphically unspectacular, but the player aids are an inspiration. After wading through GMT’s Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, and even Europe Engulfed, with their absolutely wretched player aids, to play 2038 was a joy. There are clear reminders exactly where they are needed as to what happens when and which special rules you need to remember. Phases of the game are clearly indicated. The sequence of play chart is helpful. The rules are clear, concise, complete, and readable. 2038 is certainly a model of presentation for a modestly-complex game.

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